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European Rail Tickets: Should You Buy Them Abroad?

February 16, 2004 -- One of the trickiest bits of designing a budget European vacation is figuring out how to buy your rail tickets. Should you go with a pass or point to point tickets? And how much do the point to point tickets cost, anyway?

We've got extensive advice on this in our upcoming Europe By Rail guide, in stores next month (you can preorder here www.frommers.com/guidebooks/0764541102.html). Suffice it to say that you should definitely compare pass prices against point-to-point prices for your journey. Passes must be bought in the US, before you leave; we recommend buying them from Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com).

Rail Europe also sells point-to-point tickets, but here things get tricky. Unfortunately, Rail Europe's fares can be much, much more expensive than tickets bought in Europe. Fortunately, you can compare prices on the Internet.

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If you don't feel like doing hours of Web surfing, though, we've got some rules to stick by:

  • If the idea of dealing with unfriendly reservation agents who only speak Slovakian terrifies you, stop reading and just buy your tickets from Rail Europe.
  • Buy sleepers on popular routes from Rail Europe, in advance. They can sell out.
  • Buy costly, high-speed train tickets here. Generally, Rail Europe's prices for French TGV tickets, Eurostar tickets, and German high-speed train tickets are lower than you'd pay abroad.
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  • Buy short-distance domestic tickets abroad. Rail Europe charges big markups on trips like Barcelona-Girona, Aachen-Koln, and anything in Belgium or the Netherlands. Save money by buying those tickets at a train station in Europe.
  • Buy tickets in eastern Europe abroad. For trains in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Poland, you'll pay a tiny fraction of Rail Europe's price if you buy your tickets when you're over there.
  • Buy all your Rail Europe tickets at once. Rail Europe charges a $15 shipping and handling fee no matter how many tickets you order, so buy them all at once and minimize the shipping cost.
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Checking Prices, Here and Abroad

Want to see how much you'd really save, here versus abroad? First, go to Rail Europe's point-to-point ticket finder at (www.raileurope.com/us/rail/fares_schedules/index.htm). Then, head to the appropriate country's national railway Web site and check prices in the local currency. It may take some poking around, but we found prices available on all of these sites, usually through their timetable search features. If you're trying to price an international journey, use the Web site of the country you're starting your trip in. Many of these Web sites show international fares in a different search engine than domestic fares, so watch out for that as well.

Many countries also have complex systems of advance-purchase discounts, as well. You can find information about those discounts on the Web sites below. Basically, if you're in a country for more than a few days, you may save big bucks by buying tickets when you arrive as opposed to when you're ready to leave.

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Once you've looked up your fares, you'll need to convert them into dollars. Use the universal currency converter at www.oanda.com/convert/classic to turn your zlotys, kroner or pounds into money you can compare to the fares on the Rail Europe site.

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Does It Pay Off?

That's a lot of research, you say. Does it pay off? Sometimes, big time. Here are some prices we found recently during various attempts to compare Rail Europe's fares with fares we found on train operators' sites.

Route

Rail Europe Price

European Price

Fast or Long-Distance Trains

Munich-Berlin

$99

$107

Paris-Avignon

$102

$105.99

Madrid-Seville

$80

$83.20

Rome-Venice

$59

$57.51

Slow, Short-Distance Trains

Amsterdam-Haarlem

$10

$3.97

Bruges-Ghent

$15

$6.40

Barcelona-Girona

$24

$7.49

Trains in Cheap Countries

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Bucharest-Sighisoara

$48

$9.86

Bratislava-Kosice

$41

$16.45

Remember also to factor in Rail Europe's $15 delivery fee when buying tickets here. To buy tickets from Rail Europe, go to www.raileurope.com. To buy tickets abroad, generally go to a train station in any town.

Do you have a comment or question about this article? Have you taken the train within Europe and have an anecdote to relate? We'd love to hear from you on our Train Travel Message Boards.


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