Rail is one of the most popular ways for travellers to get around Europe but I’ve often heard them bemoan the fact that fares are expensive. In actual fact, if you can book your European train tickets well in advance, fares are likely to be less expensive than you think. So how far in advance can you book trains in Europe? In this article, I explain.
Why book my European rail tickets in advance?
Just like budget airlines, the cheapest train fares are usually available to those that book early, therefore I recommend making your reservations as soon as you possibly can. A specified number of seats is made available on each train at a reduced price and these are sold on a first-come first-served basis. The earlier you can make your train reservation, the less you are likely to pay.
Another advantage of booking your rail journey in advance is that you have more chance of reserving a seat on the service of your choosing. On most train lines in Europe, multiple services run each day so booking further in advance gives you more chance of securing a seat on the 10am train rather than, say, the 7am service, if this is what you prefer.
As you can see in the example below, the difference in price for a 2nd class seat on the Eurostar between London and Paris varies considerably when booked well in advance. In this example, the price for a 2nd class seat booked two weeks in advance (based on the date of writing this article) is $382 but if I was to book my seat four months in advance, I could pay as little as $96 for the same seat.
In the second example (below), you can see that there are a few seats on the Paris to Nice line being sold at a promotional price of $138 for a booking in late July (two weeks in advance) however these fares are still not as cheap as those available for October, 90 days in advance, which are priced from as little as $41.
How far in advance can I book my European rail tickets?
The rail systems of most countries open for bookings between 60 and 90 days prior to travel. Exceptions include tickets for travel between France and Spain (and vice versa) which can be booked between 119 and 143 days in advance; France to Germany (and vice versa) on TGV or Thalys trains - 120 days; France and Italy (and vice versa) on TGV services - 110 days; and Germany to Poland (and vice versa) on the Warsaw Express - 30 to 60 days Spain prior to travel. Bookings on the Eurostar can be made up to 120 days before travel.
Where do I purchase my European rail tickets?
Tickets for European rail services (including Rail Passes) can be purchased securely online from Rail Europe.
If you plan on taking multiple rail journeys in Europe, it may be more cost effective for you to purchase a Eurail Pass. (Read my tips on using your Eurail Pass here.) One thing to remember is that just because you have a Eurail Pass, that doesn’t guarantee you a seat on any train. Just like discounted rail tickets, a limited number of ‘seat reservations’ for Eurail Pass holders applies to each train service so it is just as important to book your seat as far in advance as possible.
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All fares shown are current at the time of writing and are subject to change.