A beginner’s guide to planning a train trip around Europe

If you’re embarking on a trans-European rail odyssey, you’ll probably want to know what kind of trains you’ll be traveling on. There is no categorization of services across the continent, although there is often a degree of crossover.

Services are primarily branded nationally and can be structured in myriad ways: Italy, for example, is unusual in having multiple tiers of high-speed offerings. So too, for example, express services have different names in different parts of Spain.

As a general rule, the faster the train, the better the facilities on board. The new high-speed trains have Wi-Fi, power outlets and hot food. Expect fewer amenities on trains with rural stops.

France

France occupies a strategic position as the only rail link with the rest of the continent for the Iberian Peninsula and the British Isles. It also has one of the best high-speed networks in the world. TGV services are the flagship high-speed trains of the French operator SNCF. They radiate from Paris and include both national and international services connecting to almost all of France’s neighbors: Belgium, Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland.

TGV they come in various forms: the workhorses of the fleet are duplex trains with double-decker cars; Ouigo are the newer, low-cost versions, inspired by low-cost airlines.

intercity denotes express services in France. They travel on what is known as the ‘classic’ (non-high-speed) network and, like TGVs, mostly depart from Paris.

TER stands for ‘transport express régional’: these are local trains run by France’s regional councils, and can come in handy when venturing off the beaten track. Some tourist trains, such as Le Petit Train Jaune (the little yellow train), are also designated TER.

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Intercity Night They are night trains. They have dwindled significantly in recent years, and now only a handful remain, stretching from Paris south to the Mediterranean, the Pyrenees, the Alps and Nice.

Germany

Germany has the largest rail network in Europe, its high-speed offerings revolve around a number of hubs, including Berlin, Frankfurt and Hannover.

ICE (InterCity Express) they are high-speed trains operated by the state operator Deutsche Bahn and have been successfully presented as an alternative to flying. Some ICE trains venture into France, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

The fastest service is the ICE Sprinter, which makes fewer stops to reduce travel times. These smart and stylish trains are hailed as some of the most user-friendly in Europe.

IC (Interurban) trains are ICE’s slightly slower relatives. Their compatriots are the EuroCity trains (a continental classification) that venture beyond Germany to countries without a high-speed rail connection, for example Luxembourg, Poland and the Czech Republic.

regional trains they take many forms in Germany from state to state, and not all of them are operated by Deutsche Bahn. RE denotes semi-fast trains, while RB are stopping services.

A Frecciarossa train (Photo: Getty Images)

Italy

Italy’s high-speed network is easy to understand, with a main north-south line from Turin across the peninsula to Salerno (beyond Naples) and a second east-west line from Turin to Venice (still partly in construction).

The naming of train services, on the other hand, is much more complicated.

Red Arrow (which means ‘red arrow’) is the high-speed option of the state-owned company Trenitalia, which reaches 300 km/h. These trains are often said to look like a Ferrari on rails.

Italian it is the rival of Frecciarossa, run by the private company NTV. It operates at the same speed on most of the same routes (although less frequently).

frecciargento (‘silver arrow’) is a step down from Frecciarossa, though these trains are still not far behind, running up to 250kph on some of the same lines.

frecciabianca (‘white arrow’) can reach 200 km/h and are another rung below Frecciargento. You can find them on the east coast of the peninsula or south of Naples to the Strait of Messina.

intercity services they are slower than all Frecce (plural of Freccia) and Italo trains and can be found on some of Italy’s tourist routes, including along the Ligurian coast to the French border and Cinque Terre.

Regional are the classification of regional services, mostly served by older trains traveling at 100 km/h or less.

sleeper trains we offer overnight passage from northern Italy and Rome to all points in the south, including Sicily.

Spain

Spain has ideal conditions for high-speed rail travel, as it is a large country with relatively few and far between urban centers. Its high-speed network uses Madrid as a hub for trips to Andalusia, Valencia and Catalonia, where Barcelona is the main gateway to France. The network in the north of the country is under construction but expanding.

AVE leads the charge of the Spanish national operator Renfe: services reach speeds of 310 km/h. Avlo is the economic incarnation of the AVE (similar to the Ouigo trains in France).

Interior of a TGV train in France (Photo: Getty)

alvia the trains use a hybrid of classic and high-speed lines to move at speeds of up to 250 km/h. Among other places, you can find them traveling cross country in the north, that is, from Barcelona to Galicia.

Euromed The trains are similar to the Alvias, traveling along the Mediterranean coast from Barcelona to Alicante at speeds of up to 200 km/h.

interurban services run a bit slower than all of the above, but cover long distances from Madrid to the southern coast of Spain.

regional trains they are useful for exploring the interior, and there is also an extensive narrow gauge network (FEVE) along the north coast. trenhotel Sleeping train services are currently suspended.

Swiss

Although visited by TGV Lyria and ICE trains, Switzerland does not have a significant high-speed rail network of its own. For railway fans that is not what matters. Swiss railways are some of the world’s most magnificent feats of engineering; some are on the UNESCO list.

Furthermore, they are often used as a bridge between Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. SBB CFF FFS is the long acronym (covering the country’s three main languages) for Swiss Federal Railways, although there are also private operators: the largest is Rhaetian Railway in the east.

interurban they are the fastest trains and can take many forms: the ICN (Intercity-Neigezug or ’tilting’ train) connects the main hubs of Zurich and Geneva and can reach top speeds of 200 km/h. Their cousins, the EuroCity Giruno and Astoro trains, travel to southern Italy.

interregional (or InterRegio) connect various rural areas. Regio are local stop services. Bernina Express is a tourism-focused service run by the Rhaetian Railway, and is a legend among train fans. Travel through spectacular scenery in the Swiss Alps to just south of the Italian border in Tirano.

glacier express is another service aimed at tourists. It covers some of the same ground as the Bernina Express before it branches west to Zermatt. Note: Despite the ‘Express’ in the names, neither the Glacier Express nor the Bernina Express are fast trains.
Croatian and Hungarian sleepers travel from Zürich to Zagreb and Budapest respectively, with ÖBB Nightjet services to Germany.

How and where to buy tickets

Unlike airlines, where you’ll pay a company to transport you from one point to another, traveling across the continent by train will mean dealing with multiple national networks, and quite possibly more than one company. There are no hard and fast rules to get the best ticket: it often comes down to preference.

Still, there are some tips to get you on the right track. Before you go online and make a reservation, remember that there is no need to pre-purchase regional trains and even some express services: you can show up at the station the same day and pay the same price.

If possible, for example at the end of a long-distance journey or on a day when you have no subsequent connections, you may prefer to buy tickets for these slower trains in person, allowing for a degree of flexibility.

However, try this last-minute tactic with flagship high-speed services like AVE, ICE and TGV and you may end up paying a lot of money. As with flights, it can often be helpful to book long-distance and fast train tickets well in advance.

Tickets take myriad forms, but generally non-flexible, advance tickets for specific departures booked well in advance of your travel date can be much cheaper than flexible tickets purchased just a few hours before boarding. The former are a good option if you want to save money and are sure your itinerary is set in stone; the latter allow a certain spontaneity.

Please note that train reservation in different countries works in different ways, even for high-speed trains. For example, TGV trains (where seat reservations are compulsory) sell out like theater seats, while ICE trains in Germany (where seat reservations are not compulsory) generally do not sell out: you can buy a ticket for a busy train. just before departure and squeeze on board.

Your first port of call for domestic travel is likely to be the domestic operator – some of these websites are better than others and you may want to book through a third party for ease of use.

More in Train ride

For most international travel, it’s worth checking tickets with the operators at your point of departure and arrival, for example SNCF and Deutsche Bahn if going from France to Germany. In short: compare prices.

Third party websites, notably thetrainline.com and raileurope.com, are easy to use and provide an excellent overview of train services across the continent. However, many Eastern European countries are excluded, as well as Portugal and Sweden. And they both charge booking fees

If you’re planning a long-distance trip across Europe, national carriers (and even third-party websites) get a bit flummoxed once you start crossing borders and plugging in too many connections. Therefore, it is useful to divide your journey into stages.

This is an edited excerpt from ‘Lonely Planet’s Europe Rail Travel Guide’, available now at £19.99, store.lonelyplanet.com