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European rail fares: best prices

Summary

This piece is one we researched and first published in June 2009. But its message is still as valid today, which we why we think it deserves a place here. Some travellers, especially when they purchase rail tickets in North America for European journeys, pay massively over the odds. We compare ticket prices for point-to-point rail journeys in Europe and find a disturbing variety of fares on offer. Some travellers, it seems, are being ripped off.

This little article was prepared and first published in June 2009. The point it makes is as valid today as the day on which the article was written. And we think it fits nicely into the new 'Notes' section of our website. Read on.

We set out to check how train fares for a number of European rail journeys might vary according to where we purchased the tickets. We chose five specific journeys from late June to early September 2009, taking care to ensure that the prices we obtained were in every case for exactly the same trains. So a straight comparison, comparing like-with-like. Same class of travel, same comfy seat, same scenery slipping by outside the window.

You can see below how much the fares varied. Prices in US dollars and British pounds have been converted to euros at the interbank exchange rate prevailing on 12 June 2009.

Roue and journey detailsPrice from leading UK agentPrice from leading US agentDeutsche Bahn online price
one adult travelling one way without overnight stops from Amsterdam to Salzburg on Tuesday 14 July. 1st class journey, preferably without more than a single change of train. No night trains.€255not available - offered 2nd class for same trains at €237€79
one adult making a one-way journey from Berlin to London by day on Thursday 3 September, leaving no earlier than 9 am. 2nd class, no overnight stops on the way.€223€209€49
one adult taking a multi-stop itinerary from Berlin to Zagreb. Start in Berlin late afternoon on Thursday 20 August, travelling first to Hamburg (for 2 nights), then on to Munich (for 2 nights) and finally to Zagreb. Preferably no overnight travel and no change of train on each leg of the journey.€321 2nd class, €506 1st class€322 2nd class, €503 1st class€29 2nd class, €49 1st class
one adult travelling one way from London with Eurostar to Brussels, then continuing directly to Cologne. No break of journey. Leaving at 8 am or after on Thursday 10 September; would like to be in Cologne by mid-afternoon. 2nd class.€106€120€49
family of five travelling on day trip from Nuremberg to Dresden and back on Saturday 20 June, preferably on direct trains and 2nd class.€715 (but advised it would be much cheaper just to buy ticket in Germany)€705€37 (this fare does not require advance booking - can also be purchased at ticket machine on day of travel)

The research was conducted on Friday 12 June 2009. Ticket prices are therefore those for immediate booking on that day. The research was undertaken by hidden europe editor Nicky Gardner.

We sought prices from leading US-based agents which offer both online and telephone sales. And we asked about prices if the same ticket were purchased from UK retailers of European rail tickets offering both online and telephone sales. For both the US and UK, we quote in the table above the cheapest price we were offered in that particular market. Finally, we checked out how much the same trips would cost if booked online at the Deutsche Bahn website.

Note that the prices we quote were valid for immediate purchase on Friday 12 July. Fares can vary by the day. This applies particularly to the Deutsche Bahn promotional fares. For example, when we checked the same five journeys on Monday 15 July (so just three days later), two of the five specified routes had increased by € 10 a piece. And the 1st class fare on the Berlin to Zagreb itinerary was no longer available.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(hidden europe)

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