By Rick Steves
While a rail pass is often the smart way to ride the rails in Europe, sometimes it makes more sense to purchase individual train tickets between specific destinations (either instead of, or in addition to, a rail pass — see my tips for figuring out whether a pass pencils out for your trip).
Unlike rail passes, which must be purchased before you get to Europe, it's generally easiest to buy point-to-point train tickets right at the station. But it can be smart to buy in advance for certain trains and destinations, especially if your dates are set and you don't want to risk a specific train journey selling out, or if you're hoping to land an advance-purchase discount.
With a valid rail pass, you just hop on any covered train that doesn't require reservations. But even unreserved point-to-point tickets have some flexibility, since you can still make any number of stops and connections along the most direct route between the starting and ending stations printed on your ticket (within a single country your trip usually just has to be completed within the same calendar day; for many international point-to-point tickets you have two weeks to complete the journey).
Through a US Retailer
The easiest way to get train tickets before leaving home is to buy them through ricksteves.com (after all, you're already here!). Virtually all US-based websites and travel agents sell European train tickets for the exact same prices you'll find here.
By buying through any US retailer, you may pay a little more than if you were to purchase that same ticket in person at a European train station — but for a can't-miss train, the extra cost can be worth it for the peace of mind. (And rail-pass holders who still need tickets and/or seat reservations on certain trains — most notably the Eurostar, Thalys, and any TGV — are smart to get their passholder-fare tickets through a US-based site, as these fares sell out quite far in advance and aren't available elsewhere online.)
On National-Railway Websites
Many European national rail companies allow customers to buy tickets online at the going European price (usually for faster classes of trains for which reservations are required, or at least recommended). Advance tickets can be an especially smart buy for popular high-speed trains (such as France's TGV trains and Italy's Le Frecce trains), which frequently sell out.
If you're looking for the cheapest possible ticket between A and B — especially if A and B are in the same country — this is the way to go.
Not all national-railway sites are created equal: While some are difficult (or impossible) for foreigners to use (such as the unreliable Spanish railway site), quite a few are fairly easy to navigate (see my tips for using the well-designed Austrian, British, French, German, Irish, Italian, Swedish, and Swiss railway sites).
Your “ticket” may be a barcode on your smartphone, an emailed confirmation code redeemable at the station (in the same country that operates the website you bought it on), or a print-at-home document. Online tickets are valid for a specific date and time and have strict refund restrictions, so read the fine print carefully.
Once in Europe, you can simply get tickets at the station, usually without much fuss, either on your day of travel or in advance (see my tips for buying tickets in European train stations). This is the best option if you'd prefer to keep your itinerary more spontaneous. You can even get tickets for trains in another country: For example, if your trip starts in Paris, you can buy your Berlin-to-Prague ticket at any Parisian train station (as any Parisian would). Tickets bought at train-station windows tend to be easier to change (or have refunded) than tickets bought online.
In some cities you can avoid trekking to the train station by visiting a neighborhood travel agency or branch office of the national railroad. This convenience may come with an extra fee, but if the agency is easier for you to get to than the train station, buying tickets there can save lots of time and hassle (and travel agents may have more time and English-language skills than the people behind the train-station counter).
European train fares are based primarily on the distance traveled. Each country has its own “euros per kilometer” formula, though the type of train also affects the price (logically, slower trains are usually cheaper than faster ones). For faster classes of trains, however, many European rail companies have moved to a dynamic pricing system — similar to how airfares work — in which a fare can vary depending on demand, restrictions, and how early you purchase.
Scoring Ticket Discounts
If you're buying point-to-point tickets, be aware of the ways you can qualify for a discount (whether buying through a national-railway website, or in person at the train station). For details, check this site's country-specific rail pages for any countries you're planning to visit.
Advance purchase (a week to three months in advance) can save you significant money in certain countries (most notably Austria, Britain, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden), especially for faster or longer rides. In some areas (such as Switzerland and most eastern countries), advance-purchase deals either don't exist or aren't worth the hassle. In most places, for regional or medium-speed trains, tickets cost the same whether they're bought two months or two minutes before the train leaves.
Round-trip tickets can be cheaper than two one-way tickets in some countries (Britain, Ireland, and Spain; sometimes in combination with advance purchase). For many trips within Britain, for example, a “day return” (round-trip in a single day) can be just a bit more expensive than a single one-way ticket.
Children get ticket discounts in most of Europe (typically about 50 percent off for ages 4–11, sometimes free with an adult). Whether you're traveling with tickets or a rail pass, kids under 4 always travel free on your lap (though if there's an empty seat, feel free to use it).
Youths ages 12–25 can buy discount cards in Austria, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy.
Seniors can find a few ticket deals, most of which require a discount card purchased in Europe (discounts start between ages 60 and 67).