Even savvy travelers get confused when trying to figure out where and how best to buy train tickets for Europe. Given that every country has its own train website, when and why should you use aggregate distribution sites like Rail Europe?
I asked Rail Europe for an e-interview to answer some of the critical questions for families. I’ve provided a few comments on the answers in italics.
Why Buy Train Tickets Through Rail Europe
How does buying from Rail Europe differ from buying from the individual country rail sites?
Rail Europe is the largest distributor of European rail products in North America. Many of our products are custom-created for the needs of the North American traveler, so when searching each country’s website, passengers will not always be able to find exactly the same type of product.
Aha! I had no idea this was the case. It sounds like a best practice is to always check Rail Europe in addition to the country-specific rail site (at least if you live in North America).
Is the actual pricing of different routes the same between sites?
Pricing may vary slightly between the various sites. Many tickets are now also available as e-tickets, which means travelers can exchange or refund online as their travel plans change.
Exchanging tickets online is a huge perk! I’ve lost hours on driving to train stations and waiting in line just to modify travel plans.
When is it better to buy a pass vs. tickets for individual routes?
The Rail Europe website is equipped to direct travelers as best as possible to the best option suited for their travel needs. In general, if you already know your itinerary, use the multi-city search; REI’s expert system will define what the options are for you. For itineraries that include more than three trips, you will see that passes generally offer the best value for money. No matter what, the system will price your specific itinerary with all possible options for comfort and flexibility.
If you don’t know yet where and when you want to travel, you will probably prefer going with a pass.
After playing with the pass pricing, my first reaction in using the Find My Pass page was major sticker shock. It is much better to query pricing by using the Rail Pass landing page for the particular product or country. There is more detail available and also more pricing options in this part of the site (like a clear way to acquire a free Family Pass for relevant train lines).
The bottom line is, families should do some quick math to understand the cost of adding up the individual routes vs. passes to ensure you are getting the best value and still meeting your travel needs.
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Do you offer any family-specific specials? What are rules that all families should know (e.g. kids of certain ages travel free or at a reduced rate)?
• Rail passes are accompanied by Travel Bonuses (when researching a pass, click on the Travel Bonuses tab). These can include discounted or complimentary tours, museum passes, etc. Additionally, Rail Europe offers additional activities for purchase via the Activities tab on the website.
• When purchasing a Swiss Pass for one adult, a Swiss Family Card is available for free for children ages 6 to 15 (valid only when traveling with a parent or guardian). All the children in the family can travel for free using that card.
• The BritRail Family Pass allows one child between the ages of 5 and 15 to travel free with an adult or senior BritRail Pass holder. Additional children get up to 50 percent off the regular fare.
• Here’s a link to the Rail Europe savings page with deals and special offers.
Do any of the trains offer changing tables and/or other baby-specific services?
Thalys trains have family cars with more space between seats for stroller storage. Families traveling with young children or infants can find peace of mind with an assortment of dedicated family facilities on board high-speed trains such as Eurostar, AVE and TGV. Features include nursery areas equipped with dressing tables and bottle warmers, as well as playrooms, board games and at-seat audio and video systems.
I have yet to see a playroom on any of the trains I’ve taken, but in concept, this a nice amenity.
Families always have lots of luggage. What are tips and tricks to manage luggage effectively on train trips with kids?
I know this is one of the most stressful aspects of taking a train and one of the reasons a family might opt for a flight instead. Porters are at some stations — best to travel light.
In my opinion, traveling light is the only answer. Porters are not reliable between stations, and during peak periods, they are practically impossible to access, even if they are on staff.
How far in advance do you recommend families purchase tickets and what are the main policies they should know around changes and cancellations?
Families should purchase tickets at least 60 to 90 days in advance of their trip so as to ensure they will be seated together.
If you are a rail pass holder, you do not need seat reservations on regional trains within Europe; you can board these trains with just your pass in hand. You do, however, need an additional seat reservation for high-speed trains, which incurs a modest fee over and beyond the cost of the rail pass (it can be booked on the Rail Europe website).
Countries serviced by major high-speed train networks include France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Spain and more.
Are there any specialty trains that are particularly well-suited for travel with kids?
The Chocolate Train in Switzerland is a great option for families.
Editor’s Note: Photo by Rail Europe.