Buying train tickets online

By Kathy Wilhelm
This item appears on page 11 of the November 2012 issue.

I am a big fan of rail travel and have taken quite a lot of trains in both Europe and Asia. These days, I often wait to buy my tickets in-country. On my last European trip, in Serbia, Bosnia and Hungary in fall 2011, I would buy each ticket on the day of travel or the day before travel.

Since I’m very bad at languages, I write down what I want — the source and destination stations; the date and time of travel, and the train number, if I know it — and just hand the paper to the clerk.

But for night trains or trains in more-visited countries, I still may buy before I leave the US. There are two websites I find especially helpful for this and for figuring out what goes on the piece of paper when I buy in-country.

• The first is the German national railway company’s website, and while it sells tickets only for trains within or to/from Germany, it has schedules for the whole of Europe. If you want to take a train from Dublin to Cork, Barcelona to Granada or even Moscow to St. Petersburg, this is the place to find out what options are available.

You do sometimes need to know the non-Anglicized spellings of place names. “Moscow,” for instance, appears as “Moskva.” It’s also important to know that some cities have multiple train stations and to know where they are. If you are visiting Venice, you want Venezia Santa Lucia, not Venezia Mestre, which is on the mainland.

• Figuring things like this out is where the second website can help. It also will help with actually buying tickets — for rail travel in every country in the world where you can buy tickets from abroad.

The second site is Unlike, this is a personal site, run by Mark Smith, who used to work for the British rail system. (Seat 61 is his preferred seat on the London-Paris Eurostar.)

It’s hard to think of something about train travel that Mark doesn’t cover, and he includes lots of photos of railway carriages, so you can see what a trip will be like. But where the site really shines is when it comes to buying tickets.

Every country has its own rail system (since deregulation, the UK has several) with its own website on which to purchase tickets. Seat61 will walk you through the process, either in English, if the site has an English option, or in the relevant language, complete with screen shots, if not.

Seat61 started out as a way for UK residents to find out how to travel abroad by train, and some of that initial slant remains, but it’s just as useful for people in other countries; you simply have to skip some sections.

For instance, if you want to take your pet on a train in France, you can go to and just ignore the section on getting the pet across the Channel.

You should also ignore the red quick-links bar on the homepage. Instead, start with the links under “Train travel in Europe,” on the left-hand side.

If you’re thinking you might want a railpass instead of individual tickets, you should make sure to read this guide.

I’ve never found a pass to be worthwhile, but if I were going to buy one, I’d do it through Rick Steves' website, which offers free shipping, free advice and 20% off merchandise. After you have read the general information, use the individual country links on the left-hand side of the homepage.

When I buy tickets abroad from the US, I use a US credit card. However, it is a foreign transaction, so I use a card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee (Capital One, in my case). I also call the credit card company to let them know they’ll see a foreign charge, just as I do when I actually travel.

Sometimes you may not be able to buy directly from the rail company. Right now, unless you have an American Express card, you can’t buy from Indian Railways. Instead, you have to buy from, an Indian travel agency. Cleartrip will charge the Indian Railways price plus just a small service fee. I bought several tickets that way in 2010.

When you buy tickets from abroad, you will usually either print the tickets at home, yourself, from the confirmation e-mail or pick them up from a train station when you arrive. (You need to be careful when buying international tickets. If you’re traveling from Geneva to Milan, you need to buy from the Swiss site so you can pick up the ticket in Geneva.)

If you are buying tickets from several countries, it may seem simpler to just use Rail Europe (, but it’s also likely to be more expensive, maybe much more expensive.

Rail Europe is a US travel agency. It does not own tracks or rolling stock and it does not run trains. It sells a subset of European train tickets, generally the most expensive tickets on the most expensive routes, with additional fees. Almost always, the most expensive way for an American to buy a European train ticket is to use Rail Europe.

Note also that Rail Europe’s major stockholders are SNCF, the French national railway, and SBB, the Swiss Federal Railways. Therefore, it is in SNCF’s interests for Americans to buy tickets from Rail Europe — at higher prices than they would pay using SNCF’s own website.

So, if you go to (or [for English, click on “Langues & Pays” at bottom right] or and say that you live in the US or want your tickets delivered in the US, you will be sent to Rail Europe’s site, whether you want to go there or not. (SBB doesn’t do this.)

There are two ways to buy train tickets in France online and avoid Rail Europe. One is to leave the site in French and follow the instructions here.

The other is to start at, switch the site to English (mini-map at top right) and indicate that you want to pick up the tickets in France.

If you really want paper tickets delivered in the US or to book a complicated trip in one place, you might try one of the other agencies listed on, such as

I hope all this helps more people to take the train.

Cary, NC