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7 tips for booking train tickets in Europe

By Sean O'Neill
October 3, 2012

Here's a quick rundown on how to get the best deals for inter-city rail travel in Europe.

1. European websites frequently sell tickets at lower prices. For example, French Railways often supplies lower prices on its website for tickets that are identical to the ones it sells via RailEurope.com, an American agency. To be sure, agencies like RailEurope.com sometimes do provide superlow deals, such as a current discount of 50 percent off train tickets on Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam routes. (Details here.) Still...you gotta shop around--and not merely rely on American sites for one-stop shopping--if you want the best deal.

2. English speakers living in the U.S. can still buy discounted tickets through European websites. Your first stop online should be at Seat61.com. This amazingly helpful British website offers step-by-step advice on how to pinpoint the best route for your desired itinerary...and also how to find the cheapest tickets. (The site's editor, Mark Smith, answered reader questions yesterday at BudgetTravel.com. Transcript here.)

3. Booking at the last-minute? There may be a deal for you online, too. In the same way that airlines offer last-minute deals to fill empty seats, Europe's rail networks have deeply discounted point-to-point tickets. You'll find examples here.

4. You can only buy a Eurorail ticket in the U.S. but it's not always your cheapest option for rail travel in Europe. Says Mark Smith, "In theory, Eurail tickets can ONLY be bought outside Europe, as they are intended for overseas visitors. But in many cases you'll find ordinary point-to-point tickets are a cheaper option, especially if you book direct with the European rail operators at their own website rather than through an expensive US agency, and especially if you are prepared to pre-book tickets on a no-refunds, no-changes-to-travel-plans basis so as to take advantage of European railways' various budget-airline-beating special train deals."

5. Get your timing right. The most intuitive way to figure out train times for any European rail journey is to visit the website of the German rail line Deutsche Bahn, which has comprehensive listings for all major European train companies. But the website makes it difficult for Americans to purchase travel, so book your tickets at RailEurope, Railpass.com, or European Rail. These sites offer point-to-point tickets, rail passes, and student discounts. For railpasses for travel within the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, visit Railkey's website.

6. Know that booking tickets on the "Chunnel" between London and Paris can be tricky for Americans. Eurostar offers fares and times for routes reaching London, Paris, Brussels, and other nearby destinations. But Eurostar's website doesn't offer reservations for overnight trains. Expect to make such reservations by phone instead. Another warning: Eurostar will not mail tickets to the U.S., but you can dodge this problem by booking your Eurostar tickets at Eurostar.com. The site will give you a choice of picking up your tickets at Waterloo station in London or having your tickets be mailed to a British address, such as your hotel, says rail expert Mark Smith. If your train will travel on through France, after stopping in Paris via the underground Chunnel, then opt to pick up your onward tickets at any major ticket office in France, says Smith.

7. Look beyond Europe's best-known tourist destinations. Europe's train systems make it easy to take a day-trip to a place outside of a well-known capital--and still be back in time for dinner. Here are BudgetTravel.com's ideas for adding on day-trips out of Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen,

Lisbon, London, Paris, Prague, Rome, and Vienna.

Related: Europe's newest high-speed train, the TGV East between Paris and Strasbourg, is a hit with Americans after just one day in operation," reports the Los Angeles Times.

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