Booking trains abroad can be confusing, leading many to take flights. But this comprehensive guide makes the exciting world of train travel just as easy.
Catherine Livesley is a sustainable travel expert who has traversed almost every country in Europe overland. She has created dream trips at some of the world's leading rail and sustainable travel companies and worked as a consultant for independent travel companies. She is the founder of flight-free tour operator and travel club, No Fly Travel Club.
While working as a tailor-made travel specialist, frequent flights were as much a part of my life as a beer after work. But when the pandemic hit, I was forced to stay grounded much longer than expected. This led to a slow revelation. Increasingly concerned about the climate crisis, it became clear that my flight habits had to change. Not only that - I wanted to help others make the switch too.
In November 2020 I quit my job to start No Fly Travel Club, using my expertise in overland travel to help others swap their wings for rails.
We specialise in overland trips starting and ending in the UK - as well as offering a membership club for those looking for flight-free travel advice and inspiration.
If you’re looking to cut your carbon footprint without reigning in your adventures, here’s all the insider info on how to travel Europe flight-free.
Train travel is great value for everyone - but especially one type of traveller
When planning an overland trip, ask yourself these two questions: how much time do I have and what type of holiday do I want?
Are you looking to city hop? Hike in beautiful surroundings? Or just relax on the beach?
The further ahead you plan, the cheaper your journey will be. Ideally you should book trains 2-3 months in advance. This will give you the most choice for the lowest price.
Another way to save money is to be flexible with your dates. For the best deals aim to travel outside of school holidays and weekends. For journeys with many legs, you should also look into whether an Interrail pass would be cheaper in the end.
With a bit of insider knowledge, travelling by train can be especially economical for families, since many train operators offer free and discounted seats for kids.
Taking the train with children could be far cheaper than flights
Most European train companies offer free tickets to children (exact age limits vary but it can be up to 6). There’s no need to buy a ticket - simply buy a ticket for any other passengers and bring your kids along for the ride.
If you want to reserve your little ones their own seat, you can do so with a ‘child seat supplement’ from just €9 per person.
Some trains in France, Italy and Switzerland even have carriages especially designed as play areas, so kids can run around freely.
For children under 12 discounts usually amount to about 50 per cent off. Simply add the ages of each passenger when booking and you’ll automatically see the prices. This is particularly useful if you’re travelling on an overnight train as you can secure all the beds in a cabin for your family at a discounted price. It’s a great way to benefit from extra privacy offered by rail travel.
How to travel around France, Italy, Greece and Turkey by train
France - the land of cheese, wine and picture-perfect villages
France has spent decades investing in its high speed rail network, making it perfect for exploring by train.
Known as TGVs, France’s highspeed trains connect major cities at an impressive 320km/hour. When you factor in time travelling to the airport, checking in and collecting baggage, travelling to France by high speed train becomes more or less comparable to flying. The most familiar route for UK travellers is, of course, the Eurostar, connecting London to Lille in 1 hour 15, and Paris in just 2 and a half hours.
Both these Eurostar hubs offer plenty of choice for onward travel. Connecting in Lille is ideal if you want to avoid having to cross busy Paris. Big cities in regions such as Brittany and the Loire Valley Alsace can be easily reached in 4-5 hours from London, and you could be sipping Pastis in the Mediterranean region of Provence in as little as 7 hours.
Regional trains, known as TER services, connect smaller destinations as well as offering a cheaper, slower option for intercity travel. There are also a small number of overnight trains connecting Paris with the south of France (destinations include Nice, Toulouse, Marseille and Perpginan). Reclining seats are the cheapest option - starting at around 19 euros per person. Alternatively opt for a ‘couchette’ for budget (and family) accommodation, or upgrade to a sleeper cabin for the ultimate in overnight comfort.
Italy - beaches, vineyards and pizza are all within easy reach
Once in France, Italy is easy to reach. High speed connections run direct from Paris to Milan and are offered by both SNCF and TrenItalia. With routes priced to rival budget airlines, there are plenty of bargains to be found. Fares start at €39 per person and the journey takes around 7 hours.
If you live in London, it’s possible to go all the way to Turin or Milan in a day - or for those coming from further afield, I recommend breaking up the journey with a pitstop in Paris or Lyon.
From Milan, onward travel to most parts of northern and central Italy is quick and easy thanks to the excellent high speed rail network. Overnight services also run to the south, allowing you to drift down to Rome, Naples or Sicily in style. Tickets can be purchased from TrenItalia, as well as private high speed train operator Italo.
Greece - hop from train to boat to explore hundreds of Grecian isles
Made it to Italy? Then you’re just a boat ride away from Greece. Ferries cross the Aegean from many destinations along Italy’s east coast.
High speed rail connects major Italian ports like Ancona, Bari and Brindisi. These offer daily sailings to Igoumenitsa (on Greece’s west coast) and Patras (where you can pick up a bus to Athens). There are also frequent sailings to Corfu and other Ionian Islands - but check your dates as these don’t run every day. Most offer overnight travel, taking between 8 and 24 hours depending on the destination. As with overnight trains, you have various options for different prices. You can sleep ‘on deck’ for the cheapest price, or book a cabin for an additional cost if you want to guarantee a comfortable night’s sleep.
Turkey - stay grounded until you reach the hot air balloons of Cappadocia
While it might be best reserved for the more adventurous traveller, it is possible to reach Turkey overland from the UK. The easiest option (available late April - early October) involves travelling from London to Munich via Brussels. From here you can take overnight trains to Budapest and then on to Bucharest, with a final overnight hop taking you from the Romanian capital to Istanbul - and the very edge of the continent - on day 4.
While it might not beat the 4 hour flight in a race, you’ll get to soak up the scenery in three of Europe’s most exciting cities on the way - and that’s something no airline can offer.