This summer promises to be an exciting one for travelers exploring Europe. With the vast majority of COVID-era restrictions lifted, for the first time in two summers the continent feels open and ready for visitors — and that includes the option of adventuring by train.
Whether you’re a seasoned Euro-explorer or riding the rails for the first time, there are some new developments and changes to be aware of.
More choice and more competitive fares
It’s taken far longer than in aviation, but competition on key routes is helping lower costs and provide more choice. New services between European cities are making it easier to see some of the continent’s dreamiest destinations for less.
“The Italian national rail operator Trenitalia is running services from Milan through to Paris and vice versa,” says Mike Hyde, the chief data officer at trainline.com. They are doing so in direct competition with SNCF, their French counterparts. “This would have been unheard of a few years ago. This year, as we exit from the pandemic, we’re seeing competition come to life resulting in more choice.”
Key services include German and Swedish Flixtrain routes, Italo inter-city services in Italy, French-operated OuiGo trains in Spain and Lumo services on the British East Coast Main Line between London and Edinburgh taking on LNER. The idea is more choice and more competitive fares, so look out for these services.
Passengers now opting more for carrying tickets on their phones © Solstock/Getty Images
Moving towards digital ticketing
The days of near-empty ghost trains running on key routes, as was seen at the height of the pandemic, are long gone. In fact, many European routes are already getting busy, particularly those that serve holiday traffic.
But even as travel rebounds, some of our behaviors have changed since the pandemic began. “As leisure travel has returned, travel habits have come back a little differently. We’re seeing much more demand for digital ticketing, which generally means carrying your tickets on your phone.”
Some trains are running more often
Services are also ramping up to reflect increased demand. The Paris-Milan Trenitalia route started with two daily services in each direction, but has now increased to five. Eurostar services, including their London-Amsterdam service, are also continuing to bounce back. Summer services like the Thalys Soleil trains connecting the Netherlands with Provence and the Snälltåget Berlin-Stockholm night trains are making a welcome return. While this means more choice, it also is aimed at catering for a greater number of passengers. If you know your plans, consider booking soon to avoid missing out on your dream trip.
Panoramic view over the Alps from the red train Bernina Express from Tirano (Italy) to St. Moritz (Switzerland) ©Alessandro Lai/Getty Images
The most popular cross-border train routes in Europe
According the trainline’s data, Paris features in six of the top 10 cross border routes. The most popular route is Brussels to Paris, with London to Paris and Geneva to Paris coming in second and third. The full list reads for 2022 is:
Brussels – Paris
London – Paris
Geneva – Paris
Brussels – Lille
Lugano – Milan
Milan – Paris
Luxembourg – Paris
Munich – Vienna
Geneva – Lyon
Amsterdam – Paris
More people are choosing long-distance rail routes
Aside from city-centre-to-city-centre convenience, another selling point of rail over air travel are the environmental upsides. A journey from London to Paris by air emits around ten times as much CO2 as the same journey by rail. As travelers look for more sustainable travel choices, longer-distance rail routes are gaining in popularity.
Trainline has noted a growth in the popularity of bookings which take a perennially popular route like Paris or Brussels to London, but then add on a medium-distance continental journey. Examples include continuing on from Paris to Marseille, Strasbourg, or Geneva, or heading on from Belgium as far as Luxembourg or even Vienna, taking advantage of the NightJet sleeper service to do so.
Hyde suggests that this will suit business travelers, remote workers and anyone looking for a holiday. “With people used to working from anywhere, and looking to trains as a way of making longer journeys, it will be fascinating to see how these two things merge as traveling for work recovers,” he says.
A new night train is set to run from Brussels arriving into Prague’s Hlavni Nadrazi station © Getty Images /iStockphoto
The joy of sleeper train exploration is back
If you haven’t traveled in Europe for a few years, the recovery of sleeper services is likely to be the biggest and most pleasant surprise. Driven by Austrian Railways NightJet services, the network of options is more extensive now than it has been for 20 years. Hyde sees this as an ongoing trend. “The future for sleeper trains is genuinely exciting. We should continue to see more innovation in this area.”
In France, this is the first summer most of us can travel overnight on the restored service from Paris to Nice, with plans to bring back the ParisTarbes service alongside other existing offerings. Bulgaria and Turkey have reinstated the iconic Sofia to Istanbul night train, bringing back the final leg of the legendary Orient Express route. Both established national operators and open-access companies are planning new routes in northern Europe including a year-round Germany-Sweden service running between Stockholm and Hamburg and a long-mooted Brussels to Prague night train.
Interrail offers fun and freedom with travel to over 30 countries © Leo Patrizi/Getty Images
Interrail is turning 50 — and celebrating in style
Two years of lockdown has only amplified the appeal of a free-wheeling few weeks taking advantage of an Interrail or Eurail pass. Interrail turns 50 this summer, and is offering a has 50% discount for a limited time an anniversary, which is sure to provoke bouts of nostalgia among the millions of travelers who have taken advantage of the good-value fun and freedom the pass has offered for generations. It can be hard work to make an Interrail pass work in combination with high-speed premium services aimed at point-to-point travelers.
Pass validity and the requirement for reservation on some trains are the main challenges. The best way to get around this is by taking slower local services and aiming for more meandering routes. By doing so, passholders can have as much fun as ever and see Europe in the leisurely fashion that shows it off in the best light.
(Looking for more info? See trainline.com for access to live train times and railway station information on its website or mobile app)
Tom Hall is co-author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Train Travel in Europe
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