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Buying European Railway Tickets – Part 2

Train tickets Train tickets

Trains are a great way to get around Europe. Whether for long-haul city-to-city trips, day trips from a base city, or metros getting around within a city. European trains are faster and more frequent that anything we’re used to here in the U.S. or Canada.

[For part 1 of this report, covering the U.K. and France, see]


Deutsche Bahn (DB) operates an extensive network throughout Germany, with a handful of dedicated high-speed line segments, the longest of which connects Hannover with Wurtzberg. But the high-speed (ICE) trains clip along at good speeds even when they’re on conventional track, and the conventional trains are fast and frequent on the main routes. Most long-haul trains carry both second and first class.

DB runs most of the national network. One open-access operator, Hamburg-Koln Express (HKX), operates over a long route that DB does not serve. Another new entrant, Derschnellzug (the fast train) is currently on hold. Fares typically undercut DB fares. A handful of regional railways serve remote markets.

Fare Structure

DB features two basic ticket categories: Flexipreis, good on any train and refundable, and nonrefundable, restricted, advance-purchase Sparpreis. In addition, DB offers a variety of short-term promotions.


DB bases its discount programs on use of annual Bahncard discount cards. Bahncard 25 for adults offers 25 percent discounts on all tickets; it costs 62 euros a year for second class or 125 euros for first class. Bahncard 50 offers 50 percent discounts; it costs 255 euros for second class or 515 euros for first class, and does not discount “sparpries” fares. Children, students under 27, and seniors 60 or over can buy Bahncard 50 at half price. But even at half price, most student and senior tourist visitors would be better off sticking with sparpreis fares.

Buying Tickets Online

You can buy DB tickets on the English-language website at, using major credit cards or PayPal. You can also download an app that allows you to use your smartphone to buy tickets as well as to serve as a ticket when you travel.

You can buy HKX tickets online at The website does not show any youth or senior discounts.


The Swiss National Railway system (SBB/CFF/FFS) blankets the main travel routes in Switzerland, and the national system is complemented by a handful of private lines, many of which are narrow gauge and cog lines. SBB (use the German name for short) has only one sort-of high-speed line, between Bern and Olten, but the top speed of 200 kph (125 mph) doesn’t meet the “official” 250 kph minimum. Instead of extensive high speed lines in open country, Switzerland is focusing on new “base” tunnels that bypass the historic lines’ curves and steep grades. The first base tunnel, Lotschberg, opened in 2007, permits operation up to 250 kph between Visp and Thun on the Milan-Basel corridor. The 57-km Gotthard Base Tunnel is due to open in late 2016, also allowing 250-kph running on the Zurich-Milan corridor. Other projects are in the works.

The top Swiss express trains are ICN “Pendolino” tilting trains designed to navigate the curving lines that typify most Swiss railroading. In addition, French TGV and German ICE high-speed trains extend into major Swiss terminals of Basel, Geneva and Zurich.

The two main narrow-gauge systems are the Glacier Express line, from Zermatt and Visp to St. Moritz and Davos, and the Golden Pass network connecting the main Swiss railroad at Zweisimmen with Montreux. Both lines operate deluxe tourist trains, with seasonal schedules, plus ordinary year-round local services.

Fare Structure

SBB offers two basic types of ticket: full-fare, flexible tickets and advance-purchase supersaver tickets offering discounts up to 50 percent. The website also features short-term promotions of various sorts, mostly aimed at local residents but sometimes useful for short-term visitors.

SBB trains operate over some private standard-gauge lines, but this distinction is invisible to travelers: SBB tickets cover the trips, and schedules are included in the SBB postings and timetables. The narrow-gauge lines sell tickets independently, but travel on some is included with no extra charge on some railpasses and at discounted rates with others.


SBB features a bewildering variety of Travelcards. Most target local residents and long-term visitors; most are now incorporated into an umbrella SwissPass permanent card that can be loaded with various options. The most inclusive GA travelcard, for example, is available only with a minimum four-month validity, with discounted prices for seniors age 64 (women) or 65 (men), young adults age 16-25, and children age 6-16. But for foreign visitors, even the discounted price is out of sight at 2760 francs per year. Other travelcards cover students age 25-30, partners, families, even dogs.

Buying Tickets Online

You can easily buy regular or discounted tickets and seat reservations on the SBB website ( The site accepts major credit cards, debit cards, and prepaid MasterCard and Visa. You can also download an app and use your smartphone to buy and travel. The Glacier Express and GoldenPass lines sell tickets online; log on to for Glacier Express tickets and


As with some other countries, Italy has separated the agency that owns and manages the nationwide track and station system, Ferroviaria, from the national operating system, Trenitalia. Ferroviaria has completed a 600-mile backbone high-speed trunk line running from Torino through Milano, Bologna, Firenze, Roma, to Napoli; links to Venezia are in the works. The newest segments allow 300 kph running, but the older Bologna-Firenze line supports just 250 kph.

Trenitalia operates three classes of high-speed train:

  • Frecciarosa trains run on the high-speed trunk at up to 300 kph, and at lower speeds on the conventional line along the Adriatic coast from Veniza and Bologna to Ancona, Foggia and Bari. Frecciarosa trains offer onboard Wi-Fi.
  • Frecciargento trains serve other main trunk lines.
  • Frecciablanca serve more lightly traveled trunk lines and also provide stopping services on higher-speed lines.

A few local, often narrow-gauge private lines provide some regional and suburban services.

Fare Structure

As is common in Europe, Trenitalia fares range from unrestricted to promotional, with fare categories based on a mix of refundability, advance-purchase, time of day, day of week and travel party. Some “super economy” fares are available until the day before departure. For a one-way trip from Milano to Roma, for example, the super economy fare starts at 35 euros; the base fare at 89 euros; senior (60 years or over) and youth (up to 26 years) at 62.30 euros; premium at 79 euros, and business at 89 euros. And you get partial refunds if your train is late.


As noted, discounted senior and youth fares appear automatically during a fare search. In addition, Trenitalia sells annual discount cards:

Carta Verde (green card, 40 euros per year) gives 10 percent discounts off base fares to travelers age 12-26.

Carta d’Argento (silver card) gives senior travelers age 60 or over 15 percent discounts on base fares; the price is 30 euros but free to travelers 75 years and over.

Because the discounts are limited to base fares, most travelers are better off buying undiscounted promotional fares.

Buying Tickets Online

You can buy Trenitalia tickets online through the website ( as well as with iPhone apps. Trenitalia even publishes a 26-page English-language online manual “How to buy the ticket online” (


Italo is one of Europe’s most robust open-access operators, running frequent high-speed trains equivalent to Frecciarosa on the entire Torino-Napoli trunk line, with a branch conventional line from Bologna to Venezia. It, too, offers a wide range of promotional fares, including easy 40 percent discounts for seniors. Base economy level accommodations, which Italo calls “smart class,” are equivalent to Trenitalia; a premium economy “eXtra large” offers first-class size seats for a modest premium. A big plus is an attended lounge at all major stations and uniformed staff posted on platforms to assist travelers. If you’re traveling along the trunk line, always check both Trenitalia and Italo for your best deal. Check Italo’s website for information and online ticket purchase.

[For part 1 of this report, covering the U.K. and France, see]

Ed Perkins, editor

For more travel tips from Ed Perkins, see our companion site Ed on Travel

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