The cheap new way to use Europe's trains

TRAIN TRAVEL: More than 80 per cent of the most popular high-speed rail journeys in Europe must now be reserved in advance.
TRAIN TRAVEL: More than 80 per cent of the most popular high-speed rail journeys in Europe must now be reserved in advance.

Throw out everything you know about using trains in Europe - it's time to start again.

Big changes to the way rail journeys are priced and booked mean huge savings for travellers but we need to get our heads around a new order.

The rail passes that traditionally offered us the best value have become irrelevant for many travellers. The best deals now are about timing.

The managing director of International Rail in Melbourne, Jonathan Hume, says rail operators are increasingly following airlines, with the best deals available to those who book early.

Hume says more than 80 per cent of the most popular high-speed rail journeys in Europe must now be reserved in advance.

"The easiest way to understand it is to relate it back to the way we book domestic airfares," he says.

"It brings it in line with concepts we're used to: the further out you book, the less you pay. It's become easier to book and also cheaper."

No more fleecing

Hume says international travellers have traditionally paid big premiums on rail journeys in Europe, with fares as much as 60 per cent higher than local fares.

"There used to be limited fares for international travellers," he says. "People were paying more than they really had to. That's why rail passes were so popular."

Hume says the internet has brought us access to a wider range of fares. But travellers need to be prepared to confirm and pay immediately.

"We used to be able to hold a booking for people, whereas now the price is only valid if you pay now," he says.

Airline-style pricing can also come with airline-style restrictions, such as not being able to change the date or route.

Travellers need to check the terms and conditions and move away from the idea of flexible rail passes.

Pass on the pass?

Hume says access to local pricing means Eurail and other European rail passes are no longer the most cost effective option for many travellers.

Passes may still be relevant for young people and others who want the ability to change plans but those with set travel dates are better off locking in individual fares.

"Rail passes are more about flexibility than cost savings now," he says.

Hume says the Eurail pass has also been devalued by France's withdrawal this year, and it has confirmed it intends to stay out of the scheme again next year.

"That's also caused a shift away from rail passes," he says.

Hume says rail operators have traditionally opened bookings three months before the travel date but some are extending to four months.

Travellers are advised to lock in dates as soon as bookings open, as fares continue to rise towards the departure date.

A smart way to travel

While rail travel can be complicated, it is becoming increasingly important for travellers to understand, with trains replacing many flight routes within Europe.

Hume says the quality of the trains has changed enormously, even in countries that have traditionally had terrible train services.

"There are state-of-the-art fast trains right throughout Europe now," Hume says.

"Trains also have the advantage of taking you from city centre to city centre, without the hassle of airport transfers."

Figures from Rail Europe show bookings for last year are up 16 per cent on 2011.

The company says its 2012 figures represent a doubling of sales in three years, and Australasia accounts for almost a quarter of its €200 million ($325 million) revenue last year.

Rail Europe says it booked 158,000 Australasian passengers last year and numbers for 2013 are up about 7 per cent on that.

One-stop shop

Looking ahead, it could soon be possible to book various methods of European transport through one system, under a European Commission plan for a "single European transport area".

A consortium led by technology provider Amadeus is working on a multi-modal transport information and booking system. The initial study is due for completion this year.

Amadeus says the long-term objective is to make it easier to use various modes of transport, including air, rail and urban transport, in a "seamless, door-to-door travel experience".

Travellers should be able to plan, book and pay for their journey in one place, using the best combination of transport options.