By Rick Steves
Riding the rails has become even easier with the advent of user-friendly online timetables. You can instantly find the fastest connections, frequency, and length of a train trip (and learn whether reservations are required). Schedules can also be essential to basic itinerary planning, as they tell you where trains do and don't go.
No matter where you're traveling in Europe, Germany's Deutsche Bahn website should be your first stop for timetable information. (While each country's national rail company has its own website with schedules, the German site has schedules for virtually all of Europe.) I use this site to plan my connections for almost every trip in Europe. Their DB Navigator app is a boon for train travelers with smartphones and tablets.
Finding Schedules on the Deutsche Bahn Site
The German railway's online schedule is an invaluable tool for any European train traveler. Here's how to use it:
- Start with a station-to-station search. Enter just the city name, unless you know the name of the specific station you want. Use complete names: "Rothenburg ob der Tauber" (not "Rothenburg"); "Jerez de la Frontera" (not "Jerez"). You may encounter unfamiliar versions of city names (for example, "Praha" instead of "Prague").
If prompted, choose a station. Many cities have several stations, and you may be asked to specify one from a drop-down menu. If the city's name spelled in capital letters is among the options, select it (the site will look up the best connections for that city, regardless of the station). Main stations are often called "central," "terminus," or "Hbf" (for Hauptbahnhof).
- In cities with several major stations (such as London, Paris, Barcelona, and Madrid), your choice of station may depend on the specific direction of travel or the location of your hotel — refer to your guidebook.
- A very long list of stations probably includes bus stops in the same town. If one of your top options is just the city name, with no station/stop name after it, re-select that choice (or try re-entering the city's name with "Hbf," for "main station" after the city's name, e.g. "Berlin Hbf").
- Venice's main station, right on the canal, is "Venezia S. Lucia."
- Enter the date and time. Make your best guess about when you might travel (using the 24-hour clock). Don't worry too much about the exact date and time of your train trips, as schedules for most trains don't vary much (Sundays are the major exception, when frequency is limited on many routes). Though most schedules aren't available more than three months out, you can still get a fairly accurate idea of trip length and frequency by trying a closer date on the same day of the week you'll be traveling.
- Skip the extra search fields. If you're just looking up schedules, there's no need to fill out any fields beyond the top ones: Once you've entered the stations, date, and time, just skip right to "Search." (If you're prompted here to select from a drop-down list of stations, see #2, above.)
- Review your options. You'll be given a range of possibilities for your journey. Each one shows the start and end points (with stations specified), the departure and arrival times, the duration of the trip, the number of changes, the types of trains, and whether the train requires a reservation (indicated by a circled "R").
- Know where to find more details. Clicking the arrow symbol next to any of the trip options will give you more detail, including all transfer points. If you click "Show intermediate stops," you can see every stop on that route. Clicking the train number shows all the stops for the entire route, including those before and/or after your stations.
- Check for reservation info. "Compulsory reservation" means what it says, while "Please reserve" means that reservations are recommended but optional. "International supplement" doesn't apply to travelers with rail passes.
Pricing: The Deutsche Bahn's site doesn't show fares for most trains outside Germany and Austria. Especially if you're just trying to figure out whether a rail pass makes sense for your trip, I wouldn't bother checking exact ticket prices on each country's own national railway site; for estimates, use these maps.
If the system brings up a "Pricing" section, simply fill in any age and click the "Continue" button. If you're unfamiliar with the terms "Bahn Card" and "Rail Plus," it's safe to assume you won't be eligible for either of these discounts (both of which apply mostly to European residents, as these cards make no sense for most tourists).
Seasonal changes: Schedules change seasonally around June 10, September 10, and December 10 (though changes are often small). The Deutsche Bahn posts updates as soon as they're available. Even if your trip is several months in the future, this is still the best planning tool. (Again, you can enter an earlier date for a fairly accurate idea of the schedule.)
Alternate routes: This system shows the most direct and practical routes between two points. To design your own detour, add a "Via" (midpoint) city on the query screen.
Coverage: The Deutsche Bahn site is the most complete resource for train schedules throughout Europe. If your destination isn't listed on the Deutsche Bahn site (and if you've spelled it correctly), it likely doesn't have train service. But before giving up — especially for train travel in Spain and Italy — it's a good idea to consult their national railway sites to double-check availability. (For a comprehensive list of each country's railway sites, go to railfaneurope.net and click on "Links").
New Query: The "New Query" and "back" buttons bring you to a fresh starting page. Use the "Change" button to change a few features of your original request.
Check schedules locally: No matter how carefully you've looked up your schedules in advance, it's a good idea to double-check schedule information while you're on the go in Europe.