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, along with their DB Navigator app, to plan my connections for almost every trip in Europe.
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. Since many cities have several stations, you'll need 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).
- 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, select that one (or try re-entering it with "main station" after the city's name).
- Use complete names: "Rothenburg ob der Tauber" (not "Rothenburg"); "Jerez de la Frontera" (not "Jerez").
- In cities with several major stations (such as London, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, Sevilla, and Lisbon), your choice of station may depend on the specific direction of travel or the location of your hotel — refer to your guidebook.
- 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 (except for Sundays and holidays, when trains are less frequent). Though many 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 stations, date, and time — just skip right to "Search." (If you're then prompted to select from a drop-down list of stations, see #1, above.)
- Review your options. You'll be given three possibilities for your journey; use the "Earlier" and "Later" buttons to see more. 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, and acronyms indicating the train category. Don't sweat it if the results show local names for cities you've entered (for example, "Praha" instead of "Prague"). A circled "R" indicates that the train requires a reservation (see #6).
- Know where to find more details. Clicking "Show details" for 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. After clicking "Show details," check the far-right column to see if any of your connections involve compulsory reservations. (Note: The site has recently been showing unreliable reservation information about Italy's fastest trains. Whether or not it's stated as such on schedules, assume that any class of Italian train faster than a regional train — e.g. Freccia trains — do indeed require seat reservations.) This is also the spot to check for the full name of your train category, in case that's helpful. See my further advice on the whens and hows of making train reservations.
Pricing: The Deutsche Bahn's site doesn't show fares for most trains outside Germany and Austria. I wouldn't bother checking exact ticket prices on each country's own national railway site unless you're looking for advance-purchase discounts; for full-fare estimates, use these maps.
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 "Stopover" (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 you've spelled it correctly), it likely doesn't have train service. But before giving up — especially for train travel in Spain and Italy — double-check their national railway sites. (For a comprehensive list of each country's railway sites, go to railfaneurope.net and click on "Links").
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.