Simon Calder's Holiday Helpdesk: How can I find out about train travel in Europe?

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Q I'm having real trouble trying to find any useful websites for train travel in Europe! I only want to know how much, roughly the individual tickets will cost me compared to buying a rail pass. but I just can't find any websites that will help me. Can you recommend anything?

Alice Robeson

A Fortunately, the world’s leading resource for online rail travel advice is based in the UK and is invaluable for British travellers heading to Europe: It is run independently of train operators and other travel firms. The information is free – and priceless, if you see what I mean. It contains details of everything from the second-class carriages on Eurostar trains that have power sockets (5 and 14, if you’re interested) to the intricacies of tackling the Trans-Siberian Railway.

For your purposes, there is even a section headed “Rail pass or point-to-point tickets? - read this before buying a pass!”, which you will find in two seconds from the front page. It begins:

“Many overseas visitors seem brainwashed into thinking that European train travel has to mean a 'railpass'. Of course it doesn't, you can buy the same cheap A to B tickets that we Europeans use. And they often seem brainwashed into thinking that a 'railpass always saves money'. These days, it's usually the gold-plated option, more flexible but more expensive than simply buying a cheap ticket.”

So that’s the good news – an impartial assessment of the options at your fingertips. The less good news, from my experience, is that while airlines make it extremely easy to buy a ticket, rail companies do not – especially for international journeys. Just today I was checking fares on the new Eurostar service to Aix-en-Provence, which begins on 4 May. I tapped in “Aix” as my destination. “City or town appears to be incorrect,” came the response. Right. “Aix-en-Provence”. Same negative response. Eventually I worked out that I needed to type “Aix En Provence Tgv” in order to get a price quote. Frankly, that is absurd – in the time I took to figure out what I needed to do, I could have booked a cheap flight to nearby Marseille. But with persistence, and advice from Seat61, you can get there by train. And back.

The other essential: timetable information. The best single online source is the German Rail website, But when you are actually travelling, there is no substitute for the excellent European Rail Timetable from Thomas Cook. Like Seat61, this is a brilliantly constructed resource from people who love railways, regard the train as the prime form of transport in the 21st transport, and want to empower travellers to make the most of all the opportunities to explore Europe from ground level. The February edition is out now, price £14.99.

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