Traveling to Europe? Here’s When to Get Your Plane and Train Tickets
Updated: Aug 27, 2019
Last year, I went to Europe for the first time. I stayed in Paris, Nice, Bruges and Amsterdam. I visited several other cities and towns including Monte Carlo, San Remo, Villefranche, Antibes and Lille. Not to mention plenty of museums and other sights. It was the trip of a lifetime. Two years of dreaming and a lot of planning and saving. And a lot of research. Considering it was my first time traveling to Europe, I thought I did pretty well. Now that my second trip is coming up, I’m again doing research – trying to find the best, and least expensive, way to do things.
One of the main things is knowing when to purchase your airfare and train tickets. You might think that the sooner you buy those tickets, the better. I’ve found out that this is not the case. When it comes to airline tickets, high speed train tickets and even tickets for some attractions, a little more precise timing is highly recommended.
One of the coolest things I did while I was in Europe was take a high speed train from Paris to Nice. That’s nearly 600 miles and I did it in less than 6 hours on a TGV train. Most of the trip was jaw-droppingly beautiful. Even at 186 mph. The countryside through Central France is just absolutely gorgeous. Although very similar to the countryside in my home state of Oregon, there’s just something extra magical about it. Maybe it’s the little towns that have been there for centuries and have never really grown all that much. I was blown away. Not to mention that the food on the train was shockingly good. I think you have to work at it a little bit to find crappy food in France.
Luckily, I found out the key to buying high speed train tickets before I booked my trip last year. There is a difference between taking a train trip for several hundred miles and taking a trip for 60 miles. You really don’t need to buy a ticket in advance for the shorter trips. There really is no advantage to doing so, financial or otherwise. Unless you are going when it is extremely busy or if you absolutely must arrive at a certain time, you can generally just walk into a train station and get a ticket for the next train. But for the longer trips, there is a huge advantage to buying tickets at the right time.
Rail Europe puts tickets on sale just over three months before that particular train departs. If you try to buy a ticket for a trip four months from now, you’ll find that they are simply not available. When the tickets go on sale, they put a few seats up for sale at the lowest price that they will sell them for. When those seats are sold, the next group goes up at a higher price and so on. For example, if you want to buy a ticket from Paris to Nice today (5/26/14) for a trip on 8/27/14, you can get a one way ticket for as little as $99. Try to buy a ticket for the day after tomorrow (also a Wednesday – obviously, prices vary by the day of the week you travel on) and it will cost you at least $189. I paid just $65 for a first class ticket for the same trip last year, but I was traveling in late September – not August. And I bought the ticket almost as soon as it went on sale.
Airline tickets are completely different. Want to hazard a guess as to the best time to buy round-trip airfare to Europe from the US? Try 53 days before you fly. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. I know I sure didn’t. I never would have thought that I should buy my train tickets before my plane tickets. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as savvy a shopper for airfare last year as I apparently could have been. But I’m going to do better this year!
Travel website KAYAK analyzed over one BILLION airfare search queries from 2012 and came out with some very interesting numbers. Just a quick glance at the chart below will tell you the best time to buy your airline tickets to Europe, Asia, South America or Africa. However, I wouldn’t advocate waiting until exactly 53 days before you leave for Spain and expect that you will magically get the best price possible on your plane tickets with just a few mouse clicks. I would start watching the fares as soon as you know when you’re going to be taking your trip. My trip dates are set for September and I am already checking airfares.
(Thank you, Quartz for the graphs!)
Several websites will send you notifications via e-mail regarding air fares to and from the cities of your choice. The best site I have found for flights anywhere is skyscanner.com. Especially when it comes to flights within Europe. Their e-mail alerts will tell you when the price of your flight has gone either up or down. The only thing that they don’t do is multi-city flights. Yet. So, for example, if you want to fly into Paris on your way over to Europe and out of Amsterdam on your way home, you will have to use another website.
Regardless of what the chart above says, a flight I’ve been tracking on Skyscanner (round trip from Portland to Amsterdam) took a sudden drop one day a couple of months ago. The price had been floating between $1150 and $1350 and one day it plummeted to $822! Another valuable lesson learned – check your email every day…
As far as attractions like the Eiffel Tower, da Vinci’s Last Supper and others, you’ll want to do a little research long before you go. Don’t assume you will be able to just walk right in at any time. Some sights you may not be able to see at all if you don’t plan ahead. Each sight or city will have it’s own loopholes for easy (or at least easier) access. For example, the Paris Museum Pass allows you to walk right past the often massive lines at museums such as The Louvre and The Orsay Museum. Most of the people in line at these sights aren’t waiting to get in, they’re waiting to buy tickets so that they can get in. A museum pass allows you to walk right past the crowds like a VIP.
No matter how near or how far, take the time and make the effort to travel as much as you can. Go places you’ve never been before. Experience what life is like for people who live somewhere else. Even if that somewhere is not very far away at all.