Dear fellow travellers
What is Europe’s best value international rail journey? The finest deal we’ve found is a four-hour cross-border excursion which costs just one euro. Not bad for a ride of over 300 kilometres.
Can you imagine where that might be? We suspect you are speculating on some branch line into Ukraine or a minor railway tucked away in the Balkans. You’ll be surprised, as the case we have in mind is actually in western Europe.
It’s not a one-euro fare to which only certain categories of travellers are entitled. So we are not thinking of travel between the two jurisdictions in Ireland where holders of some senior citizen travel passes can obtain a free-of-charge train ticket from Dublin to Belfast or vice versa.
There are some rare short hops over frontiers where no fare is actually levied, provided that the passenger holds a valid ticket up to the last station prior to the border. And there are two communities in France where people can travel by train without any charge across the border into neighbouring Luxembourg. We wrote about that oddity in Issue 60 of hidden europe magazine.
We also know of curious cases where railway companies actually pay the passenger to cross a frontier. From our local station, which is called Berlin Lichterfelde Ost, the one-way fare to Tantow is €15.00. All trains on the line to Szczecin stop at Tantow, from where it’s just a few minutes over the border to the Polish port city of Szczecin.
The one-way fare from Berlin Lichterfelde Ost to Szczecin is only €12.00. One has that nice feeling, as the train leaves Tantow en route to Poland, that the rail operator is actually paying us three euros for the courtesy of keeping them company all the way to Szczecin.
Over the years we’ve tracked down many great-value international rail fares. We once wrote about the City Star tariff which offered extraordinarily cheap fares from Slovakia to Russia. Pick of the bunch was a €150 return fare from Bratislava to Vladivostok - not bad for a round trip of 23,000 kilometres. But the City Star fare to Russia is long gone. It was a great deal while it lasted. The price per kilometre was about two thirds of a cent.
To Catalonia for one euro
But on some tickets from France to Spain, the fare undercuts even our example from Slovakia to Russia. Three trains each day make the 303-kilometre journey from Avignon Centre to Portbou in Spain. The regular fully flexible fare for this trip is €44.80. But on each of those direct trains there is a small quota of tickets available for just one euro. Book a couple of weeks in advance and the chances are that you will still find that one euro bargain available on one or more departures.
We describe that Avignon to Portbou journey as part of Route 12 in the latest edition of our Europe by Rail book. It’s a beautiful run, slipping from the Rhône Valley along the coast of Languedoc towards the Pyrenees. South from Perpignan, the railway affords wonderful views of the Côte Vermeille. Collioure, on that stretch of coast, is still every bit as lovely as it was when Matisse and Picasso visited. Beyond Collioure, the railway runs by a dozen capes and bays to reach Portbou in Spain - which is a world apart from the mass tourism which defines most of the Costa Brava.
Just over four hours of fun and fine scenery - and all for one euro. The cost per kilometre is less than one third of a cent.
Cheap fares in south-west France
That bargain fare of one euro actually exists on many rail routes in south-west France. It’s a condition that the journey must be completed on a direct train - so no change of trains is permitted. The heartland of these bargain fares is around Toulouse, but they are widely available down to the coast and into the Pyrenees. The route from Avignon to Portbou is the longest journey we have identified on which the one euro bargain fare is available.
The fare can be purchased on many sales channels, for example on www.raileurope.co.uk. You may need to try a couple of dates, but we find the bargain fare generally available for most travel days, though they do sell out quickly at weekends. We think the quota of one euro fares is released about three weeks prior to the travel date.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)