Four long-distance, good-value rail trips from the UK to Europe

<span>Photograph: Julia Lavrinenko/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Julia Lavrinenko/Alamy

Twenty years ago, as my partner and I prepared to launch Hidden Europe magazine, we both thought we knew Europe pretty well. It was only after we swapped planes for trains that we discovered how much we still had to learn. Two decades on, I am still routinely making long journeys across the continent that rely entirely on trains, ferries and buses.

Those who do likewise will discover that journeys matter. There is something recuperative about spending a day or two in transit. It reshapes our appreciation of time and distance. I have learned to escape the tyranny of too much planning and no longer see the journey as something merely to be endured between leaving home and arriving at my destination. I have also discovered that fine journeys don’t need to cost the earth. Here are four favourite slow travel ideas.

To Tuscany and beyond

Take the 9.31am Eurostar from St Pancras, with an onward connection from Paris’s nearby Gare de l’Est via Stuttgart to Munich. An early evening arrival in Munich allows for a comfortable connection to the overnight train to Tuscany. That direct Nightjet link from Munich to Florence is restored from 10 September. Arrival in Florence is at 6.36am, giving a travel time from London of under 24 hours. Or stay on the Nightjet beyond Florence to reach Rome at 9.10am.

Use this itinerary via Munich to join direct overnight trains to other Italian destinations, including Venice, Milan, Genoa and the Cinque Terre coast. For those who value overnight comfort on the Nightjet train, it’s worth upgrading to a sleeping car, but hardy souls on a budget can opt for a normal seat and hope to catch glimpses of the Alps by moonlight.

How to do it Eurostar to Paris from £51 single or £88 return. Paris to Munich from €39.90 single. Nightjet from Munich to Florence (or other Italian destinations) from €29.30. So the lead-in single fare from London to Tuscany is £114, with returns starting at £198.

Newcastle to Germany

City Hall at the Marienplatz in Munich
City Hall at the Marienplatz in Munich Photograph: Nikada/Getty Images

The DFDS overnight ship from Tyneside to the Netherlands is a godsend for travellers from the north of England and Scotland bound for the continent. It’s simple to use that ferry to travel in style from almost anywhere in mainland Scotland to distant German cities with just one night en route. From Glasgow, for example, it’s a short hop to Edinburgh for the fast train to Newcastle. It is then a quick ride on the metro to Meadow Well and an interesting one-mile walk to the ferry terminal at Royal Quays, where passengers board the DFDS ship.

I use this route several times a year on rail-sea journeys from Scotland to Germany and the long ferry ride is a joy. Disembarkation from the 3pm ferry in the Dutch port of IJmuiden is around 10am next morning.

Related: Rail route of the month: the gentle beauty of a ride from Hamburg into Denmark

There is a transfer coach to Amsterdam, but I usually skip that and walk to the Oranjestraat bus stop for the 74 local bus to Beverwijk station. There are then good onward rail connections to cities across Germany; I can arrive in Munich or Berlin by about 8.30pm, which is a travel time of about 33 hours.

Fare facts A return trip from Scotland to Germany is best made using Interrail, allowing two days outward, and three days homeward, giving scope for an overnight stop in the Rhineland. A pass for five days’ travel within a month costs £256. Passage from Newcastle to Amsterdam and back costs from £102. With an allowance for port transfers (metro and bus) that gives give an overall fare of about £410 return. The price per person tumbles with more travellers. For a family of four (two adults and two children under 12), passes will cost £520 in total. Add the ship and transfers to give a total price from £820 return travel for four.

To Corfu via Padua

Corfu’s turquoise sea seen from above.
By rail and ferry you can reach Corfu from London in three days. Photograph: Free Artist/Alamy

Of course there are plentiful direct flights from across the UK to Corfu. But that’s the boring option. Better to travel by rail and ferry, stopping off along the way. Make your way to London to connect to an afternoon Eurostar to Brussels, continuing on a German ICE to Cologne. You’ll have time to wander through Cologne before boarding the Nightjet to Innsbruck at 10.16pm.

Have a leisurely breakfast in Innsbruck, before continuing on local trains to Padua, changing along the way in Brenner and Verona. You’ll have a night in Padua, then, next morning, hop on the local train to Venice to board the weekly Anek Lines sailing to Corfu. Assuming you leave London on a Friday afternoon, you’ll be stepping ashore in Corfu at lunchtime on Monday after a night on a train, a night in a hotel and a night on a ship.

How to do it An Interrail pass valid for seven days in a month will cover the outward journey from most British stations to Corfu and allow for a much more leisurely return, with stops on the inbound journey. A day or two in the Alps perhaps? The pass costs £304. Allow €30 each way for the passholder fare on Eurostar, €13.90 for the Nightjet to Innsbruck and then €38 on the Anek ship, with a special fare for holders of Interrail global passes. All in all, reckon on total travel costs of £440 for that return journey from the UK to Corfu.

To Poland’s Baltic coast

Świnoujście, in north-west Poland, can be reached easily with a €49 Deutschland Ticket.
Świnoujście, in north-west Poland, can be reached easily with a €49 Deutschland Ticket. Photograph: Mark Delete/Alamy

How about a return trip from London to Poland for just £144? It’s possible by using Germany’s €49 Deutschland Ticket. This allows unlimited travel on local and regional public transport for a calendar month. You do, however, have to avoid any fast long-distance trains, where this cheap ticket isn’t valid.

This wonderful deal is sold as an ongoing monthly subscription, but you can cancel without penalty after getting the first monthly ticket. Check the small print and you’ll discover that the Deutschland Ticket allows cross-border adventures into southern Denmark, to Basel and Schaffhausen in Switzerland, to Salzburg in Austria, to two towns in Alsace (France) and to selected stations in Poland and the Czech Republic close to the German border. One of those Polish stations is Świnoujście Centrum on the island of Uznam (Usedom).

Related: Rail route of the month: the drama of an Alpine epic from Zurich to Graz

For price-conscious travellers from Britain heading to Świnoujście, the best option is to use Eurostar’s great-value return fare, the Any Belgian Station (ABS) ticket to travel from London to Athus in Belgium. Athus is included in Luxembourg’s national free travel scheme, so from Athus you can ride for free through Luxembourg to start using the Deutschland Ticket when you enter Germany at Igel in the Moselle valley.

How to do it Book in advance and you can pick up Eurostar’s ABS ticket for £102 return. This covers return travel on Eurostar to Brussels with onward connections to Athus (or any other Belgian station) on domestic SNCB trains. Then there’s just the cost of your Deutschland Ticket (£42).

So for £144 you can roam Germany for a whole calendar month, and enjoy a few cross-border hops. Or just make a simple out-and-back trip from London to the Polish seaside at Świnoujście.

Nicky Gardner is co-author of Europe by Rail: the Definitive Guide, available from Guardian Bookshop for £16.71