It's hard to hitchhike on trains. But there are ways to get free train rides.
If you're in an organised hitchhiking competition...
...then it is very possible. Choose your train and wait at the platform. When the train arrives, work out who the conductor is and run up to him/her. Explain your situation (using an 'international language' such as English often works best, often better than speaking the conductor's native language), show them some documentation for your competition and don't be afraid to beg. Telling a story about a dangerous experience two hours ago on the roadside (true or not...), and how much you want some safe and secure travel after the traumatic experience, works well. By this time, the train is now running nearly a minute late and there is a good chance that the conductor will say Yes, because he needs to end the conversation and keep the train moving. So get in, sit back and relax :).
Tom and his two team-mates tried using this trick when travelling through the Netherlands and Germany on Sheffield University's 'Bummit' hitchhiking competition. 9 out of 13 conductors we asked said Yes, and let us travel as much as we needed on their trains. It didn't work when the train was either crossing an international border, or it was a high-speed train, or the conductor just didn't want to bend the rules...
Train hopping in Europe is generally easy as countries don't have a good system to track fines. This means that if you have for example a Spanish passport and got a fine in France, you won't get the fine ever, except if you move to France one day and get a job etc. There are different approcahes to train hopping but it's good to keep in mind that the ticket inspectors are aware of all tricks and games. You can try and stay in the toilet for the whole journey but in some countries and trains they can unlock the toilet if they suspect you don't have a ticket. You could leave the door unlocked to try and fool them but that means every passanger would open the door as well... You can run around the train as well, trying to avoid the ticket inspector which may or may not work. These techniques may get you into more trouble and are generally not pleasurable but are very important for people with no ID since if you get caught and the ticket inspector wants to write you a fine, they will ask for a passport and if you don't have one or refuse to give it it is very likely that they call the cops. So for people with ID, who are foreigners in the country, in most cases it is ok simply to find a quite place on the train, wait for the ticket inspector and kindly explain to them your situation (imaginary or not). In a lot of countires the law says they are obliged to write you a fine (which you will never have to pay as long as you give a fake address or say you don't have one) but they may kick you off. They may also threaten to call the police. It depends on each person how they prefer to deal with this - whether to argue or not, whether to plea or not but just keep calm as if you get aggressive it is a valid reason to get the cops on you. In case that a ticket inspector actually calls the police without a valid reason (no ID, being aggressive) don't panic, the most that can happen is they search you and/or escort you off the train station. Generally, when choosing which train to take, opt for express trains - those with fewest stops, as you are unlikely to get far with regional ones - and you may get stuck in a station where almost no trains stop. It's very useful to memorize (or write down) the timetable, so that you instantly know which is the best train to take after you get kicked out of the previous one.
In Belgium you can get fined for not having a ticket, or not using the one that you have correctly. Taking a train from Charleroi to Brussels, a conductor issued a fine of 72 euros for a 12 euro journey, all because the details of the trip (a 10 journey pass) where written in pencil and not in pen. Be careful.
Regional trains are very bad, sometimes they're checked quite heavily, and, since they have so many stops you are unlikely to make it anywhere. There are non-Thalys TGV trains going to France from Brussels, although it may not be that obvious at first.
- Much to their own annoyance, Belgian railway staff do not have any legal right to ask for your ID, so under no circumstances show it when they ask for it! Prino 09:58, 3 May 2011 (CEST)
For non-French citizens fines virtually don't exist. Feel free to give your passport and a fake (or real) address. You can have as many fines as you want. They disappear from their system within two months. Whatever it says on the back of the fine (about fines adding up etc.) might or might not be true, but it ONLY applies to French citizens. Sometimes ticket inspectors bluff (a lot) that they will call the police, while trying to get you to pay on spot. You have nothing to worry about. As long as you keep calm and polite they have no legal reason to call the cops. They just hate writing fines because it is extra work for them and they get to write a lot of fines every day. So if you are nice and have a good story, they won't pressure you or try to kick you off, as they sometimes do.
If you don't have an ID the cops will be called and, as the law is in France, you have to prove your identity, which means just giving your name, address etc. Unfortunately it is up to the cops' opinion whether you are telling the truth or not and they may arrest you. North of Paris you are more likely to get arrested than to the South.
Tip: Before getting checked it is best to locate yourself in-between carriages, where there are a few seats, a table and luggage compartment. Usually nobody stays there. When the inspector comes the atmosphere is more informal as they don't have to keep up an image of 'master-of-the-train' in front of other passengers and it goes more smoothly. After you get your fine (which is a valid ticket) feel free to sit wherever you like in the train.
TGV trains are best because they are the fastest and with the least stops, so in the unlikely event of you getting kicked off, you will still get pretty far. TER trains are slower and with more stops.
It is quite possible to speak with the driver and the controller before the train start and tell them you want a ride for free. Some of them are kind enough to let you in. Bikepunk got better luck with TER than TGV with this technique so far.
Mipplor hitchhiked a train from Luxembourg to Nancy, Lyon, Marseille, Monaco, Nice, and Perpignan in October 2009. Actually 1/3 of his time was spent in the toilet to read newspapers. He was a lucky dog that no single inspector came to trouble him.
Germany is great for riding the trains for free. ICE and IC are the best trains (with fewest stops). There's always two conductors on them. They are pretty pedantic about checking tickets, so it's pretty unavoidable to get caught. Once you're caught, however, you'll simply have to get off at the next stop. Sometimes they'll ask you to show your passport or remind you that you can buy a ticket on the train. They'll never call the police or give you any fines. The regional trains are not that bad too, they are lightly checked. The trains go all night (unless you're somehow stuck in a very bad station), so they're a great option when it's too late to hitchhike. Taking the very small train from Aachen to Liege (Belgium) is a very big mistake, you will get kicked off in a small village far from any main road and you will have problems getting out of there.
On the weekends, it's easy to hitch regional trains with other people's group tickets. There's a ticket valid for up to five people on regional trains throught Germany on Saturday and Sunday called the Schoenes Wochenend Ticket, which is generally cheaper than a round trip ticket or two tickets. The result is that any group from two to four people is using one of these tickets, and has a free spot. Simply get on any regional train (not IC or ICE) or walk around the platform before the train arrives. Ask groups of people if they're traveling with a SW ticket and if they have a free spot on the ticket. Usually they will let you ride for free, but if they ask for a few euroes, you can always barter (another person doesn't cost them any more) or ask more people. On most regional trains, there's someone who will let you ride for free. Beware of rideshares (mitfahrgelegenheit), which always ask for money. Also, when you reach your ticket-holder's destination, ask if they still need the ticket! If they're transferring or taking the S-Bahn, they will probably use the same ticket. But if not, they will probably give you their ticket and you can use it to continue on your way. Take it even if they wrote their name on it, because you will rarely be asked to ID yourself. Questions about this method of travelling can be directed toward Keith, who has used this method extensively throughout Germany.
Greece is a great destination for train hopping. The coductors are asking in the wagon if somebody is new(from the last destination). If you are not getting on in the start(when everybody should be checked), then is quite easy to avoid paying. Wait some minutes before the train arrives, and choose not the first and last wagon. Get in and pack your belongings fastly. Find a place to sit down(better when the both seats are free,as the system prefers to replenish the seats until the end), and then listen to music or pretend that you are sleeping. Preferably trains are the fast ones IC and ICE. You shouldn't try(if possible) to the night train between Athens and Thessaloniki as the coductors are stricter, probably because many people are trying. If they catch you, they will ask you to pay for your trip. The ticket will be then almost the double price. I have no personal experience what will happen if you tell them a story and try to convince them. I suppose that some of them could be convinced. If you don't want to pay, you should get off to the next stop. Then, you can try to the next one.
Fines don't exist, the conductor checks only a few times during a trip (even on those very small trains), and if he finds you without a ticket, he simply kicks you out, although some are nice enough to let you ride for free. An exception is Eurostar trains, they have police on the train and will ask you to pay, although you can still get away with it. The night train (InterCity Notte) is the best option for making long distances, as after midnight until after about 8 am nobody is checking tickets.
- I'm sorry, the last thing is not completely true. In the night train from Munich to Rome I was controlled 5 (!) times, 3 times on the Italian side.
- Besides, on night trains they DO check regularly. Years ago it was much looser, but not anymore
The local trains (CFL) have two floors; be aware that there is a ticket booth at the end of the first car - don't accidentially run in it, unless you want to buy a ticket. There are ticket inspectors too. If you want to get out of the country, be aware that the inspector will check tickets on the international train as soon as it departs, so, if the next stop is still in Luxembourg, you're screwed. The cops are not liberal.
- It's insanely easy to hop trains in Norway. When I went to Norway I found it rather difficult to hitchhike, so instead I resorted to abusing Norway's "Ubjent" train system to get me around the country. I managed to train hop from Vestfold (south west Norway) to the Swedish border using just free trains! Go to whatever train station, even if it's Oslo central station, size doesn't matter, and look for trains which are going local. For example, Oslo - Ljan (a tiny village not far from Oslo). These trains will usually be red and old looking, and every 2nd carriage will have "Ubjent" written on the outside doors with a small message (in English) saying that you must have a validated ticket before entering as there is not a ticket inspector (!). This essentially means buy a ticket and get it electronically stamped before entering, but of course, no one ever does this. Just hop on to this carriage and keep going with it until the line runs out. From there, you can get another local Ubjent train until that line runs out again! Keep doing this until your destination. Like I said, I managed to travel from Tonsberg to Holden, about 250km, using this method.
There are many different types of trains (Cercanias/Rodalia, regional, regional express and Catalunya express are obviously the worst, as they have the most stops) and you have to be aware of the fact that depending on where you are, trains may not go frequently. The conductor may either check the whole train several times or after initial check rely on his memory to see who has just hopped on the train or he may have a list. He doesn´t get off the train while checking, so you can jump off the train and jump back on on that part that he has already checked. Trains have only one inspector, even if they are composed of two parts between which you can´t walk. They don´t call the police if you refuse to pay or show a proof of identity, you simply have to get off at the next stop. White timetables (those showing trains going between two locations, not just those stopping from a particular station) list only regional trains - well, in case, you´re wondering why there are so few trains listed. Trains seem to have only one toilet, if any. In bigger cities (Barcelona, Castellon, Valencia, Alicante, ...) and in many smaller cities which may be even worse since there is less people and security can easily notice you it seems to be the rule that you need a ticket to get to the platforms. Sometimes you need a ticket to get only to Cercanias/Rodalia trains, sometimes only to express trains, sometimes both. If you are kicked out of the train, security may kick you out of the station too, so sometimes the only option is to hitchhike. When leaving Barcelona, take any Rodalies train to Passeig de Gracia where all trains going from Estacio de Franca south and from Estacio de Sants north and Rodalies trains stop at the same platform - that is, there are two platforms for each direction, you don´t need a ticket to go between them.
The commuter trains (S-Bahn) are great (it even goes out of the country), they have A LOT of stops, which means that you can easily jump off. There is no constant presence of ticket inspectors. Most often they are undercover and get on at random stops. They can be hard to recognize so better sit in the front and keep an eye for groups of 2 to 4 people with big side bags. The S-Bahns also get uniformed ticket inspectors who wear blue jackets and red scarfs. As per the busses, most of the public bus drivers don't pay much attention. It is easy to get onto the bus whilst no one is looking, or through the back door. If you are stopped however, often you can get your way out of paying very easily, because the drivers are payed by the kilometer and not passenger.
InterRegional trains often have inspectors that check several times during the trip -- by memory or, occasionally, by asking out loud who just got on the train. If caught without a ticket, you'll usually be asked to pay a 90 CHF fine (~110$), as well as the cost of the ticket. There is a bit of wiggle room with this fine, so if you see a controller, your best bet is to go towards the end of the train and buy a ticket on your phone (using the SBB Mobile app, all you need is a credit card - works on iPhones and Androids). Even though you bought the ticket after you left the platform, the controller wouldn't mind seeing as many people do so - just pretend that you care when he lectures you, and explain that their system is very slow (it is).
On the Inter City trains (the newer, high speed trains with restaurants), there are always at least 2 inspectors, usually 4 during peak times and on the last train. If only two are present, they start at the end of the train each time, and work up all the way to the front. It is often possible to avoid the inspectors on short trips during the day if you sit right up against the front. At each station, they usually just go back to the back again, so you may never even be controlled. It is best not to run or act suspiciously when in front of the inspectors, as they can add a penalty of up to 200 CHF for disrespecting the conductor. Contrary to popular belief, there are railway police agents, and the come to the train station in extreme situations. It is very hard to avoid these fines, however there is one loophole in the system: whenever you see a controller, go to the front of the train, and there should be a kids compartment. In that kids compartment, there is a slide, and under the slide, there is a fairly large area which is big enough to hide a person, yet very hard to spot when walking past. Nevertheless, if you do get caught in this space, the penalties can be quite severe. Seeing as most trains have 2 floors, you could just walk down the stairs (calmly), however, this can arouse suspicion, and the inspector can decide to cut you off on the other side of the wagon.
For short journeys, the UK is fairly good for fare-dodging. Quite a few young people get away with not paying fares, particularly when the trains are busy (e.g. at rush hour). Many trains have no inspectors, and rely on entry/exit barriers to validate tickets. Often these are unmonitored, so a quick hop can get you in. They are often open after 9pm (ish). It is increasingly popular for train operators to have standard fines for people caught sans-ticket. These vary from £10 to double the full adult fare (which is a lot!).
A good tip is to look out for 'Permit to Travel' machines. These are designed for people who for whatever reason can't but a normal ticket - the idea is that you buy a Permit to Travel with whatever money you have, then pay the difference later. It shows a general willingness to pay for a ticket - this means that you can escape any fine, so long as you have ample money to pay for a full ticket if caught. The minimum you can put into a machine and get a Permit to Travel is 5p, which is a pretty cheap price to avoid a fine. Also, if you board a train without a ticket and show willingness to pay but just by far not enough money when caught, some inspectors will let you ride for free or be satisfied with your pennies.
Permit to travel machines are largely being phased out by train operators. Those remaining are centred around London and the South East. Locations where some machines are still known to be operating are: London, Thameslink, Kent Coast, Great Northern, Great Eastern, South Western, West Anglia, West Yorkshire, Certain routes around Birmingham.
Ticket inspectors are not allowed, legally, to touch you to wake you up. So put your headphones on and fall asleep. They'll loose interest fast. Be aware some inspectors will try to bump you awake with their ticket machines, or ask the passenger next to you if they could wake you. For destinations with barriers get off at stop before and buy a low cost ticket to the next stop.