Traveling to Scandinavia by train: a practical guide

Traveling by train from France, Belgium or Switzerland to Scandinavia is a great experience, but not all that easy to organize because of the multitude of rail companies to use.

In this article, I give you all the keys to organizing your rail journey to Scandinavia.

My train journey Paris – Stockholm – Copenhagen – Paris

I’ve lived in Stockholm in the past and it’s a city I love because of its fantastic natural setting, at the crossroads of a lake and the sea, and the lifestyle of its people. I’ve been going back regularly ever since, with great pleasure.

Up to now, I’ve usually flown there, but this time…, I wanted to try and get there by train, to have the opportunity to visit Hamburg and Copenhagen en route, and also for ecological reasons, as this is the mode of transport that emits the least CO2. So I was curious to try out train travel between the two capitals.

Traveling by train requires a different approach to time. The aim is no longer to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, but as pleasantly as possible. For this reason, I decided to make two different routes between the outward and return trips, with tourist stops of varying lengths.

On the outward journey, I passed through Hamburg and took the night train from Hamburg to Stockholm. I tell the story in my first article, “Paris – Stockholm by train“.

On the way back, I passed through Gothenburg and Copenhagen on day trains. I tell the story in two articles:

The distance between Paris and Stockholm is 2000 km. Naively, I thought it would be an easy trip to organize, as we’re in the part of the world with one of the most developed rail networks.

We’ll see that this is far from being the case and that you need to be well-prepared and flexible during the journey. But if you follow my advice in this article, it’s within everyone’s reach.

All texts in color coral indicate an internal or external link.

Hamburg station

Step 1: Build your route

If you want to travel to Scandinavia by train, you’ll need to get to Hamburg, from where the only rail link to Scandinavia departs.

Going to Scandinavia by train

Connections: the main difficulty of the trip

Traveling to Scandinavia involves at least two connections, and often more. This is the main difficulty of the trip.

Ideally, choose connections of an hour or more. You can always put your luggage in a locker and go for a stroll in town between trains. It’s a way of combining business with pleasure, and you’ll have peace of mind even if your first train is running late, as is often the case, especially in Germany.

If you have planned a short connection, consider a plan B before you leave, in case of long delays. It’s easier to organize at home in front of your computer than in a crowded station with your smartphone and overworked train staff!

Don’t be too ambitious. Traveling by train can be fun, but it can also be stressful. Procedures and information in foreign stations and trains are not always based on the same model as in your country. In Germany, for example, reservations on ICE trains are not as compulsory as on French TGVs. So don’t arrive at the last minute to catch your train, and limit the length of your journey in the same day, even if it means planning a night’s accommodation en route.

Hamburg: a must!

In any case, Hamburg is a must for both going to Stockholm and Copenhagen. Unfortunately, there are no longer any direct trains to Hamburg from Paris. There are two possible routes to get there:

  • Take the Eurostar (formerly Thalys) from Gare du Nord to Cologne, then a DB ICE to Hamburg.
  • Take the TGV or ICE from Gare de l’Est to Mannheim or Frankfurt and continue with the ICE to Hamburg. I recommend this alternative, as DB will be more ready to assist you in the event of delays. The Paris – Mannheim/Frankfurt line is jointly operated by SNCF and DB. DB is not involved in Thalys.

If you’re traveling from Marseille or Lyon, the easiest way is to take the TGV to Frankfurt and then an ICE to Hamburg.

If you’re traveling from Belgium, the best route is to Cologne and then one of the many ICE trains to Hamburg.

If you’re traveling from Switzerland, you’re in luck, as there are direct day and night trains from Zurich and Basel.

Hamburg station

Night train to Stockholm from Hamburg

If you’re going to Stockholm, I highly recommend the Hamburg – Stockholm night train operated by SJ. In this case, it’s perfectly possible to continue on the same day as your Paris – Hamburg journey.

There’s even an alternative in the form of Snälltåget, a subsidiary of the French Transdev group. However, the service is limited to seats or berths and does not operate every day or all year round.

In the return direction, as both night trains arrive very early in Hamburg, it is perfectly possible to reach France during the day.

Getting to Copenhagen, Aarhus or Malmö by train

Traveling to Copenhagen, Aarhus, or Malmö from France on the same day is possible, but not recommended:

  • The journey time becomes really long : between 12 and 15 hours.
  • Connections are often short and the risk of missing them is high. In this case, you have to look for accommodation at the last minute and find a new route in a hurry.

The example of a Paris Copenhagen, as proposed by DB, below, is illustrative. With frequent delays of over 10/20 minutes, at least one of the three connections is likely to be missed, barring a stroke of luck.

DB proposal from Copenhagen to Paris

If you want to make the trip during the day, leave as early as possible with a train that leaves your departure town around 5 am.!

An overnight stay in Hamburg is therefore the most comfortable solution on both the outward and return journeys. As it’s a very interesting city to visit, you won’t regret it!

Getting to Gothenburg by train

Gothenburg cannot be reached from France on the same day. An overnight stay in Hamburg is unavoidable.

Train Oredunstag

Getting to Oslo by train or ferry

First, you’ll need to get to Gothenburg. From here, you’ll take a Norwegian Railways train.

The Hamburg – Copenhagen – Gothenburg – Oslo day trip is possible, but a little long.

An interesting alternative is to take the DFDS ferry. From Hamburg, you can take the train to Copenhagen or Frederikshavn, then take the ferry, which sails at night.

The arrival in the Oslo fjord is well worth a look.

Where to find timetables?

Although the various railway company websites include timetables from other European countries, I advise you to consult the websites of the national operators directly concerned, as they will be more reliable:

  • SNCF or DB for France/Germany connections
  • DB for intra-Germany connections
  • DSB for Germany/Denmark connections
  • SJ for connections from Germany or Denmark to Sweden
  • Snalltaget for the Hamburg – Malmö – Stockholm route operated by the private company
  • VY for the Göteborg – Oslo route
  • DFDS for the ferry Copenhagen – Frederikshavn – Oslo

    Step 2: Buy tickets and reserve seats

    This isn’t the easiest part, as each rail company has its own rules.

    Buying tickets on railway websites?

    In theory, it’s possible to buy a single, end-to-end ticket to Scandinavia on the SNCF, the French railways, website, but there are often bugs, you won’t be able to choose your seat on foreign networks (which is annoying on a night train, where SNCF doesn’t allow you to choose between a seat, couchette or bed), the suggested connections are too short and the prices too high, or the booking constraints too rigid (non-cancellable or non-changeable, which can be very annoying on such a complex route).

    SNCF Paris Stockholm

    Other railway companies don’t offer anything better on their respective websites.

    All you have to do is buy at least two or three tickets on each national rail company’s website.

    Take a close look at the ticket’s rules of use, as the cheapest fares are often non-cancellable and non-refundable. If you miss your connection when you’ve bought tickets with two different train companies, you may have to buy another ticket.

    Not easy? What’s more, all the simulations I ran when planning my trip showed me that it was very expensive.

    Fortunately, there’s an alternative called the Interrail Pass.

    What is the Interrail Pass??

    The Interrail pass is a train ticket specially designed for travelers in Europe who want to explore several countries using the rail network. It offers holders flexible and unlimited travel on participating trains in the countries included in the program.

    It is managed by Eurail BV on behalf of 33 European countries, including all the countries you will have to cross to get to Scandinavia. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just for young backpackers, but accessible to everyone.

    However the operation of the pass is relatively complex, and it takes time to fully grasp all its subtleties. The Interrail website is very comprehensive, but a bit cluttered.

    To Scandinavia, you’ll need to buy a Global Pass. It can cover a certain number of days of continuous or flexible travel over a set period, for example, 5 days of travel over a month. During each day of travel, you can take the train without a reservation, except for trains where reservations are compulsory. This is the case with the Eurostar, for example.


    How to buy the right Interrail pass?

    The best way to buy an Interrail pass is to visit the official Interrail website.

    Start by defining your itinerary, then count the number of days of train travel. For my trip from Paris to Stockholm via Hamburg and Stockholm to Paris via Copenhagen, I needed five.

    Then buy the global pass that suits your number of travel days. A little subtlety: an overnight trip only counts for one day, which is the day of departure.

    Choose the First or Second Class pass and purchase the pass that corresponds to your age group (youth, adult, child, or senior). They’re all the same, and only the price changes to make them more interesting for young and old!

    Opt for the mobile pass, not the paper one. It will be on your smartphone, in the form of an app. Very flexible, you can buy it up to eleven months in advance and only activate it on the actual day of your departure. What’s more, you can’t lose it!

    Your pass entitles you to travel in and out of your country of residence on the first and last day only.

    Reserve your seats

    Reservations are compulsory on some trains and recommended on others, as trains are often full.

    This is the Kafkaesque part of travel planning, as each rail company has its own rules and its own website. After a lot of research to organize my trip, I’ve put together a precise summary of where to make your reservations, which should make yours easier.

    • Eurostar (formerly Thalys): booking is compulsory, expensive (41 EUR in First class and 32 EUR in Second class), and must be made on the website. The booking can be exchanged, but cannot be canceled.
    • TGV or ICE on France-Germany routes: booking is compulsory on the Interrail website (19 EUR) and can be canceled.
    • ICE on domestic routes within Germany: booking is not compulsory, but strongly recommended, as trains are often very full. You can do this on the DB site by selecting “seating only”. The price is low (EUR 5.90), but non-cancellable and non-changeable.
    • Trains between Hamburg and Denmark. Compulsory booking (4 EUR) on the DSB website
    • Trains from Stockholm to Copenhagen and domestic connections within Sweden: Reservations are compulsory (EUR 13 for First class and EUR 7 for Second class) on high-speed trains and are refundable. You can do this on the SJ website by selecting “interrail or Eurail pass” in the “add SJ Prio/period ticket” section.

    For the Hamburg – Stockholm – Hamburg night train, reservations must be made on the SJ website by selecting “interrail or Eurail pass” in the “add SJ Prio/period ticket” section. Depending on availability, you can choose between :

    • one berth (EUR 34 per passenger) in a six-person compartment,
    • one bed (EUR 73 per passenger) in a double compartment,
    • a private cabin with bed, shower, and WC (130 EUR per cabin) that can accommodate from one to three passengers. Given the price difference, if there are two or three of you, I recommend the private cabin.

    SJ bunks

    A word of advice: make your reservations as early as possible, as trains are often very full and interrail passes are sometimes subject to quotas.

    Finally, you can take regional trains, such as Copenhagen – Helsingor, with your pass, and they don’t require a reservation.

    If you take the ferry to Oslo, you’ll need to buy a ticket from the shipping company, as the trip is not included in the interrail pass.

    Travel tips

    Going to Scandinavia by train is first and foremost a travel experience. It’s not the cheapest or simplest solution. Air travel remains unbeatable in terms of speed and price.

    To really enjoy your trip, you need to reconsider your approach to it. The aim is to maximize the pleasure of traveling from home, and not just to a tourist destination.

    During your journey, check at the latest the day before that your train timetable has not changed, especially if you have booked long in advance. Railway companies won’t necessarily warn you!

    Important: activate the day of use of your pass on your smartphone only on the day of departure concerned. This way, if you wish to change your itinerary by traveling on another day during the pass period, you can still do so.

    Don’t forget your identity card or passport, because even if the trip takes place entirely within the Schengen area, rare immigration controls are still possible.

    Last but not least, stay cool, because there are bound to be unforeseen events during your trip, but that’s part of its charm!


    Join the Facebook group “Interrail & Eurail travelers

    Inevitably, you’ll have questions when preparing for your train journey, or during the journey itself. I joined the Interrail Travelers Facebook group, which is a community of travelers using the interrail pass. It’s very reactive and offers sound advice to make your trip easier. Communication is in English.

    Avoid trying too hard

    Avoid biting off more than you can chew when planning your itinerary!

    Some interrail passes offer a large number of travel days. The temptation is strong to want to visit many destinations, and therefore to spend more time traveling by train than staying on site.

    The example of the traveler who completed this route in two months and then bragged about it on social networks left me a little perplexed!

    Example of an Interrail journey not to be made

    Even if train travel is a pleasure, in my opinion, it’s not the end of the story!

    A concrete example: my Paris – Stockholm – Paris trip in June 2023

    I recount my trip, with my impressions, in three articles.

    My trip from Paris to Stockholm with a three-night stopover in Hamburg

    First day of the pass :

    • Paris gare du Nord 7:55 am – Cologne Hauptbahnhof 11:15 am (Thalys) – 20′ delay
    • Cologne Hauptbahnhof 2:09 pm – Hamburg Hauptbahnhof 5:53 pm (DB) – 20′ delay

    Second day of the pass :

    • Hamburg Hauptbahnhof 9 p.m. – Stockholm Centraal 1:11 p.m. (SJ) – on time, but revised timetable

    The article is here.

    If I had decided to continue my trip without sleeping in Hamburg, I would only have needed to use one day of my pass. This was made possible by the comfortable three-hour connection between the two trains in Hamburg.

    My trip Stockholm – Copenhagen via Gothenburg

    Third day of the pass :

    • Stockholm Centraal 8:34 am – Göteborg 11:40 am (SJ) – 15′ late
    • Göteborg 1:24 pm – Helsingborg 3:18 pm (SJ) – on time
    • Helsingborg 3:40 pm – Helsingor 4:00 pm (Orsea Ferry) – on time
    • Helsingor 6:03 pm – Copenhagen 6:49 pm (Öresundståg / DSB) – on time

    The article is here.

    My trip from Copenhagen to Paris with an overnight stay in Frankfurt

    Fourth day of the pass :

    • Copenhagen 6:30 am. Fredericia 8:38 am. – 8:46 am. Hamburg 12:05 pm. (DSB) – 25′ late
    • Hamburg Hauptbahnhof 2:24 pm – Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof 6:44 pm (DB) – 30′ late

    Fifth day of the pass :

    • Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof 12:56 pm Paris Gare de l’est 4:54 pm (SNCF) – 20′ late

    The article is here.

    I didn’t have any major delays, but if I’d followed the SNCF or DB routes I’d have missed all my connections!

    The cost of my trip

    Here’s what my trip in June 2023 really cost me:

    • A five-day adult Interrail pass valid for one month in First Class: 376 EUR (296 EUR in Second Class)
    • Eurostar (formerly Thalys) booking: EUR 41 (EUR 32 in second class)
    • Booking SJ night train in private cabin with WC and shower: 130 EUR (34 EUR in shared berth)
    • DB reservations (Hamburg – Cologne and Hamburg – Frankfurt): EUR 11.80
    • SJ booking (Stockholm – Göteborg and Göteborg – Helsingborg): 26 EUR
    • Orsea ferry (Helsingborg – Helsingor): EUR 7
    • DSB booking (Copenhagen – Fredericia – Hamburg): 8 EUR
    • SNCF booking (Frankfurt – Paris): 19 EUR

    A total of 619 EUR excluding accommodation costs. Traveling in second class and in a shared berth on the Hamburg – Stockholm night train, would have cost me only 434 EUR.

    It’s much more expensive than flying, but I made a lot of discoveries along the way that make comparing the cost of air and rail not very meaningful.

    It’s up to you to try!

    You now have all you need to travel to Scandinavia by train. Do it, because you won’t regret it.

    For more practical information, check out the website of Mark, a British train enthusiast whose site is a veritable Wikipedia of rail transport:

    Finally, Frédéric de Kemmeter, a Belgian rail transport specialist, recounts his journey from Brussels to Stockholm in 2022. A complementary vision of my trip from Paris to Stockholm (in French):



    Hav en god tur! Ha en trevlig resa! Bon voyage!

    TGV window view



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