As a travel consultant, one question I get ALL the time is how to pick the right rail pass! Having done multiple stints backpacking through Europe, I've learned plenty of tricks to make the most of my time and tight budget. But figuring out the most economical option takes patient planning and strategy.
If you're not already familiar with it, a Eurail Pass lets you travel on trains around most of Europe and offers a flexible and (often more) budget-friendly way to get around. For EU residents, its called the InterRail Pass; hence something you may have heard from young European travelers, "I'm inter-railing this summer."
Check out our infographic with some quick facts
about the various rail pass options:
Determine whether the price is worth it for you:
- Are you traveling mostly within one country or across the continent?
- Are you going really long distances that might require an overnight?
- How much would you be using the pass?If you're already sure you're flying between major cities, the pass may not make financial sense.
The Global Pass (the most versatile and inclusive) starts at $388 for five travel days within a month-- this means you can choose any five days to use it within that month, they do not have to be consecutive (although some options use the days one after the other). Other pass options cover just one country or bordering countries and may come at a better rate depending on your plans.
If you're under 28, you're in luck! They offer discounted rates for "youth" (which they just raised from age 27). They also offer discounts for group travel or travel with another person - its worth a browse to see what you qualify for here.
A couple of other considerations to factor into cost:
- If you know you are taking a long trip, sleeper trains offer a great alternative to a hostel for a night. They run only about $35 extra (with the pass, reservation required) for a bed in a 6-person compartment and the best part is waking up already at your final destination!
- If you're on a very tight budget, you'll often get the most value by taking busses instead. Europe's bus network is fairly efficient and tickets start as low as 10 euro depending on where and when you travel. It's worth noting that these may take longer and you'll lose the charm of train travel.
- Check that all the countries you plan to visit are covered by Eurail. Some countries, Poland for example, are not contracted with the pass.
Think about whether you'll need reservations. Consider the season and the type of traveler you are.
If you tend to be more of a planner, buying the reservation for each train, in addition to the pass, may save stress down the line because you know you have a seat at the exact time you want. If it's high season (summer time or major holidays) it's almost always good to have a reservation. These only run about $11 per train but will save you from standing in the compartment hallway or roaming the train cars for a seat. It's pretty rough roaming up and down trains with heavy bags.
Having done that many time, I know its best to board a busy train and know you have a place to rest.
You may want reservations but keep in mind the added cost when determining if you should get a pass. If you simply buy point to point tickets, they might already include the reservation.
Okay, now that you know what you do...
Let's apply these strategies to three example travelers. We'll decide whether it's worth the cost of the pass* and, if so, which one is most economical:
This traveler plans to hit top European highlights like London, Paris, and Amsterdam. They've already bought a cheap flight from London to Amsterdam (these run as low as $30 on budget airlines like Easy Jet or Ryanair). Now, they're deciding how to get from Amsterdam to Paris before flying directly back to the US.
WITHOUT PASS: A regular train ticket from Amsterdam to Paris would run about $128 in economy class with a journey time of 3.5 hours. A bus, in comparison, would only cost about $25 (but takes 7.5 hours or more)!
WITH PASS: Eurail "Select Pass" for Benelux-France. Benelux covers Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg. The pass starts at $265 for 4 travel days within two months. Since Traveler A only needs the one day's journey from Amsterdam-Paris, the pass really wouldn't be worthwhile. The only way the cost MAY make sense is if they have extra days in each city to take day trips to other places. This way, those trips would be fully covered by the pass.
VERDICT: For Traveler A, the cost of the pass just simply isn't worth it! It may seem a bit tedious to do out the math, but this traveler just saved up to $240!
This traveler is spending a month backpacking around Italy. They generally know which major cities they want to visit but they also want the freedom and flexibility to make decisions on-the-go. They just know they want to see as much of the country as possible.
WITHOUT PASS: Sample itinerary to hit some of the top highlights
Rome --> Florence ($52)
Florence--> La Spezia (Cinque Terre) ($18)
La Spezia--> Siena ($21)
Siena--> Venice ($65)
Venice--> Rome ($74)
Rome--> Naples ($37)
Naples--> Rome ($52)
Est. Total = $319 for 7 days
*buses will run cheaper
WITH PASS: Italy One-Country Pass (days of travel not consecutive)
3 days of travel for $166
4 days for $199
5 days for $228
8 days for $307
VERDICT: Since traveler B wants flexibility with their travels, they'd be best served to choose the 8 day One-Country Pass. It's not a huge price difference from single tickets but gives the freedom they want to make changes along the way. One month backpacking is quite some time and there may be spontaneous side trips thrown in the mix. Now, they can hop on an off as many trains as they'd like for those 8 days.
Traveler C plans to backpack as much of Europe as they can in one month. They have no set plan but know they want to spend two or three days in each place. It's low season so they don't plan to purchase any seat reservations.
WITHOUT PASS: Sample journeys and est. price for ticket bought day of travel. Costs increase when bought day of travel rather than in advance.
Copenhagen--> Berlin ($100)
Berlin--> Prague ($50)
Prague--> Vienna ($80)
Vienna--> Budapest ($40)
Budapest--> Munich ($150)
Munich--> Copenhagen ($90)
Total = $510 for 6 days travel
WITH PASS: Global Pass (includes 28 countries)
15 days continuous for $495
VERDICT: Traveler C is best off with the 15 days continuous Global Pass. This gives them plenty of travel days to take side trips and flexibility to decide as they go. Of course the destinations they choose may vary, and therefore prices could differ, so they should take the time to estimate how much their point to point tickets will cost.
If Traveler C opts to take mostly buses, however, they should go with no pass at all! Buses are very cheap but journey times may double or triple.
*all prices referenced from raileurope.com and goeuro.com. Based on youth rates, in economy class. Dates will alter cost.
So, there you have it! Things to consider when choosing a rail pass and three examples to help you decide what works best for you. The rail pass may not be right for every person or every itinerary. But what it offers in freedom and flexibility (and sometimes money savings) may just be worth the investment.
* * * * * * *
Did you find this article helpful? Contact us here for a personal consultation to customize your European itinerary. We'll handle the planning and answer any questions.