When planning a trip to Europe, you may hear about rail passes from companies like Eurail that offer multiple regional segments or full unlimited use passes on many rail networks throughout most of the countries in Europe. I know from experience that many travelers are hesitant on purchasing a rail pass for a number of reasons, with rigidity and limitations being a few of the biggest. But for all those who can get past these minor details, a lot of effort is required in identifying the best pass and even if a rail pass is worth the money at all! To help, we've put together this post as a result of our years of research on Europe's ultimate travel question: to Eurail or not to Eurail? (Photo "Railway Tracks" by fcl1971)
Pass Types, Prices, and What It Means For You
Several different types of Eurail passes exist, and in many cases choosing the right one for you could make the difference between an amazing trip that saves tons of cash and a ticket that ends up costing more than the individual tickets put together. How do you know which one is right for you? Research, of course!
Before we begin this guide, we need make a quick warning. To summarize the passes that are available on the Eurail network in one word, it would be this: tons.
There are tons of passes available. Country Specific Passes, Regional Passes, Maximum Country Passes, Global Passes. Passes discounted for young adults, passes discounted for children, passes discounted for adults with 2 or more per group if traveling together on all routes. It goes even further, many of these passes can be purchased both on validity period (that is, the number of months the pass is good for), as well as the number of times you can use it for a trip (defined as a period of 24 hours of train travel).
With so many options, you may even consider just looking into flights for each route instead as cheap flights to Nice and other destinations on your route may look more cost effective when put side by side. But I'll let you in on a little secret - this is exactly what you need to do when looking at transit costs in Europe! It is time to research!
The prices listed below are an example of just a few of the pass types that are available, and are the Global and Select passes for travel after March 2013 in a 1st class saver for a group of 2 adults over the age of 26. If you are an adult looking for a rail pass but traveling solo, unfortunately you will be paying almost 18% more for the same ticket! The trade off for the groups (up to 5 per group) is that you must all be present on each transit day to have the discount as only one group pass is issued. (Note: all prices featured in this post are per person)
3 country (5/6/8/10 days in 2 months) - $396/$438/$518/$600
4 country (5/6/8/10 days in 2 months) - $443/$485/$564/$644
5 country (5/6/8/10/15 days in 2 months) - $489/$529/$611/$688/$872
10 days in 2 months - $738
15 days in 2 months - $968
15 continuous days - $625
21 continuous days - $808
1/2/3 continuous months - $994/$1402/$1729
If these aren't enough to confuse anyone, you're not alone. These are just a few of the many passes available, and begs the question: How do you pick the right one?!
A Case Study
The answer to the question above is simply this - research thoroughly.
Lets look at a case study on an itinerary a reader sent to us with a question about this very topic (and what inspired this post). The reader wanted to visit France, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy in a period of about two months. In those countries they wanted to visit four cities in France, four in Switzerland, one or two in Austria, and four or five in Italy. (Photo "Train Station" by sher371)
These countries are all touching, so a limited country regional pass is likely the best fit compared to a global pass that covers the entire Euro zone. This itinerary covers four countries and 13 to 15 cities with a few long-haul trips in France and Italy respectively. In addition to the countries, the reader is of adult age and traveling with their spouse, so they qualify for a group discount of 15% per pass and the prices we listed above.
What are the options?
2 month Global Pass - $1,402 with service every day
4 country Select Pass (10 days) - $644
5 country Select Pass (15 days) - $872
A swing of $800 per person could be a big chunk of your travel money, so making the right choice upfront is quite the important one. While a Global Pass would cover all the day trips our reader may want to take, it is unlikely that the total cost of all transit for those would swing up $600+. So lets cross that option off outright due to being on the expensive end.
In this case, the best pass that suits this itinerary would either be the 5 country, 15 stop region pass or the 4 country, 10 stop region pass in a period of two months. With 13 to 15 transit days, our reader may be not using a few stops in the 15 day pass, but would then have the benefit of using these remaining days for expensive day trips at last minute. If our reader chooses the 10 transit day pass, they will then be responsible for buying the extra rides as they go, contributing added cost on top of the price of the pass.
But to truly understand the cost savings possible, it is best to look at prices individually. There are two cases to consider when doing this as we said, which includes looking at the full fare ticket for last minute purchases as well as the early bird discounts available when tickets first go on sale. You may not always get an early bird discount, especially if traveling last minute, but it is always worth a peak to see if you'll be getting your moneys worth.
Here is what we found when looking at prices on Rail Europe. We could not find a very good approximation on what a "discounted" rate would be, but found a range of full fare prices for the economy seat as well as the premium seat. For the sake of analysis, lets call these prices the max for both classes when available:
1 - Paris to Bordeaux $85 $190
2 - Bordeaux to Avignon $102 --
3 - Avignon to Nice $70 $140
4 - Nice to Geneva $120 $221
5 - Geneva to Zermatt $99 $170
6 - Zermatt to Lauterbrunnen (Lucerne) $163 $275
7 - Lauterbrunnen to Zurich $28 $48
8 - Zurich to Austrian Alps $96 $154
9 - Austrian Alps to Venice $66 $120
10 - Venice to Cinque Terre $85 $115
11 - Cinque Terre to Florence $9 $12
12 - Florence to Rome $60 $88
13 - Rome to Naples $32 --
14 - Naples to Rome $32 --
Total $1,047 / $1,699
Average $75 / $121
For a five country, 15 day pass, our reader would have to spend $872 to buy the pass (per person) and could save anywhere from $175 to $827 if purchasing a rail pass minus any reservation fees. For a four country, 10 day pass, our reader would have to spend $644 but spend an additional $101-$124 for the extra four cheapest rides, or $768 total.
Which is better of the two? Well, it is still hard to say.
The extra use on the 15 day pass can be used for an expensive day trip, and may even cover the cost of the difference from the 10 day pass, but it is hard to say without knowing more about our reader's plans on the ground. This could make the biggest difference of the whole experience. Likewise, a few good early booking deals may eat up the difference of the pass if all of the economy prices are available. In this itinerary in particular, the multiple short distance segments offset the cost of the long-distance segments, but balance pretty favorably for a pass in most cases. (Photo "Station 1" by jnichols)
How About Airfare Alternatives?
As you can see, a few of the individual prices above are quite expensive in terms of individual one way prices. A few in particular include the Paris to Bordeaux and Nice to Geneva routes which are rather high for what you get. The France route is higher in price due to being on the high speed network, while the rather short Nice to Geneva route requires several transfers and is quite costly and time consuming for all that is involved. So if our reader was wanting to consider booking tickets individually, it may be best to consider what other options are available to get around?
Airfare in Europe can be quite cheap, and when considering transit times will be far shorter than a 4-6 hour train ride for a very minimal distance. That Paris to Bordeaux trip may not have any discounted flight, but cheap flights to Geneva on Swiss Air could be cut to as little as $60! A cost savings of anywhere from $30 to $110 per ticket when bought individually. Many booking companies even have smart phone apps to help fine great last minute deals that are otherwise unpublished and hard to find too, bringing the booking cost down even further!
These budget flights may exist for 2-3 more of the rather pricey transits on our reader's itinerary, and could add up fast if they decide to avoid using a rail pass altogether. On the other hand, if our reader finds a few more routes with cheap airfare, they could also easily drop into the 10 transit Eurail pass and save a fair bit of time on travel days, or balance a lower use pass (6/8 days) while paying as they go with cheaper rail routes (Rome to Naples, for example) and even save a bit of money too!
So, To Eurail or Not To Eurail?
Based on the case study above, we would recommend to our reader to definitely check out a rail pass but also consider budget flights when feasible. But while a rail pass looks great for our reader's itinerary, this may not be true for everybody. For all decisions between Eurail and non-Eurail travel, you must look at your own specific scenario, travel dates, and most importantly what level of flexibility you would be interested in having. Those with multiple long-haul train rides will certainly benefit from a pass, as these rail prices can have quite the sticker shock. But on the other hand, when considering long-haul travel, a cheap budget flight may exist and cut the cost by a factor of four or five. The only way to figure out what works best is to do the research. In this one instance, your time will most certainly be rewarded.
Help us out! Have you used a rail pass before? Do you think our assessment touches all the topics our reader needs to know in planning their trip? Let us know your recommendations by commenting below!