Trains are a great way to see Europe- no worrying about overweight baggage fees, no hassles trying to find a parking spot- but they aren’t always cheap. A little advanced planning can sometimes help bring down the cost of train tickets.
Each country in Europe has it’s own rail system, but it is possible to buy a Eurail pass that is valid across multiple countries and may save you some money. If you live in Europe this isn’t going to be relevant to you since can’t buy a Eurail pass. However you can buy an Interail pass, but you’ll need to do your own research since I haven’t used those.
However, there are several problems with the Eurail pass. The first problem is that there isn’t one Eurail pass. A quick glance at the website will show you all of the options, but it might not help you decide which one to purchase– or if you want to purchase one at all.
Here are several things to keep in mind when buying your Eurail pass:
* They need to be purchased before you leave for Europe. It’s possible to buy some of the pass options in Europe, but they are hard to find, and much more expensive when purchased in Europe. This is problematic because it means you need to figure out where in Europe you are going to be traveling, and how many days you are going to need a rail pass for.
* Continuous or flexi. There are two types of passes– continuous and flexi. The continuous pass is much cheaper, but once it is activated the clock starts ticking. For instance if you have a fifteen day continuous pass it will run out after fifteen days, regardless of if you travel on all of those days. With a flexi pass you get fifteen days over the course of two months. One big drawback is that folks traveling on the continuous pass often feel under pressure to make the most of their pass and end up not spending as long as they want in any one place. Some people will even sleep night after night the trains just to make sure they are getting the maximum value for money out of their pass!
* Global or regional. The other main choice in purchasing a pass is figuring out what areas the pass will cover. The global pass is good for most of Europe. However even the global pass isn’t valid for all of the countries included in the Eurail system, so be sure to check before you buy one. The regional passes are often cheaper, and have a wide range of options ranging from a country pass, to a five country pass. With the regional passes cover some countries, such as Bulgaria, that are on the Eurail system, but not covered by the global pass. The main drawback with the regional passes is that it limits your ability to change your mind about where you are traveling in Europe.
* Age discount. If you are under 26 you can get a discounted youth Eurail pass.
* What’s included. The Eurail pass doesn’t cover all rail lines. For instance in Switzerland many of the private lines that run through the mountains are not included (although your Eurail pass will get you a discount on many of the private lines). Local subways and buses are often also not included– however many cities in Switzerland include a local transport voucher with hotel/hostel bookings. Figuring out if the line is included can actually get quite confusing, especially if you don’t speak the local language, so be sure to research this all ahead of time. The pass also doesn’t cover everything on the included rail lines. You will still need to make a reservation for “reservation required” train, which will cost you around $15 dollars. Sleeper berths on overnight trains will also cost extra.
* The train network. It’s a good idea to check on how extensive the train network is in the countries you are visiting. There are some places where buses end up making more sense than trains. In Croatia I’ve found that the trains don’t run between a lot of the places I want to go, and I’ve ended up taking buses. It’s pretty easy to get at least an idea of bus schedules ahead of time by Googling “bus from [city a] to [city b].” You can search train routes here.
In my experience the Eurail pass can save you a lot of money (especially with the under 26 discount), although it does mean having to do some research and planning ahead of time.
If you can’t figure out your schedule before you leave, you can try buying several regional passes, or mixing passes and regular tickets. The trains in Western Europe are much more expensive than the trains in Eastern Europe. You can get through a large portion of Eastern Europe for what it costs to take one train in Switzerland. This means that the pass ends up being a much better deal in Western Europe than in Eastern Europe. For instance if you are planning to go to Germany, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Croatia, and Montenegro, you might be better off buying a three country pass for Germany, Switzerland and Italy and then buying local tickets in Croatia and Montenegro. You may even be able to buy a flexi regional pass with the money you save by not buying a global pass.
One last note about the Eurail pass. The Eurail pass also includes a lot of perks like ferry discounts, so be sure to read-up before traveling so you don’t miss out on any of these things.