Cheap train tickets aren't always first on the budget travel wish list. In many places, train travel is an afterthought. The rise of budget airlines within Europe led many away from train-heavy itineraries. In the U.S., the financial ills of Amtrak caused many to pronounce it dead. This fact remains -- rail networks are often superb for budget travel, and ground connections are easily made. You must weigh whether passes or simple point-to-point tickets are cheaper for your itinerary. Here are 10 chances for cheap train tickets. Get some rail passes or tickets and climb aboard!
Budget train travel in 10 steps
Finding cheap train tickets can be complicated by crossing national borders. Some people are tempted to buy a multiple country rail pass, and yet they don't necessarily need a pass that's good in every nation. Most of us stay within just a few contiguous countries. Multiple country rail pass rules often defy what you learned in geography class. For example, Ireland "borders" France because they're connected by ship line; for logistical reasons, Norway and Finland do not count as bordering countries, while Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg together count as one country. Confused? It's not as bad as it sounds at first, and the costs can be attractive, depending upon the number of days and countries chosen.
Many people associate youth passes and Europe with students, and you will see many students take advantage of this offer. But you do not have to be a student, and "youth" as defined as no older than age 26. Choose three, four or five contiguous countries. Prices increase as you add nations. Another price factor is the number of days it is valid. The days do not have to be consecutive. The pass is good for two months after activation. The passes are good for second-class travel. On many European trains, the only added benefit in first-class is fewer fellow passengers. Prices are based on five days of travel within three contiguous countries in two months. You can also buy 15 days within two months and visits to five contiguous countries.
Rail Europe Senior Passes
This is not a single pass, but a collection of eight that are available only to travelers age 60 and older. The passes include travel in the Balkans, Great Britain, France, Ireland, and Romania. For example, the France Senior Pass gives you three rail days within 30; but note that you may purchase up to six more days. So you could take unlimited train trips on nine days within a month at a discounted price.
This handy tool will ask you for information about your itinerary. It will help you select the least expensive options for passes. For example, if you'll only spend five of your 21 days in Europe changing cities, you probably don't need a 21-day rail pass. One that affords five days within a 30-day period is cheaper and still enables your travel plan.
Thalys High-Speed Trains
There are direct Thalys high-speed links to 17 cities including Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne in more than 50 daily round trips. Hit just the right schedule, and you can cover the distance between Paris to Brussels in less than 90 minutes. At first, this might seem like an extravagance, but you will save precious vacation time on faster trains. Just be sure the cost is in balance with the time saved. It pays to book early. There are advance purchase discounts, and seats on these fast trains tend to get booked quickly.
This is perhaps one of the best travel values in Asia. You get one week of unlimited coach passage on all Japanese trains. Japan is connected by more than 12,000 miles of track, so it's literally possible to go just about anywhere in the country by train. Note that the pass is available only to travelers entering Japan on a non-Japanese passport with "temporary visitor" entry status. There are a few restrictions (read the fine print) but generally, you will do much better with this pass than trying to buy a week's worth of single point-to-point tickets. Check it out for your itinerary, and notice that 14- and 21-day passes are also offered.
A CanRail Pass is promoted for people who want to go a long way on a limited budget. It will cost you more in the summer months, when tourism in Canada reaches its peak. Summer season is June 1-Oct. 15 and Off-Peak Season is any other time of year. You get 12 days of unlimited travel in Comfort (economy) class and may make as many stopovers as you wish. It's valid anywhere VIA goes, from coast-to-coast and up to Hudson Bay. Drawbacks: taxes are not included, and you still have to obtain tickets before boarding. Up to three days may be added to the pass at a per-day cost. Discounts available for children, students and seniors.
Amtrak California Pass
Here is a pass that allows you to travel on any seven days during a 21-day period at prices for adults and children. The only catch: this pass is not valid on any long-distance trains. It is only for intra-California trips. Eligible trains include Capitols, San Joaquin, and Pacific Surfliner corridor trains, most connecting Thruway services and Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Dunsmuir. You cannot purchase the pass online. Call Amtrak or use a travel agent.
Amtrak USA Rail Passes
Passes are available in 15 days/8 segments, 30 days/12 segments and 45 days/18 segments throughout the entire U.S. Children ages 2-15 get the passes for half the adult price. Travel must begin within 180 days of the date the pass purchased. A word about segments: because the U.S. rail system isn't as inter-connected as in Europe, it might take a circuitous two or three "segments" as defined by Amtrak to go from one city to another. The example they use is Washington, D.C. to Oklahoma City, which would require three segments: Washington and Chicago, Chicago and Fort Worth and Fort Worth to Oklahoma City. Obviously, you need to plan carefully and weigh the costs against buying conventional tickets.
No less than 12 rail lines in Australia accept this pass for travel over 15 or 22 days in a six month period from the first day of travel. They're great for long-term exploring, because only the days you travel are deducted from the pass. With this pass, you can spend days on each coast exploring cities like Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Alice Springs and Darwin. Passes run for any 15 daysor any 22 days. Two drawbacks: children pay the same price as adults, and you cannot purchase the pass online. These passes are available only to overseas visitors holding valid passports and a return airline ticket.