Which European Rail Pass Is Right for Your Vacation?

Should you buy a pass or stick to point-to-point tickets?

Liverpool Street Station Concourse, London, UK
••• Maciej Noskowski/Stone/Getty Images

Rail passes can be a bargain. Back in the 70s they were always a good deal. Today you have to plan your trip well to make use of the many types of European Rail passes available.

Here's the problem. Think of the Rail Pass (any of the Eurail offerings) as a big, all-you-can-eat buffet. You can have anything you want, all spread out in front of you. You don't have to know its name in English, you just dig in.

Now, if you're hungry and want to get the most for your money, you'll take big, heaping helpings of all the expensive foods that have high value. You'll pass on the salad greens and dig into heaping helpings of Coq au Vin and Pappardelle with Wild Mushrooms.

In rail pass terms, if you spend your time taking long train rides in expensive places like Scandinavia, you'll save a heap of money over buying point to point tickets.

On the other hand, if you take short jaunts, one a day, between places that are relatively close, you'll pay dearly. Your pass will have actually cost you  more money than buying individual tickets.

It's like you'd bellied up to the buffet for a couple of lettuce leaves and a piece of white bread. You didn't get your money's worth. The owner smiles and pats his wallet. That's how he makes his money.

Rail Pass Benefits

While rail passes aren't as comprehensive as they once were, you'll still derive benefits from having one.

Yes, you'll still have to head to the ticket counter to pay supplements for the high-speed trains you might want to take, or for seat reservations, but getting on a regular train without going through the hassle of standing in line to buy tickets is a plus. And many passes are useful for other means of transportation as well as trains, so check carefully when you order.

Rail travel is a blast. You'll meet people. You'll get to watch the rugged mountain scenery pass without worrying that you might crash into it.

How to Purchase the Best Rail Pass for Your Trip

One thing you can say for sure, most rail passes issued today are best suited for folks who plan their vacations very carefully - unless you have enough time and cash to purchase the original Eurail pass, which is still being sold and is the first stop on our rail pass tour.

Remember that you can't buy rail passes in Europe; you must purchase them within 6 months of your vacation and get them validated on your first day of travel.

The Eurail Globalpass offers consecutive-day 1st class travel in Europe (Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, GermanyGreece, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland) for 15 days, 21 days, 1 month, 2 months or 3 months, depending upon the duration you choose. Prices per day decrease with increasing pass duration. You'll still have to pay supplements on high-speed trains, and you'll have to pay for seat reservations if you want them, although first class tends to have more unreserved seats then second in most markets.

The Eurail Select Pass offers unlimited train travel of 3, 4 or 5 bordering countries connected by train or ship. There is a choice of 5, 6, 8, 10 or 15 days within 2 months, consecutively or not.

Eurail Global Pass (purchase direct or get more information)

(Note that Britain is not included in Eurail passes. See British Rail Information for rail pass information and prices.)

Eurail Select Pass (Buy Direct or Get Information)

Traveling in Two Adjacent Countries: Multiple Country Rail Passes

Here is the rail pass for you if you've narrowed things down to a couple of big countries. Lots of country combos to choose from.

Multiple Country Passes (purchase direct or get more information)

Sticking to a single country - Single Country Rail Passes

A variety of passes for a single country are available for travelers who have really narrowed down their vacation destination.

Prices will vary because the rail system in each Country has a different fare structure. Plan longer trips to get the best value from your rail pass.

Single Country Passes (purchase direct or get more information)

A Note on Taking the Train in Belgium

There is no need to get an expensive Eurail pass in Belgium. The national rail network in Belgium has its own cheap pass that allows any number of travelers to share one 10-journey ticket, making each journey cost under 8€. Read more about this on our page on travel from Brussels to Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp.

Discounts for Youths and Seniors

Eurail also offers Youth Passes, with discounts on second class rail travel for travelers between the ages of 16 and 25.

If you're over 60, discounted rates are available for some passes and specific trains. Be sure to check the appropriate box when you check out.

Bottom Line: Is a Rail Pass worth it?

Skeptical that you'll be able to save on your transportation with a rail pass over point to point tickets? Here's a comparison of prices. Let's use a pass we haven't discussed, the Eurail Scandinavian Pass, a Scandinavian rail pass covering four Scandinavian countries. The cheapest Scanrail pass will cost you $291.00 for 5 days of first class travel in two months.

The second class fare I found for an Oslo to Bergen trip will run you between $119 and $140, depending on time and date. The fare between Malmo and Stockholm is listed at $141. These prices may vary with seasons, exchange rate and special offers. Still, you can almost make up the price of your pass in two of your five days, giving you almost three days of free travel. Not a bad return. And youth passes and senior passes are available, allowing that group to save even more.

Eurail Scandinavian Pass (purchase direct or get more information)

How to plan your trip to make the best use of your Eurail pass

Yes, it's true, rail passes aren't a loss leader. Still, you can beat the system and get great value out of the right rail pass. It's up to you, and your willingness to plan.

To get started, list the cities you want to visit. Let's say you want to land in Paris, and want to visit Dijon and Beaune in Burgundy, then head over Turin before visiting Milan and Lake Come, then returning to Paris for your flight home.

Your itinerary looks like this:

Paris
Dijon
Beaune
Turin
Milan
Lake Como
Paris

Now that's six legs of a two-country trip. A France-Italy pass costs each traveler $351 for first class, $305 for second. Additional days are $40 and $35 respectively.

So a second class pass for the six legs costs you $375. But wait, you're losing money!

That's right, because the fares on the short bits will not cost you that $35 supplement unless the dollar drops even more than it has lately. For example, Rail Europe will sell you a 2nd class ticket from Milan to Como for $11, and a first class flexible ticket for $13. The price of this ticket purchased at the station in Milan would likely cost even less for the 40-minute journey.​

So, erase the Dijon to Beaune and Milan to Como legs from your pass days and just buy the four-day France-Italy pass. Buy the other tickets at the station. There is added benefit in that you can decide at the last minute not to go to those places and it won't cost you.

Additional value from your rail pass

Not all value is monetary. If you don't speak the languages of the countries you're visiting and feel uncomfortable trying to make yourself understood, a rail pass can free you from many of the transactions that you'd have to go through if you decide to buy point-to-point rail tickets. So you don't need to feel guilty if you lose a few dollars on your pass in exchange for relieving yourself of communications responsibility.

The other advantage to a rail pass is that you won't need to carry as much money with you to pay for the various point to point tickets you might buy. Remember also that the money you get out of foreign ATMs loses value automatically with the currency exchange.

And finally, don't let that rail pass push you around. It's silly to travel long distances to places you probably won't enjoy much just to get more for your money. Vacation is socially sanctioned to give you permission be selfish. Plan on it.