The Best Rail Passes in Europe

Make the most of terrific train travel on The Continent

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

Rail passes can be a great bargain. Back in the 1970s, they were always a good deal. But in the 21st century, 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. And trains in Europe, for the most part, are fast (or very fast), clean, modern, and, yes, romantic. 

Tthe Best Rail Pass for Your Trip

One thing you can say for sure, most rail passes are best suited for folks who plan their vacations very carefully unless you have enough time and cash to buy 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 six months of your vacation and get them validated on your first day of travel.

The Eurail Global Pass offers consecutive-day first-class travel in Europe (including Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland) for 5 days or up to 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 two, three or four bordering countries connected by train or ship. There is a choice of five to 10-day passes.

(Note that Britain is not included in Eurail passes. Check BritRail for information for rail pass information and prices.)

Multiple Country Rail Passes

If you've narrowed things down to a couple of big countries, your best bet is a multiple country pass from RailEurope. You have lots of country combos to choose from.

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 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. (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 very little.) 

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.

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 (examples only). Let's use a pass that hasn't been discussed, the Eurail Scandinavian Pass, a Scandinavian rail pass covering four Scandinavian countries.

In this example, the cheapest Scanrail pass will cost you $291 for five days of first-class travel in two months. A second-class fare 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 $141. In this price example, you'll spend almost the price of your pass in two of your five days, giving you almost three days of free travel with the pass. Not a bad return. And youth passes and senior passes are available, allowing that group to save even more.

The bottom line: Price your options (point-to-point tickets or rail passes) after you've planned out your trip based on how many cities and countries you want to travel to over how many days.

Other Rail Pass Pluses

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 communication responsibility.

The other advantage of 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. Many credit cards also adjust the price based on the currency exchange, so if you plan to charge your tickets you still could get hit with a higher price than you thought you were paying.

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.