Selecting a country pass simply means you may make unlimited trips on the national rail line of your chosen destination for a period of days. If your travel takes you even a few miles beyond the borders, your pass might not be valid.
National rail passes are for people who plan to spend a week or two focusing on just one country -- probably a fairly large country in which rail trips can be lengthy and expensive.
For the purposes of this article, the passes are good for five days of travel within a one-month period unless otherwise noted. The passes are activated and the clock starts running when you use the pass for the first time. Remember that passes usually don't entitle you to ride on high-speed or direct trains without also paying a supplement, something that should be figured into your calculations.
Speaking of calculations: you should always compare the costs of all your rail trips on a one-way, point-to-point basis before purchasing rail passes of any kind.
Take a look at five European countries in which a national rail pass can cost less than $100/person for each day of second-class travel per adult.
You'll notice that these countries are listed in order of potential savings. The first nation, Germany, has the most expensive passes but also the most expensive point-to-point ticket costs.
A German Rail Pass can save significant money, especially with second-class travel buys for at least a five-day period within 30 days. The same arrangement in first class will add to your bill.
As with France, rail travel within Germany is convenient but often quite expensive. It is also a large country where distances can be significantly larger than other European countries.
For example, a trip between Munich-Berlin takes 6-7 hours at a cost one-way of $191-$333. Even shorter runs in Germany can be quite expensive without a pass: Cologne-Stuttgart is $123-$191 for a one-way trip that lasts just more than two hours.
A National Pass for France covers five travel days in second-class seats, with added expense for first-class seats. Those five travel days must fall within a 30-day period.
Although this pass might be viewed by some budget travelers as expensive, keep in mind that point-to-point trips within France are sometimes costly. For example, a fairly lengthy trip in France between Marseille and Paris can add up to more than $250 each way. Shorter runs that are common on a French travel itinerary, such as Paris-Le Havre, come in at about half that price.
A National Pass for Italy allows that the five days to occur within a 60-day travel period instead of the common 30-day period with most other passes.
The travel days with these passes generally average a bit less than in northern countries such as Germany and France.
Common point-to-point trips that can run less than $100 include Rome-Naples, Florence-Venice, and Rome-Milan.
An Austrian Rail Pass valid for five days within a 30-day period will cost less for each travel day than many other options. Austria is a fairly small country, but there is much to see and do here with destinations such as Vienna, Salzburg, and Innsbruck..
Many visitors to Austria make the run between the Alps (Salzburg, Innsbruck) and the stately national capital of Vienna. That one-way trip alone can cost $200/person.
Select national rail pass options for Poland from the pull-down menu at RailEurope.com and you'll find five travel days in second-class cars within 30 days costs just $128/person in Poland. If you care to purchase a first-class pass under the same terms, the cost increases to $159/person.
During your five travel days by train, the cost will average less than $26/day in second class, and just more than $32/day in first class.
Although this is among the least expensive national rail pass options, it might also merit the most caution among potential buyers. Distances in Poland can be great, but ticket prices often do not match what is found in countries to the west.
One example: a one-way ticket between Warsaw and Krakow (a three-hour trip) costs between $57-$78/person.
Note: prices quoted in this article were accurate at the time of its writing, but are subject to constant change. Use the figures cited here as preliminary guidelines for your current price searches.