One of the most frequently asked questions about European Rail Travel is "How much does it cost?" followed by "Should I buy a pass?" We kept track of our expenses on our summer of 2003 trip just to give you an idea of the cost of a trip done entirely by walking up to a ticket window and buying the day's train ticket. We'll compare it to what it might cost had we rented or leased a car for the same trip, and we'll tell you how a railpass would have worked had we bought one.
Europe by Rail
Two of us traveled in a round trip from Zurich through Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, and back to Zurich. We bought tickets by walking up to the ticket counter at rail stations and purchasing them.
Each country maintains its own pricing structure. In general, Italy is relatively cheap for train travel, as is the Czech Republic. Germany and Switzerland are fairly expensive, so the total trip is pretty representative of what you'll find in Europe.
The table below outlines our trip. Costs have been translated into US dollars and rounded, even though all tickets were purchased in local currency.
Rail Travel - Leg of Journey Cost for 2
Zurich - Bellinzona Switzerland 70
Bellinzona to Padua, Italy 71
Padua to Venice, Italy 6
Venice to Villach, Austria 73
Villach to Vienna, Austria 58
Vienna to Brno, Czech Republic 41
Brno to Prague 30
Prague to Leipzig, Germany 70
Leipzig to Nuremberg, Germany 108
Nuremberg to Munich 21
Munich to St. Gallen, Switzerland 90
St. Gallen, Switzerland to Zurich Airport 35
TOTAL for 2 people- $673
Note: Be aware that you can't order tickets for local trains off the internet as far as we know. The prices you'll see listed on the Internet for Padua to Venice, for example, will cost considerably more than we paid because they're for the most expensive express train running on that line--another reason to do like the locals and just buy your tickets when you need them. For overnight trips and on international trains that require seat reservations, you will want to buy your ticket a day in advance if possible.
Leasing a Car
The cheapest rate for leasing a car (a small Peugeot) for 30 days listed by Auto Europe at the time of writing was $719--and you still have to pay for gas. Of course, if there's more than two of you this might turn out to be the budget option. You can see more in a car and can motor around the countryside, visiting smaller towns and country villages. But if you just want to see the major cities it's easier to forgo the car and related parking headaches and just hit the train stations. We try to vary our trips by the size of towns we want to visit--last year it was the major centers and we went by train, next year we'll take in smaller towns and villages and lease a car.
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.
You'll find that on a trip like ours above, the prices for a rail pass for each person would exceed our example. That's because we've traveled relatively short distances each trip, visited countries where rail travel is relatively cheap, and used second class tickets rather than first class.
We hope this information is of use to you when choosing a method of traveling through Europe. Have fun traveling!