Every two years, I use a train pass to ride the rails of Europe in an effort to answer the most important question travelers have on the subject: do these passes actually save you money or are they a giant waste of time?
Back in 2011, I found that rail passes were worth the cost if you took lots of long-distance passes. Since two years had passed, I once again got a pass from Rail Europe, and journeyed from Lisbon to Berlin to see if the passes still had were a good deal for travelers.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve heard from fellow travelers that passes have gotten harder to use due to limited seat availability and increased fees. It used to be that you could buy a rail pass, hop on a train, and go wherever you wanted. And if you needed a reservation for the seat, it didn’t matter whether you had a pass or not — if there was a seat on the train, you got it. Now there are often only a set number of seats available for passholders on any given train, and many countries have instituted high-priced reservation fees (I’m looking at you, France!).
Additionally, as railways have had to deal with the rise of budget airlines, they have changed their pricing model to more closely imitate airlines. Now they now tend offer cheap early-bird prices and expensive last-minute fares.
Under these new constraints, I wanted to see if rail passes still make financial sense.
The Math: How Much I Spent
It’s all about the money with the passes. So how does it work out? Here’s a breakdown of what the expenses looked like:
|Train||Cost With Pass||1st Class (w/o pass)||2nd Class (w/o pass)|
|Lisbon – Madrid (overnight single)||97||151||60|
|Madrid – Paris (overnight single)||192||202||180|
|Paris – Brussels||18||124||72|
|Brussels – Amsterdam||0||62||34|
|Amsterdam – Berlin||0||199||123|
Note: Prices are in euros and reflect last-minute departure prices that were given to me at the train station at the time of booking.
The pass I was given was a first-class 15-day, two-month Global pass that costs $1,189 USD. (Why first-class? Because it’s the only pass you can get when you are over 26. I think this is a stupid rule by the way.) This means that I can use the pass for 15 non-consecutive days of travel in a two-month period; the value of each journey works out to be $79. Since I was only in Europe for two weeks, I didn’t use the entire pass, but I used a variety of different trains for my tests. My five train rides I took then have a base value of $395 (one third the value of the pass).
So with all the fees for seat reservations plus the base ticket price, the total cost of my train trips were $800 USD. Seat reservations on night trains are required. In some countries, like Italy and France, reservations are also required for day trains. Without the pass, my first-class tickets would have cost me $975, which means I saved $175 by using the Eurail pass.
(A second-class pass is $774, or $51 per trip. Without the pass, it would have cost me $620, whereas with the pass, costs would have been much less.)
Using the Pass
I never had any problems finding a seat, except on the Paris–Amsterdam journey. The Thalys train has a limited number of passholder seats, and since I didn’t pre-book a ticket, instead of traveling direct, I had to make a number of stops. It made the journey cheaper but also a lot longer than it needed to be. Other than that, I had no problem using the pass or finding seat availability.
Should You Buy a Rail Pass?
So are Eurail passes worth purchasing?
A lot of people assume train travel in Europe requires a pass, purchase one without looking at the numbers, and then complain about the cost.
But rail passes are all about money. If it doesn’t save you a dollar, it’s not worth getting. That means you have to do a lot of math to figure out if a pass is right or not. It can be a time-consuming process, but is certainly worth it in the end.
Just like the airlines, prices are now variable and no longer fixed. Depending on when you book, your ticket cost will fluctuate. If you are willing to pre-book months in advance, you’ll easily find some unbeatable bargain deals such as Paris to Amsterdam from $46, Rome to Venice from $38, or Amsterdam to Berlin from $78. Denmark offers orange tickets that are 50% off the normal price. Since rail passes cost roughly $79 per trip, you can’t beat booking individual tickets far in advance.
But who pre-books a multi-month trip to Europe?
If you are planning on a two-week trip months from now and you already know your dates, it’s not going to be a good idea to get a rail pass. Even though those early-bird (non-pass, point-to-point) tickets are non-refundable, they are still pretty cheap, and you probably won’t be changing too many of your dates.
But if you are traveling around Europe with no fixed plans, rail passes can work out to be a better value than buying same-day point-to-point tickets. To me, the pass is about flexibility and being able to hop on and hop off trains when you want. If you are traveling long-term, you aren’t going to pre-plan months of travel. You are going to want the ability to go with the flow, which using a pass will give you.
I think one of the best ways to use the passes is to mix and match, using the rail pass for the expensive trains while paying for cheap tickets individually so you can maximize value. For example, for 11 days of train travel in Europe, it’s cheaper to buy a 10-day Eurail Global pass plus one point-to-point ticket for the cheapest train. Additionally, I place a value on flexibility. If the math is roughly the same, I’ll buy a pass because saving $3 isn’t worth trading the flexibility a pass gives.
That being said, reflecting on the high costs of the sleeper trains, I don’t think I would take an overnight train again. If you don’t mind a seat, it’s a great deal — but I can’t sleep in seats and am not a huge train enthusiast to begin with, so I would opt for flights instead. At $79 USD, day trains work out to be cheaper than last-minute flights (baggage and service fees add up) but the added fees for night trains might make airfare better value.
Special note: Train passes also come with some other perks. For example, passholders get 50% off ferries in Greece, Italy, and Germany, 40% off ferries in Finland, and some other bus discounts. I take advantage of these perks as well, that savings should be factored into your decision as to whether a rail pass makes financial sense for your trip.
(Note: If you think the pass is perfect for your trip, use this link and start picking out your pass today.)
How to pick the option that is best for you
Rail passes are all about math. The only way to know for sure whether a rail pass or point-to-point ticket would be cheaper is to work out the point-to-point prices for most of the trips you’re planning using the various European train operator websites.
After you have a general idea as to where you want to go, visit the national railway websites and work out two sets of prices: one for tomorrow (i.e., a last-minute fare) and one for two months from now (i.e., an early-bird fare). Add up the prices in each category.
Next, head to Rail Europe, find your rail pass, and divide the rail pass price by the number of days you’ll be traveling by train to figure out the cost of each journey on the pass.
See which is cheaper and take that option, bearing in mind that your journey may change or you may take more high-speed rails. If I know I’ll be in a lot of countries that don’t charge reservation fees and the prices are for booking early versus using a pass are close, I’ll go with the pass, as there is value in flexibility (I change my mind a lot).
In the end, a train pass isn’t right for all trips, but for most people spending a long time in Europe and traveling vast distances, having a pass will save you money. While the reservation fees stink, the basic principles of the pass still hold: if you are traveling vast distances, using a lot of high-speed trains, and traveling last-minute, a rail pass is still going to save you money.
If your trip does not fall into the above category, it’s probably best to buy tickets as you go and skip a rail passes:
If you want to book a pass, you can use Rail Europe to search passes, prices, and train tickets. They are the largest broker of European rail passes outside of Europe (and the only option for non-Europeans. If you live in Europe, you need to go to Interail.com for your pass. Rail agreements prohibit non-Europeans from buying passes outside the continent and vice-versa!).
Disclosure: As mentioned in the beginning of the post, Rail Europe gave me my pass for free and paid reservation fees. Rail Europe has been a website partner since 2009. All math is based on exchange rates and prices at the time.