UPDATE: THE CONTENTS OF THIS POST HAS BEEN UPDATED IN A NEW POST FROM 2013. CLICK HERE TO READ THAT POST.
Two years ago, I traveled around Europe using a rail pass. I had met a lot of travelers who used these rail passes, and in my never ending quest to save money on travel, I wanted to see if using a rail pass would save me money. Back then, it did.
The post received a few comments from other travelers about how using Eurail passes had ruined their trips. They didn’t save money, they couldn’t take certain trains, or they got kicked off trains. And as I’ve traveled Europe this summer, I met a number of people using rail passes who all seemed happy with them. So I wondered, “Why was there this disconnect?” What makes a Eurail pass great for one person and not another?
During my first trip, I had the Global Flexi Pass and took trains from Spain to Vienna. I saved money with the pass because the long train rides (Barcelona to Madrid, Bordeaux to Paris, Berlin to Munich) were expensive. By stringing a lot of them together with my rail pass, I saved money over the cost of buying them separately.
I got my Global Flexi Pass from Rail Europe. They are my favorite pass provider, and I use them a lot. My pass is a first-class ticket since I’m over 26 (you can’t get a second-class ticket if you are older than 26), and it allowed for 10 rides in a two-month period. The pass costs $884 USD.
Combined with a now-weakened euro, it was time to investigate again and see if my original trip was a fluke and the dissenters were right.
Did the numbers add up?
Rail passes are all about math. Nothing else matters about them except their ability to save you money. If they can’t do that, they are worthless, so I make sure to track all the numbers. Here’s the breakdown of costs for my trip (in euros):
|With Eurail||Without Eurail (1st class)||Without Eurail (2nd class)|
|Cologne to Hannover||0||94||58|
|Hannover to Hamburg||0||66||36|
|Hamburg to Berlin||0||113||70|
|Berlin to Munich||0||188||116|
|Munich to Salzburg||0||42.60||33|
|Salzburg to Vienna||0||87||51.80|
|Vienna to Budapest||0||39||29|
|Budapest to Vienna||0||39||29|
|Vienna to Brno||0||29||19|
|Brno to Prague||0||19.12||12.87|
My trip cost me 0 euros in reservation fees, so the only expense I had was the original cost of the pass. The price of buying my tickets at the train station would have come to 716.72 euros, or $1,003.11 USD. That means I saved $119.11 USD with this pass. That’s not a lot of money, but I can think of a lot of better things to do with $119.11 USD than use it for train tickets.
Note: I used the current exchange rate of 1 USD = 0.7145 euros. The train ticket prices reflect the cost of purchasing the day before.
Why the pass worked
This pass worked for the same reason my last pass worked: I crossed many borders and visited multiple countries.
As we can see, short trips still actually cost more with a Eurail pass. With the Global Flexi Pass, each trip is worth $84 USD, but the price of my short trips (i.e., less than three hours) was typically around 50 euros, or $65 USD. I found the same thing last year — you lose money on short trips. However, where I saved money was on the longer journeys. My trip from Berlin to Munich would have cost me $258 USD without the pass, so I saved $174 USD in that instance.
Why the right pass is important
Eurail passes only really work if you get the right pass and plan your trip well. Last-minute trains cost a lot of money, and rail passes really help in those sorts of situations. So if you know where you want to travel but you prefer to make last-minute bookings, a rail pass will likely save you money.
If, however, you like to plan every leg of your trip months in advance, you will be able find cheaper train tickets without a pass. Advance bookings cost up to 50% less than buying tickets the day before or the day of. If you are OK with accepting that rigidity into your trip, then a Eurail pass probably isn’t for you. Advance booking my above itinerary (using the two-week advanced prices available to me) would have cost me 553.72 euros, or $733.74 USD, which is $150.26 USD below the cost of a Eurail Global Flexi Pass.
But then again, I like to go with the flow and hardly ever know my travel plans well enough to book a tickets two weeks in advance. I don’t think most travelers do. There have been many times I’ve said or heard people say, “I’m going to Paris tomorrow” only to then leave three days later. Eurail passes are much better than buying the tickets the day of, and they retain that same “today, I’m going here” flexibility.
If you are younger than 26, you can get one of Eurail’s youth passes, which are much cheaper (though they are only valid for second-class tickets). The second-class fares on my trip added up to 454.67 euros, or $636.35 USD. A youth version of the Global Flexi Pass is $576.00 USD, $60 USD cheaper than buying them separately.
You can also get a global pass for 15 days, consecutive travel, or (if you plan to do a lot of train travel), unlimited train travel for a one-, two-, or three-month period.
But if you aren’t “train-setting” across Europe and are instead staying in one country or just a small area, you should consider a country pass. These are a lot cheaper than global passes. Do some research, look at train prices, decide where you want to go, add up the costs, and compare the total to the price of a train pass. I find single-country passes work out in your favor if you are taking a number of high-speed trains.
Read the fine print
After reading through the criticisms about Eurail passes, I realized most people were unhappy because they didn’t save money and, in most cases, didn’t read the fine print. The devil is always in the details!
These train passes are not a savings panacea. One false move and bam! your savings will suddenly disappear!
For starters, getting the wrong pass and underusing the trips will definitely lead to the pass costing more than what you would spend buying individual tickets. If you just buy whatever pass you think is good without working out the numbers, you probably will also end up paying too much. If you go buy yourself a Global Pass and then visit 1–3 countries all close to each other, you’re going to lose money. And, unfortunately, a lot of people do that.
Second, you also really need to read the fine print on whichever pass you purchase. For instance, some countries require you to pay reservation fees, while others do not. France and Italy, for instance, charge reservation fees. But you don’t need reservations at all in Germany, Austria, or Holland. I had to pay fees when I used my pass in 2009 in France and Italy.
Lastly, a major criticism of the Eurail pass is that you have to make reservations for overnight trains and pay extra for them beyond what you paid for your pass. But this stipulation is right on the website, as well as in the book they send you with train times and fees. You can’t just get on an overnight train in any country, find a bunk, and go to sleep. You have to reserve your bed and pay for it ahead of time. And if you don’t book ahead, you can end up stuck in the expensive sleeper, which will cost you a lot more than a night at a hostel. Rail passes reduce the cost of sleeper trains, but unlike for day trains, they don’t eliminate it.
And I think when people only find these things at the train station, it sours their experience on the whole pass.
After using these passes twice and listening to other travelers talk about their experiences, I still think they are a great deal. They wouldn’t still be around and popular if they were the major rip-off detractors said they were. But like everything else in travel, saving money involves research and knowing your options. A rail pass will be a good investment if you put the time in to make sure the numbers add up.
If you’ve went to the website and are still scratching your head about the pass options and numbers, feel free to email me! I’m happy to answer any questions you might have.
If you want to book a pass, I use the company Rail Europe. Rail Europe is the largest broker of European rail passes outside of Europe. Whenever I need a pass, I buy from them as they are usually much cheaper than any other option. They have great customer service, frequent sales, and offices in Europe in case something goes wrong. You can search for passes and tickets using the widget below. It will take you right to their website.
Note: Using the links on this page will (at no extra cost to you) generate a small commission on any sales. I recommend this company because I use it myself. Don’t get a rail pass if your trip doesn’t fit the above criteria, but if you get one, using the links here will allow me to continue to give you advice that helps you travel better. If you don’t wish you to use the links here, you can visit their website directly at raileurope.com. If you have any questions about passes, email me at [email protected] and I’ll help you figure it out!