Finding the best train pass for Europe can be a nightmare: continuous passes, flexible passes, 1-day passes, weekly passes, and everything in between. Country passes. Single tickets. Passes for non-Europeans and for Europeans. Routes and itineraries. It’s enough to make you want to forget the train and fly!
Wait – don’t despair! Let me help you sort it out. It isn’t complicated at all, not if someone else shows you the way.
Below I’ll demystify the European rail system for you and help you find the best deals on tickets and passes, leaving you with more money at your destination (rather than spending it all getting there). But there are a few things to keep in mind.
First, there are two major European train passes: Eurail, for those of you who don’t live in Europe. Just keep reading. If you do live in Europe, buy an Interrail pass (you’ll find more information below in the Interrail pass section).
Second, rail passes aren’t always less expensive than individual tickets. That’s right — you could easily overpay. You’ll need to calculate and compare (and I’ll show you exactly how to do that).
Third, if you’re buying a Eurail pass, buy it before you leave home because you cannot buy a Eurail pass in Europe.
Currencies are dynamic things and won’t stop moving. So while I use US$ when referring to Eurail and Euros for Interrail (since it’s for Europeans), any price I quote here will be wrong by the time you read this. Prices are indicative, and for comparative purposes only.
Europe by rail: Best train pass for your Europe trip
So if it’s such a hassle, why visit Europe by train at all?
Because (in my opinion) the train is the best way to travel Europe. Here’s why:
- Train travel is comfortable… you can walk around, go to the bar, stretch your legs, and make new friends. No Fasten Seat Belts signs, no turbulence, and plenty of legroom.
- You get to see the scenery, which is why it’s one of my favorite ways to travel. There’s something wonderful about watching suburbs grow into cities and back into the countryside, of forests giving way to swaying fields, and mountains gliding into valleys. There’s nothing like seeing Europe by rail.
- You’ll save money on accommodation when you take an overnight train. Why pay for accommodation when you can reach your destination while you sleep?
- It’s incredibly convenient. Trains reach the furthest corners of Europe and the train system is extensive enough to get you across the continent in (relative) comfort.
- Trains usually arrive downtown (barring high-speed trains that require special stations in some cities). Airports are usually far from town and any savings you’ll make on a discount airline will be quickly eaten up by transportation into town. Isn’t it better to simply walk out the door and into the city?
- Train stations are often magnificent, historical, beautiful. Some stations can be works of art or destinations in themselves. Train stations can be remarkable.
- Train travel is simple. While plane travel requires showing up hours early and standing in long security lines, European train journeys are still relatively uncomplicated: you arrive, you show a ticket (or show it on board), flash your ID (if needed), and find your seat. I would, of course, come a bit early, but there’s no needless waiting around in a terminal for fear of missing your plane because you brought the wrong size tube of toothpaste.
- No one cares about your luggage size or weight, although some long-distance high-speed trains are starting to limit baggage size and weight – the limits are far more generous than on a flight. Where it’s not limited and as long as you can lift it yourself, take what you want (not that I’m advocating overpacking – I’m a carry-on traveler myself). Meantime though, you can check baggage rules yourself.
- Taking the train can actually be faster than flying. If your journey is relatively short, you won’t have to battle traffic, add time at the airport for security, add transportation to and from the airport… Flying from Geneva to Paris takes less than an hour and the train takes just under three, but add getting to the airport, going through security, and getting into town and my one-hour flight takes at least four hours, if not more.
- Trains are better than cars in most European cities. Unless you passed your driver’s licence in Rome, you’ll be relieved not to have to drive down those tiny, crooked streets or bumpy cobblestones. One look at the price of downtown parking across Europe should discourage you from wanting to drive in one.
- Train travel can be more flexible. Often you don’t need a seat reservation, which means you can take a different train than the one you’d planned, change your destination altogether or travel on a whim, fueling the adventurer in you. Try doing that on an airline. For free.
- Don’t forget the legroom. Even a short flight will leave you cramped and creaking. On a train, you can spread out, stretch, and get up and walk whenever you want to.
- Trains are so relaxed. If you’re like me and have suffered from flight anxiety, taking the train means eliminating the fear factor and enjoying the journey of traveling, rather than dreading it.
- There’s a quality to train travel – I’ll call it atmosphere. Unless you’re flying through the countryside at high speed, you’ll chug along leisurely, taking in the scenery, your fellow passengers, and a dollop of culture.
- As a woman who travels solo, I love the companionship provided by train rides. The rails make me want to hear people’s stories, unlike planes, where all I want to do is hide my nose in a book or movie.
- And finally, there’s climate change, with increasing concerns over the carbon footprint left by flying. According to studies by Eurostar (of course, it’s in their interest to promote train travel) on the London to Paris train under the Channel, a flight between the two cities produces ten times as much carbon dioxide as the same journey by train. There appears to be an academic consensus that train emissions of CO2 are definitely lower than those of a plane flying the same distance. (And this piece looks at the environmental cost of flying.)
That said, at times it makes sense to fly, but within Europe, especially for short and medium-length distances, the train is almost always the better alternative.
The Eurail Pass: A clear and simple introduction to how to travel Europe by train
(Remember, this section is only for those of you who don’t live in Europe. If you do live in Europe, scroll down to the Interrail section.)
What is a Eurail pass? A Eurail pass is a paper document consisting of a ticket and a travel diary. (Some country passes are available as a Mobile Pass.)
Before your first journey, you’ll need to get it stamped, or validated, at any European train station. An agent will write the start and end days of travel on your pass, stamp it, and add your passport number.
After this, you’ll have to enter all travel into the diary BEFORE boarding your next train. If you don’t, you could be fined and forced to pay for a full-fare ticket.
In short, a European rail pass allows you to travel by rail as many times as you’d like during a certain period. These can be either consecutive days (for example, a 5-day pass for five days of travel in a row), or flexible days (like 3 days over the course of a week).
Eurail is also often referred to as Euro Rail or Euro Pass in case you run across these terms in this guide.
NOTE: The Eurail passes do not cover ALL trains in Europe – some small trains are owned by private companies, while the Eurail pass covers only the national railway companies. For a list of trains included, click here.
The pros and cons of Eurail passes
Nothing is perfect, so first let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of a rail pass.
Advantages of a Eurail Pass
- Flexibility: you can get on and off most trains within Europe as you please. If you are a go-with-the-flow traveler, you’ll enjoy the freedom that comes with a rail pass. You don’t have to show up for a certain train at a certain time, at least on local and regional trains, and you don’t need a precise itinerary. I like the possibility of changing my mind when I want to…
- Bonuses: in Europe, unlimited train travel passes often come with Eurail discounts or free rides on ferries, hotels, and activities around Europe. You might get to wait in the train station’s business lounge (free snacks included), or enjoy free public transport into town (these costs can add up if these are facilities you usually use).
- Savings: you can definitely save money with rail passes, but you have to plan well. Depending on your itinerary, you’ll save the most money by combining a rail pass with single-ride tickets or by buying a pass for only those countries with expensive trains.
- No more line-ups: once you have your pass, it’s a bit like the hop-on hop-off system: you find a train station, and get on (this works for normal trains only – luxury or high-speed trains will require reservations and yes, you’ll probably have to line up).
- Budgeting: because you’ll know most of your travel costs upfront, you’ll be able to plan your budget more accurately and ahead of time.
Disadvantages of a Eurail Pass
- Hidden reservation fees: even if you have an unlimited Eurail pass, you aren’t guaranteed a seat. Many high-speed trains require reservations, which you have to pay for. If you bought the rail pass thinking you wouldn’t spend another penny on trains, you’ll be disappointed.
- Occasional lack of flexibility: while a rail pass has plenty of flexibility on normal trains – you can just hop on – many fancier trains (overnight/high speed) only have a select number of seats available to Eurorail travel pass holders. In fact, some trains with rail pass seats run only a few times per day. Showing up to the station and being denied boarding is no fun.
- Requires planning to save the most money: you can easily overpay for rail passes if you don’t plan well, so research will be required before you make up your mind.
The Eurail country pass and its many iterations
There are Eurail passes to fit all types of trips but the flagship, and most comprehensive one, is the Eurail Global Pass, which covers travel to 33 European countries.
What if you only want to travel to one, or two or three countries? Buying a Global Pass for all countries would be a waste of money.
Many countries also have their own Eurail one-country pass for unlimited travel within that country’s borders.
Train travel is significantly cheaper in Eastern and Central Europe. If that’s where you’re headed, consider forgoing the pass altogether and simply buying tickets as you go – it will be a lot cheaper. Western Europe, on the other hand, has expensive trains and you’ll be grateful for your pass when you see the ‘real’ prices.
Should I get a continuous or flexible pass?
There are two main types of passes: continuous and flexible.
A continuous pass is one you use on continuous, or consecutive days. If you buy a four-day continuous pass and start it on the Monday, you’ll get to use it on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, but then it’s over. This pass will allow you to travel as much as you want during that period, but every day becomes a travel day.
With a flexi pass – which is less expensive than a continuous pass – you can travel a certain number of days within a set period. For example, if you buy a 10-day flexible pass valid for two months, you’ll be able to travel on 10 days of your choice within that two-month period. This pass is best if you have a clearly planned itinerary and want to save money, or if you want to “base” yourself in a particular city and explore it for a few days.
The flagship: Eurail Global Pass Europe
The Eurail Global Pass is Europe’s best rail pass for those who want to see it all. The name, of course, is a bit deceiving, since Europe is not exactly the entire world, but this global rail pass will carry you through Austria, Belgium, Bosnia Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakis, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey.
NOTE: Eurail now covers the United Kingdom. But this could change so check back with the Global Pass page before you buy.
The Global Pass is a great pass if you’re planning on traversing Europe, seeing many countries, or if you’re hip-hopping between countries that don’t share borders (since the Select passes are only good for countries that share borders with each other). So if you want to go from France to Poland, or Sweden to Italy, you’ll need a Global Pass. You’ll also need one if you’re traveling in more than one country.
The Global Pass comes in nine different variations:
- 4 days within one month
- 5 days within one month
- 7 days within one month
- 10 days within 2 months
- 15 days within 2 months
- 15 days continuous
- 22 days continuous
- 1 month continuous
- 2 months continuous
- 3 months continuous
Eurail One Country Passes
What if you’re planning an in-depth visit to a single country? Trying every tapas bar in Spain or visiting every chateau in France?
You can purchase a pass for unlimited travel within that country (except for Great Britain, which has its own BritRail Passes). In other words, you can easily buy a German Rail Pass or a Swiss Rail Pass.
In addition, two “regions” have passes that work just like the one-country pass: Benelux, which includes Belgium, Luxembourg and Netherlands, and the Scandinavia pass, which includes Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
Prices for one-country passes depend on the country, with passes available for anywhere from 1 to 15 days; each country has its own rules.
Things to know about the Eurail Pass
Are you overwhelmed yet? Do you feel able to choose which Eurail Pass to buy or make the decision as to whether a pass is right for you?
The website actually makes it easy. Just enter the countries you want to visit, and the site gives you all the different passes that qualify for your trip.
Is the Eurail Pass worth it?
When people ask this, what they’re really asking is: “Is the Europe train pass price cheaper than purchasing single tickets?”
To answer that question, let’s look at an example, just for argument’s sake.
There are more things to consider than simply price, but let’s take my France-Germany-Switzerland trip from above and compare it to purchasing tickets separately.
So on the day I checked, my Eurail pass would have cost US$ 249. That would be a 2nd class pass flexible pass, for someone aged 28-59 (if you’re older or younger, you get a discount). As a date, I’ve chosen 1 December 2022.
How does that compare to single tickets?
To compare, I’ve chosen the average price of tickets, bearing in mind that in many countries, prices can vary by up to a factor of 5.
You’ll find that prices of train tickets across Europe vary depending on when you purchase them. In Western Europe, you can purchase early and save big. In Eastern Europe, prices rarely change so it really doesn’t matter when you buy. All of this makes it almost impossible to compare but the day you decide to buy your tickets or passes would be the right time to compare.
US$ 34.50 – 97.50
US$ 52.50 – 53.50
US$ 51.00 – 86.00
US$ 28.50 – 61.00
If I were to buy the cheapest individual tickets on that day, I would pay US$ 176.50. If I bought the most expensive, I’d be paying US$ 298.00. As I mentioned, the train pass would cost US$ 249. So if I were prepared to travel at odd hours and book my trains ahead of time, I’d save a significant amount. But if I were catching the more expensive trains, it would be the reverse: the train pass would be cheaper.
FAQ Eurail Pass
How much is a Eurorail Pass?
This depends greatly on where you are traveling to, how long you’re staying, and how many times you plan to take the train. If you want to take an overall peek at prices, you’ll find them here.
Are there any Eurail Pass discount options?
Yes, there are discounts for seniors and children. Just click the drop-down menu under “Passengers” if you qualify.
How to use a Eurail Pass?
There are two types of pass. The paper pass and the paperless pass.
Here’s how paper Eurail passes work:
- Validate your Europe travel pass before getting on your first train. You can do this at the train station, or online (which I recommend).
- Fill in your travel days on your pass prior to boarding.
- Fill in your trip on your “travel diary” before boarding your next train (if you don’t, you could be fined the full fare, so don’t forget).
- Do NOT laminate your pass, it makes it invalid.
- You may (or may not) be asked to present your pass on board. Have it handy, but keep it safe.
For instructions on the paperless pass, click here.
How do I make Eurail reservations?
It is best to make your Eurail reservations online.
You can also book tickets through the Rail Planner App, or directly with railway companies by phone or online.
What are other Eurail Pass benefits?
Benefits vary from country to country but you can expect to find some of the following:
- Ferry discounts on many routes, both within countries and between countries
- City cards are often discounted with the Eurail Pass
- You will have access to some first-class lounges
- Some hotels and hostels offer up to 10% discounts for travelers with a pass
Depending on your route, these benefits can quickly add to the worth of your rail pass. However, if you don’t plan on taking ferries or buying city passes, these extra benefits won’t mean much.
Can Eurail Pass be used on Metro or other public transport?
Rarely, since most public transport is operated by city authorities rather than by train companies. Some cities will allow it but bear in mind it’s an expensive way to save money – it’ll cost you a day of train travel. That’s not a problem with a continuous pass but make sure you have enough days on your flexible pass before hopping on board.
You’ll have to check each individual pass to see which benefits are included. For example, if you check the France Pass, you’ll see you qualify for a 10% discount on the French Riviera Pass and in the Citadines hotel chain.
What is the best train pass for Europe? Interrail vs Eurail
When I got my first Eurail pass many decades ago, it was only available to non-Europeans. As you can imagine, Europeans complained vehemently and resorted to all sorts of tactics – having family or friends abroad buy their passes, for example – just to get the Eurail pass benefits. Eurail then created the Interrail pass to meet that demand.
As I mentioned near the top of this page, an Interrail pass is for people who live in Europe and a Eurail pass is for people who live outside Europe. That said, they both work the same way and you buy them in the same place.
The Search box will automatically steer you to Eurail if you’re from outside Europe and to Interrail if you’re European.
What you need to know about Interrail passes
Much like the Eurail pass, the Interrail pass allows an unlimited number of train journeys for your travel days in a certain country or group of countries.
How to choose which Interrail Pass to buy?
The easiest way to determine which Interrail Europe pass to buy is to go here and enter your travel dates and desired locations. The website will choose the best Interrail train pass based on your itinerary.
It’s the same as Eurail: with a Global Pass, you can choose either a flexi pass (for example, you can pick 5 days in one month to travel) or a continuous pass (where you’d have 5 consecutive travel days).
Like the Eurail pass, the flexi or flexible pass is great if you’re only taking a limited number of train journeys, while the continuous pass is best for travellers who plan on plenty of train travel in a short time and might use up too many flexipass days without it. The problem with the continuous pass is you may end up paying for travel days you don’t use unless you’re interrailing across Europe at record speed.
Besides the Global pass, you can purchase an Interrail one country pass (for unlimited travel in a specific European country).
Are there any Interrail Pass discount options?
Like the Eurail pass, Interrail provides discounts if you don’t fall within the 28-59 year old age range.
How do you use an Interrail Pass? How does the Interrail pass work?
Your pass and diary will be sent to your street address. You’ll bring them with you and as you travel, you’ll enter your journey details in your diary before boarding (so if you are going from Paris to Geneva, write that journey in the diary before you get on the train in Paris). You’re also permitted to use your Interrail pass to leave and get back to your home country, and can enter that as outbound and inbound travel in the diary.
Are there any other Interrail Pass benefits?
Yes! You can get discounted ferry tickets, discounted fares on scenic Swiss trains, and other discounts on restaurants, activities and accommodation across Europe. For a full list of benefits by country, go here.
Can an Interrail Pass be used on the Metro and other public transportation?
No, it cannot. You’ll have to buy individual tickets or a pass in the city you’re visiting.
Is an Interrail Pass worth it?
Does the interrail pass save you money? It depends.
Earlier, in the Eurail section, I compared the cost of a trip with/without a Eurail pass for a journey from Paris to Geneva to Zurich to Munich to Berlin. The same comparison can be made with Interrail. If you buy the cheapest individual tickets, it will probably cost you less than a pass, but you’ll be limited to traveling at certain hours and on certain trains. If you buy the most expensive individual tickets, you’ll pay more than you would with a pass. Bottom line, it depends on your specific trip, the times and days you plan to travel, and the countries you’ll be visiting.
Where to buy Interrail passes?
You can buy all your Interrail tickets here.
Rail passes for single European countries
Some European countries have their own national rail pass which can only be used in that country. Those countries are included in the list of passes here, with one exception: Great Britain.
While it is included in the Global Pass, the individual pass is sold here. It provides unlimited travel in England, Scotland and Wales and includes bonuses such as discounts for museums and activities.
I still remember my first Eurail pass, perhaps 40 years ago, and little has changed. I remember the sense of freedom (you needed fewer reservations in those days), the hopping on and off trains, the new friends and acquaintances, the many evenings spent calculating timetables and itineraries on the back of napkins. Those were the days – and I’m happy to hear from the next generation of travelers that not too much has changed.