Finding the best train pass for Europe can be a nightmare: continuous passes, 1-day or 4-day or 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 fly!
No, don’t despair. Let me help you sort it. 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, scroll down to 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 WAY TO TRAVEL AROUND EUROPE
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. 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.
Train travel is comfortable… you can walk around, go to the bar, stretch your legs, and make new friends. No Fasten Seat Belts signs, 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 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?
There are no hidden fees. Since trains usually arrive downtown, you won’t have to pay for transport. Or for an extra bag. Or for a seat selection.
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) 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. As long as you can lift it yourself, take what you want (not that I’m advocating overpacking – I’m a carryon traveler myself).
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 in 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.
Train travel can be more flexible. Often you don’t need a 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 travelling, 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.
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), 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. I can’t find any corroboration to this, but there seems to be 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, the train is almost always the better alternative.
THE EURAIL PASS: A CLEAR AND SIMPLE INTRODUCTION ON 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 next section for Interrail.)
What is a Eurail pass? A Eurail pass is a paper document consisting of a ticket and a travel diary.
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 in 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 number of days. These can be either consecutive days (for example, a 5-day pass for five days in a row), or flexible days (like 3 days over the course of a week, as in the case of the Eurail Flexipass).
Eurail is also often referred to as Euro Rail or Euro Pass and will be used interchangeably throughout 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, please see Eurail’s site. Some of the trains have the mention “Discounts”. If you have a Eurail Pass, you’ll get a discount on those trains but you won’t be able to ride them for free.
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 traveller, 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, and you don’t need a precise itinerary. I like the possibility of changing my mind when I want to…
- Bonuses: in Europe, 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).
- Money 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 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).
- You’ll be able to budget: because you’ll know most of your travel costs up front, you’ll be able to plan your budget more accurately and ahead of time.
Disadvantages of a Eurail Pass
- Hidden reservations 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. Want to know which trains need reservations and which don’t? Download the Eurail Rail Planner App.
- 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 a 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 trip but the flagship, and most comprehensive one, is the Eurail Global Pass, which covers travel to 28 European countries.
What if you only want to travel to one, or two or three countries? Buying a global pass valid everywhere would be a waste of money.
Many countries also have their own Eurail one country pass (officially known as Select Passes) for unlimited travel within that country’s borders.
NOTE: 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 three-day continuous pass and start it on the Monday, you’ll have to use it on the Tuesday and Wednesday, and 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 flexi pass valid for two months, you’ll be able to travel on 10 days of your choice within the two-month period. This pass is best if you have a clearly planned itinerary and want to save money.
The flagship: Eurail Global Pass Europe
The Eurail Global Pass is Europe’s best travel 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 though Austria, Belgium, Bosnia Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey.
NOTE: Eurail does not cover the United Kingdom. This comes as a shock to many non-Europeans, so keep in mind that you’ll have to pay for individual tickets or buy a separate UK rail pass, valid for travel within Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland.
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 another). 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:
- 5 days within one month
- 7 days within one month
- 10 days within two months
- 15 days continuous
- 15 days within 2 months
- 22 days continuous
- 1 month continuous
- 2 months continuous
- 3 months continuous
You can see second-class prices for each pass (at 26 July 2018) in the screenshots below.
Eurail One Country Pass
What if you’re planning an in-depth visit to a single country? Trying ever tapas bar in Spain or visiting every chateau in France?
You can purchase a pass for unlimited travel within that country (except for Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, Switzerland and Turkey, which don’t have one-country passes).
In addition, two “regions” have passes that work just like the one-country pass: Benelux, which includes Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, and the Scandinavia pass, which includes Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
Prices for one-country passes depend on the country and are available for 3, 4, 5 or 8 days within a month. To compare prices and purchase a one-country pass, head over here.
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?
Eurail’s 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.
To better show you how this works, I’ve designed a sample trip to use as an example. On this (sadly) imaginary trip, I’ll be visiting Germany, France and Switzerland, traveling from Paris to Geneva to Zurich to Munich to Berlin. Let’s do it!
First, go to Eurail and click the Eurail Passes tab on the home page. Next, click the “Find the right Eurail Pass” link, which leads you to the screen below.
You’ll be asked to fill in the length of your trip and the number of travelers (and their age). If you’re traveling solo, just insert 1. When you’re done, click “Go.”
The next screen allows you to select the countries you want to visit by clicking on the map, and they’ll appear below. Then go to the right side of the screen and click on “Change Details” for the first country on the list.
Enter the names of the cities you’d like to visit, along with the number of days you plan to spend in each city. Also enter the number of days you think you’ll be using train travel. Click the green “Save Country” box to return to the previous screen.
Repeat the above step for each country on your list (for example, first I entered Paris under France, and then I went to Switzerland and added Geneva and Zurich, and so forth). Once all the cities are added, click the “Finish planning and reveal the best Passes!” orange button.
The next page will ask you to choose your class (first or second) and will then show the best passes for your trip. In my case, only the Eurail Three Country Select Pass appears. Then, if you’re ready, just click through to make your purchase.
Is the Eurail Pass worth it?
When people ask this, they are typically asking, “Is the Europe train pass price cheaper than purchasing single tickets?” 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 $368. Let’s break down the cost of single tickets so we can compare (prices were accurate as at 2 August 2018 and are in US $). I chose two different dates, one in high season (August, with last-minute prices) and one during the shoulder season (September, bought in advance), which is my preferred travel season. Each one is the lowest fare available, although some trains were sold out, which forced me to buy a more expensive ticket – but that’s reality.
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. My comparison covers Western European prices a month apart to help give you an idea of how much you can save by booking ahead.
Again, please note that all prices below are approximate and subject to change.
August 3 : $147
September 7 : $52
August 6 : $116
September 7 : $116
August 6 : $131
September 7 : $119
August 6 : $207
September 7 : $207
Individual Tickets Last Minute: $601
Individual Tickets One Month Advance: $494
Eurail Three Country Select Pass: 317 EUR or ~$368
If you’d bought individual tickets for the entire journey at the last minute, the total cost would have been $601 – compared with $368. That’s a substantial difference of $233…
If you’d bought individual tickets for the entire journey a month in advance, the total cost would have been $494. A Eurail pass would then save you $108.
And because I’m only taking four train trips on a five-day pass, I’ll still have an entire train travel day available in case I want to go somewhere else.
But wait, what about the reservations? According to Eurail, the average price for an international reservation is $18 (the average price for an overnight reservation in a berth in $23 but that doesn’t apply to my hypothetical journey, since it has no overnights). Not all trains require reservations, but to be on the safe side, let’s assume I reserved a spot on each train for $18 – for a total of $72.
Add that $72 to the rail pass cost ($368) and you’d be spending $440. The cost for advance point to point tickets was $494, or $54 more than buying the railpass. Buying tickets last minute? The railpass plus reservations would save you a respectable $161 on this particular journey.
So yes, in Western Europe a pass will usually be cheaper or the equivalent of individual tickets, but you’ll have the ease of a single pass, along with the various discounts on accommodations and attractions provided by Eurail.
If you’re planning on buying individual European train tickets, ACPRail International has the most comprehensive site and easy instructions. Here’s a screenshot of the homepage where you can enter your trip details.
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, all of them are listed at Eurail.com.
Just for reference, the Global Pass (which is the most expensive pass) starts at $567 for 5 travel days within one month, and ends at $1979 for three months of continuous travel. A one-country pass will of course cost less than the Global Pass.
Are there any Eurail Pass discount options?
There are no discounts for seniors, sadly, although you can get a Eurail pass discount if you happen to be traveling with two children on a Eurail family pass or in a group of 2-5 people (on the Eurail Saver Pass), which saves you 15% off regular prices.
How to use a Eurail Pass?
Eurail has a great description of exactly how to use their passes here, but if you’d like the short version, keep reading:
- 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.
How do I make Eurail reservations?
It is best to make your Eurail reservations online.
Another option is to download the Rail Planner App to your smartphone. This app shows you which trains need reservations and lets you reserve a seat on the following trains:
- German and Swedish trains
- Domestic Italian trains
- French domestic TGV trains and Thalys trains
- Eurostar trains (linking London to mainland Europe)
- The Glacier Express in Switzerland
Last and definitely least, you can book European train travel reservations over the phone or on railway company’s websites. This is needlessly complicated, but to read more about your options, head over here.
What are other Eurail Pass benefits?
For a full list of benefits in each country, I recommend looking here since the benefits differ across Europe, but here’s a synopsis:
- Ferry discounts: you’ll get free or discounted rides on many ferry routes: Spain’s Balearic islands, among, Greek islands, certain ferries between Germany, Sweden and Finland, ferries from France to Ireland and many other routes.
- City cards: many cities have cards or passes that allow you to visit attractions and Eurail provides discounts on many of these cards.
- First class lounges: a first-class rail pass will get you access to some (but not all) first-class lounges in those European train stations that have them.
- Accommodation discounts: some hotels and hostels offer up to a 10% discount on accommodation if you have a Eurail 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 the Eurail benefits for your country to find if metro transit is included. For example, you can get free transport on Germany’s S-Bahn (their metro system) in Germany’s major cities.
WHAT IS THE BEST TRAIN PASS FOR EUROPE? INTERRAIL VS EURAIL
As I mentioned near the top of this page, the train pass you buy depends on where you live. An Interrail pass is for people who live in Europe and a Eurail pass is for people who live outside Europe.
When I got my first Eurail pass 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.
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 (in the case of the Interrail Global Pass, that’s 30 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. And since it came straight from the source (Interrail), you can trust that the pass you buy will actually cover your chosen countries and cities.
It’s quite similar to 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).
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).
How much is an Interrail Pass?
Interrail Global pass prices start at €269 in second class (at 2 August 2018) for 5 days of travel within 15 days.
Interrail pass prices for one country vary by country: for example, in August 2018 an Italy pass started at €92 in second class and a Switzerland pass started at €127. You can check all the current prices here.
Are there any Interrail Pass discount options?
There are number of ways to get an Interrail discount: if you’re young, older or travelling as a family.
Unlike the Eurail pass, Interrail does provide a 10% discount on their passes for anyone over 60. If you happen to be traveling with younger family members, young people under 27 can get a 25% discount and two children under 11 can travel travel free on an Interrail family pass.
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.
For more information about using your Interrail pass, here’s the official guide.
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, using the prices posted at ACPRail International. Below, I do the same with an Interrail pass.
Here are the costs for individual tickets (at early August 2018) without a railway pass.
August 3 : €126.70
September 7 : €44.82
August 6 : €100
September 7 : €100
August 6 : €112.91
September 7 : €102.57
August 6 : €178.42
September 7 : €178.42
August 6 Single Ticket Total: €518.03
September 7 Single Ticket Total: €425.81
Global Pass (5 days out of 15) Total: €269
As you can see, it’s remarkably less expensive to purchase the Global Pass than individual tickets in this particular situation. Now, it may not work out that way in Eastern Europe, where individual tickets are far cheaper, or if you only travel within a country between a few cities. There’s only one way to find out, and that’s by comparing prices yourself. B
Also keep in mind that if you plan to travel overnight or on trains that require reservations, you’ll need to order reservation tickets up to eight days ahead of the train trip AND be available to sign for physical reservation tickets. The only exceptions to this rule are Italy, France, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and the Benelux (where you can reserve online). This takes away much of the spontaneity a rail pass provides since you’ll need to plan each leg of your journey before leaving. And reservation fees add up, with some costing as much as €25 per train.
Where to buy Interrail passes?
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 listed below (countries not listed below don’t have their own passes – they simply use the Eurail/Interrail system).
- Unlimited travel in England, Scotland and Wales
- Includes bonuses such as discounts for museums and activities
If you don’t need a pass for all of Britain, you can purchase one of these options:
- England Pass – unlimited travel in England
- London Pass – travel in south east of England
- Central Scotland – travel between cities such as Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bathgate, Stirling and Falkirk
- Scotland ⎯ unlimited travel in Scotland
- South West Pass ⎯ unlimited travel south west of England and Wales
- Unlimited travel in Germany
- Discounts for two people together in the twin pass
- Access to ICE high-speed trains, InterCity and EuroCity trains
- Some seats do require advance reservations
- Bonuses include discounts for hotels, attractions, tours, buses
- Price of seat reservation included in the pass
- Bonuses include free guided tours, discounted tourist cards
- Unlimited travel in Switzerland on trains, buses and boats
- Bonuses include discounted city tours, free museum entrances
- 50% discount on cable cars and mountain trains not included in the pass
All the passes above have varying privileges or discounts for children.
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.
— Originally published on 08 August 2018