Choosing the right Eurail rail pass

Posted by Andrew Thompson on 3 November 2014 Tags:

So you’ve read about the ins and outs of rail travel in Europe, identified a few dozen cities you’d like to visit, and decided that you like the sound of exploring Europe with a Eurail pass. But with so many options, how do you know which one’s right for you?

Also read: 10 reasons to travel Europe by train
Also read: How to use rail pass to travel Europe

 

Photograph by Andrew Thompson.

My two travel essentials – small backpack and Global Eurail pass. Having a Eurail pass makes train travel as easy as hopping aboard and filling in a few lines of travel info. Photograph by Andrew Thompson.

 

Which rail pass should I get?

This one’s quite tricky to answer, but I’ll try and break it down for you. The most important things you need to consider are budget, trip length, and your destinations. Weigh these up with your individual travel style, and then throw a bit of caution to the wind and adapt with your pass as you travel, and you’re guaranteed a pretty spectacular experience.

 

1. What’s your budget?

Obviously travel in Europe, whichever means you choose, isn’t cheap. But in terms of cost-benefit analysis, few options present better odds than Eurail rail pass travel. Think skipping cab fares, extra baggage charges and overpriced airport coffees, to name just a few.

Of course, rail pass options abound. In an ideal world, everyone would bag the big daddy Global passes for a full month, or two, but it’s not always necessary. If you’re under 25, you can pick up a youth Global Eurail Pass, and cover some impressive distance across the continent, kicking off from about €400 (R5 600) per person. If you’re going all-in on the rail journey of a lifetime, €550 (R7 700), will have you covered.

If budget is tight, consider booking a multi-city trip from the outset. For example, a flight from Johannesburg to Budapest, and returning from Amsterdam, cost me just a few hundred rands more than a traditional return ticket to and from a single city. This saved me money on internal travel, and put me in the perfect position to explore central Europe by train and slowly make my way back towards the exit point of the Netherlands.

The important thing to remember is that if you’re exploring Europe you’ll have to pay up for transport between cities, whether you fly, bus or drive. My suggestion is to weigh up all the factors first, and take a quick skim through my reasons why I think you should explore Europe by rail, and then decide how much you’re willing to allocate towards this part of the trip. Just bear in mind that unlike other modes of transport, travelling by train can be as much a part of the trip as all the stops along the way.

 

2. All about the train, or planning a short stay with daily rail travel?

If you know you’re in Europe for a short trip over a fixed number of days (somewhere between two and three weeks), and you’re planning to take the train almost every day, then a continuous pass is ideal. With a continuous pass, you’re free to ride the train every day, and there’s no need to plan out your route or allocate travel days – just hop on a train and flash your pass.

This is also a great option for true rail nuts who consider overnight stops an inconvenience in their goal to spend as much time on the tracks as possible.

 

3. Stay longer and take it slower

If you plan on covering significant ground over a longer period of time, with a few days spent relaxing in various destinations along the way, then a day-based pass is best. You choose at will when to allocate a travel day – simply write the date and your destination on your pass before you board, and present it to the conductor. You’re then free to travel on as many trains and for as long as you like until midnight of the same day. A day in European train travel is very long – on one of my longer journeys I managed to travel from Switzerland to Belgium, across 5 countries using multiple trains, and still arrive in time for late night fries on Brussels’ Grand Place.

 

My opinion?

I’m a firm believer that for casual travellers, the day-based passes are the best option, particularly if you’re planning a blog-worthy cross-continent rail adventure. Unlike with the continuous pass, there’s no pressure to travel every day of your trip, or to use rail as your only method of transport. If you fall in love with (or in, for that matter) a specific city, you can spend a week there without feeling the need to keep moving. And if, like me, you find yourself in the south of Poland wanting to get to rural Slovakia, you’ll be happy to pay a few Euros for a 2 hour bus ride over the High Tatras, rather than take a 15 hour detour, simply to use your rail pass.

But what if I run out of travel days on my pass?

If you’re worried about using up your travel days, consider this: a 15 day travel pass, spread over two months, means on average, you’ll be on a train every four days. Of course some stops will be quicker (crack house hostel in the heart of rural Slovakia), and some much longer (heavenly campsite in the heart of rural Switzerland), but it all seems to average out over time.

If you’re really worried about not having enough travel days, don’t use them up on those little inter-village flips. Identify the shorter or cheaper trips and buy point-to-point tickets at the station, or take a bus, rather than use up a travel day. In my most recent three month rail trip I managed to comprehensively explore a dozen countries, and only used up around 20 official travel days. This was thanks to a bit of planning, that one time en-route to Munich that the conductor forgot to check my ticket, one or two bus tickets, and a few cheap point-to-point train tickets.

 

Useful resources

There’s a mass of information out there, but here are some good places to start.

The Eurail website is incredibly comprehensive, has a range of maps and full information on all European trains and the options available. You can also get the best rates and deals on Eurail passes if you buy them directly through the official website.

Rick Steves, the American travel guide writer many travellers love to hate, has a very comprehensive European travel website that deals with some key rail pass questions.

The Man in Seat Sixty-One is a rail nut who’ll have answers to almost any rail question you can throw at him, while the RailDude specialises in all questions Eurail and Interrail.
 

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