How to use a rail pass to travel Europe

Posted by Andrew Thompson on 4 September 2014

I spent three months travelling Europe with a rail pass, so you don’t have to. Or, hopefully, so you can do it with ease. A carefully researched rail pass can save you a ton of cash and provide you with amazing flexibility to explore the continent at leisure.

Europe’s a big place with lots of trains, and so, because things can get a little confusing in the rail pass world, here are some answers to the big questions I had before I hopped aboard.

Also read: 10 reasons to travel Europe by train
Also read: Choosing the right Eurail pass


How to travel Europe with a rail pass

travel, map,

A common sight on most hotel and coffee shop tables was my trusty Eurail map, my Moleskin diary and my MacBook. Old school map and a diary almost always trumped the technology.


1. What exactly is a rail pass?

Not such a stupid question. Think of a rail pass as the train equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet, with a few restrictions and options. While your pass is valid, or on official travel days (that you choose), you can gorge yourself on a multitude of rail trips in and around Europe.

You can hop on and hop off at will, take cheap regional or fancy high-speed trains, spend an entire day on the tracks or simply pop across to the next village and back for a morning’s sightseeing.

The Eurail Pass is, by now, somewhat legendary. Chances are your folks have heard about them as well. They’ve been around since 1959, are only available to citizens outside of Europe, and must be purchased online before your departure. If you live in Europe, stress not – you can pick up an InterRail pass with practically the same options and benefits.

2. Who shouldn’t get a rail pass?

If you’re visiting Europe for just one or two days, a rail pass isn’t going to represent the best value for money. If you’re only visiting countries with strict rail pass policies (such as France), where rail pass seats are limited and require additional reservation fees, then check the price of point-to-point tickets and overall availability before you leave to see if you’ll be saving.

On the other end of the scale, if you’re spending most of your time in just a few Eastern European countries, where rail travel is particularly cheap, point-to-point tickets bought at the station may well be competitively priced. But if you’re planning on exploring as much of Europe as possible, venturing into regions where rail travel is typically more expensive (such as Switzerland or Germany) or combining a variety of countries across the continent, then a rail pass will give you peace of mind and the freedom to explore.

With all this in mind, in some cases the flexibility and ease of use trumps costs – it’s incredibly satisfying to have an all-access pass, not having to think about purchasing tickets beforehand, and to sail right past the long queues of tourists gesticulating wildly to foreign ticket agents.

3. What options are available?

There are a number of options available at this buffet table, depending on your budget, the amount of time you’ll be spending in Europe, and exactly how much of the rail network you wish to consume. But all passes are split into two broad groups:

A continuous pass will allow you to travel non-stop for a predetermined number of days.

A day-based pass will be valid for one or two months from the day of your first ride. You have a fixed number of days on which you can travel within that period (depending on your selection, you’ll be able to travel either 10 or 15 days within the validity period).

4. What’s the catch?

There aren’t too many catches, but perhaps the most common concern is that of reservation fees. Some regional and international trains, and all of the night trains, require you to reserve seats in advance. This is dictated by the rail companies, not Eurail. There is an additional cost associated with these reservations depending on the route, operator and length of journey, but the Eurail website has a handy reservation fee table to give you an idea of what you’ll be paying. If you’re not on a tight schedule, you can almost always avoid the reservation fees by taking regional trains, but bear in mind they run slower and make more stops than high speed trains. Frugal as I am, I managed to avoid reservation fees on almost every route and had zero regrets, apart from the day Italy’s regional rail operators decided to strike, turning what should’ve been a 5 hour journey between Venice and Certaldo into a 12 hour multi-station marathon.

5. Can I really explore all 50 European countries on a rail pass?

Unfortunately not. But I challenge you to explore the 27 countries that do accept the Eurail pass first. These include most of the big tourist hotspots. Check the Eurail website for the latest updates on which countries accept Eurail passes, but as a rule of thumb – everything east of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Turkey is off-limits, as is Bosnia Herzegovina, Albania, and Macedonia. Great Britain is also excluded. That’s not to say you can’t visit these countries – provided you have a valid visa, you’ll simply have to purchase point-to-point tickets at the border for the remainder of the rail journey, or use alternative transportation.

6. What pass options are available?

There are three pass options available depending on how far you intend to travel: Global (up to 24 countries), Select (up to four neighbouring countries), Regional (two countries), and One Country.

7. Where do you buy these rail passes?

As Eurail passes are only available to non-EU residents, they must be bought online ahead of time on the Eurail website. They’ll be delivered to your door in your home country, and must be activated at the station upon commencement of your first leg. There’s no need to pick it up or wait in line for it to be printed, and once you have it, there’s no need to purchase additional tickets or waste any time at station kiosks – provided no reservations are needed, what you get in the mail before you leave is all you’ll need to travel across Europe.

Eurail passes vary from €38 (R540) for the cheapest One Country Pass, up to €1034 (R14 700) for the monster first class, 3 month global pass. Chances are you’ll find a perfect fit somewhere between these two, so if you’re unsure which pass to get, stay posted for my next blog – strong>a quick guide to choosing the right rail pass.

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