Should you buy a 2016 Eurail Pass? Here’s how to decide
At least a decade or two ago, the dream of anyone planning to travel around Europe was to buy a Eurail Saver Pass. They were almost certain to save money, plus they allowed for a freewheeling style of travel where you could go anywhere you wanted at a moment’s notice. But things have changed, and Eurail Passes have some new restrictions along with fierce price competition from discount airlines, so whether or not to buy a pass is a complicated issue.
You could spend several days hunting down the point-to-point prices and creating a spreadsheet to determine how much your possible routes would cost with each type of travel, but for the majority of people it’s possible to ask a few questions and the answer will be clear. Having done extensive pricing research, and having traveled around Europe both with and without Eurail Passes, we have boiled the main decision down to the key elements below.
Note: This article was written in 2012 and has been continuously updated since then, so all information is current as of autumn 2015.
Deep winter discounts are available
While most of the regular rail traffic around Europe is pretty consistent year round, the tourist traffic goes way down from November through the end of March. The good news is that the main Eurail Pass companies all provide the same discounts during these periods. You can get 20% on travel through the end of March, 2016, on Global and Select passes, or 1 extra free day of travel on Regional and One Country passes. You must purchase your Eurail Pass by December 30, 2015 to get the discounts.
In the article below you’ll see a variety of situations where a rail pass is either a good or bad idea. Since the discounts aren’t available for individual tickets, it’s clear that rail passes are a better value in many more cases if you are traveling in the off season. In other words, if you would be on the fence if you traveled in summer, you should probably buy a Eurail Pass for the same trip during the colder months.
If you are age 25 or younger, a Eurail Pass is probably worth it
Those 26 years old or over must buy the 1st Class version of any Eurail Pass, which is 50% more expensive, and the added comfort isn’t a big deal to most people. But travelers age 12 to 25 can buy the 2nd Class versions at the lowest prices, and the seats are comfortable enough for virtually everyone.
With this in mind, if you are lucky enough to still be 25 or younger, you should seriously think about getting a Eurail Global Pass Youth, partly because the sense of freedom instantly gets more expensive at age 26.
>>>Check prices on Eurail Passes
If you are planning on traveling in 1st Class anyway, a Eurail Pass is probably worth it
Most 2nd Class trains provide similar comfort and legroom to Business Class airline seats, or at least close enough, so for most people it’s not worth the added expense for 1st Class. However, if you are rich or elderly or fear contact with strangers, a 1st Class Eurail Pass is probably worth it no matter what.
If you’re a group of 2 to 5 people who will always travel together, then you save 15% on a 1st Class rail pass
Perhaps the most compelling deal of all is called a Eurail Saver Pass, which is good for 2 to 5 passengers in 1st Class who will always be traveling together. Everyone travels on the same pass, and it’s 15% per person cheaper than individual passes. It’s available for the Global Pass (which includes all participating countries) as well as many of the regional passes like the France-Italy Pass, but not on all of them.
The bottom line on this one is that 1st Class tickets and passes generally cost 50% more than 2nd Class tickets and passes, and since those of us over 25 years old can’t get a 2nd Class pass, this 15% discount on 1st Class is ideal. We get nicer seats, more legroom, no crowds, and we only pay 27.5% more than in 2nd Class (e.g. 2nd Class = €100, 1st Class = €150, Saver is 15% off so only €127.50).
>>>Check prices on Eurail Saver Passes
If you’ll be touring major cities within 1 to 4 countries, a regional or single-country pass might be perfect, and Second Class passes are available for all ages
The most efficient rail passes on offer these days are probably the ones that cover 1 to 4 countries, but only for certain types of trips. Basically, you need to be making longer jumps on faster express trains for the passes to save you money, and if you are doing that they can be perfect. For example, if you are visiting Italy and stopping in Turin, Milan, Verona, and then Venice, you are only covering 250 kilometers with 3 train journeys so it’s cheaper to pay as you go. But if you are going Milan to Venice to Florence to Rome then it’s more like 600 kilometers with 3 journeys and a pass will save money.
The same is true when combining countries in a regional pass. Most major cities in Europe are at least two hours apart by express train, which can be expensive individually. The larger the country the more those tickets between major cities cost so passes make even more sense. Also, most regional or single country passes are available in Second Class for all ages, so that saves even more. The bottom line is, if you are stopping nightly in smaller nearby cities a pass isn’t worth it, but if you are connecting the major tourist highlight destinations it might be a great deal.
By the way, the Eurostar (between London and Paris or Brussels or Amsterdam) is a separate system and you should buy early
The European rail system is confusing at first, so it’s worth pointing out that the Eurostar trains between London and Paris or Brussels are a totally different system and the prices are more like air tickets. In other words, they start out cheap 6 months in advance and prices go up as the travel date approaches. For that reason it’s wise to book Eurostar tickets as early as possible. If you buy a Eurail Pass you can get a Eurostar discount through the same company.
Our recent tests show that Eurostar fares one-way from London to Paris can be as low as €49 if you book about 3 months out, or as expensive as €177 for the same seat if you wait until the day of travel to buy. Round-trip/return tickets can be even cheaper if there is a promotion running.
>>>Check Eurostar prices
If you are on a really low budget, a Eurail Pass isn’t a good idea
Here’s the thing. As we’ll discuss below, there are many potential benefits to Eurail Passes, and they will often save you money, but they do cost a lot and they only really save you money when traveling in the more expensive countries.
So let’s say you have a flight to Rome and then US$2,000 to last you a month after you arrive. Buying a Eurail Pass before you go would help you see a lot in that month, but you’d practically need to sleep in parks for your funds to last the whole time. You’d be better off moving slowly in the southern countries, or just in Italy itself, as a way to have the best holiday on your budget. You might also be tempted to use a Eurail Pass mostly on night trains so you can save the cost of a hotel or hostel, but those aren’t ideal for most of us.
The cheapest way to get around Europe by rail is to buy all train tickets online at least a couple months in advance. The fares are low, but they are non-refundable and non-changeable. See how far in advance you should buy train tickets to get those attractive fares.
If more than a little of your travel will be in eastern Europe, a Eurail Pass isn’t a good idea
While eastern Europe (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Ukraine, Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia etc), is where you’ll find almost all of the continent’s best travel bargains, its rail infrastructure continues to lag way behind. About half the region isn’t even part of the “Eurail Zone” and general rail coverage is still spotty in much of the rest. Worse still, in some areas the trains are much slower than buses, so you really have to research each leg individually.
The good news is that the trains operating in this region, and the buses that operate alongside and/or where trains aren’t running, are quite cheap. So if any significant part of your trip will be into this region, a rail pass doesn’t make sense.
Basic types of Eurail Passes
Long gone are the days of the simple options, replaced by specialized passes that are meant to appeal to different styles. It should be pretty easy to figure out which is best for you, and then keep going down the page to decide if it’s worth it at all.
Eurail Global Pass – 10 or 15 days out of 2 months
With this pass you buy either 10 or 15 travel days throughout the entire system within a 2-month period starting on your first day of travel. This is the better option for most people covering a lot of ground.
Eurail Global Pass – 15 to 90 consecutive days
This variation allows for unlimited travel on the system for between 15 and 90 total days. They are really only a good idea for people who are certain they are going to travel very often, with much of it being in the north of Europe. The problem with them is that if you really try to get your money’s worth, you will probably ruin your trip by spending too much time on trains in general.
Eurail Select Pass – 4 neighboring countries
These passes allow 5 to 15 travel days within 2 months, for 4 neighboring countries of your choosing. For reasons we’ll discuss below, they are a great deal for northern countries, and probably poor value in the south.
Eurail Regional Pass – 2 to 4 neighboring countries
Similar to the option just above, but these are for specific popular “regions” like France and Spain or Croatia, Hungary, and Slovenia. They are great options if one exactly fits your own travel plans.
One Country Pass
Obviously these are for travel within one country only. Again, they can be great deals if you plan on extensively moving around one particular country.
Where to buy your Eurail Pass
Eurail Passes are cheapest and easiest to buy online, primarily from two main sources which offer all the same products at the exact same prices:
This is a reliable company based in the Netherlands but with fulfillment offices in the US and Ireland. Price of Travel is a partner with this company, and if you use the links of this site we earn a small commission to help keep this site online.
They were founded in the 1930s and are based in New York, but owned primarily by the French and Swiss rail companies. They offer free shipping (2 to 3 business days) on all orders of US$399 or more. Price of Travel is a partner with this company, and if you use the links of this site we earn a small commission to help keep this site online.
Reservations on European trains for rail pass holders
For most of the fastest trains between major cities you’ll need to reserve a seat even with a rail pass. It can usually be done just before you leave and the cost is usually around €5. Here’s a full list of which European trains require reservations and which don’t.
Factors to consider when thinking about any Eurail Pass
Assuming you know which Eurail Saver Pass option is the best one for your type of trip by now, we’ll go over the main factors that should help you decide whether it’s the best idea for you.
Eurail Passes are best for standard ‘medium length’ journeys
In almost all of Europe, the major cities tend to be between 4 and 8 hours apart by train, and these journeys are perfect for Eurail Passes. For example, from Vienna to Munich it takes about 5 hours on the train, and it’s scenic and relaxing. Flying between those cities would take about the same amount of time once you factor in airport transportation and security lines, and it’s far less pleasant.
However, if you are determined to travel between Rome and Paris, it’s about a 14-hour journey that will almost certainly be overnight. In this case, a cheap plane ticket is probably better, although taking shorter hops on the train is even better, so spend a day or two in Milan or Lyon on the way instead.
And of course, if you prefer to stop in various small towns between the big ones, then a Eurail Pass won’t pay off, except for the traditional kind for unlimited travel in a given period.
Eurail Passes are better value in northern Europe, France, and Spain, and poor value in Italy
Once you do a bit of research you’ll quickly learn that train tickets (and almost everything else) are much more expensive in Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland than they are in Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. With this in mind, the regional passes can make sense if you are spending time in the south, but the Global Passes almost certainly won’t. Train tickets in Spain used to be fairly cheap, but in recent years they’ve added new high-speed trains between the major cities, and these are quite expensive.
Unlike most other countries, Italy really subsidizes its train tickets so they are quite reasonable even on travel day, and very cheap if you buy a month or more in advance. For example, you can go between Rome and Florence for around €49 if you buy on travel day, and as little as €19 if you buy well in advance. In most other countries, fares are double or triple that much for similar rides.
So consider your planned itinerary. If more than half of it is in the Mediterranean countries then look into a Regional Pass or just buy tickets as you go, because they tend to be pretty cheap. But if you are planning on spending at least half your time in Paris and places to the north of it, then a Eurail Pass is probably a money saver because those tickets are expensive.
Trains are almost always better than planes
Flying sucks, even in Europe
Until you’ve experienced the joy of traveling around Europe by train you might be tempted to “maximize” your time by flying low-cost airlines between each city. This would be a mistake. In order to get truly cheap airfares you have to purchase long in advance, buying non-refundable tickets. You might also have to commit to flights in the very early morning or in the late evening, because cheap tickets on convenient flights sell out quickly.
And again, most European airports are around an hour outside of the city. They are often on the main train lines, which helps, but still you have to deal with the madness of security and also try to get there at least two hours early. From one city center to any other city center it’s about 5 hours minimum, even if they are close, and those are pretty miserable hours.
Train travel is a positive experience
While it’s true that you do have to reserve a seat on many long-distance trains these days, you can usually do it just before it leaves, or the night before to be safe. And with many trains you can literally just hop on board as it’s pulling out of the station.
Not only are all the seats comfortable on trains, but you also have an interesting view most of the time. Better still, trains deposit you in the heart of every city, which is usually the neighborhood with the cheapest hotels and food. It’s a wonderful feeling to step off a relaxing train ride, buy a hot dog or sandwich at a local shop, and then be in your hotel room only about 10 minutes later.
Eurail Passes are better than train tickets alone
As someone who enjoys the process of crunching numbers and looking for value, I have to also mention that I’d buy a Eurail Pass even if it seemed like it would cost a bit more than the individual tickets. With a pass you get an extra element of freedom that is worth a lot more than you might expect until you’ve used one.
If you fly, you absolutely have to lock in your exact schedule weeks or months in advance, and if you buy train tickets individually you will be spending hours in queues and then waiting around. You can buy European train tickets in advance, though the convenience comes along with an extra fee. But with a Eurail Pass, on most routes you can just hop on any train you feel like.
Let’s say you are heading from Amsterdam to Hamburg tomorrow morning. The 9am train you planned for might seem a bit ambitious after a long night out, so you can instead opt for the 10am or 11am train. As long as you walk into Centraal Station 10 or so minutes before departure, you are on. If you are flying you can’t change your ticket, and if you are buying train tickets as you go you have to be in line at the international desk at the train station at least 30 minutes early, and even then you might miss it if they are busy.
Freedom and getting to feel like a big shot
Bill Gates doesn’t worry about the cost of plane tickets or train tickets. He just goes where he wants, when he wants. When you have a Eurail Pass, you get a taste of this yourself, and even if you don’t end up doing any new spontaneous legs within your trip, it’s a great feeling.
Let’s say you are staying at a hostel in Brussels, and two groups of new friends suggest that you go along with them to their next stops. One group is going to Bruges, which is a short and cheap journey, so you can join them by buying individual tickets (unless you have the unlimited pass, making it free). Then you restart your trip from Bruges, on to your next destination. The other group is headed to Berlin on a night train, which is long and expensive, but with a Eurail Pass you don’t even have to think about the cost. On you go, just like a rich guy.
Buying a Eurail Pass is great for those who might run out of money
We all know people who keep meticulous track of every penny they spend, and who are always putting money away for a rainy day. And we all know people who can take a US$100 “entertainment fund” and burn through almost all of it in just a few hours. For the first type of person, a Eurail Pass can help you keep track of expenses, but it’s really the second type of person these are best for.
It’s sad to hear about people who have big plans to see their dream destinations, but they run out of money for transportation halfway into the trip, so they have to just stay put until they fly home. It happens. Locking in your major transportation costs before you leave home, and probably saving money in the process, is a wise move for anyone who isn’t as disciplined as they’d like with their money.
>>>Check prices on Eurail Passes
Bottom line: If you want to keep travel costs down, your choices will usually be a Eurail Pass or buying tickets at least a month or more early
In the last few years, almost every long-distance train ride in Europe has switched to a pricing system similar to low-cost airlines. In other words, tickets go on sale 2 to 6 months ahead of time at very low prices, and they keep getting more expensive as the train fills up and the date approaches. For most trips where a rail pass is possible, this is how things stack up:
Cheapest possible way: Buy advanced (non-refundable, non-changeable) train tickets at least 30 days in advance
Next cheapest way: Buy a Eurail Pass and make seat reservations as you go, usually only a day or less in advance.
Most expensive way: Buy train tickets as you go, or less than a week in advance.
Thinking about it this way should make the choice a bit easier. If you are the type who likes to plan each day and travel segment long before you even leave home, then buy tickets online for the best prices. This can be the best strategy for most shorter trips (10 days or less) because you simply don’t have enough time to change many things as you go anyway.
Buying a Eurail Pass won’t be quite as cheap, but you are buying a LOT of flexibility with the extra money. If you dream of making up your plans as you go, or even making up your plans just a few days in advance, this is almost always your best bet.
But if you wait too long, and just show up looking to buy train tickets as you go, they are going to cost a fortune. As recently as only a few years ago all seats would be the same price on many rail systems, so you could always just wing it. When each country computerized its rail systems so they can sell advanced tickets cheaper, they also had to keep track of seat reservations, so the whole pricing structure had changed to favor advanced ticket buyers and rail pass holders over those who’d prefer to just hop on any train as it is leaving the station.
Have a rail pass or itinerary question of your own?
It wasn’t planned but scores of people began asking me rail pass and itinerary questions at the bottom of this article and a few others. I’m happy to keep answering them and now I’m trying to organize them better as well so they are easier for other people to find.
If you have a question about specific types of European rail passes, please ask it in the comments below.
But if you have a question more about a European itinerary or other non-rail-pass questions, please click over to the European itineraries Q & A article and ask in the comments of that one.