Should you buy a 2020 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.
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Note: This article was written in 2012 and has been continuously updated since then, so all information is current as of January, 2020.
- 0.1 Eurail 2019 changes: Lower prices overall and new countries!
- 0.2 Eurail 2020 changes
- 0.3 If your trip will be 2 weeks or less, a Eurail Pass probably won't be worth it
- 0.4 If you are age 27 or younger, a Eurail Pass is probably worth it
- 0.5 If you are age 60 or over, a Eurail Pass could also be great value
- 0.6 If you are planning on traveling in 1st Class anyway, a Eurail Pass is probably worth it
- 0.7 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
- 0.8 If you'll be touring major cities within ONE country, a single-country pass might be perfect, and Second Class passes are available for all ages
- 0.9 Eurostar (between London and Paris or Brussels or Amsterdam) tickets are now included for Eurail Pass holders for a €30 reservation fee
- 0.10 If you are on a really low budget, a Eurail Pass isn't a good idea
- 0.11 If more than a little of your travel will be in eastern Europe, a Eurail Pass isn't a good idea
- 1 Basic types of Eurail Passes
- 2 Where to buy your Eurail Pass
- 3 Factors to consider when thinking about any Eurail Pass
- 3.1 Eurail Passes are best for standard ‘medium length' journeys
- 3.2 Eurail Passes are better value in northern Europe, France, and Spain, and poor value in Italy
- 3.3 Trains are almost always better than planes
- 3.4 Eurail Passes are better than train tickets alone
- 3.5 Freedom and getting to feel like a big shot
- 3.6 Buying a Eurail Pass is great for those who might run out of money
- 3.7 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
- 4 Have a rail pass or itinerary question of your own?
Eurail 2019 changes: Lower prices overall and new countries!
Eurail Passes now include England, Scotland, Wales, Lithuania, and Macedonia. Trains in England and Scotland are usually VERY expensive if you don't buy tickets at least a few weeks in advance, so this is a really big deal because you typically don't even need a seat reservation to use a Eurail Pass there now. There isn't much train service in Lithuania and Macedonia anyway, so those aren't as big of a deal.
Eurail 2020 changes
As of 2020, Estonia and Latvia are now included in all Global Eurail Passes. Those countries are expanding their train networks these days so this is a good development for anyone exploring the Baltic region.
If your trip will be 2 weeks or less, a Eurail Pass probably won't be worth it
About half of the questions I get in the lengthy comment thread of this article are from people planning a trip of 3 or 4 stops in two weeks or less. The good news for those travelers is that they can get fairly cheap train tickets in advance online if they have their dates planned, and a Eurail Pass won't help at all.
Eurail Passes are ideal for travelers on longer trips, and especially those who don't want to plan all of their destinations and dates far in advance. If you have your itinerary pretty much planned out and you don't require much flexibility, you'll be far better off just locking in your dates and buying your train tickets as early as you can. Again, they can be surprisingly cheap if you buy 2 to 4 months out.
If you are age 27 or younger, a Eurail Pass is probably worth it
Those 28 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 27 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 27 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 28. The age cutoff was 25 until recently, so this change is a great deal for anyone who will be 26 or 27 at the start of their trip.
If you are age 60 or over, a Eurail Pass could also be great value
Another 2019 change is that anyone who is 60 years or older at the start of the use of a Eurail Pass now gets 10% off the normal adult fare. That new discount is going to make this a great value for many travelers who might have been on the fence about buying a full-price pass before.
>>>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.
Not only do you get much more comfort and legroom in 1st Class, with only 3 seats across instead of 4, but there is another advantage to 1st Class on European trains. Since it's mostly business travelers and wealthy people traveling in 1st Class, the carriages are almost always mostly empty except in the mornings and late afternoons between large cities. In 2nd Class the only available seats might be two seats in an 8-seat cabin with all the other seats taken up by a loud family or a group of rowdy friends. In 1st Class you are all but guaranteed a peaceful ride, and usually plenty of empty seats from which to choose.
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 ONE country, a single-country pass might be perfect, and Second Class passes are available for all ages
Until 2019 you could buy a Eurail “Select” or “Regional” Pass, which would allow you to buy a cheaper pass that only covered between two and five specific countries. As of January, 2019, those appear to have been eliminated when they also lowered the prices of the Global Passes by around 20%.
Single-country passes are still available and they MIGHT be good value for you, but it depends on which country and how much traveling you'll be doing. If you plan on going all over a larger country such as Germany, France, or Spain, and especially if you like to make plans as you go, a Single-country pass for one of those might be your best deal. On the other hand, smaller countries (such as the Netherlands) or countries where train tickets are already fairly cheap (such as Italy) might be harder to get value out of. Long story short, for single-country passes you really need to check fares of the places you plan on going and see how they add up compared to the pass.
>>>Check prices for Single Country Passes
Eurostar (between London and Paris or Brussels or Amsterdam) tickets are now included for Eurail Pass holders for a €30 reservation fee
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. Until recently Eurail Passes would only get you a 25% discount on Eurostar tickets, but as of 2018 you can use your Eurail Pass and ride for the cost of a €30 reservation fee (€38 fee for First Class). That is a big improvement because Eurostar tickets are expensive and this is like a 50% to 75% discount on them. Since you can now use your Eurail Pass within Great Britain, it's now the best way to get around England and Scotland by train.
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.
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. Eurail.com is usually cheaper than RailEurope (discussed below) by the way.
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.
Reservations are required on all intercity (longer distance) trains in or involving France, Spain, Switzerland, and Italy. For most trains in Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium, and most of eastern Europe, you can usually find trains that don't require seat reservations. Often, if you don't leave until after 9:30am or so, you can ride on any train with no seat reservation, but you have to research each leg to be sure.
How to determine which trains require seat reservations, and also get schedules
You can click on the link just above this section for a list of countries and their seat-reservation policies, but in some cases it's actually a bit more complicated than that. For example, you can generally ride without a seat reservation on fast ICE (Inter City Express) trains in Germany if you depart after 09:30 in the morning. They do this to free up seats for business travelers who pay full fare, and they don't mind filling up seats with rail pass holders on trains leaving a bit later.
The best way to be sure about this is to download the RailEurope smartphone app (iPhone and Android). It's a free app and you can download it and use it even if you buy from Eurail.com or don't buy a rail pass at all. Amazingly enough, it has the entire European rail schedule built into it so you don't even need to be online to use it. You just enter a departure city and destination city and it will show you all of the trains and connections going between the two. When you click on a specific train or combination of trains it will show you whether a seat reservation is needed for that particular departure. I've used this app literally hundreds or perhaps thousands of times to do my own research and help people find answers, and I've noticed that it's accurate at least 99% of the time. Once in a blue moon you'll enter two cities and it will show, say, a 20-hour journey when you are pretty sure it should be under 10 hours. Usually it's actually correct, but I've seen a couple times where it missed something.
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 09:00 train you planned for might seem a bit ambitious after a long night out, so you can instead opt for the 10:00 or 11:00 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 person.
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.