Eurail Passes: Tips, tricks, and hacks to get the most value
Even as cheap flights within Europe are easier than ever to find, it’s clear that Eurail Passes are extremely popular based on the endless questions I get about finding the best one. It seems that everyone is aware that flying is a minor nightmare each and every time, and the romance of stepping onto a train just before it pulls out is infinitely better.
The new challenges are that people are seeing more of Europe than ever before, and the Eurail Passes also come in countless variations so finding just the right one is difficult. Many people ask me questions at the bottom of my which Eurail Pass to buy article, and I enjoy answering those questions, but there are some tips and tricks that most people miss unless they read every last comment.
Finding the right rail pass and getting the most out of it
Below I’ve collected the main tips and tricks for finding the cheapest Eurail Pass to suit you, as well as tips for getting more out of your pass than you might on your own. If you follow this advice there’s a good chance that you’ll save money on a pass and actually see more of Europe for the money you spend.
A Europe Rail Pass usually isn’t the cheapest way to travel, but it can give you a lot of flexibility for a modest price. You can actually travel cheapest if you buy European train tickets far in advance. On a short trip of 2 weeks or less, that might be worth it, but for longer trips most people prefer to decide where and when to go with much less notice.
Buying the best Eurail Pass for you
Unlike in the early days, European rail passes now come in hundreds of different variations, ranging from single-country passes all the way up to the Global Pass that is valid in 27 countries. Here are some tips to help you pick the right one.
Calculate your pass for only longer journeys
This can get confusing, but the general rule is that you are probably better off only using a rail pass for trips between major cities and not for shorter trips on regional trains. For example, let’s say you have 12 train journeys in mind, and 2 of them are only an hour or so long, like Florence to Bologna or Zurich to Lucerne. You’d be better off buying a 10-day pass and just paying individually for those shorter rides.
The complication with this is that each additional trip on a pass gets cheaper the more you buy. So for 5 days on a Regional Pass it might be US$322, which is US$61.10 each, but 10 days is only US$488, which is only US$48.80 each. However, many shorter trips will be less than US$40, so cutting out those will save money overall.
Cut down from Global to Select or Regional Pass by paying individually for a stop or two
You might also be able to save money by buying individual tickets on one or two trips if it allows you to qualify for a Select (4 bordering countries) or Regional (1 or 2 countries) Pass instead. For example, if you are planning on going Hamburg > Berlin > Prague > Vienna > Salzburg > Munich > Cologne, you’d save money by going with a Austria-Germany Pass and paying for the Prague trip separately.
The Select and Regional Passes also offer options with fewer days (5, 6, or 8) instead of the 10-day minimum of the Global Pass. If you can cut out 1 or 2 countries by paying as you go for those, you might qualify for a much cheaper pass that more than makes up for it.
>>>Check prices on Select and Regional Passes
If you are 26+, consider a 2nd Class Regional Pass
For those of us 26 years and older, our only choice is 1st Class on Global and Select (3, 4, or 5 bordering countries) Passes, but on Regional (1 or 2 countries) Passes, there is a 2nd Class Adult option, which is quite a bit cheaper. Even as a very tall guy, I’m comfortable enough in 2nd Class most of the time, so this option is worth considering for most of us.
Similar to the tip just above, if you can cut down your number of countries for a pass to only 2, then not only can you afford a cheaper pass, but you have this 2nd Class option as well. For a solo traveler 26 and up, it’s a savings of well over 30%.
For groups of even 2, or families, a 1st Class Saver Pass is a great deal
This tip is one that many people will figure out on their own, but only when they are well into the booking process. For all the passes, if 2 to 5 people will always be traveling together, they can buy a single Saver Pass, which is a 15% discount from 1st Class. Now, 15% sounds good, but it’s actually even better when you break down the numbers.
For example, a pass is US$400 in 2nd Class, and US$600 in 1st Class (always 50% more than 2nd Class). A Saver Pass is 15% less in 1st Class, which saves US$90, making 1st Class only US$510, which is only 27.5% more than 2nd Class. So imagine these are your two options (which they are):
- 2nd Class Pass: US$400
- 1st Class Pass: US$510
Who wouldn’t be tempted to ride in luxury for your entire Europe trip when it’s only a bit more than 2nd Class? The only trick to this is you have to have 2 to 5 people always traveling together, and most people qualify anyway.
Better still, for a family it’s similar, except children under 4 travel free and children 4 to 11 travel for half price off of the adult discount. In other words, European rail passes can be very cheap for families with kids as long as they always travel together, which is the idea anyway.
>>>Check prices on Eurail Saver Passes
Getting the most out of your Eurail Pass
Now that you’ve decided on the right rail pass for you, here are some tips for getting the absolute best value out of it, and being able to see more than you first realized.
Take night trains for longer journeys
Europe rail passes tend to be ideal for journeys that average at least 3 hours each, but of course more distant cities can take 10 or 12 hours to reach so many people consider flying. Hopefully you realize that there are specific “Night Trains” between nearly all major European cities, and using a rail pass on them can save a lot of time and money.
As long as it’s a direct train and leaves after 7pm, you only have to count the arrival day as a “travel day” on a pass. A typical night train leaves around 9pm and arrives around 7am the following day, and there is only one per night (they don’t leave every hour like they do during the day).
It’s also important to realize that night trains in Europe often decouple during the night, so different carriages go to different destinations. For example, on the night train from Amsterdam to Munich, there might be carriages also going to Berlin and Frankfurt and Prague, which will decouple and join other trains a few hours into the journey.
While the night trains are usually cheaper than the day trains, these long distances are still rather expensive, so using a rail pass makes sense, and it saves you on a hotel or hostel room for the night. You’ll have to pay for a seat reservation and you’ll usually be able to reserve a couchette (small bunk) for only €20 or so extra, which is well worth it to be able to sleep in privacy instead of upright in a normal seat.
Do same-day day-trips on shorter journeys
Since the Eurail Passes that offer a specific number of travel days within a certain period are far more popular (and usually better value) than consecutive days passes, this is a key trick to get the best value out of it.
If your train ride is, say, 5 hours or under, you should look for possible day trips to do on the same travel day. For example, the high speed train from Barcelona to Madrid only takes 2.5 to 3 hours, so you can easily be in Madrid by noon or even earlier. Then check into a hotel or hostel (hopefully near the train station) and come right back for a 1-hour train to Toledo for lunch and a few hours of walking around. The train rides to Toledo and then back to Madrid that evening are free because it’s the same travel day. If you were to do it the following day it might cost €25 round-trip out of pocket.
Europe is filled with worthwhile day trips within 90 minutes or so of the major cities, so you can save a lot of money by using a rail pass to do them on the same day. From Florence you can spend a few hours in nearby Pisa (which is plenty long enough), or from Cologne you can spend a few hours in Aachen, and on and on.
In many, if not most, cases, you’ll be taking local or regional trains that do not require seat reservations, so you can just hop aboard and show the conductor your validated pass as they go by. Most travelers try to include too many stops on their first trip to Europe, and this is actually a great way to cheaply add a solid 4 hours in a smaller city at virtually no extra cost.
Do mid-day day-trips on any journey
A similar tip to consider with a rail pass is to stop for a few hours along the way on a longer journey. In some cases you can do this one just as well without a rail pass, by buying 2 tickets for a journey instead of just one, but not always.
My own favorite example was that I wanted to see Oktoberfest in Munich, but didn’t want to pay triple hotel prices they charge during the event. So I took a train from Dresden (changing in Frankfurt) to Munich, arriving around 1pm. I stored my bags at the Left Luggage counter, and then walked to the nearby Oktoberfest grounds for about 4 hours of beer guzzling and preztel eating. Then I walked back to the station, claimed my bags, and took the next train to Innsbruck where I stayed the night for a fraction of the price of a Munich hotel room.
Just look at the cities on your own route and there’s a very good chance you’ll see a spot you might like to spend a few hours rather than a full day or two. From Nice to Milan you can stop in Monaco for a few hours, which is enough. Going from Amsterdam to Bruges you might spend a few hours in Brussels, rather than pay for an overpriced hotel room there, still giving you the chance to see the main sights.
You might have to pay for two seat reservations when dividing a trip up like this, but often one or even both of the legs won’t require a reservation because it’s on a regional train rather than a long distance one.
Make seat reservations all at once if you can
In the past few years the European rail system has become far more computerized, and unfortunately this also means that rail pass holders need seat reservations on most longer journeys. Part of the fun of a Eurail Pass used to be just hopping aboard the next departing train, but at least the good news is that when you have a reservation you’ll also have a seat, which wasn’t always true before.
With this in mind, one strategy is to reserve all of your seats when you first arrive in a country. For example, if you are taking 3 or 4 journeys within Italy, you can reserve all of those seats on your first stop, assuming you already know exactly where and when you want to go.
Generally the process of getting a seat reservation isn’t much of a hassle, with queues rarely longer than 30 minutes even in high season. But still, it’s even nicer to be able to check out of your hotel exactly 15 minutes before your train leaves because you know it’s only an 8-minute walk to the platform.