Last Updated on September 14, 2020 by Jeremy
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When planning a trip around Europe, you may hear about a Europe rail pass from companies like Eurail that offer multiple regional segments or full unlimited use passes on many rail networks throughout most of the countries in the continent.
I know from experience that many travelers are hesitant on purchasing a rail pass in Europe for a number of reasons, with rigidity and limitations being a few of the biggest.
But for all those who can get past these minor details, a lot of effort is required in identifying the best pass and even if a rail pass is worth the money at all!
To help, we've put together this post as a result of our years of research on Europe's ultimate travel question: how do you get a cheap europe train ticket?
Europe Rail Pass Types and Prices
Several different types of Europe train pass exist, and in many cases choosing the right one for you could make the difference between an amazing trip that saves tons of cash and a ticket that ends up costing more than individual tickets put together.
How do you know which one is right for you? Research, of course!
Before we begin this guide, we need make a quick warning. To summarize the passes that are available on the Eurail network in one word, it would be this: there are tons.
There are country-specific passes, regional passes, and global passes. There are passes discounted for young adults, passes discounted for children, passes discounted for adults with 2 or more per group if traveling together on all routes.
It goes even further, many of these passes can be purchased both on validity period (that is, the number of months the pass is good for), as well as the number of times you can use it for a trip (defined as a period of 24 hours of train travel).
With so many options, you may even consider just looking into flights for each route instead as cheap flights to destinations on your route may look more cost effective when put side by side.
But I'll let you in on a little secret – this is exactly what you need to do when looking at transit costs in Europe! It is time to research!
The prices listed below are an example of just a few of the pass types that are available, and are the Global and Select passes for travel after December 2017 in a 1st class saver for one adult.
If you are looking to travel in a group of two or more you can get a 15% discount on the below! The trade-off for the groups (up to 5 per group) is that you must all be present on each transit day to have the discount as only one group pass is issued.
Eurail Select Passes
Select passes are set up such that you can pick the countries you wish to travel, and the countries must border each other to maintain one contiguous route. The following are a few examples from a popular route in Western Europe that hits some premium countries like France and Switzerland.
1 country pass (3/5/8 days in 1 month) – $252 / $347 / $469
2 countries (5/8/10 days in 2 months) – $365 / $469 / $529
3 countries (5/8/10 days in 2 months) – $497 / $642 / $722
4 countries (5/8/10 days in 2 months) – $540 / $686 / $784
Breaking these down, the following comes out on a per trip basis:
1 country pass (3/5/8 days in 1 month) – $84 / $69.40 / $58.63
2 countries (5/8/10 days in 2 months) – $73 / $58.63 / $52.90
3 countries (5/8/10 days in 2 months) – $99.40 / $80.25 / $72.20
4 countries (5/8/10 days in 2 months) – $108 / $85.75 / $78.40
As you can see above, in general, passes get cheaper per segment as you add on more days but more expensive if you plan to travel between multiple countries.
But if you add on multiple countries, odds are good the distance you cover will be larger and will be more of a value when compared to individual ticket prices (this is important for later on in this article).
Eurail Global Passes
5 days in 1 month – $592 or $118.40 per trip
7 days in 1 month – $722 or $103.14 per trip
10 days in 2 months – $888 or $88.80 per trip
15 days in 2 months – $1,165 or $77.66 per trip
15 continuous days – $756 or $50.40 per day if traveling every day
22 continuous days – $973 or $42.50 per day if traveling every day
1/2/3 continuous months – $1,194 / $1,683 / $2,074
If you travel ten days per month on the continuous month tickets, the cost per trip comes out to be $119.40 / $84.15 / $69.13 respectively. This is a higher cost per trip than most of the limited trip segments, so for these to become cost effective you have to take more trips each month.
For the one continuous month pass to be more cost effective than the 7 days in 1 month pass, for example, you must take a minimum of 12 trips.
For the two continuous month pass to be more cost effective than the 15 days in 2 months pass, you must take a minimum of 22 trips.
For the three continuous month pass to be more cost effective than the 15 days in 2 months pass and 7 days in 1 month pass (together), you must take a minimum of 24 trips.
If these aren't enough to confuse anyone, you're not alone. These are just a few of the many passes available, and begs the question: How do you pick the right one?!
A Europe Train Pass Case Study
The answer to the question above is simply this- if cost is a major concern to you, you need to research thoroughly.
Lets look at a case study on an itinerary a reader sent to us with a question about this very topic (and what inspired this post). The reader wanted to visit France, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy in a period of about two months. In those countries they wanted to visit four cities in France, four in Switzerland, one or two in Austria, and four or five in Italy.
These countries are all touching, so a limited country regional pass is likely the best fit compared to a global pass that covers the entire Euro zone. This itinerary covers four countries and 13 to 15 cities with a few long-haul trips in France and Italy respectively.
In addition to the countries, the reader is of adult age and traveling with their spouse, so they qualify for a group discount of 15% per pass and the prices we listed above.
What are the options?
2 month Global Pass – $1,683 with service every day
4 country Select Pass (10 days) – $784
15 days in 2 month Global Pass – $1,165
Buying tickets individually – Summarized below
A swing of just under $900 per person could be a big chunk of your travel money, so making the right choice upfront is quite the important one.
While a Global Pass would cover all the day trips our reader may want to take, it is unlikely that the total cost of all transit for those would swing up $900+. So lets cross that option off outright due to being on the expensive end due to the short distance covered.
In this case, the best pass that suits this itinerary would either be the 15 days in two month pass or the 4 country, 10 stop region pass in a period of two months.
With 13 to 15 transit days, our reader may be not using a few stops in the 15 day pass, but would then have the benefit of using these remaining days for expensive day trips at last minute.
If our reader chooses the 10 transit day pass, they will then be responsible for buying the extra rides as they go, contributing added cost on top of the price of the pass.
But to truly understand the cost savings possible, it is best to look at prices individually.
Check Europe Train Ticket Prices On Their Own
There are two cases to consider when looking at buying train tickets on their own, which includes looking at the full fare ticket for last minute purchases as well as the early bird discounts available when tickets first go on sale.
You may not always get an early bird discount, especially if traveling last minute, but it is always worth a peak to see if you'll be getting your moneys worth.
Here is what we found when looking at prices on 3rd party services like Rail Europe. (Other services, like Omio (formerly Go Euro) also exist that are worth pricing out as well; however, we did not compare them for this update.)
We could not find a very good approximation on what a “discounted” rate would be, but found a range of full fare prices for the economy seat as well as the premium seat.
For the sake of analysis, lets call these prices the max for both classes when available (prices listed economy/comfort and at optimal times a few weeks out- fees not included):
- Paris to Bordeaux: $96 / $101
- Bordeaux to Avignon: $72 / $96
- Avignon to Nice: $88 / N/A
- Nice to Geneva: $88 / $110
- Geneva to Zermatt: $109 / $191
- Zermatt to Lauterbrunnen: $129 / $206 + private train
- Lauterbrunnen to Zurich: $120 / $192 + private train
- Zurich to Austrian Alps: $120 / $201 + private train
- Austrian Alps to Venice: $92 / $148 + private train
- Venice to Cinque Terre: $61 / $ 70
- Cinque Terre to Florence: $29 / N/A
- Florence to Rome: $27 / $52
- Rome to Naples roundtrip: $64 / $100
- Total: $1,095 / $1,584 + private trains
- Average: $84.23 / $121.85 for 13 segments
For a four country pass with 10 segments, our reader would have to ultimately spend $784 to buy the pass plus $88 for the three cheapest segments, and a bit more for reservations and the private trains not covered. Total price: $872 + fees.
This amounts to a net savings over buying tickets individually of $200-$700 depending on the class of ticket purchased individually (less fees).
For the 15 day global pass, our reader would only have to spend a bit extra for a few private trains not included. Total price $1,253.
This would be a net loss of $158 over purchasing individually in economy class and a net savings of $331 if purchasing individually (excluding the two extra segments for day trips).
If the reader was purchasing in a group of two or more and received the 15% discount, then they'd be coming out ahead in all cases.
Which of the tickets is better of the two? Well, it is still hard to say.
The extra use on the 15 day pass can be used for an expensive day trip, and may even cover the cost of the difference from the 10 day pass, but it is hard to say without knowing more about our reader's plans on the ground.
This could make the biggest difference of the whole experience. As most day trips are close, we can assume the costs will be quite low and perhaps the 10 day ticket would be the best option.
Likewise, a few good early booking deals may come along to offset any savings from the pass too- but only if you're paying attention at the right time which most are not!
In this itinerary in particular, the multiple short distance segments offset the cost of the long-distance segments, but balance pretty favorably for a pass in most cases.
But a general rule of thumb comes out in that if your routes are short, purchasing train tickets as you go may make sense. If your routes are longer, with this itinerary being more middle-of-the-road, the rail pass will become more cost effective in the long run.
So, Can You Get A Cheap Euro Train Pass?
Based on the case study above, we would recommend to our reader to definitely check out a Eurail pass as it looks like there are a few options that could be good for their itinerary.
For all decisions between Eurail and non-Eurail travel, you must look at your own specific scenario, travel dates, and most importantly what level of flexibility you would be interested in having.
Those who plan on traveling long distances or across multiple segments (or both) will certainly find value in the passes, while those who are looking for fewer segments over shorter distances may find combinations of individual tickets and budget flights provide the best bang for your buck.
At this point we'd like to think you know who you are, and your decision on whether or not to buy a Eurail pass has been decided based on your itinerary!
Have you used European rail passes before? Do you think our assessment touches all the topics our reader needs to know in planning their trip? Let us know your recommendations by commenting below!
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About the Author: Jeremy is a full-time travel writer based in Pittsburgh and primary author of this site. He has been to 70+ countries on five continents and seeks out new food, adventure activities, and off-the-beaten-path experiences wherever he travels.