Buying Flexibility (train passes)

A little background info: My girlfriend and I are planning a 73 day trip to Europe. We fly into Athens mid April leave croatia at the end of June back to Canada. We are 25 and 26 years old. she has been to Europe with a group, i haven't been at all.

We have a rough itinerary but one of the things we want most in our trip is flexibility. The freedom to stay an extra few days somewhere we love, leave a city earlier than planned or even skip parts of what we have planned if we want. From what we have read, buying point to point tickets work best if you can buy in advance because prices can be steep if you book short notice and may not work well for most of our trip. Is this accurate?

Rough itinerary

  • Greece (2-3 cities)
  • Italy (4-5 cities)
  • Switzerland (Bernia express scenic train is covered by the pass, 2 cities)
  • Germany/Prague (3 cities)
  • fly to Scandinavia (2-4 cities)
  • Fly to Ireland (2-4 cities)
  • England (1-2 cities we know is not included in any pass and will find transportation as we go)
  • France (just Paris)
  • Belgium/Netherlands (3-5 cities)
  • Fly to Croatia (1-2 cities)

We expect 15-17 days on the train not including use in Greece, Croatia or England. About 25 stops gives us 3 days per stop. Of course some stays will be longer and others will just be a quick day visit on our way through.

We realize buying the pass ($75cdn per trip) is going to be more expensive than point to point tickets booked in advance but because we want the flexibility, we are planning on getting the 15 day global pass. We will have to reserve some trains a bit in advance and pay additional fees but we think this is still our best option. Hopefully it will also save us time shopping for prices while we are there. The pass will probably not be enough so we plan on buying a few train or bus tickets for shorter trips, leaving our pass for the more expensive trips.

If you've gotten this far, thanks for reading! we are hoping some more seasoned travelers could shed some light on this plan and if there are other options to consider we would be open to ideas. Cheers!

Geoff

Posted by Christi
Whitsett, TX, United States
808 posts

Geoff

The extra cost to keep the flexibility is well worth it for us. We have added days in places, left places early, added new stops and cut stops at one time or another. We also had no problems on most routes without reservations (never made a reservation). The few times we could not find an open seat we just parked in the restaurant car and enjoyed a beverage and chatted with others - still friends with folks we met that way. There is usually a closet in the restaurant car for bags so you do not have to sit them at the table too.

Sounds like a great trip - have a ball!

Posted by Devon
Ballwin
833 posts

Hi Geoff,
Your outline in general sounds good. I would consider putting Greece and Croatia together while you're in that part of Europe and depart out of England/Belgium/France at the end of your trip instead. Also just make sure you're not rushing too much - you have 12 countries listed for 73 days. That may not sound bad, but even on the low side of your city estimates, you have at least 20 cities - that's 3.65 days per city not including your travel between them. You may need to cut some of those to make your trip more enjoyable (have enough time to actually see what you want to see). The good thing is that you are focused on flexibility - so if you feel like you're rushing while you're there you'll be comfortable cutting or adding as you go.
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What I would do is look at some of the routes you're going to take and see what pricing might be like. Point to point tickets do offer significant savings when you buy in advance, but even without the advance purchase it can be cheaper to do point to point vs a pass (see this thread). You are smart to note that you plan on leaving the pass for more expensive trips/countries. I would just try to figure out (although I know it may be hard) if the path is truly worth it. I did use a pass in 2010 before I knew that they aren't always very cost-conscious, and I did enjoy the flexibility but I do think it was more expensive to do it that way. It seems like you've done some good research so far - I would just advise looking more into pricing etc. Good luck! I'm sure you'll have a wonderful trip.

Posted by Geoff
Vancouver
5 posts

Christi
Thanks for the reassurance the the flexibility is a valued luxury. We have also been a little unsure how easy it is to reserve and board trains so it is good to hear we shouldn't have too much difficulty. i'll keep the restaurant car in mind.

Devon
We were expecting a few raised eyebrows at our itinerary. We originally had planned on going north to south but that would not be wise with the weather in April. Starting in the south gives us a better chance at good weather, and a relaxed last leg in croatia will hopefully be a nice rest before getting back to our lives. We are a bit worried that we're trying to fit too much in and won't enjoy it as much as if we visited fewer places. We figure better to have too much planned be prepared to ditch a few places if we're feeling rushed. I'll definitely look into more specific pricing, if anything it will help us choose which trips to use the pass for.

Thanks for your replies and kind words, any other advice is welcome

Geoff

Posted by Zoe
Toledo, Ohio, US
5671 posts

You mention shopping for prices while you are there - except for choosing level of accommodation or day of travel. there's not much shopping to do; prices are fixed months in advance. Sometimes there are weekend or roundtrip specials, but that's about it, in my experience.

Posted by Emily
Vienna, Austria
922 posts

A few things to consider:

Trains in Greece and Croatia are not very extensive and will likely not go to the places you want to visit.

Intercity (long distance trains) service has a fixed "window" price. As mentioned above, you can't really shop around. For regional/local travel, you might be better off with special group fares, such as the Bayern ticket in Germany.

Never use Rail Europe; they are an overpriced ticket reseller and their schedules are unreliable.

I get being flexible, but it is considered a luxury as your post implies. You will face the same issues with lodging - booking ahead will also save you money; you will pay more as a walk-in.

You may want to have a look at the "man in seat 61" website - he has a gold mine of train travel info.

Posted by Christi
Whitsett, TX, United States
808 posts

For hotels I would find something the night before we left a place in the next place and book online. I researched them using the various booking engines but made my reservation directly with the hotel - as a former B&B owner I can say they really appreciate it when you book direct as it saves them the fee they would pay to the booking company. Also many places will not "give" all of their inventory to a booking site but will hold some back so if you see a place you like but the booking shows nothing available it is still worth a quick email directly to the property.. We also received discounts and a couple of arrival "gifts" (generally in the form of a beverage) for not using the booking engine.

Posted by Devon
Ballwin
833 posts

Geoff,

I understand your reasoning! Relaxing in Croatia at the end does certainly sound nice. Sounds like you've really thought things through. One other thing you may or may not know is that there are no international trains to or from Greece right now. Since your next planned stop is Italy you probably just want to fly from Greece to Italy. I have flown very cheaply between Rome and Thessaloniki before on Ryanair (of course, the caveat with any budget airline is to make sure you follow their rules on luggage etc exactly or expect high fees). Skyscanner.com is great - you can actually put Greece and Italy (instead of specifying cities) and find the cheapest flights between the two countries. I put in a random date in June and found Athens to Rome for $56 on Easyjet. Since you're going to Switzerland next, I would probably fly into Rome and work my way north.

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Christi's advice is good. I typically used hotel search websites or hostelworld.com to find places to stay while I was traveling. I would find which hostel or I wanted from those websites, but then emailed them to book directly through the owners. If the price is cheaper on the general search website you can ask the owners to match it (and in my experience they've complied - you pay the same but they don't lose the percentage cut to the website).

Posted by Fred
San Francisco
3927 posts

@ Christy....seating yourself in the bistro car in an ICE train in Germany, nursing a beer or some hot snack after you've just hopped on with a Pass, you're traveling like a local. My compliments! Every time I've gone to the Bistro car, it was always locals sitting there, some with the luggage in the corner or nearby, hardly ever any Americans. Who says you can't just hop onto trains anymore?

Posted by Geoff
Vancouver
5 posts

Thanks Zoe and Emily for clarifying that the price is just the price for trains in europe. Under "Rail pass or point to point tickets" on the seat 61 website the author says that the train pricing is more like air travel. i guess that is true of booking early to save but not to the extent of having "ryanair" type resellers and constantly fluctuating prices.

Emily, why would you suggest to never use eurail? the pass seems to fit our plan. We've read most of the seat 61 website and it sounds like the best idea for what we want to do.

Christie, Calling hostels, hotels and B&B's directly, after locating them on a budget site sounds like a good idea! Did you have any trouble finding a place or overpaying when you were booking a night or two in advance?

Devon, As you mentioned it sounds like flying greece to italy is better than our original plan to ferry. We are hoping that using a website like "ryanair" for 4 flights; greece to italy, germany to scandinavia, scandinavia to ireland and belgium to croatia. Hopefully we can find cheap flights!

Posted by Tom
Lewiston, NY
10499 posts

"Emily, why would you suggest to never use eurail?"

Because their business is based upon mark-ups. They're an unnecessary middle-man, and like all middle-man, they're advertising is based upon making themselve's seem indispensible to your plans. They're not. As noted, third-party rail passes are one of the most expensive methods of travel. The daily cost of rail pass is usually more than all but the most expensive full-price tickets. For the "flexibility" you buy with a rail pass, you could often simply buy a ticket at the train station immediately before riding for less money than the daily cost of the rail pass.

And, as mentioned, their schedules only show the trains for which they sell tickets, which is a tiny fraction of the trains that actually run on a daily basis.

Posted by Keith
United Kingdom
894 posts

Geoff - re your last post; Ryanair isn't a reseller, it an airline that sells its own tickets. For resellers you need Expedia, Flightcentre or any number of others. However, I'd use a website like Kayak just to see what suitable routes are available but then book direct with the airline (some like Ryanair don't allow resellers and won't show up so its worth checking direct with them too). For the routes you are considering airlines such as Air Berlin and easyJet might have the best options.

Posted by Devon
Ballwin
833 posts

Geoff,

You mention "ryanair" type resellers. Ryanair is not a reseller like Expedia or Travelocity, etc. They are a budget airline in Europe, similar to EasyJet, WizzAir, etc. Ryanair can be a pain in the a-- (you'll read some complaints if you search them) but can give you very cheap flights around Europe. To maintain the cheapness you have to follow their rules to a T though. I'm not sure what size bag you're planning on bringing, but it will most likely be larger than what they allow for carry-on - and even if you pay to check it you may end up paying for extra weight too. Like Keith said, EasyJet is often a better choice than Ryanair and one reason is that they allow slightly larger carry-on bags and their fees for checked bags and extra weight allotment are lower (or were last time I checked). Like I said, I recommend Skyscanner.com - it'll give you the different solutions for budget and regular airlines. Sometimes you'll find that British Air (or similar airlines) will take you between two cities for just a little more than a budget airline.

Posted by Emily
Vienna, Austria
922 posts

Just to be clear, I said "never use RailEurope," I did not mention Eurail (although both are ticket resellers with extortionate mark-ups and bad information).

Train tickets do act like airline tickets and can fluctuate when purchased online and in advance. You will be tied to a specific train at a specific time. The walk up counter price is the same, always, but you can get on any train at any time.

Posted by Fred
San Francisco
3927 posts

Hi,

I agree with those on the issue of flexibility, all the more so since you have 73 days and one of you is eligible for a Global Youth Pass. The Pass will defintely give the flexibility if you decide to take off for various cities in Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland and Paris to and fro. If I were at your youthful age now and had 73 days, I would use the Global Pass or the Youth one if my plans called for doing a general European trip. Taking a night train is another option with the Pass. Which places in Scandanavia?

Posted by Geoff
Vancouver
5 posts

Thanks everyone for the info about the airlines. I have used Kayak as Keith mentioned to find suitable routes but will shop around when we're ready to buy tickets. Good to know ryanair, easyjet and Wizz air are airlines not just resellers. looks like i have a little more reading to do there. Ill check Air Berlin and skyscanner too to get a little more familiar with them all before we leave.
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Emily and Tom, the naysayers! Joking of course. Thanks for being the voice of reason. I guess we have a little more reading and pricing to do there too. We were concerned that the prices at the ticket window right before a train departs would be a very expensive way to go. Under our (potentially flawed) logic, a pass even though more expensive than booking ahead, would be better than trying to stomach last minute ticket prices if they go way up. Most of the people we talk to, and reading we do, speak about rail passes like they are the way go. They definitely make it sound 'indispensable' to a europe trip like you mentioned Tom. We started out planning on the global continuous, now a 15 day, maybe you'll talk us out of a pass completely! Part of our difficulty is not knowing what ticket prices will be if we book last minute. will last minute tickets be more expensive in June than in March? And how much do they go up as you get closer to the travel day? I suspect those are difficult questions to answer but worth a shot.
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Hey Fred!
Germany, Switzerland, Paris and Scandinavia are really where we worry that if we don't buy a pass, the price at the ticket counter might scare us off of taking a train like the scenic bernia express if we hadn't already paid for it. My girlfriend's grandparents are from Finland and Sweden so we were planning on starting in Helsinki and working our way west maybe as far as Copenhagen before we fly to Dublin. I have always been fascinated with scandinavian culture and politics and want to see it first hand. Have you been?

Posted by Tom
Lewiston, NY
10499 posts

"Part of our difficulty is not knowing what ticket prices will be if we book last minute. will last minute tickets be more expensive in June than in March?"

If you check on the individual national rail websites (ie, Deutsche Bahn for Germany, SBB for Germany), and enter a date in, say, May, you can get an estimate. The starndard fare ticket prices do not change. What changes are the discounted tickets, which are usually available for purchase up to 90 days in advanced. The discount usually becomes less significant closer to the date of travel, up until a few days before, when usually only standard fare tickets are available. So, even if you buy your ticket immediately beforehand, there's no nasty surprise- you're paying the standard fare and no more. The disadvantage of buying discounted tickets in advanced is that they usually restrict you to riding a specific train at a specific time.

I've read through your posts a little more, and I have more observations, most of it discouraging if you're really set on a pass.

Where do you plan to visit in Germany? I did a few checks of comparing a 3rd party rail pass to standard fare ticket prices. A pass only makes sense if you're riding only long-distance ICE trains to cities several hours apart from each other (ie, Munich to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Hamburg or Berlin). Anything else is a money-losing proposition. And this is just considering standard fare prices, not even looking at the advanced purchase discounts.

It's impossible to make a pass pay for itself in the Netherlands and Belgium. Domestic ticket prices are generally pretty cheap. There are no advanced purchase discounts offered, so all you need to do is just buy the tickets at the station before you hop on the next train. Even if you decide to get a rail pass for other countries, I'd recommend just buying point-to-point tickets for these countries.

The multinational rail company Thalys operates the highspeed corridor that links Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam (among other cities). They restrict the number of pass holders that can ride each train, and they require you to purchase an additional supplement and reservation. You would do better just to purchase your tickets in advanced to take advantage of the available discounts.

You didn't mention where in Nordic countries you plan to visit, but if it's between the capital cities, only Copenhagen and Stockholm have a decent rail link. For travelers in these countries, rail isn't as useful as it is elsewhere in Europe.

"Most of the people we talk to, and reading we do, speak about rail passes like they are the way go." Who exactly is giving you this information? Rick Steves, who has a monetary stake in selling rail passes? Travel agents who probably have a very poor understanding of the various rail networks in Europe (and also have an incentive to sell passes?). Travelers who blindly bought the passes without doing a thorough price comparison from the actual rail operators' websites (NOT the inflated prices quoted by Rail Europe)?

Posted by Christi
Whitsett, TX, United States
808 posts

The other big difference between the pass & standard fare tickets is the class - rail passes are for travel in 1st class cars, the fares most on this board talk about are 2nd class. A standard fare ticket per person from Berlin to Prague is 67,60 E for 2nd class and 107,40 E for 1st class.

We did manage to travel France, Belgium & The Netherlands on our pass with no reservations nor supplements. The most difficult route was Paris to Brussels I think it added an extra hr & a half to our travel time and a train change. Last minute tickets from Brussels to Amsterdam run 79,00 E for 2nd and 109,00 for 1st. Paris to Brugge 88,00 to 106,00 for 2nd and 119,00 to 151,00 depending on the departure time. You just really have to do your homework and weigh the value of all the options and pick which works best for you.

Posted by Zoe
Toledo, Ohio, US
5671 posts

Trainfares do not fluctuate, they are fixed in advance, but the lower fares disappear because they are snapped up right away. So, there may be 100 super-economy tickeys available 90 days out, but none left by 60 days out, so you have to book the next price level (economy) if available, but those disappear, too. Then you have the base fare (full price) left. The less you pay, the more restrictions there are.

Posted by Fred
San Francisco
3927 posts

Geoff,

The Global Pass is valid in Finland and Scandinavia, going from there to Ireland, you can definitely use the Pass. If you by ferry from Helsinki to Germany, ie, Rostock or Travem√ľnde, there is a 30% discount on the tickets with the Pass. In Sweden I suppose you will take long distance trains, not the regional ones. The Pass gives you that flexibility to do exactly that w/o being locked in, tied down to time and date specific adv. discount tickets. At you age and having 73 days. I would not sacrifice flexibility for savings. Which cities in Gemany are on the list, what other possibilities you might have.?

Use the Pass for Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Germany on ICE trains, night trains. Reserve in advance those short trips where you can lock yourself in. Say, in Paris you decide on the spur of the moment to take a day trip to Strasbourg r/t the Pass will come in handy. With the TGV connection Paris-Strasbourg in one day it can be done, I've done it.

Posted by Geoff
Vancouver
5 posts

Comparing train ticket rates to airline tickets must have stuck with me. its not as complicated as I had in my head. thanks for clearing that up. To help figure it out, and after all this confusion i finally made a spread sheet. The 15 day pass sits us at $79 per trip, and 10 day pass at $90 (canadian). We went to each country or region's rail providers and got the best idea we could of what we would be paying for the trip. Tom, you were right about a lot of the trains not even being close to the per trip rate of the passes. And for the most part the people who praised them.
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The 15 day pass has 11 trips we'll probably be making that are even or will save money, and 2 that we'll only loose a little.
The 10 day pass has 8-9 trips that are even, will save money, or only loose a little.

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If we're feeling rushed we might end up with longer more expensive train trips as we skip destinations. Is it worth stopping in Munich between Zurich and Prague? Both passes are almost worth getting if you just look at the math. Since we'd like to pay for some of our trip before we go, but retain flexibility, i think we'll get one of the two passes and just make sure we use it the right way. And i don't know what you get from first class other than a superiority complex but if we're not footing the bill for the upgrade why not!
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Fred! I had forgotten about the other discounts and never considered a day trip return. Thanks! that opens other possibilities, I suppose a morning train into a place followed by an overnight train out might work to have a quick visit somewhere and use only 1 day of the pass for both days. Since we have a lot of places we'd like to visit that might work great at giving us more time in a few places but still get to see something we wanted.
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Thanks again everyone for helping us out! If you have any other questions, recommendations please feel free to comment. We're a little low on hidden gems and smaller towns. Fred, tell me bout starsbourg!
Geoff

Posted by Fred
San Francisco
3927 posts

Geoff,

Mentioning Strasbourg I meant that as a possible doable day trip. Of course, the city is well worth your time as a cultural and historical place, above all, its cathedral. For a day r/t on an ICE or other speed train, no more than a 2.5 hour radius, such arrive by 11 am, depart by 18:00, thus giving you 6-7 hrs for the day trip...very doable to see the centre of a city or to focus on a specific museum.

For those day trips where they are accessible by regional train only, just get a point to point ticket.

Posted by Emma
Oregon
112 posts

You have chosen countries where the Eurail Global pass generally does offer flexibility. Faster or longer trains in Italy, Norway, Sweden, and Finland require seat reservations before boarding, but these are usually available a few days ahead or even on shorter notice.
* Italy in particular does not limit the number of seats for travelers with a Eurail pass, making it easier to book a seat on the day of travel.
* In Norway, departing at 8:00 a.m. from Oslo toward Bergen (for the Norway in a Nutshell route) is a popular departure time that could fill up a couple of weeks ahead in June.
* The Eurostar train from London to Paris requires a separate ticket that you should book ahead to get one of the better prices, or flying may be cheaper on short notice.
* The Paris-Brussels Thalys seat reservation with a railpass costs about $45 per person in 2nd class or $65 in 1st and the seats for railpass travelers are limited. It's fine to reserve in 2nd even if you have a pass for 1st class. See Rick's reservation advice at http://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/transportation/trains/reservations and follow links to the countries you're visiting.

P.S. I've said this because your travel In France is listed as "Paris only." France is not encouraging much flexibility. If you dohave a sudden whim to take a TGV from Paris to Strasbourg, reservations must be purchased at least three days in advance at a train station or online through Rail Europe, assuming they have that route reservation available as an e-ticket.

Posted by Terri Lynn
Nashville, TN, USA
719 posts

You can get the 24-country 21-day pass and if you do it right now, they will give you some free travel days. We buy directly from Eurail at www.eurail.com to get the free days. You will likely save money. You can travel continuously so have maximum flexibility to go on days you want to travel.

Posted by Fred
San Francisco
3927 posts

Hi,

Getting those free days obviously decreases your cost per day on the Pass, adds more flexibility to the itinerary for impromptu day trips esp in Germany, such as a 2hr. radius r/t on an ICE, or in Scandanavia, or even in France on the TGV. You have to the end of March to get the free days. With your itinerary I'd take it.

Posted by Scott
Santa Fe, NM
2 posts

How about doing the entire trip with a 90 Day Eurail Pass?

In my opinion too much of an itinerary can be cumbersome and tie you down to certain things that may take up much of your time or make you miss things on a longer trip. Often you are forced to leave somewhere just when something special is beginning to happen. Some of the best experiences I have ever had in Europe were meeting someone one day and then going somewhere (maybe clear across the continent) with them that I had no plan of going to. I usually book hotels if needed a day or two ahead of time, (I use eurobookings.com) and many times I just overnight on the train and find a hotel in the morning if I like the city, which is the best time of day to find a room. The global pass also lets you return to places a second time to see more, visit new found friends, or go to an event. The Ferries to Ireland & Scandinavia are covered and a great adventure as well.

Many people don't like traveling this way, but having a full on Eurail pass makes almost anything possible, including an overnight train to get to a concert the next day, or discovering a place you really love and staying a week. I have done 16 of these type/ length trips over the years and never regretted any of them. Only thing is you need to take only a backpack. See Rick's suggestions on how to do it.

Greece may or may not be problematic, but there is usually a strike somewhere in Europe all the time. If the strikes continue just overcome it with alternate transportation and carry on, or just start in Italy. Best with your trip, that many days is really a great way to discover Europe.