Confusion about railpass and which to choose?

I'm flying into London to start a 2 month trip of Europe. I don't have an exact itinerary and am kind of wanting to travel with less of one. I know I definitely want to explore England, then travel to Scotland and Ireland before I move on to at least Spain, Italy, possibly the south of France and maybe then Germany and Amsterdam (an again, anywhere else I'm moved to go).

It seems like the Eurail Select pass (or I guess even the global pass)may be a good option for some countries. But if I'm wanting to travel some in England I'm not sure if I should buy an separate Britrail pass with travel to Scotland. It also seems like most don't recommend the Britrail to Ireland pass, so not sure if there is a better cheaper alternative to get from Scotland to Ireland? Plane or ferry possibly?

As I research, I just seem to be getting myself more confused. Any recommendations from people that have used the train to travel and the best and most cost efficient way to get between some of the countries would be extremely helpful. Of course don't want to end up overpaying, but also don't want to lock myself into something that limits me too much. I appreciate any help and input. Thanks.

Posted by Tom
Lewiston, NY
10677 posts

"Any recommendations from people that have used the train to travel and the best and most cost efficient way to get between some of the countries would be extremely helpful."

When researching transportation options, keep this quote in mind: "Fast, cheap and good... pick two. If it's fast, and cheap, it won't be good. If it's cheap and good, it won't be fast. If it's fast and good, it won't be cheap."

I don't know the rail systems in all these countries, but the "best and most cost efficient way" to travel in Germany and onwards to Amsterdam is either advanced purchase of 2nd class tickets for the high-speed trains betwen major cities (ICE= Intercity Express), or regional passes for traveling to peripheral smaller cities and towns. For the ICEs, you can purchase tickets up to 90 days before your date of travel. Ticket prices gradually increase thereafter. Yes, you lose flexibility because it locks you into riding a specific train, but cost and flexibility are usually inversely proportional. And the daily cost of a rail pass is often more expensive than the full price of second class tickets (that you can buy immediately before boarding) for all but some of the longer train routes. So, often you're paying an extra premuim for the mere illusion of increased flexibility.

For the regional passes, the prices of these do not change, so you can simply buy them at the train station. Some of the other posters on this website know more about these passes than I do, so I'll let them fill in the details. And even if you don't use the regional passes, tickets on regional trains are much cheaper than the daily cost of the standard railpasses.

Most of us have found that third-party rail passes are just about the most expensive method for traveling around Europe. And because some of the various national rail operators have placed restrictions on their use, some of the flexibility they formerly offered is gone. You'll have to crunch the numbers yourself to decide what offers the best value for you. But make sure you get all of your information from the websites of the rail operators in the individual countries (Deutsche Bahn for Germany, NS for the Netherlands, SNCF for France, etc.), NOT from third-party ticket resellers like RailEurope, Eurail... or even the operator of this website. Anyone else beside the company that actually runs the trains is an unnecessary middle-man. Like all middle-men, they'll try to make their services seem indispensible and will only provide you with selective information.

So, your first question shouldn't be "Which railpass should I buy?", but "Should I buy a railpass? The answer depends on your own personal preferences, but for many of us, we determined long ago that our answer is a definitive "No".

Posted by Jessica
Woodstock, GA
8 posts

Thanks guys.

Tom, I wasn't even aware those were middle men booking sites, so that is good to know!

Dick, found that site this am. It's got a ton of info, but am slowly trying to wade my way through. Thank you.

Posted by Laura
Rick Steves' Europe
8835 posts

Without a firm itinerary, it will be harder for you to compare ticket vs. pass prices and also less likely that you'll take advantage of advance-purchase ticket discounts. But you could consider a pass to be a "safety net" to cover 10 of your longest travel days on the continent. The passes sold for visitors are not sold for European residents and so are not readily available in Europe. It's also no problem to buy tickets as you go, especially if you'll mix in some flights for longer distances; see, but expect flight prices to go up closer to departure dates.

On the continent, you're already planning on 5 or more countries, so the Eurail Global pass is the only pass that covers that many. Seat reservation fees will add to your total cost in Spain, Italy, and France, and it's important to reserve French TGVs well in advance because places for pass holders are limited.

The BritRail+ Ireland pass does not cover ferries, so you always have to buy a separate ferry or plane ticket. Also, no pass covers the Eurostar ticket from London to Paris or Brussels. We don't recommend the BritRail+Ireland pass based on price; but the regular BritRail pass is quite a bit cheaper and currently comes with an extra day free if you complete your order by 5 p.m. Eastern on Aug. 28. For instance, if you are age 26 or older, 4 travel days within a longer period will cost $365 or 9 days will cost $525; BritRail prices are 20% less if you are under 26 on the date of activating the pass and 37% less if you also have a Eurail-brand pass.

Posted by David
Florence, AL, USA
3016 posts

I applaud your sense of adventure.

Most European travelers are not using Eurail passes any longer--since the prices are now so high. They're buying individual tickets or supplementing their travel with budget European airlines.

I would suggest you consider starting your U.K. travels from Dublin, as you can easily fly there inexpensively. You can also fly over to Scotland on Ryanair cheap. You can avoid the very expensive U.K trains by flying from Scotland down to the London area on budget airlines. From London, you can fly EasyJet to Pisa or Rome where you can travel inexpensively between cities via their fast trains. From Rome, you can fly Vueling over to Barcelona. From Barcelona, you can take the new 6.5 hour fast train back up to Paris--or even the train to Madrid. You can get to Germany or Amsterdam easily by train from Paris.

Most of my trips to Europe are by rental car. We took two train trips in Hungary and Czech Republic in April, 2014, and we were a little uncomfortable with poor air conditioning. Those trips were enough trains for us in Europe.