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So when did train passes make sense for many travellers?

It seems that with a few exceptions most train passes, whether in one country or for many, just don't make sense price wise and most travelers would be better off buying point to point tickets, unless they plan on basically seeing Europe by train, and not doing a whole lot more.
When I travelled a lot as a youngster back in the 1980's it seemed that lots of Americans would buy a Eurail pass. On my 1989 trip I was unique among fellow Americans who I met in that I didn't have a pass and they usually did. Does anyone know what prices were like back then, and whether it was a good deal, and when it no longer became a good deal? Also, one would think that to compete with all the discount airlines in Europe that a good pass option would be out there as well, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

Posted by
39 posts

I used a 3 month Eurail pass in 1986. The price was $360 for the 2nd class version. No restrictions on it that I remember. I could be forgetting but I am almost certain I never reserved a seat, I just got on and sat down, showed my pass when the ticket person walked by. Reserving a sleeping car was more, I remember Copenhagen to Stuttgart overnight was $10 extra for a bed. I don't remember how good of a deal the pass was for that time, but I am pretty sure it was.

Posted by
495 posts

Do we know they were ever a better deal?

Even with the internet it seems most people won't do the maths. Pre-internet probably no-one knew how much the travel would have cost.

Posted by
5042 posts

Maybe it was the advent of the high speed trains? The need for seat reservations at extra cost ( although not everywhere)? Limiting the number of rail passes for any given train?

Posted by
3984 posts

We bought Eurail passes (3 country passes) for the last time in 2002. That was the last time our route cost less with the pass segments than point to point tickets for our particular far flung itinerary.

EDIT: they were also having a sale with an extra day thrown in so that sweetened the deal and tipped the $ scale.

Posted by
364 posts

With the high speed trains & deeply discounted tickets for advance purchases which include a reserved seat.

Posted by
16894 posts

The primary changes in European rail travel over the years have been the wider spread of high-speed trains, the requirements in some countries for seat assignments on those trains, and most importantly, the sophisticated computer systems that allow "yield management" through a series of progressive advance-purchase discount rates. Concurrently, there's been a rise of budget airlines and a reduction of overnight trains to cover longer distances.

Advance-purchase ticket discounts were not a thing of the past (and most tickets were not for sale more than two months ahead) but you'll see them recommended in most comparisons to a rail pass. The price you pay now depends considerably on how early you plan and commit, with the best deals often for sale three or four months out. The countries that don't offer them (mostly in Eastern Europe) are also the areas that don't have as many fast or expensive trains to start with.

There are also more visitors to Europe, making shorter visits, and with more interest, need, and computerized ease of reserving more trip plans in advance (hotels, museums, trains, etc.). The traveler who doesn't want or require a lot of advance bookings can still travel very flexibly in many countries with a rail pass. This is especially true in areas where seat assignments aren't required, including Britain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, and much of Eastern Europe. The number of seat assignments for pass holders is not always limited nor necessarily expensive, but both tend to be the case in France and Spain, where they're widely required. There is a definite value to flexibility, which some people are willing to trade away, but I prefer not to trade it away if other factors don't dictate that.

You cannot make a reliable blanket statement that rail passes are or are not a good value. The value that you get out of a rail pass always depends on how far you travel with it, in which countries, and how carefully you tailor the number of travel days to your actual plans. While prices for big passes have risen, so has the number of smaller, pre-defined pass options. I encourage travelers to plan the trip first, then compare transport costs, and to pay attention to the rules and restrictions of each product, since many transport tickets are not refundable or changeable.

Posted by
8594 posts

I think comparing value solely on price comparison is not fair. I last used a rail pass in 2008. If you want to maximize flexibility and mobility, a pass provides value not measured by just looking at prices. I loved the fact that a BritRail pass in 1981 let me decide day-to-day where I was going, without having to buy more tickets along the way. Some people, especially young or inexperienced travelers may still want that. That no longer suits my style, but I don't automatically assume they're not worth it. Internet makes planning easy these days, but not everyone wants to hyper-plan every hour like many seem to do here on this forum.

Posted by
420 posts

I know this is a Europe site, but the Japan Rail pass is still an incredible deal. You can use it for travel between cities, travel within cities, and travel to and from the airport. Of course it's only good on JR trains, buses, and ferries. However, for most tourists this pass will cover all your transportation needs while in Japan. Depending what you buy it costs about the same as a round trip ticket on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Hiroshima.

Posted by
104 posts

Well, in 1975 my husband and I bought student Eurail passes and used them in Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands. I don't recall having to make any reservations and we just got on any train we wanted. Things were very different back then.

Posted by
7657 posts

I will second the comments Laura made, right on the money.

We did use a Global Rail Pass in 2000, it was a great bargain, Saver Pass, 2nd Class

Used a Britrail Pass a few years later, again a bargain, but we had all long hauls (flex type pass) and with it our Daughter traveled free with us, so more savings.

German Rail Passes that included BeneLux countries were also a bargain for years after that, mainly because most seat reservations were not required, and the German Regional Passes for up to 5 people are still a bargain. Italy also used to have a kilo pass that was great...but that went away 10 years ago or so.

Posted by
2031 posts

In 1972 we paid $199 for a 3 month first class Eurail pass. We made no reservations and paid no additional costs. We slept on many but never had a sleeper. Talk about the good old days.

Posted by
420 posts

I think there will always be the lore of a Eurail Pass. When I was in college I fantasized backpacking through Europe with my Eurail pass. In fact when we decided to go to Europe the previous summer the first thing I did was price Eurail passes. Ha! I ended up buying 8 sets of point to point train tickets for a family of 4 and my total cost was cheaper than 1 adult Eurail pass. Plus the Eurail pass didn't cover the U.K. I can see the OPs question.

Posted by
315 posts

Utilized a first class German rail pass where we utilized 3 days over 5-7 days in 2015 plus a couple bus options that I prepaid. Peace of mind is a value. We walked up to the ticket office to purchase, in Frankfurt, without a line. France, Italy and Switzerland in 1988 for one month of travel with no rail pass and went everywhere by train. Freedom and a one time extra fee by a french ticket taker for being spontaneous! Car rental for many trips which have taken us beyond the norm. Oh, do not forget bicycles with panniers in the Swiss mountains. Expect RAIN! Preparation starts with Rome2Rio for transportation. When the options start to increase my anxiety I throw in another dollar and move on.
Cost for europe travel is tied up in airfare, lodging, dining out, entry fees and lastly transportation. I am able to plan and prepare our trips for $300-350 per day for two and we do not share bathrooms. I do have miles for one of the tickets.

Posted by
19151 posts

In 1988 I went to Germany for 14 days. I bought a 16 consecutive day German Rail pass from DER for $160 and used it for 13 of the days. Although a few days of usage were minor (Munich suburb to Marienplatz or Mainz Hbf to FRA), at just over $12/day I felt I got pretty good value out of it.

In 2000, I payed the same amount, $160, for a five day flexible German Rail pass. In retrospect, considering the trains i used, I just about broke even vs individual tickets. At that time there were no advance purchase discounted tickets, and the only "Länder-Ticket" was the Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket on weekends.

Today, with advance purchase (SparPreis) tickets, all Germany SW-Tickets and QdL-Tickets, plus every Land having their own regional pass and a plethora of less-than-full-Land regional passes (e.g. Werdenfels-Ticket, it's easy to pay less than you would with a rail pass.

Posted by
4132 posts

I recall a time when it was not hard to buy reservations on the TGV to use with a pass. They were not arbitrarily restricted.

That made the 2nd class France rail pass, and the drive-rail pass, a pretty good value when traveling together.

Nowadays I wouldn't do it.

Posted by
2532 posts

So when Laura says you should plan the trip first and then compare transport options,
and others seem to be in agreement about times-they-are-a-changin',
it sounds like my thinking of going to Switzerland just because the 15-day pass includes everything,
and makes it look like an E ticket to Disneyland where I just use the one card for all I need (besides food and lodging)
in the way of transport and museum admissions
to be a faulty line of reasoning.

I'm trying to come up with a rationale for getting beyond the Romance-language regions where I feel comfy and have a go at the rest of the continent, without having to dive directly into the belly of the Teutonic beast, and was thinking the Swiss pass was just the ticket.

But now you're saying I'd be pound foolish to spend a penny on that pass?

Posted by
11613 posts

Even before the internet, I priced point-to-point tickets because I had to budget for travel expenses.

I fondly remember the Biglietto Chilometrico in Italy, good for 20 rides or 3000 kilometers within 90 days, valid for up to five people traveling together. It was a steal, but the 120-days in advance point to point tickets on Trenitalia are just as good (Milano to Venezia for €9).

Posted by
11294 posts

Avirosemail:

1) No one is saying that passes are always a bad deal, just that they are often a bad deal.
2) You have to do the math with any pass to see if it is a good deal for your particular needs. There is no blanket answer.
3) Switzerland is one country where a pass can indeed be a very good deal. Particularly if you're going to some museums, the fact that it also includes a Swiss Museum Pass can make it pay off faster, beyond just the value for transit.
4) Switzerland is one of the countries where almost no trains require reservations. This makes a pass easy to use.
5) Having used the Swiss pass, I can say that in addition to any financial benefit, there's also the convenience benefit. For any conveyance that is completely covered by a Swiss pass, you don't have to buy tickets. You just hop on, and show your pass when needed. Particularly in the Berner Oberland, where you're always going up or down on something, I really appreciated not having to keep buying tickets.

So, if a Swiss pass works out to be a good deal for your particular trip, get it. Don't worry about other people's trips, or what anyone else says that doesn't relate to your trip.

Posted by
7175 posts

I had a 30 day Eurail Pass in 1987 and then used a Select Pass on trips in 1992 (Amsterdam > Seville > Rome) and 1995 (Berlin > Lisbon).

I think the exchange rate played a part in Eurail becoming less attractive because of expense in the mid 90s.
The need for compulsory seat reservations with the introduction of new high speed, premium services happened around the same time. The ease of direct point to point bookings online was the nail in the coffin. Transylvania anyone ?

Posted by
27359 posts

Avirosemail, I've seen many encouraging responses about Swiss rail passes (or sometimes suggestions that the half-fare card might work out better) on this forum, so I wouldn't be at all surprised if one of the Swiss deals paid off for you. Be aware, though, that some of the high-mountain railways are not fully covered (occasionally only 25% covered), and there are a few situations in which a reservation is required. I believe there's a highly-scenic postbus run that requires seat reservations, plus the observation cars on the Bernina Express. I assume there are a few others.

Posted by
51 posts

This is a great question and definitely one of those "your mileage may vary (YMMV)".

My husband and I often buy country train passes. Because we're both over 60, traveling together, and buying standard (second) class passes, we usually (although not always) get basically a half-price fare. We always compare all our options and possible train routes first, but it often comes out cheaper to get the passes in our situation even compared to the super-advanced train tickets.

Plus, we love the flexibility of the passes, not just because we can change our minds at the last minute, but because my husband has a bad back and it is very difficult to commit to a particular route. He might wake up that morning in excruciating pain and need several hours to get to the point where he can even consider getting on a train, no less the 9:14 a.m. that requires two changes. Other days he is up and ready to go at 5 a.m., so then we can take advantage of any train going in the right direction that suits our moods.

So my point is to consider your own needs, not just the prices, when you are considering your options.

Posted by
1160 posts

The rail pass advertising campaign from decades past should be nominated for an advertising industry award for "Best at Creating Brand Awareness". It has probably been 3 decades since passes were a good deal but every week someone comes on the forum to announce they're taking a trip and have already bought their rail pass. That advertising campaign really worked!!

Posted by
1493 posts

Whiskers 3 I totally agree that rail passes can be a great option. Value is subjective. We, too, often get rail passes. I do the math, and we generally only use the pass for long trips. When traveling short distances we just buy tickets as we go. For us there is a lot of value in the flexibility of a pass. Several years ago we were late for the Eurostar (due to not being able to find the rental car return in Pars - lesson learned!), but I think that has stuck with me! It's soooo nice not to be pressured to make a particular train - or to be able to leave early if you want! Also - we almost always include the lauterbrunnen valley in our trips if it is summer time, and having a pass that includes Switzerland give you a discount on the regional pass which we utilize as we always stay at least 4 days.

Posted by
4132 posts

Well, the OP started the ball rolling by asking what had changed to make passes less desirable, less of a deal. I heard some insightful answers. I did not hear anyone say passes never make sense or add value.

Does not seem right to complain that a conversation about what has changed for the worse is about what has changed for the worse.

Posted by
27359 posts

Yes, but discount airlines did not exist in 1972 Europe, and I don't remember advance-purchase rail fares, either.

I more than got my money's worth on a 2-month student rail pass in 1972 because I traveled in Eurail territory for the full 2 months and covered a lot of ground (mostly capital-hopping). I don't know that a regular pass would have been worthwhile; probably not, because I think at that time there was no 2nd-class option except on the student pass.

After that first trip a multi-country rail pass never made sense. I used the Swiss Pass a couple of times and an Italian pass once--all back in the 1980s. I do buy senior travel cards now when I make lengthy trips to countries where they are cost-justified for my itinerary.

Posted by
19151 posts

were they really great deals?

I paid $160 for a 16 consecutive day German Rail pass in 1988. Today, adjusted for inflation, that is $299. A 15 day pass today is $547, almost twice. I'd say a got a really great deal, or today's pass is a really bad deal.

Posted by
2393 posts

Well y'all may not believe it but for our upcoming trip a two month global pass is better than than advance ticket. I priced it all out and when you include day trips the rail pass is actually cheaper - not to mention better for us as we can have sudden unexpected delays which could cause missing a train and losing that cheap ticket.

We have several long stretches which can be pretty $$$. Out of 30 some train trips 9 need reservations - several are no charge like in Poland and the res fees for the rest are less than $250 and are fully flexible.

Like I recommend to all who ask - price it out and weigh the cost/benefits. Sometimes it really does make sense. The longer you go the cheaper it becomes:

one month global saver $ 943
two month global saver 1329

cost of second month 386

Posted by
4535 posts

I used rail passes a lot in the early '90s and they worked great then. I never needed a seat reservation except for the rare trip on the TGV (which was an exciting new thing then). I took a lot of overnight trains and used the pass to jump on trains just about anytime I wanted.

The last time I used passes was in 2009. I was doing a lot of traveling across the entire continent and didn't have my entire itinerary set yet. So advanced fares were of no value to me and I had lots of long haul, high-speed, and overnight trains. For the most part it was still a good value for me to have the passes. But I realized in some cases, I would have been better off just buying point-to-point tickets.

There are rare cases where a pass can still be a fair value, but those are diminishing and Laura's points are pretty much spot on. For long hauls, flying a discount airline makes more sense in time and money. Night trains are almost all gone. Most city-to-city trains are high-speed, reservation only trains. And most people here are going to Europe for a couple of weeks to a region or just a few cities. It's easy in those cases to get advanced fares and they have limited trips anyway. I cringe when those people report they have already bought their passes, as such cases almost never make for a good value. And most are probably over age 26 and had to buy them 1st class.

Posted by
8 posts

Back in 1989 my husband and I went on 7 week trip from London all the way to Greece on a very affordable Eurail Pass that allowed travel via train and boats. Back then before the Chunnel, you had to take a boat from England to France. We also took a boat from Brindisi, Italy to Greece for the final week. I think if you have a lot of time, using a rail pass would still be great and worth the cost. Flying isn't what it used to be, with all the security measures in place, so we waste a lot of time waiting in airport lines now--- even for "short" flights within Europe. I guess choosing between Eurail or flights would depend on how much time you have and what type of experience you want while traveling.

Posted by
1 posts

In 1988, I backpacked on a two-month Eurail pass. I was in my twenties, there was no internet, and I didn't know I needed one. To me, the pass was a one-time investment and afterward, I didn't need to think about paying for travel. Those were different times. I don't remember how much it cost--it's the answer to that question that brought me to this page.
I have a few things I can add here:
* I used my pass extensively during the time of its validity--maybe 20+ times
* It covered Morocco and I used it to go to Marrakesh--I loved that
* Using a Cooks European Time Table, I hopped on and off trains at will without reservation I used the he11 out of that (timetable) book
* Once or twice I slept in the train passageway because the train I got on was full (it was summertime)
* Once, I got a whole compartment to myself (and a girl I'd met) by chaining the compartment door locked behind us before other passengers got on. : )
* I met my wife to be on that trip. She was a graphic designer at the time and we continued to travel throughout Europe and Morocco for another year.
* We're still married almost 30 years later.
* Whenever I look back, I think that that Eurail pass was a great deal.

Posted by
14580 posts

@ rob in cal...In 1987 I had the German ten day Pass, 2nd class, rode that into the ground. In 1971 I went solo, had the Youth Pass, 2nd class, valid for two months, the cost was $125, used it on two night train rides in Sweden (expensive even then), more than 22 hours on the train, also on the Rhine boat going up the Rhine from Düsseldorf towards Koblenz (free), and a night ferry crossing Malmö to Travemünde, near Lübeck.

Basically, the Youth Pass was only used in Sweden and (West) Germany, since I spent seven weeks in Germany going from Lübeck-Travemünde to Munich. Looking back, I probably should have gone to Frankfurt too. . I never reserved a seat, just hopped on, presented the Pass when "kontrolliert," never bothered with tickets or counters until my Pass expired towards the end of the trip.

Only in Sweden on the way back, ie, the return 20 plus hour ride, did I reserve a Sleeper going back to Malmö. It was ok, but never did that option again. Of course, that was en extra expense not covered by the Youth Pass.

Every American youth traveler I met/saw in the hostels had an Eurail Pass or the Youth Pass in the 1970s.