This is both a guide and a solicitation for opinions and info I may have missed, or just different personal perspectives. It seems like one of the basic questions a first-timer (or first-time independent rail traveler) has when planning a European trip is "Should I buy a Railpass?" The answer is...maybe, depending on where you're going, how quickly you want to get there, what your budget is, and how important flexibility is to you. In general, railpasses have one major benefit: flexibility. But now many countries require seat reservations for high speed trains which need to be bought in advance. This completely removes the railpass' main benefit from the equation in those countries. As a result, it never makes sense to purchase a railpass for a country that requires seat reservations for pass users on all high speed trains. The only exception to this may be for youth passes, which I will address in a follow-up reply. So, you say, that's no problem - you're traveling entirely in countries which largely do not require reservations on high speed trains. Now we can start to figure out if a railpass is a good deal for you or not. Cont.
One thing I think anyone should do before purchasing a rail pass is to figure out what trains they are likely to be using, if they desire reservations or if reservations are required, and where they will get reservations, and for how much, if they want/need them. Too often we have people posting on this site who have already bought a rail pass and cannot find where to buy required reservations. Then they should also add the cost of reservations to the cost of the rail pass when comparing the pass to point-point tickets. In 1988 I went to Germany with a 16 day German Rail pass that cost me $160. I only used it for 14 consecutive days, but that was still less than $12/day and no extra fees - a great deal. In 2000 I bought my last pass, a German Rail pass for about 5 days out of the month. I figured out later, for the trains I actually rode, I about broke even, but in the meantime I learned how I could have traveled to the same places for less. Since that trip (8 more) I have always looked at the price of a rail pass, and it has always been much more than I have paid for point-point, regional passes, and advance purchase tickets (3). In May I traveled for 14 days in Bavaria, Austria, and the Czech Republic using point-point tickets, Bayern-Tickets, and one Savings Fare ticket. I input my itinerary into RailEurope's pass finder app. They said to buy $487 worth of rail passes for my trip. I actually spent just $157 for what the rail passes would have covered.
1) Does most of your travel take place over long distances on routes with high speed trains? If yes, you may want to continue considering a railpass. If your trip, or significant portions of it, take place in areas where you will be taking regional trains, or has regional options and speed is not a priority for you, it is best to avoid a railpass, as either the regional train tickets bought day of travel will be inexpensive and/or there will be regional passes available to you (like the laender tickets in Germany) that will be cheaper than using a railpass day. 2) How much does flexibility matter to you? So you are traveling long distance on high speed trains - BUT for whatever reason you don't want to be locked into an advance purchase discount ticket for a particular train. You may want total flexibility. This is where a railpass' value really starts to matter. So clearly, the only time to consider a railpass is if all 3 of the above conditions are met, and even then, it is not likely to be the cheapest way to travel, but it may be the fastest/most convenient/most flexible, which is why you're paying a bit extra. But most trips do not meet these requirements, or if they do, not for enough days/legs of travel to warrant a Railpass, which of course start at 4 days of travel minimum for a 2-country pass. You would then need 4 long-distance high speed train legs in countries without mandatory reservations, all the while you want to pay extra for total flexibility, for the railpass to be a logical option for you. Cont.
There's a couple more caveats when considering a Railpass. - Youth passes. If you're under 26, a youth pass might be a good deal because it's so much significantly cheaper than an adult pass. Most of the people on this board are not under 26 though. I would encourage people who qualify for this path to "do the math" of what discount, advance-purchase tickets would cost versus the youth pass to see if you will actually save money, or to determine if the flexibility will be worth it. -1st Class. All adult eurail passes are by default 1st class. If you want to travel entirely in first class on high speed trains, a pass may be cheaper than even advance purchase point-to-point tickets. Again, you'll have to do the math (or if you are so enamored of 1st class, maybe you just don't care about saving money!) -Last minute - You're planning a last-minute trip and all the cheap advance fares have sold out. A railpass can be a convenient way to get around in that circumstance, but again, only in countries that don't have mandatory reservations for most trains AND on trips that utilize a lot of high-speed train legs. In summation: you don't even need to price out every single leg of your journey in most cases to decide if you should consider a railpass or not, but you do need to know where you're going (in general) and what your priorities are. And if saving money is the main one, a railpass is almost never your best option. And I've bought 4 railpasses in my time. In only two of those scenarios did I meet the criteria I described above. Yep, I could have saved a lot of money had I known then what I know now.
I usually try to avoid blanket statements without any qualifiers... but I've never seen any sort of 3rd party pass that makes any economic or flexibility sense in Belgium or the Netherlands. NMBS (Belgian rail) sells a domestic pass that is, in fact, quite a bargain, especially for a group of two or three people.
This is a pretty good summary and frankly, a more enlightened view than what is often shared here. Not everyone is able to/wants to buy P2P tickets in advance and get cheap fares. If you fall in that category, then a pass won't be much more expensive than P2P tickets and offers some conveniece. Even with mandatory reservations, there is still considerable flexibility with schedules that a pass offers. A passholder can purchase a seat reservation a day or two in advance when they know which train they will travel on. The reservation fees are fairly minimal for passholders. Thalys and TGV seem to restrict how many passholder seats they offer, but I've never had any problems elsewhere in Europe. I'm all for giving people information and cheaper options that they may not know about (P2P advance purchase tickets), but there are many here that are almost obsessed against railpasses.
I appreciate the input guys. You're all dudes who know your stuff. I wanted to post this guide (which, with refinement, I will eventually post on my blog) because I think this is all very confusing for "newbies". Honestly a TON of research and reading is necessary to figure out what the best deal is for your rail travel is during any trip and it is completely overwhelming. I'd like to write a guide that simplifies it for people without totally overwhelming them. Tom: Thanks for the input about Belgium and Netherlands. I really feel at this point I can only speak authoritatively about Germany and France as that's where I've done the bulk of my rail travel, with passes and without. Douglas: I agree with your POV overall. There is often a super anti-pass sentiment on this board but I believe a pass can be the best way to go - in certain situations. The problem is, figuring out those situations is dependent on so many factors that it's confusing and people start saying "Railpasses are never a good deal!" or "Railpasses are the best way to go!" or "Get a car!" The reality is it always depends on the individual needs of the traveler. For some people a railpass IS a good option, and that often gets overlooked. Lee: In total agreement with you. Most people don't seem to understand how the systems work (which is fair - it's complex!) or just don't bother to do the research. I still think a German Rail Pass can be a good value for specific kinds of trips. I used one with my parents who wanted to travel in 1st class and we were taking high speed trains exclusively. We actually saved money as opposed to any other option with that railpass.
Sarah, when you speak of countries that have mandatory reservations on high speed trains, you need to separate out two kinds:
1. The Italian system, where you need a reservation, but it's not expensive and there is no quantity restriction for pass holders, and 2. The French system, where there is a quantity limit of tickets available for pass holders, and the reservation can be pricey (especially on trains like Thalys). I wouldn't buy a pass for either, but at least in Italy, you'd be able to use it; in France, you may not even be able to use it on some trains, and end up having to buy a new, separate ticket. Your point about first class is important; many compare 1st class passes (mandatory because of age) vs 2nd class advance purchase, but that's apples to oranges. If the traveler is going to take 1st class no matter what, the pass is not nearly as bad a deal (and, believe it or not, I've seen some vehement arguers who will never, ever travel 2nd class in Europe, in any country, and who feel 1st class is always worth it). Also worth noting is that if you buy a one-country pass (I was just looking at Germany's), you can usually get a 2nd class pass at any age, again making the equation different. As you say, one has to do the math, but one also has to know about the "hidden" surprises. Another one you didn't mention is the new train systems, like Thello and Italo, that don't take rail passes at all. These are nit-picks - great post!
Harold - to be totally honest, I am not personally familiar with the Italian system. Still, from what I know, you can get discount tickets in Italy buying in advance. Which locks you into a particular train. Since you need reservations with a railpass to use a high speed train it Italy, the benefit of "just show up and go" is lost with a railpass in Italy. It may not be as bad of a situation as it would be in France (where I got burned with passes personally) but in general it seems like it makes sense to buy advance tickets for high speed trains in Italy. But it's a good point that it's not as much as a disadvantage as it is in France. As far as one-country passes go, I agree they can be a surprisingly good value compared to other Eurail passes. As I mentioned above in comments, I used one with my parents and it did actually save us money over point to point tickets. even advance ones. I think the German Rail Pass can be a really good value for certain itineraries and have said as much on the board (although others disagreed) and it seems this can also be the case with passes in Switzerland. I will be sure and all your point about the newer, private lines into my final version. And I'll give credit, too, although you might have to private-message me to see the final post, as I know there are strict anti-advertisement rules on this forum.
Sarah - Switzerland is indeed a special case. I haven't been, but from my preliminary research, a pass often makes sense there. Not a Eurail, but a country-specific Swiss Pass or half fare card. That's because: 1. Swiss trains don't require reservations. 2. These passes give full coverage for almost all trains, and quarter- to half-off the outrageously expensive scenic mountain lifts. The whole point of Switzerland is to get up in the mountains, so most people will use these trains and get a saving.
3. Swiss passes also cover many museums in the country, and sometimes cover local city transit as well. Lola is one poster here who seems to have great expertise on Swiss train deals; I'd ask her for more details.
Perhaps we should refine the title of this thread. I believe Sarah is referring to the 3rd party passes sold by Eurail and RailEurope, not some of the domestic passes sold directly by the rail companies. I am not very familiar with the Swiss Pass, but I don't doubt it's usefulness. See my post above about the domestic pass sold in Belgium.
I guess I do have some experience with Swiss passes. Harold is correct that for travel in Switzerland, a Swiss pass of some kind (not a Multi-country pass) is usually the way to go. The problem is figuring out which pass. In four trips, 15 to 17 days each, we have used a different kind of pass each time, and I still don't know if I got it right. The regular Swiss passes ( Swiss pass and Flex) cover trains ( including the private lines), boats and lifts that access villages ( I.e. Mürren). They cover recreational and scenic lifts ( above villages) at 50%, except the Jungfraujoch train which is only covered 25% above the last village. After that it gets complicated. The Half-Fare card gives 50% off everything, including Jungfraujoch, so if one is going there it might be the best deal. The Swiss Card is a hybrid of Half Fare card with 2 free trips, inbound and outbound, thrown in. And then there are the various regional passes, some of which fully cover recreational lifts as well, but only within a given area. The multi-country passes, even if they include Switzerland ( I.e. France-
Switzerland 2 country pass) do not work as well because (1) they are in First Class and many Swiss regional trains don't even have First Class, and (2) they require a supplement on many of the private trains. My sister had to pay an extra 30 CHF for two people to ride 10 minutes on the MGB line from Brig to Betten. Ouch. So I am a big advocate of Swiss passes for Switzerland. But anywhere else, I would figure out the system and buy tickets. We saved hundreds of euros on our recent trip to Spain by buying in advance on Renfe. Even for trips going from Switzerland into Itay or Germany, we have done better with Internet tickets in advance than using the Swiss Pass.
Let's make some basic calcuations. From Eurail website price and passes info, I come with the cost per day of train travel of passes, excluding any reservation fee. Select Passes - travel x days within a 2-month period 5 days - € 85.60 /day 6 days - € 77.33 /day 8 days - € 66.88 /day 10 days - € 60.40 /day 15 days - € 51.07 /day Global Passes - unlimited travel within the pass validity of x days 15 days - € 36.60 /day 21 days - € 33.76 /day 1 month - € 29.10 /day 2 months - € 20.51 /day
3 months - € 16.87 /day
With the numbers above in mind, which exclude any reservation cost, it becomes easier to factor in some decisions. For a starter, Global Passes usually don't make sense except for extremely fast-paced trips in which people are moving on a daily basis. The Passes allow for some comparison of "how much do ticket costs" vs. "how much using the pass cost". With some anticipation, it is easy to find cheaper deals for long and medium distance trains. Rarely will the pass be more economical for regional trips, even where they are expensive like Netherlands or Belgium (which have their day cards or similar products that cost less than a pass day use). - In Eastern Europe (former communist countries), Portugal and the Benelux, the cost of a day pass use will rarely reach the cost of a point-to-point, turn-up-buy-and-go ticket as their railways are relatively inexpensive - In Switzerland, a local pass is usually a better deal than a Eurail Pass if your journey involves cable cars or touristic railways with hefty supplements for Eurail passholders - In Spain and Italy, pass use might be a good deal if you are travelling long-distances on high-speed trains at the last moment and deeply discounted fares (much cheaper than the day pass use cost + reservation) for your travel days ran out. Bear in mind Thello and Italo trains do not accept passes in Italy, though. - In France, TGVs have seat quota for pass holders, and you can't bet on having a seat available at the last moment at all. - In Germany, Austria and Scandinavia, passes might be a good deal if you are travelling at the last moment or don't want to lock-in travel days (as these countries don't require reservations) and/or ran out of discounted fares. - For Thalys and Eurostar, reservation fees are exorbitant.