In Europe, the best way to travel is by train. The networks are extensive, the views are amazing, and the distances are reasonable. A Eurail pass could be the perfect option if you’re planning on using the trains a fair bit… But then again, it might not be.
Eurail passes are great value if you’re under 26, but not so great if the EU thinks you’re an adult. This means that for many journeys, it’s cheaper to buy point-to-point train tickets, especially if the journey is a straightforward connection between two cities.
If you’re only travelling for a short time and your trip needs to be well-planned, you can buy tickets online in advance — and many rail companies offer very good discounts for advance booking. Check out bahn.de for travel in Germany, oebb.at for travel in Austria, and sncf.com if you’re travelling in France.
If you’re travelling within countries where train travel is relatively cheap, like Italy and the Czech Republic, a Eurail pass isn’t going to be very good value for you, especially if you’re over 26. Check out Eurail prices here, and divide the total price by the number of travel days to get a daily price. My favourite pass, 15 travel days within two months, costs €36 per day for a youth and €57 per day for an adult. In Italy, most train trips cost a lot less than those prices.
If you’re short on time and need to travel a long distance, you might want to consider a budget flight to connect two points. Europe is small for a continent, but distances can still be immense. When travelling with a Eurail pass two years ago, we wanted to visit Spain and Scandinavia — which are really quite far away from each other. We could have started in one and travelled to the other, but no, we begun our trip in France. Once in Scandinavia, it would have taken us two full days to get back to Spain by train, so we decided to fly — and the flights cost less than the per-day price of our Eurail passes.
Sometimes, travelling by train just isn’t an option. Or if it is, it’s an ill-advised one. We recently visited Andorra, which is quite difficult to get to by train as it doesn’t have a railway at all. We managed to get most of the way there using our Eurail passes — a train dropped us at the French border town and we caught a bus run by the French train network into Andorra, followed by a local bus to Andorra la Vella. However, our next destination was Barcelona, and getting there by train would have been a full-day ordeal involving retracing our steps and catching three trains. Or, we could go by bus. Three hours, direct, €27.50.
Outside the zone
Another limitation of the Eurail pass is that it doesn’t cover every country in Europe. The UK is noticeably missing, much of eastern Europe isn’t included, and three countries that do have Eurail passes aren’t covered by the Global Pass. Friends of ours were travelling through Poland recently on their Eurail Global Pass, and they found out the hard way that their tickets weren’t valid — Poland has one-country and regional passes, but isn’t included in the 23 countries covered by the Global Pass. Serbia and Montenegro are in a similar situation.
I think Eurail passes are great, but they aren’t a magic solution, especially if you’re over 26 and have to pay adult prices. It’s best to use them in combination with other types of ticket, like point-to-point train tickets, bus journeys and flights. A Eurail pass can’t be beaten for flexibility, though, and it can certainly save you some cash in western Europe. I recommend you consider a pass like the Global pass that allows you ten or 15 travel days within two months, and use it on your longest, most expensive travel days. On those days, stop in interesting villages, take strange detours, and generally get the most out of the pass. Then, on other travel days, just travel — find the cheapest, most convenient way from point to point, and take it.