Breezing through a Paris train station this month, we realized how easy European rail travel has become. We sit at home, plan and pay for trips online, and even print out our own train tickets. How times have changed. A few years ago, we envied rail pass holders for the freedom that came with being able to hop on and off almost any train at will.
The freedom to roam?
No longer. Rail passes now come with all sorts of conditions attached. InterRail (the freedom of over 30 countries for European residents) and Eurail (a ticket to ride through 21 countries for those normally residing outside Europe) can still be worthwhile if you are really traveling a lot.
As explained in our rail section, Eurail (along with InterRail) also markets passes for specific countries or groups of countries. Next to these two “biggies” there are a number of national rail passes that are not marketed under the InterRail or Eurail umbrella. Examples include Finnrailpass, BritRail (for Great Britain), Swiss Pass and this summer’s special Jubiläums-Pass in Germany.
Extra charges for premium rail services
Over the years, some of Europe’s rail operators have realized that the holders of InterRail or Eurail passes can be milked for some extra revenue, by levying a supplement every time they hop on a premium level train. And over time such supplements have been applied to ever more services and the amount payable has crept up year by year.
Hop on most long-distance premium Italian trains, and you’ll incur a supplementary charge of €10. But the rub is that the railway operators want you to reserve a seat in advance and prepay the supplement before boarding your train. The effect is that pass holders are forced to wait in line at ticket offices to secure and pay for reservations and fare supplements. This charade removes the very freedom a travel pass is supposed to give.
Different countries, different fares
High marks to countries like Austria, Denmark, Switzerland and Britain (InterRail only), which have virtually no supplements on domestic trains. And a EuroCheapo commendation to Deutsche Bahn which has bucked the trend and progressively dropped supplementary charges for pass holders on almost all daytime trains.
At the other extreme are Romania, Greece, Spain and Italy, who levy hefty supplements on pass holders who want to use their top-of-the-range express services. The level of these supplements can be daunting.
Earlier this year we traveled from Amsterdam to Brussels on a Thalys train. Of course we booked well in advance and paid a fare of €35 each for the one-way journey. A holder of a Eurail or InterRail pass wanting to travel on the same train would have had to pay a €37 special pass fare.
Special offers vs. rail passes
Just now Thalys is offering some great deals in first class (called Comfort 1), valid for travel through August 27, 2010. The Comfort 1 smoove fare from Cologne to Brussels at €29 is a superb value.
Travelers who have splashed out and bought a first-class Eurail pass might surely be wondering why the Thalys special pass holder fare for the same journey is €38. Having a Eurail pass in this instance evidently gives the privilege to pay more than those locals who book ahead and nab a cheap deal. Fortunately, the thrice-daily German ICE trains that also serve the Cologne to Brussels route have no supplement for pass holders.
So think before buying that rail pass. A one month Eurail pass for an adult costs over $1,000. A good deal, perhaps, but probably only if you plan to live on trains. And beware of those nasty supplements, details of which are tucked away in the small print. The freedom to roam is not quite what it once was.