“I really had to cover a lot of miles to make sure I got good value from my Eurail pass.” We’ve heard comments like that often, and you surely have, too. It is a refrain uttered by folk as they return home from a manic dash around Europe, sometimes even covering seven capitals in as many days.
Speed is not compulsory. Eurail is great for travelers keen to cover a lot of ground, but it may not always be the cheapest option. For example, if you book well in advance, stick to main routes and commit to a fixed itinerary, then the aggregate cost of a sequence of point-to-point tickets bought direct from the various European rail operators may, for many itineraries, undercut the cost of a rail pass.
Dynamic pricing (often dubbed “market pricing”) means that for long hops between major cities in Europe there are nowadays some super deals available on point-to-point tickets. Shift to lesser routes, frequented by slower trains, and you may find little or nothing by way of discounts on international journeys.
Our view is that these slower trains are often a far better way of seeing Europe than the high-speed services. You’ll meet locals along the way, rather than just other tourists following similar itineraries to yourself.
Fast can be cheap
But expect to pay more for a journey with local trains than you might on the parallel high-speed services. Book in advance to ride a fast TGV from Paris to Marseille, and you can pick up a one-way ticket for less than €50 — if you are lucky and can travel off-peak perhaps even for just €20.
But if you take the slower TER trains from Paris to the Mediterranean, there is just the Tarif Normal. And that is more than €100 one-way. No discounts for pre-booking. No discounts…. full stop.
Best use of Eurail
Has slow travel thus become a privilege of the rich? Well, not quite, because a day on slower trains can be a very wise use of a Eurail or InterRail pass. And that applies equally to the global and flexi variants of both passes.
Budget-conscious holders of flexi-passes now appreciate that pass days are better reserved for journeys on slower trains where you want to preserve total flexibility. If you know you need to make a fast hop on a high-speed train (where you might in any case need to make a seat reservation and pay a supplement with a rail pass), then perhaps that’s the day to plan ahead and book a discounted point-to-point ticket on the Web site of the relevant rail operator.
So how slow is slow? Well, it’ll still be a lot faster than even the fast trains of yesteryear. European train services have so improved over the last 30 years that devotees of slower trains will still be making faster progress than those of our parents’ generation who clanked across Europe on what were, back in the 1970s and 1980s, acclaimed premium high-speed services.
Stop off and explore
The beauty of slow trains is that you don’t need to book. If a spot takes your fancy, just hop off and explore — then continue with the next train. On many routes, slow trains run hourly.
We have made long international journeys like this. True, it took us 12 hours to get from Switzerland to Spain. With premium fast trains we might have trimmed three or four hours off that. But we had that ineffable pleasure of trundling through vineyards, watching birds on lonely marshlands and stopping at little rural railway stations. The journey became an event in itself.
Eurail is a marvelous product, and that goes equally for its sister InterRail which is geared to European residents. Both families of rail passes can offer great value for money. But, contrary to what you might assume, it is the devotees of slower trains and more rural itineraries who get the most handsome return on their investment in a rail pass. If speed is more your style, and if all you aim to do is hit the big cities, then think carefully before buying a pass.
Taking slower trains which don’t require supplements or advance reservation is much more fun and preserves what is, after all, the prime benefit of a rail pass: its total flexibility.
You can read more about rail passes in two other articles published this week by the team from hidden europe. The full text of an article on InterRail, published on 16 July in hidden europe magazine, is available online. And another article on the hidden europe website, published on 17 July, questions some of the mythology that has developed around rail passes.