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European rail passes: Read this before you buy

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A few thoughts on great travel deals from the editors of hidden europe magazine.

BERLIN — We are often amazed at how much money North American visitors to Europe pay for rail passes, especially when, with a little advance planning, travelers can often reap great savings through pre-purchase of point-to-point tickets. These are not tickets marketed with hefty surcharges by overseas agents, but rather the promotional fares available directly from the various rail operators in Europe, usually through online sales.

But the question is not simply one of rail pass vs. individual tickets. It is also always worth looking at local rail pass offerings.

For Example, Czech Out This Deal

Eurail offers a pass that affords eight days unlimited first class travel in the Czech Republic for $359. Better to wait till you arrive in the Czech Republic, and for less money you can buy a pass that affords an entire month’s travel.

And for those who think an entire month in the Czech Republic is a bit much, the Czech Railways sell a one-week pass, too. Try $80 for second class travel for a week, and a small premium of about $16 more will secure first-class comfort, if that’s important to you. You can check those prices here (in Czech crowns).

Slow Travel Dividends

Canny Cheapos search around for bargain local passes, and they are to be found in most parts of Europe.

Hats off to five friends who visited us in Berlin yesterday evening, having traveled all the way from Vienna by local trains. Vienna to Passau on Saturday, stopping off overnight in the Danube town, then continuing from Passau up to Berlin on Sunday. Yes, it took a while, about 16 hours traveling in all, compared with 10 hours on the fast train. But fun they said, and a journey full of those happy insights into rural life that makes slow trains so appealing.

What did they pay? Just €63 in all. That’s not per person, but for all of them! Less than €13 a head for a big leap across Europe. This was easily done with a smart combination of the Austrian Einfach-Raus Ticket and the German Schönes-Wochenende Ticket (Happy Weekend Ticket), both one-day rail passes sold in the countries concerned. Totally flexible. No need to pre-book, and you can travel at will on all trains except the fast express services.

British Bargains

Regional passes are available for travel in many parts of Britain and, for visitors focusing on just one region of the country, they are a fine deal, knocking spots off BritRail prices.

For example, if Wales is your focus, and you plan on having a week in the principality, why pay $329 for a four-day BritRail pass, when you can pick up a Freedom of Wales ticket for just $140 – four days travel within Wales and the nearby border areas of England within an eight-day period. What’s more, the locally-purchased pass is valid on almost all bus services in Wales, too. That’s not the case with BritRail.

Similar passes, usually priced between $100 and $150 are available for most other UK regions (eg. SW England, the North), typically offering four days of travel in any eight-day period or sometimes travel on seven consecutive days.

Get on board

Why not research local rail passes by checking out the national websites of the following European rail operators? Do check that that you really are using the “official” national rail websites and not a site developed by a third-party vendor or agency.

Each of the companies mentioned below has good local railpasses that can all offer much better deals that Eurail prices:

www.oebb.at (ÖBB, Austria)

www.cd.cz (CD, Czech Rep)

www.vr.f (VR, Finland)

www.bahn.de (Die Bahn, Germany)

www.nationalrail.co.uk (all rail operators in Great Britain)

www.mav.hu (MAV, Hungary)

www.irishrail.ie (Iarnród Éireann, Ireland)

www.ns.nl (Dutch Railways)

www.pkp.pl (PKP, Poland)

www.sbb.ch (Switzerland)

About the author

hiddeneurope

About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

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7 thoughts on “European rail passes: Read this before you buy”

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  3. As Tom said, no of course you’ve not wasted a heap of money. Well over 99 per cent of trains in Europe are simply non-reservable. And of the 1 per cent where you can reserve a seat, only a minority actually require a reservation. These “reservation compulsory” trains may levy a supplement for rail pass holders in addition to a seat reservation fee. Examples of such trains are:

    * Overnight trains (particularly where you wish to book a couchette or sleeping car)
    * All services operated by Thalys (linking Paris with Amsterdam, Brussels and Cologne)
    * All Eurostar trains linking London with Brussels and various destinations in France
    * All X2000 trains in Sweden
    * TGV trains (as Tom above has said) in France, or linking France with neighboring countries
    * Many express trains in France and Italy.

    The book “Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide for Independent Travellers,” published last month, gives fuller details.

    Passes give huge flexibility. True, canny travellers prepared to book individual point-to-point tickets three months in advance will probably save money over a pass-holder, for travel by train in Europe can be extremely cheap for those able to commit to a specific itinerary well prior to departure. But the freedom that a pass gives is quite something.

    Have fun, and enjoy your travels.

    Reply
  4. So I have aready bought a rail pass. I am confused about the rail pass and the point to point tickets. I thought if I bought a rail pass then that would stop me from having to buy any other tickets to ride the the train. It sounds like I have waste my $1200 on buying a pass for 15 days for two people, if I still have to buy tickets once we get on the trail. PLEASE HELP THANKS

    Reply
    1. Hi there — Not to worry, you didn’t waste your $1,200. Your rail pass will cover almost all of your rail journeys.

      However, for long-distance and high-speed trips (for example, on the TGV in France), you will need to purchase a seat reservation. These are quite cheap.

      The reason for this is that these trains, like flights, are by reservation only. They need to know how many free seats they have on the train. Thus, rail pass holders can’t just hop on board a train a grab a seat. Everyone needs a seat reservation. Thus, as early on as you can in your trip, stop by a train station to buy your seat reservations.

      I hope that helps!

      Reply
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