To rail pass or not to rail pass?

Is a European rail pass worth it? Always wanting to get the most value for my money, this is a question I agonised over in the months leading up to our 4 month journey in 2010.

We knew we wanted to travel by land wherever possible and mapped out a rough circuit which ended up taking this shape:

Map of Europe

At the time I was researching it, a 15 day pass (for use over 2 months) was going to cost AU$1,100 per person.

Cons:

  • We wanted to travel for 4 months so we would have required two passes. But…
  • The first 2 months were going to be interrupted by Morocco (where the EU rail pass doesn’t apply) and we didn’t plan on making 15 trips before Morocco.
  • The second 2 months were going to include Italy (cheap rail anyway) and the Balkans (better to travel by bus) so we wouldn’t have gotten our money’s worth there either.

In other words, our plans didn’t include 2 solid months of travel in countries covered by the pass.

I briefly considered a French-and-Spain-only pass but again, we weren’t planning on making enough trips in those countries for that to be worthwhile.

In the end I decided we’d be better off just buying point-to-point tickets and I budgeted AU$3000 per person for 4 months. We ended up making 41 trips (mostly by rail, but some by bus and a couple by ferry or plane) which cost a total of AU$2440 each. This works out to be an average of AU$59.50 per trip – the rail pass would have averaged at AU$73. (And 13 of the trips we took wouldn’t have been covered by a rail pass anyway.)

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So for us, buying individual tickets worked out to be cheaper – and more convenient – than a rail pass.

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Some points worth bearing in mind:

  • It really depends on where you’re going, how long you’re travelling for, and how quickly you plan to move on from each place. There are other rail passes available, such as the 15 or 21 continuous day passes (you can travel as much as you like within 15 or 21 days), which if you were planning a 2 or 3 week blitz of Europe would be great value… although the pace might not suit your plans.
  • Different countries offer different rail pass options. Since I was coming from Australia I was only looking at the options (and prices) available to Australians.
  • Obviously, all my prices are 1.5 years out of date (I should have written this earlier :P). Rail pass prices have since dropped, but this is probably the result of today’s better AU-EU exchange rate. I think point-to-point travel still would have worked out cheaper for us given our chosen itinerary.
  • Rail travel was most expensive in France, Spain and Germany. If you were only planning on travelling in these countries a select pass (or individual country pass) would probably be worth it.
  • If you’re not pressed for time, it’s significantly cheaper to travel by bus in Spain than by train. This is great for shorter distances (eg Seville-Granada) but probably not worth it for long journeys such as Barcelona-Madrid.
  • Rail travel was cheapest in The Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. A rail pass is probably not worth it for travel in these countries unless you plan on making a LOT of trips.
  • Even if you have a rail pass some countries (such as Spain and Italy) require mandatory seat reservations which reportedly can cost more than buying a single one-off ticket.
  • Also, in Italy you can often save a lot by taking slightly slower trains – from memory you could save something like 50% by taking a 30 min longer journey. (I noticed this particularly for trips between Rome and Naples.)
  • Rail links are not brilliant in the Balkans (eg Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia) but the buses are convenient, efficient, cheap, comfortable, and I think sometimes even faster than the trains!
  • It’s not relevant to the EU rail passes, but as a side note: train travel in Morocco is extremely cheap. (But very slow.)
  • We bought all our tickets at the relevant station a few days before or on the day of departure and never had any problem with getting seats (although we had to sit in separate carriages from Lisbon-Porto).
  • We tended to find the ticket prices were pretty standard and didn’t seem to fluctuate like UK train tickets or airline prices.
  • However, if you’re prepared to book in advance you can save significant money on German trains by buying online. (You can even do it while on the road, you’ll just need to find access to a printer to print your tickets.)
  • Often you can buy tickets from machines (which always had an English menu option), otherwise we usually found the people behind the ticket counters very helpful. We were usually able to use English (except in Toulouse, but we got by in limited French), and when we had a slightly complicated request for the ticket office in Barcelona we wrote all the details down on a piece of paper with the help of a phrase book and handed that over. (The guy that served us was amused and somewhat chuffed we went to the effort.)
  • The only tickets we bought online in advance were our bus trips in Spain, which I think was worth doing because from memory those buses were pretty full. (It would also be worth buying any high-speed train, eg Eurostar, tickets in advance because those prices do get more expensive the closer you buy to your date of travel.)
  • We always travelled second class. Personally I always found this perfectly comfortable and the times I have ridden first class there wasn’t enough of a difference to justify paying extra. (The exception to this would be overnight trains where I do think it’s worth paying more for a private cabin.)
  • If you’re planning on doing a lot of rail travel in Europe I highly recommend buying a copy of the latest Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable before you set out – ours was invaluable for planning ahead. (In the case of buses in the Balkans, your best bet is just to visit the station and look at the timetable posted on the wall as any info you find online might not be accurate.)

For any more info about rail passes or rail/bus/ferry travel in general I can’t recommend The Man in Seat 61 more highly.

If you’re curious how much each of our point-to-point tickets cost click the link below!

Journey Transport Price per person (2010)
London-Rotterdam overnight ferry + train £65.50
Rotterdam-Amsterdam train €13.30
Amsterdam-Brussels train €37.80
Brussels-Ghent-Bruges-Brussels train €20.90
Brussels-Paris-Tours train €99.30
Tours-Chateauroux-Toulouse bus and train €68.90
Toulouse-Narbonne-Barcelona train €69.90
Barcelona-Madrid train €115.80
Madrid-Lisbon overnight train €105.60
Lisbon-Porto train €20
Porto-Lisbon train €20
Lisbon-Faro train €19
Faro-Seville bus €16
Seville-Granada bus €21.94
Granada-Algeciras bus €24.19
Algeciras-Tangier ferry €37
Tangier-Fez train MAD105
Fez-Marrakesh 4×4 trek ~MAD1450 (1/3 trek price)
Marrakesh-Milan plane €100.57
Milan-Levanto train €19.50
Levanto-Rome train €47.90
Rome-Naples train €20.50
Naples-Ancona train €58.95
Ancona-Zadar overnight ferry kn699
Zadar-Plitvice bus kn89
Plitvice-Split bus kn130
Split-Dubrovnik bus kn113
Dubrovnik-Kotor bus kn113.30
Kotor-Dubrovnik bus €14
Dubrovnik-Mostar bus kn79
Mostar-Sarajevo bus KM18
Sarajevo-Zagreb train KM58.90
Zagreb-Budapest train kn223.5
Budapest-Vienna train Ft7000
Vienna-Prague train €59
Prague-Krakow train Kč845
Krakow-Berlin train zł251
Berlin-Hamburg train €56
Hamburg-Bremen train €25
Bremen-Hamburg train €25
Hamburg-London plane €35.45

(All overnight trains/ferries were private 2 bed cabins.)

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4 thoughts on “To rail pass or not to rail pass?

  1. Pingback: Advice for first-time long term travellers | dinosaurs can't knit

  2. Pingback: To rail pass or not to rail pass – Japan edition | dinosaurs can't knit

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