|Sometimes paying as-you-go makes more sense than using a rail pass.|
You can ride the rails in Europe with a rail pass, or with train tickets you purchase to specific destinations. While point-to-point tickets are sold by travel agents in the United States, you can keep your options open by buying tickets in Europe as you need them. Train tickets are sold at many travel agencies in Europe, at staffed ticket windows and automated machines in train stations, and on many countries' national railway websites (see our favorites below). In person, bridge any communication gap by writing out your plan: destination city, date, time (if you want a reservation), how many people, first or second class.
More and more point-to-point train tickets now include reservations, making it complicated to change your plans. Tickets for most fast trains (such as TGV, Eurostar, Eurostar Italia/Le Frecce, Thalys, AVE, or SJ Highspeed) automatically include seat assignments for travel on a specific date and time. Refund or exchange rules depend on which rate you paid, similar to how airfares work. An "open" (undated) ticket will be date-stamped on your date of travel, either by you at the entrance to the train tracks (required in France and Italy) or by the conductor onboard. Unreserved, one-way tickets within a single country require travel completed in a day but allow stops and connections along the way. Unreserved international tickets (such as may be available in Germany, Austria, and Eastern Europe) allow two months to complete a journey with stopovers along the most direct route, and you can pay separately for a seat or sleeper reservation when desired. Rail pass travelers can also make unlimited stops during each day of rail pass validity, but pay extra for seat or sleeper reservations before boarding any train that requires them (see Using Your Rail Pass).
Int'l Train Cost & Time
Print the international map, connect the dots, and add up ticket costs.
Regional Train Costs
See ticket prices for shorter train rides within single countries.
Once you have a rough itinerary, use these maps to add up the train ticket prices of your journey, then compare that total with the price of the European rail pass that best fits your trip. Train fares are shown in U.S. dollars for one-way travel in second class (for first class ticket prices, multiply by 1.5). While travelers age 26 and older who choose Eurail Global or Select passes must buy a first-class pass, there are no age restrictions when buying individual second-class train tickets.
Rates and times are shown for the fastest trains on a given route. Those willing to lock in tickets ahead, shop around in Europe, or avoid the fastest trains will find some cheaper deals. Prices are drawn from each country's own railway website and converted assuming an exchange rate of €1 = $1.25. These estimates are accurate enough for our comparison purposes.
European rail fares are based primarily on distance the traveled. Each country has its own "euros per kilometer" type of formula, though the type of train also affects the price (logically, slower trains are usually cheaper than faster trains). Discounts may be available based on the conditions below, but rules vary considerably from country to country and extra restrictions (such as non-refundability and limited seat availability) will apply. Many of the best local deals are not sold by U.S. travel agents. Since offers are so different, they're most manageable for travelers focused on just one or two countries. Don't limit your options by tying yourself to nonrefundable or complicated train tickets if a rail pass would be more convenient.
Advance purchase (a week to three months in advance) can save you money (most notably in Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, and Finland), especially for faster or longer train rides. In other parts of Europe (such as Switzerland, Italy, and most eastern countries), advance-purchase deals either don't exist or aren't worth the hassle. For regional and medium-speed trains in most places, tickets cost the same whether they're bought two months or two minutes before the train leaves.
Round-trip tickets can be cheaper than two one-way tickets in countries such as Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain, sometimes in combination with advance purchase. For many trips within Britain, for example, a "day return" (round-trip in a single day) can be just a bit more expensive than a single one-way ticket.
Off-peak travel times (such as mid-day or mid-week) can be cheaper than peak-time rail journeys in Britain and France.
Children ages 4-11 get train ticket discounts in most of Europe (about 50% off, sometimes free with an adult) and under 4 always travel free on your lap (though if there's an empty seat, feel free to use it). A few areas (Britain, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia) use a different age range. Rail passes offer similar values in each country.
Youths ages 12-25 do not get many point-to-point train ticket savings, but a few discount cards exist. Special youth prices for most rail passes are a good deal.
Seniors aged 60 and over can find a few more train ticket deals, which may require a discount card purchased in Europe. Senior discounts on rail passes are rare.
|Point-to-Point Rail Ticket Discounts for Youths and Seniors|
|Country||Max. Age for Youths||Min. Age for Seniors||Discount||Card Needed|
|Austria||25||60 F, 65 M||50%||Vorteilscard Youth (€20) or Senior (€27) with photo|
|Belgium||NA||65||Any local train €4 round-trip, 2nd class, after 9 a.m. Mon-Fri or all day Sat-Sun for seniors (Thalys not included).||No card for seniors. Various card programs for youths.|
|Britain||25||60||33%||Youth or Senior Railcard (£24)|
|Finland||NA||65||50% for seniors||No|
|France||25||60||25% off non-peak, non-TGV trains without card||No, but Youth (€49) or Senior Cards (€56) give more discounts up to 50% (limited seats).|
|Germany||25||60||50%||Youth or Senior Bahn Card €115.|
|Italy||25||60||10% for youths, 15% for seniors||Carta Verde for youths (€20) or Carta Argento for seniors (€40)|
|Spain||NA||60||40% Mon-Thurs or 25% Fri-Sun for seniors||Tarjeta Dorada (€5)|
|Norway||NA||67||50% for seniors||No|
|Other restrictions may apply. Get details on each country's rail web site or at train stations in that country.|
Many European national rail companies allow customers to buy tickets online at the going European price (usually for faster classes of trains for which reservations are required or at least recommended) for rides within that country or some direct trains to a neighboring country. Your "ticket" may be a barcode on your smart phone, an emailed confirmation code redeemable at the station, or a print-at-home document. Online train tickets are valid for a specific date and time and have strict refund restrictions, so read the fine print carefully.
The benefits of ordering online could be a significant advance-purchase discount or the certainty of securing a departure you can't afford to miss. These are best for travelers who need only one or two train tickets. If you're traveling longer, compare the price of a rail pass before deciding. (Most European web sites do not handle reservations with a rail pass.) Some sites will ask if you have their national loyalty-program or discount card, but since these are priced for residents who use them all year, short-stay visitors usually don't have them.
Not all national-railway sites are created equal: While some are fairly easy to navigate, some are difficult (or impossible) for foreigners to use (such as the unreliable Spanish railway site). It can be hard to contact these folks and Rick Steves' Europe cannot trouble-shoot these problems.
These offer big advance discounts and the best rates sell out early. Trains require reservations and can fill up — another good reason to book ahead.
These have great discounts if you're ready to lock in dates early, but reservations are not otherwise required for most trains.
These sites may also be useful, but booking ahead is less important.
Some countries' railway web sites don't sell tickets, may not accept US credit cards, or have less information in English, such as:
A few boat crossings are covered by rail passes (counted the same as a train) and some offer a small passholder discount (without using a counted flexipass travel day). Price ranges are listed, because fees vary with the season and for who-knows-what-reason. Research these routes and others at www.aferry.co.uk.
Ancona or Bari, Italy to Patras, Greece: 15-21 hrs, $80-$100, free deck passage with Eurail pass, except for a $10 port tax year round and a peak-season (June–September) surcharge of $15-$30. Reclining seats and berths cost $30-$200 extra. See www.superfast.com.
Scotland or Wales to Ireland: 2-4 hrs, $80 (free if you can talk your way into a car, which is allowed four free passengers), 30% off with Eurail pass (not BritRail), see www.stenaline.com. Cheap SailRail combo fares also sold in Britain and Ireland.
Ireland to France: 18 hrs, runs most days, crossing only costs $70-110 (30% off with Eurail pass), add $30 and up per person for a cabin. Sails between Rosslare, Ireland and Cherbourg or Roscoff, France. See www.irishferries.com.
Italy to Barcelona: 19 hrs from Civitavecchia or Livorno, $100 for passage, 20% off with Eurail pass, cabins extra. See www.grimaldi-ferries.com.
Harwich to Hook of Holland: 7 - 9 hours, $60-$100 for passage, 30% off with Eurail pass, cabins extra. See www.stenaline.com.
Dover to Calais: 70 – 90 minutes, $50-$65 each way, no rail pass discount. See P&O Ferries at www.posl.com.
Britain to Normandy: Portsmouth or Poole to Cherbourg, 4.25 hours, from $40 one-way, no rail pass discount. Book at www.brittanyferries.co.uk).
Newcastle to Amsterdam; Oslo to Copenhagen: No longer discounted, despite being listed in 2013 pass documents. Book at www.dfdsseaways.com.
Most first trips to Europe are best by train but driving and flying are two options that you should at least consider. Both can save you time and money depending on your destination (cities vs. country-side), travel distance (long vs. short), and group size (family vs. solo).
Renting a car in Europe: Great for groups or getting off the beaten path.
Flying Around Europe: Learn how budget airlines can save you money on long jumps.
Continue to Step 4: Using Your European Rail Pass