Figuring out whether you need to buy a rail pass, and if so how to choo-choo-choose between your options, can seem more daunting than it really is.
What's the difference between a rail pass and a train ticket?
A rail pass is a train-ticket-size piece of paper that covers the cost of train travel in a certain country (or countries) for a certain number of days (usually for a number of days spread out across a wider window of time; a few passes cover travel over a span of continuous days or weeks).
By contrast, individually bought tickets get you from Point A to Point B (we call them "point-to-point tickets" to differentiate them from rail passes). They may be open-date tickets, or for a certain train at a certain time.
While rail passes have to be bought in advance of your trip, it's simplest to buy point-to-point tickets in train stations as you travel (though they're becoming easier to purchase online, which can be handy if you need to secure an advance reservation for a certain train).
What's a "saverpass"?
In rail-pass speak, "saver" is code for "group discount" — even if your group is just two people. A saverpass is a single pass printed with at least two people's names on it. By traveling together, you can generally save about 20 percent over traveling with individual passes. (Not everyone on a saverpass has to be there each time it's used, but you do all have to be present to validate the pass.)
When buying passes that only offer a second-class option to "youths" (travelers under 26), most families choose to keep youths together with adults on a first-class saverpass, forgoing a second-class youth discount.
What's a "Select Pass"?
What's a "flexipass"?
A flexipass lets you pay for just a certain number of train travel days within a specified window of time. You don't have to decide beforehand which days you'll travel on, but you do have to use them up within that wider certain time period (usually one or two months after you started using the pass).
It's the opposite of a "continuous" pass, which lets you hop the train as many times as you like within one chunk of time (say, two weeks, three weeks, or a month after you started using the pass). Most rail passes are sold as flexipasses.
What exactly is a "travel day"?
As far as rail passes are concerned, a travel day is a calendar day, running from midnight to midnight. With a flexipass, you can take as many trips as you like within each travel day that you've marked on your pass. (With a "continuous" rail pass, nobody counts how many days you travel during the validated period.) A nice bonus is that a direct overnight train uses up only one travel day (not two) on a flexipass, as long as you board after 7 p.m. and do not change trains before 4 a.m. (you just write the arrival date on your flexipass).
What's the cutoff for buying/using a "youth" pass?
Do I need a rail pass in the first place?
As a rule of thumb, a pass is worth considering if you're traveling by train on at least three separate days. It all comes down to whether the pass would save you money over simply buying point-to-point tickets. See our step-by-step tips for figuring out whether to get a rail pass.
How far out should I buy a rail pass?
Most European rail passes can be purchased anywhere from six months in advance up until your departure — but be sure to allow enough time for delivery. Don't buy your pass until you're sure of your plans, since you'll lose at least 15 percent of the pass price if you need to return it. See below for information on rail pass refunds.
Rail pass prices fluctuate during the year based on the dollar-euro exchange rate (and other variables) and are subject to change without notice. The US price you pay will be locked in at the time of ticketing, much like an airline ticket, and this rate remains in computer records of your purchase. (Your printed pass may show the price in euros only.) After you buy a rail pass, you have six months to validate it at a train station in Europe.
Is the Rail Protection Plan worth it?
Even in this age of digital convenience, a rail pass is still a piece of paper: If it's lost or stolen, it's gone. Given how easy it is to lose a rail pass, and how pricey they can be, you may want to consider Rail Europe's Rail Protection Plan — but it's important to know how it works. Given the hassle and cost you'll incur even if you get the Rail Protection Plan, our best advice is to keep your rail pass tucked securely in your money belt, no matter what.
What the Rail Protection Plan doesn't do: This plan does not replace your pass while you're in Europe, and it doesn't give you a cash refund if you've had to cancel your trip (just a credit toward a future purchase; without the plan, you're still likely to get an 85 percent refund). It also doesn't cover loss or theft that occurs outside Europe.
What the Rail Protection Plan does: If your rail pass is lost or stolen in Europe, the plan allows you to make a claim to recover some costs once you've returned home — though this works only if you've filed a police report within 24 hours of the loss, have saved the receipts for whatever new tickets or pass you bought to continue your trip...and then you've got to file a claim with Rail Europe within 30 days or getting home. If you've done all this correctly, you're still likely to be out some money, as Rail Europe will reimburse you only for the unused portion of the pass that was lost or stolen, or for the price of the point-to-point tickets you've bought, whichever is less. (The full details are included when you order.)
Prices (subject to change):
- $18 for a single-person, single-country pass
- $20 for a single-person, multi-country regional pass
- $23 for a single-person Eurail Global or Select Pass
- $31 for any multi-person pass (whether "saver," "twin," or "party")
The Rail Protection Plan has to be bought when you buy your pass or tickets (before checking out of the online shopping cart). Rail Europe also offers the Rail Protection Plan for some point-to-point tickets and seat reservations they sell, though the rules for those vary from those for rail passes.
Can I get a refund on my rail pass?
Most not-validated rail passes are refundable (minus a penalty of at least 15 percent) if returned within one year (BritRail passes must be returned within six months). Rail Protection Plan fees, shipping fees, and some special offers are not refundable. Return your rail pass by trackable service (UPS, Federal Express, or certified mail) to:
Rail Europe Group
9450 W. Bryn Mawr Ave
Rosemont, IL 60018
Validated/partly used rail passes are not refundable unless you get a European railway official to certify that it was not used past a certain date. The rule applies regardless of illness, injury, death, or rail strike.
Lost or stolen rail passes are not refundable or replaceable. However, if you have purchased other travel insurance, you may be able to claim a loss under that policy.
Rail passes can't be exchanged per se. If you need a different pass, return the one you bought (see above), then simply buy the new pass.
If you've bought Rail Europe's Rail Protection Plan, you can file a claim to recover the full price of the pass (without paying the 15+ percent penalty). Rather than granting a refund, Rail Europe will hold this value as a credit toward a future purchase, which must be used within two years.
Which iteration of my name should I use on my rail pass?
The gender, last name, whole first name, and country of residence on your rail pass must match the passport (or green card) you present when validating your pass. Middle names are not used. Passes are printed with the passholders' name(s) on them, and are not transferable to other people.
I live in Europe — can I use one of these passes?
Most rail passes sold in the US cannot be used by residents of Europe. You are not a resident of Europe if you live on an American military base or have only a temporary student visa for Europe. You must provide proof of at least six months' residence outside Europe (and outside the Russian Federation or Turkey) when validating most rail passes sold in the US; a passport or green card is the usual proof. Centrain passes, however, require only proof of residence outside the countries covered: Balkan, BritRail, European East, and all single-country Swiss passes. (A variety of other rail passes are designed for European residents, such as InterRail passes.)
Can I get a rail pass once I'm in Europe?
Most European rail passes usable by non-Europeans are not sold in Europe. The exceptions: Some multi-country Eurail passes are sold at some major railway stations for 10–20 percent more than the US price. Swiss and German rail passes are sold at stations in their respective countries.
What exactly does it mean to "validate" a rail pass?
Before you first use a rail pass, you have to activate it by presenting it, with your passport, to a railway official at a ticket or information window at a European train station (don't wait till you're on the train). Your pass must be validated within six months of purchase (more precisely , within six months of the "issue date" printed on your pass). See more details on validating your rail pass.
What if I wind up on a train traveling through a country not covered by my pass?
If your train crosses through a country not covered by your rail pass, you must buy a separate train ticket for that stretch (even if you have no plans of getting off the train in that country). Get your ticket before boarding, to avoid the extra fee (or possibly a heavier fine) for purchasing the ticket on board. Online train schedules show the route of each train, including connection points and stops on the way. Examples of routes to consider:
- Italy–Spain: Since France isn't included in the Eurail Select Pass, to connect Italy and Spain via train you can either buy a separate point-to-point train ticket for your travel through France (roughly $100 in second class), or get a Eurail Global Pass. Otherwise, take a ferry (the Italy–Spain Eurail Pass and any Eurail Select Pass for both Spain and Italy gets you a 20 percent discount on Grimaldi Lines ferries), or fly.
- Munich–Venice: If Austria isn't included on your rail pass, it costs about $25 extra to cross through Austria on this route (in second class; about $40 in first class), making it worthwhile to add Austria to your Select Pass.
- Budapest–Prague: If Slovakia isn't included on your rail pass, it costs about $30 extra to get a point-to-point ticket to cross through Slovakia on this route (in second class).
- Beweteen Greece or Turkey and...anywhere: Greece isn't currently connected by train to any neighboring country. Turkey is connected by train to Bulgaria, but service is sparse. Flying is the best way to reach Athens, Thessaloniki, or Istanbul from any major city in Europe. Ferries also connect Greece to Italy and Turkey. Within Greece and Turkey, buses are generally your best option for getting around (but they aren't covered by rail passes).
What's a "couchette"?
A couchette (koo-SHET) is a sleeping berth in a shared compartment. For a surcharge of about $35, you'll get sheets, a pillow, and blankets on a bunk bed in a compartment with three to five other people — and, hopefully, a good night's sleep.
Some trains have more spacious four-berth couchettes (two sets of doubles rather than triple bunks for about $50 apiece). This exception aside, most couchettes are the same in first and second class.
Get more advice about sleeping on Europe's trains.
Do I need seat reservations?
Depending on the route and type of train, reservations (which guarantee you a specific seat) can either be required, a good idea, a pointless hassle, or not even an option. See our advice on seat reservations.
When (and how) should I make seat reservations?
If you have an unreserved ticket or a rail pass, you can purchase seat or sleeper reservations anywhere from an hour to several months in advance. Most trains that require reservations limit the number of seats available to passholders (most notoriously France's TGV trains), saving the remaining places for full-fare ticket buyers. Your decision of how soon to reserve depends on how firm your itinerary is (do you have hotel reservations or a flight to catch?), how many departures in a day could get you there on time (2 or 20?), and other factors mentioned above. One of the most popular train routes is between Paris and Italy, where direct trains run only a few times per day, can sell out weeks ahead, and generally don't accept rail passes.
Your cheapest and arguably easiest option is to simply make your reservations right at the station, as soon as you get to Europe (you can make all your reservations at one stop at any staffed station in Europe).
If you need to lock in your reservations well in advance of your train trip, book them ahead of time from home. You essentially have two options: Either book through Rail Europe (or via a US-based travel agent...who most likely will book them via Rail Europe anyway), or through Euraide.
Get more advice on making seat reservations on European trains.
Any tips for getting Eurostar (Chunnel) tickets?
The Eurostar train zips you from downtown London through the "Chunnel" to downtown Paris (15+/day) or Brussels (10/day) in 2.5 hours, faster and easier than flying. Main train stations are London St. Pancras, Paris Nord, and Brussels Midi/Zuid.
Some departures also stop at Ebbsfleet and Ashford (in England), and/or Calais or Lille (France).
If you're trying to get to places far beyond London, Paris, or Brussels, it's worth comparing the price of a direct flight versus taking the Eurostar and connecting by train from its end points.
Eurostar is not covered by rail passes and always requires a separate, reserved train ticket. If you're ready to commit to a travel date and time, you may book some tickets up to 9 months in advance, but more commonly starting 6 months out. There's no deadline to purchase, but the lowest fares sell out first.
While full-fare tickets (with no restrictions on refundability) are quite expensive (figure $300 in second class), prices can be much cheaper for round-trip travelers, children under 12, youths under 26, seniors 60 or older, and rail-pass holders (all with refund restrictions). (Round-trip discounts require travel between the same pair of cities in both directions (e.g., Paris–London–Paris). Open-jaw travel (e.g., Paris–London–Brussels) must be booked as two one-way train tickets.)
You'll save money by booking as far ahead as possible, whether or not you qualify for one of these other discounts. To see the best rates available when you're ready to buy, simply start the buying process.
You can buy tickets through our partnership with Rail Europe, or order by phone with a European agent: London 011-44-8705-186-186, Paris 011-33-8-92-35-35-39, Brussels 011-32-2-528-28-28. They're also sold in most staffed European train stations (just remember that the cheapest tickets sell out well in advance).
Tips for rail-pass holders: The passholder discount ticket is available to travelers carrying any rail pass that covers one end of the Eurostar route (Britain, France, or Belgium), and is often the best rate for adults age 26 and older. (This trip does not use one of your counted travel days on a flexipass.) Those who qualify for youth/senior/child discounts should test different options to find the best rates before ordering a Eurostar ticket. Class of service for this trip (first or standard) need not match your rail pass.
Passholder discount tickets are sold through our partnership with Rail Europe; they're also available in local currency (starting about £50 or €75) at select European locations including Eurostar departure stations and Euraide offices (Munich Hbf and Berlin Hbf stations), and by phone to the European numbers above, but not on the Eurostar website.
Classes: Eurostar's three classes of service are Standard (second), Standard Premier (first), and Business Premier. I choose Standard class to save money. Standard Premier costs about 50 percent more (no youth or senior discount) and gets you a little more leg and elbow room, a newspaper, a small meal, and power plugs at seats. Business Premier class is only for serious business travelers willing to spend $400 one way. A wide range of fares is sold for each class of seating (just like with the airlines).
Refunds: Unless you pay full fare, Eurostar tickets are not refundable. Some fares allow you to exchange your ticket once before departure (for a new date or time in the same direction of travel), but others do not. If allowed, you'll pay the difference between the original ticket price and the fares available on the date of exchange and may also pay a fee. Be sure of your plans before you buy a ticket.
Bonus rides: Eurostar tickets between London and Brussels can include travel to/from any Belgian station for about $10 more, if you enter that destination at the time of purchase, then show your Eurostar ticket when boarding the connecting train(s) within 24 hours of the Brussels Eurostar arrival or departure (but not valid on Thalys express trains). In England you can also connect free to/from Ebbsfleet and Ashford on the Southeastern Railway network (around Kent) and on Fastrack bus links between Ebbsfleet and local stations nearby.
Riding the Eurostar is somewhat like taking a plane (albeit much more pleasant): Check-in is required 30 minutes before departure for security screening. Carry-on luggage is limited to two large bags and a small day bag per person, and bags must be tagged with your name and address. Smoking, animals except guide dogs, and dangerous materials are not allowed. Children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult, and kids under 4 are free when they share your seat.
What do I need to know about Paris–Italy trains?
Direct day trains on this route (unlike the direct night trains) accept rail passes that cover France, but the "reservation fee" is exorbitant. Here's what you'll pay to ride the Paris–Lyon–Turin–Milan direct TGV day trains after already having paid for a rail pass:
- With a multi-country pass that includes France: $80 in second class, $110 in first, not sold online
- With a single-country France Rail Pass: $22 in second class, $37 in first
Both rates have limited seats available and are likely to sell out weeks before departure, making it not merely expensive, but also difficult to use your rail pass on this train.
You can avoid this fee by taking a train via Switzerland (e.g., transferring in Basel, Geneva, or Zürich). Otherwise it can make sense not to use your pass at all to cover the cost of this trip (especially if you're traveling with a flexipass) — by booking your ticket about three months ahead, you should be able to buy the entire ticket for about the same price of a "reservation" on that route.
Note that direct trains from Paris arrive at Milan's Porta Garibaldi station, but many trains to other spots in Italy leave from Milan's Centrale station. Connecting trains between Milano Centrale and Porta Garibaldi depart every 30 minutes to cover this one-mile distance, taking about 10 minutes, or you can connect the stations by metro line M2, departing every eight minutes. You can also connect to other Italian destinations at Turin's Porta Susa station instead of in Milan.
All direct night trains on this route are privately operated under the Thello brand (pronounced "Tell-o"), and do not accept any rail passes. For the best price, buy your ticket months ahead (either right here through ricksteves.com or through Thello's site; tickets available four months out) — or consider flying.
What do I do if my rail pass is lost or stolen in Europe?
Lost or stolen passes are not refundable. While most European rail passes are not sold in Europe, multi-country Eurail-brand passes are sold at some of Europe's major train stations (for 10–20 percent more than the US price). Swiss and German rail passes are sold at most stations in ther respective countries. Otherwise, you'll need to buy point to point tickets to continue your trip.
If you purchased Rail Europe's Rail Protection Plan when you got your rail pass, it's important to follow their instructions closely: File a police report within 24 hours of the loss, and keep all the receipts for every ticket or pass you buy to continue your trip.
If you purchased other travel insurance, you may be able to claim a loss under that policy.
See our general tips for handling lost stuff in the middle of your trip.