Save Money by Fine-Tuning Your Rail Pass

By Rick Steves

Many people spend more on their rail pass than they have to. Consider the following tips before you make your purchase:

Stretch a flexipass by paying out of pocket for shorter trips. If you plan to ride the train on, say, eight different days, but two of those days are very short trips, you may save money by getting a six-day pass and buying point-to-point tickets at the station on your short-haul days. Use your flexipass only for those travel days that involve long hauls or several trips. To determine whether a trip is a good use of a travel day, divide the cost of your pass by the number of travel days (or look at what it costs to add a day onto the pass's base price). If the pass you're considering costs about $60 per travel day, it makes no sense to use one of your days for a trip that would otherwise cost $10.

With careful juggling, a shorter pass can cover a longer trip. For example, if you're on a one-month trip, you don't necessarily need a one-month pass. You may be able to get by with a 21-day continuous pass by starting and/or ending your trip in a city where you'd like to stay for several days or in a country not covered by your pass. On, say, a one-month London–Vienna trip, you could spend a few days in London, pay to take the Eurostar train to Paris, sightsee in Paris for several days, then validate your pass when you leave Paris. Plan for your pass to expire in Vienna, where you can easily spend a few days without the use of a rail pass.

It can make sense to buy a longer pass for a shorter trip. One long, expensive train ride at the end of a 25-day trip can justify jumping from a 21-consecutive-day rail pass to a one-month pass.

More travel days on a pass = cheaper cost per day. Compared to shorter passes, longer rail passes are cheaper per travel day. For example, a 15-consecutive-day Global Pass costs about $800, the equivalent of about $50 a day. With a three-month Global Pass for about $2,200, you're paying about $25 a day. (Most one-hour train rides cost more than that.) Similarly, many single-country passes start at a base price of about $225 for three travel days (i.e. for $75 a day), but allow you to buy extra days for only $20–30 each.

One rail pass is usually better than two. To cover a multiple-country trip, it's almost always cheaper to buy one Select Pass or Global Pass with lots of travel days than to buy several country passes with a few high-cost travel days per pass. If you travel over a border (such as Germany to Switzerland) using separate country rail passes, you'll use up a day of each pass.

Understand your bonuses. Some boat, bus, and other non-train rides — called "bonuses" — are either covered or discounted with any rail pass that covers the appropriate country. A bonus trip is no different from a train trip: To use your flexipass to cover the cost of a bonus boat or bus, you must fill in a travel day on your pass (and you can take as many trips, whether train or non-train, in one travel day as you can squeeze in). These include Swiss lake boats and Italy–Greece ferry crossings. Trips offered only at a discount (rather than those that are completely covered by the pass) usually don't cost you a travel day, but you must use the discount while your pass is valid.