By Rick Steves
A train traveler's biggest pre-trip decision is whether to get a rail pass or stick with point-to-point tickets. Many travelers make a costly mistake by skipping over the details of this decision, as rail passes are no longer the sure bet they once were. It pays to know your options and choo-choose what's best for your trip.
Point-to-point tickets are just that: Tickets bought individually to get you from Point A to Point B. It's simplest to buy these in train stations as you travel, but they're becoming easier to purchase online, which can be handy if you need to secure an advance reservation for a certain train.
By contrast, a rail pass covers train travel in one or more countries for a certain number of days (either a continuous span of days or a number of days spread out within a wider window of time).
How to Know If You Need a Rail Pass
Most rail passes available to non-Europeans can only be bought outside Europe, so before your trip, you'll need to sketch out your itinerary, then answer the following questions:
- On how many calendar days do you expect to ride the train? If you'll be on the train for just one or two days, you almost certainly won't benefit from a pass. The more time you expect to spend on the train, the more likely it is that you'll want a pass.
- In how many countries will you be riding the train? If it's three or more, you are a likely candidate for a pass. If you'll be in fewer countries but on the train for at least three days, it's worth doing the math to see whether a pass makes sense. You get the most value out of a rail pass when you use it for long travel days and in countries where train travel is expensive.
- Roughly how much would your point-to-point tickets cost? You don't have to laboriously look up exact train fares online — to get a rough idea of what you'd pay for tickets if you didn't get a rail pass, check my cost-estimate maps. Connect the dots and add up the fares to get an approximate cost for your tickets. Don't worry if one of your destinations isn't shown on any of these maps: Ticket prices are mostly based on distance, so you can estimate fares. For example, if you're going to Germany's Rothenburg ob der Tauber, about halfway between Frankfurt and Munich, it's safe to assume the train fare to Rothenburg from Frankfurt or Munich is about half the total shown for the whole Frankfurt–Munich stretch.
- How does your point-to-point ticket cost compare to the price of a pass? Look up the cost of a pass that covers the region you'll be in and the number of days you'll be on the train (get more tips on choosing between passes here). You may notice that several countries, mostly in southern and eastern Europe, have train fares so low that rail passes rarely beat out point-to-point tickets (you'd need to do a whole lot of train travel in a short time to make a pass worthwhile). If you're sticking to moderate distances in Italy, for example, it's unlikely a pass will save you money. If you're traveling in Germany, however, a pass is quite likely a smart move.
Still Not Sure?
If your price comparison doesn't produce an obvious winner, take a closer look at factors that could tilt your decision one way or another, such as:
Sparse rail coverage: In some areas, such as southern Spain, coastal Croatia, much of Scotland, most of Greece, and all of Ireland, rail passes make little sense because trains don't reach a lot of places you're planning to go. (To check whether your destinations are served by train, check online train schedules.)
Pricey fast-train supplements: Passes lose their luster when fees are tacked on. In some countries, passholders are required to pay extra for each trip on a high-speed train. In Italy, for instance, it costs about an additional $15 per ride for mandatory fast-train reservations on most convenient connections between major cities. On the Thalys train that monopolizes direct service from Paris to Brussels or Amsterdam, passholders are forced to pay substantial extra fees of up to $55 in second class and $95 in first class.
First-class-only passes: Many rail passes don't offer a second-class option for adult travelers. If a first-class pass costs about the same as traveling with second-class tickets, go with the pass for comfort (see here for more on the differences between classes).
Advance-purchase discounts: If you don't mind forgoing some spontaneity, you might be able to save money with advance-purchase discounts on point-to-point tickets. But unless you're taking just a few train trips, these discounts aren't worth the bother. While passes are flexible, these point-to-point discounts are usually valid only for nonrefundable, nonchangeable reserved tickets.
Convenience: In countries or regions where reservations are not required, a pass allows you to hop on and off trains without fussing with multiple tickets; if all other things are even, a pass can make sense for ease of travel.