Rail Passes and Train Travel FAQ

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 are best bought in advance of your trip (the passes that can be used by non-Europeans aren't widely available in Europe), point-to-point tickets are easy to buy 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 happened to the Select Pass?

The Eurail Select Pass was discontinued for sale at the end of 2018. Passes purchased in 2018 can still be used as planned in 2019 (as long as they're activated within 11 months of purchase).

Fortunately the Eurail Global Pass, which covers nearly all of continental Europe, is now available at prices similar to Select Pass prices, but without requiring passholders to restrict their train travel to just a few countries. Also, several other multicountry regional passes remain available.

Can I get a group discount?

For the most part, no — most rail passes stopped offering a group (a.k.a. "saverpass") discount at the end of 2018.

The exceptions:

  • BritRail passes offer a 20 percent "saverpass" discount if you have at least three people traveling together.
  • German rail passes offer a 25 percent "twin" discount for pairs traveling together.
  • Most rail passes, including all Eurail-brand passes, offer a free-kids deal; in most cases kids traveling free must be named on the same pass as a paying adult (and their passes must be ordered at the same time as the adults').

The good news is that overall rates on most passes have been adjusted downward, effectively giving all travelers prices similar to those that had previously only been granted to travelers able to group together on the same 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). Most rail passes are available only as a flexipass

A few popular passes are also available as 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). You can choose this option for a Eurail Global Pass, German and Swiss passes, and some BritRail passes.

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 activated period.)

A nice bonus is that a direct overnight train uses only one travel day on a flexipass — as long as you're on the same train the day after you've entered your travel day on your pass (and the pass's longer validity window hasn't expired), you're covered until you get off that train. (This is a rule change as of 2019.)

What's the cutoff for buying/using a "youth" pass?

This depends on which rail pass you're getting: For all Eurail-brand passes, as well as German passes, you must be under 28 to use a youth pass (more precisely, you can't turn 28 before you activate your pass in Europe). For BritRail, Balkan, and Swiss passes, however, you must be under 26.

Who qualifies for buying/using a "senior" pass?

All Eurail-brand passes, most BritRail passes, and the Balkan pass offer discounts for travelers over age 59 — more precisely, you have to have turned 60 by the time you activate your pass in Europe. (Swiss, German, and European East passes don't offer senior rates.)

What deals are available for kids?

All Eurail-brand passes, and the German pass, allow up to two kids age 4–11 to travel free with each adult-rate pass (no free kids with youth- or senior-rate passes) — more precisely, to get this deal they can't turn 12 before you activate your pass in Europe. Even though they travel for free, be sure to name them at the time of pass purchase, since they need to be listed on the same printed rail pass as their accompanying adult. Additional kids pay the youth pass rate, and kids under 4 ride for free all over Europe, usually without a ticket (but Spain requires young-uns to still hold a free ticket).

BritRail and Swiss passes also offer free-kids deals, but with different restrictions. Kids age 4–11 ride at half-price with a European East, Central Europe Triangle, or Balkan pass (and half-price Balkan passes are available for kids up to age 12).

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 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 11 months in advance up until your departure — but be sure to allow enough time for delivery. (A few passes need to be used — or at least start being used — within six months of purchase: Swiss, European East, Balkan, and Central Europe Triangle passes.) 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 (and note that most sale passes sold as short-term special offers aren't refundable at all). 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.)

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. Considering 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 Pass
  • $31 for any multi-person pass (whether a BritRail "saver" or German "twin" pass)

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?

Refunds

Most not-activated 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:

Customer Relations
Rail Europe Group
1350 E Touhy Ave
Suite 200 E
Des Plaines, IL 60018

Activated/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.

Exchanges

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, first initial, and country of residence on your rail pass must match the passport (or green card) you present when activating 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 activating 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 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 widely available in Europe, and are sold only at certain major railway stations (for the same price as in the US). Swiss and German rail passes, however, are sold at most stations in their respective countries.

What exactly does it mean to "activate" a rail pass?

Before you first use a rail pass, you have to officially 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. In most cases, your pass must be activated within 11 months of purchase (more precisely, within 11 months of the "issue date" printed on your pass); the exceptions: European East, Balkan, and Central Europe Triangle passes — all of these must be activated within six months of purchase (or, in the case of the Central Europe Triangle pass, you must choose an activation date when purchasing your ticket that's no more than six months out, as that pass comes pre-activated). See more details on activating your rail pass.

What's a "couchette"?

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?

Whether you're traveling with a rail pass or just buying tickets as you go, you can purchase seat (or overnight berth) reservations anywhere from an hour to several months in advance.

How far in advance to reserve any given train depends on the inflexibility of your schedule (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 the likelihood of seats (or at least passholder reservations) selling out — consider public holidays and events likely to draw a crowd.

Be aware that trains with compulsory reservations may have a limited number of seats available to passholders (most notoriously France's fastest international services). Along some of the most popular routes, such as between Paris and Italy, direct trains run only a few times per day; these can sell out weeks ahead (and overnight Paris–Italy trains don't accept rail passes at all).

For trains that don't need to be booked very far in advance, it's best to simply make all your reservations at one time 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. It's easiest to get them through Rick Steves (after all, you're already here!). While reservations may cost a little less when booked in Europe, virtually all US-based websites and travel agents sell European train reservations for the exact same prices you'll find here.

Get more advice on making seat reservations on European trains.

Any tips for booking Eurostar (Chunnel) seats?

The Eurostar train zips you from downtown London through the English Channel Tunnel to downtown Paris (15+/day) or Brussels (10/day) in roughly 2 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), and a few continue (or start) beyond Brussels in Amsterdam (1–2/day, 4 hours total), and past Paris as far as Lyon, Avignon, and Marseille.

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.

Buying tickets

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 deepest discounts are available for early purchase (as low as $70 in standard class).

The Eurail Global Pass covers the Eurostar train, but passholders still need to book a seat reservation — which costs $35 in Standard class (or $45 in Standard Premier) — and must be used on one of a flexipass's counted travel days (worth roughly $50, but depends on your particular pass). With a continuous-day pass it's a no-brainer to use your Global Pass to cover a Eurostar trip, but with a flexipass it's likely more cost efficient to nab an early-purchase discount, if available — and assuming you aren't using the pass for other travel on that same day. Keep in mind that seat reservations for pass holdders may also be limited; book as early as you can commit to a date.

Children under 12 and youths under 26 also qualify for discounted Eurostar tickets.

You can buy tickets and seat reservations right here through our partnership with Rail Europe, or order by phone with a European agent: London +44 8705-186-186, Paris +33 8-92-35-35-39, Brussels +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).

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 discount) and gets you a little more leg and elbow room, a newspaper, and a small meal. Business Premier class is only for serious business travelers willing to spend $400 one way, and is the only refundable class of ticket. A wide range of fares is sold for each class of seating (just like with the airlines).

Exchanges: All Eurostar tickets for Standard and Standard Premier classes are not refundable. You may, however, exchange your ticket once before departure (for a new date or time in the same direction of travel), though you'll have to pay a $50–60 fee plus the difference between the original ticket price and the fares available on the date of exchange. 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.

On board

Riding the Eurostar is somewhat like taking a plane (albeit much more pleasant): Check-in is required 30 minutes before departure for security screening or 45 minutes ahead with a passholder seat reservation. 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 France–Italy trains?

Overnight Trains

The only night trains connecting France and Italy are privately operated under the Thello brand (pronounced "Tell-o"), and do not accept any rail passes. Direct service connects Paris and Dijon with several northern Italian stops, including Milan, Verona, and Venice. Travelers with a rail pass for either country are eligible for a 25 percent discount on tickets for these trains (which doesn't require use of a counted flexipass travel day), but this discount doesn't beat most advance-purchase deals. For the best price, buy your ticket months ahead (either right here with Rick Steves or through Thello's site; tickets available four months out) — or consider flying.

Daytime Trains: Northern Route

Direct TGV day trains on the northern France–Italy route (Paris–Lyon–Turin–Milan), unlike night trains on this route, are covered by the Global Pass (and by France and Italy passes, provided you have both). As with many international trains, passholders still have to book paid seat reservations — but these are unusually expensive for these trains (about $35 in second class, or $65 in first). Since this particular stretch tends to sell out quickly, it's important to book your reservations as far ahead as you can.

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.

You can avoid these higher reservation fees by taking slower connections that involve at least one change of train, but trains that change in Switzerland incur even higher reservation fees for passholders than the direct France–Italy trains on this northern route.

Daytime Trains: Southern Route

Thello also runs the only direct daytime trains on the Marseille–Nice–Genova–Milan route. Like the Thello night trains described above, these daytime trains aren't covered by rail passes, but passholders are eligible for a discounted ticket.

What do I do if my rail pass is lost or stolen in Europe?

Lost or stolen passes are not refundable. You should be able to buy a replacement Eurail-brand pass at major railway stations in Europe (for the same price it's sold in the US). And Swiss and German rail passes are sold at most stations in their 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 dealing with lost stuff in the middle of your trip.