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 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). As of 2022, most rail passes are digital documents to be loaded on a mobile device. (Paper passes — printed on train-ticket-size stock — are still available through certain outlets.)
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. (Point-to-point tickets are still primarily sold as paper tickets, but digital versions are increasingly available, especially in Switzerland.)
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, Swiss Travel Pass, the non-Eurail German pass, and some BritRail passes.
In rail-pass speak, a month is never a calendar month. Passes that span a certain number of months last through, but not past, the date that's one day less than your start date (that is, if you started a month-long pass on the 12th, it'll be good through midnight on the 11th of the next month). This is the case whether it's the window of time within which you can use flexipass travel days, or the span of a continuous-day 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 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.
What exactly is a "travel day"? (And what about overnight trains?)
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. For most passes, this means the pass counts only the date of your night train's departure, and you're covered until you get off that train, without the arrival day counting against your total.
A few passes, however, count night-train travel according to the "7 p.m. rule": On these passes, your night train's arrival date is the one that counts against your total. As long as you're boarding that train after 7 p.m. and it's the same train you'll be on after midnight, those few hours of travel are essentially a freebie. This is still how it works with all non-Eurail-brand rail passes: the German Rail Pass, European East Pass, Balkan Pass, and all BritRail passes.
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 non-Eurail German passes, you must be under 28 to use a youth pass (more precisely, you can't turn 28 before you first use a digital pass or before the activation date you request when presenting a paper pass to a station agent...which is most likely your first day of pass use). For BritRail and Balkan passes, however, you must be under 26 — and for the Swiss pass you must be under 25.
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 start using your pass to ride a train in Europe. (Swiss, non-Eurail German, and European East passes don't offer senior rates.)
What deals are available for kids?
All Eurail-brand passes, and the non-Eurail 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 start using 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 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).
Can I get a group discount on a rail pass?
For the most part, no — most rail passes stopped offering a group (a.k.a. "saverpass") discount at the end of 2018.
- BritRail passes offer a 20 percent "saverpass" discount if you have at least three people traveling together.
- German rail passes (ones that aren't Eurail-brand) 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 were adjusted downward when they discontinued their "saverpass" option — effectively giving all travelers prices similar to those that had previously only been granted to travelers able to group together on the same 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 a day before your first train ride. (If ordering a printed pass, 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 pass may show the price in euros only.)
Can I get a refund on my rail pass or train tickets?
Most not-activated rail passes are refundable (minus a penalty of at least 15 percent) if returned and processed within one year of purchase. Booking fees — and, for printed passes, shipping and Rail Protection Plan fees — as well as some special offers are not refundable.
Return a printed rail pass by trackable service (UPS, Federal Express, or certified mail) to:
Rail Europe Group
260 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016
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 paper 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.
Many special offers and advance-purchase discounts are not refundable.
Many train tickets are not refundable, and if exchangeable, must be exchanged well before the date of travel. Generally, the deeper the discount (e.g. advance purchases), the more restrictive the change options. Rules vary by country, type of train, and date of travel; check details on your ticket or confirmation email.
If you need a refund, start following Rail Europe's refund instructions as soon as possible (this may involve steps you need to take while still in Europe), and follow the instructions carefully.
Rail passes can't be exchanged per se. If you need a different pass, cancel the one you bought before using it (see above), then buy the new pass (at its current price).
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 using your pass. Middle names are not used. Passes come 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 first using most rail passes sold in the US; a passport or green card is the usual proof. Certain 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.)
What exactly does it mean to "activate" a rail pass?
In order for your rail pass to be valid for train travel, you must activate it by providing passport information and a travel start date. (Swiss passes and a few special offers come preactivated — if your pass is already designated for a specific travel period, skip this step.)
Use Eurail's Rail Planner app to activate a digital pass by adding your pass to the app, then entering your activation date. (If you have a Swiss pass or BritRail pass, check for activation instructions when you receive your digital pass.)
If you have a paper pass, you'll need to activate it in person with a ticket agent at a European train station. The ticket agent (not you) writes in your passport number, and the first and last dates of your travel period, and stamps the activation box on the far right. Never write anything on your rail pass before it's been activated.
In most cases, your pass must be activated within 11 months of purchase (more precisely, within 11 months of the "issue date" 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"?
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?
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.
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.
Get more advice on making seat reservations on European trains.
Any tips for booking Eurostar (Chunnel) seats?
The Eurostar train zips you from (or to) downtown London, through the English Channel Tunnel, to (or from) downtown Paris (12+/day) or Brussels (6/day) in roughly two hours, or direct to/from Amsterdam (3/day) in four hours, faster and easier than flying. Main train stations are London St. Pancras, Paris Nord, Brussels Midi/Zuid, and Amsterdam Centraal.
Some departures also stop at Ebbsfleet and Ashford (in England), and/or Calais or Lille (France), and/or Rotterdam (Netherlands), and past Paris as far as Lyon, Avignon, and Marseille.
If you're trying to get to places far beyond London, Paris, Brussels, or Amsterdam, it's worth comparing the price of a direct flight versus taking the Eurostar and connecting by train from its end points.
If you're ready to commit to a travel date and time, you may book some tickets up to nine months in advance, but more commonly starting six months out. There's no deadline to purchase, but the deepest discounts are available for early purchase (as low as $65 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, a little more each for Amsterdam trains) — 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 right here through our partnership with Rail Europe. You can also order by phone with a European agent (all charge a €14 phone-handling fee): London +44 343 218 6186, Paris +33 1 70 70 60 88, Brussels +32 2 400 67 31, Amsterdam +31 207 16 83 25. They're also sold in most staffed European train stations (just remember that the cheapest tickets sell out well in advance).
If you'll be using a Eurail pass to cover your Eurostar ride, you can buy passholder reservations through Eurail's site.
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 usually 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.
Riding the Eurostar is somewhat like taking a plane (albeit much more pleasant). Arrive early to allow time for security screening and passport control (must be completed at least 45 minutes before departure from the Continent, and at least 30 minutes ahead when departing from Britain). 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?
Direct trains between France and Italy are now limited to daytime TGV and Frecciarossa trains on the Paris–Lyon–Turin–Milan route. (Overnight service is no longer operating; trains between Marseille/Nice and Genova/Milan require a connection at the border.)
These direct TGV trains are covered by the Eurail Global Pass (and by France and Italy Eurail 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).
You can avoid these higher reservation fees by taking slower connections that involve at least one change of train, but keep in mind that trains that change in Switzerland incur even higher reservation fees for passholders than the direct France–Italy TGV trains.
Since this particular stretch tends to sell out quickly, it's important to book either your TGV tickets (which include a seat reservation) or, if you'll be using a rail pass, your passholder seat reservations, as far ahead as you can. (If seats are only available on very time-consuming connections, consider flying.)
When checking schedules, note that some 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. Fortunately, it's not hard to connect the two stations, which are only about a mile apart. Trains between Milano Centrale and Porta Garibaldi depart every 30 minutes and take about 10 minutes. The M2 line of Milan's metro runs even more frequently between the stations, departing every eight minutes. Rail passes cover the cost of the train ride, but not the €2 metro ride. To avoid the (small) hassle of switching stations in Milan, consider connecting to/from other Italian destinations at Turin's Porta Susa station instead of in Milan.