Railpasses—ticketless train travel using a French rialpass, Eurial pass, or other variation—are one of the original budget tools for European travel

A railpass is basically a single ticket good for unlimited travel or a certain number of days within a set period of time on almost all trains within a set geographic region.

On trips where you cover countless kilometers on the rails, a pass will end up costing you considerably less than buying individual tickets.

Plus, it gives you the freedom to hop on a train whenever you feel like it, making day trips out of town easy and cheap. There's no waiting in ticket lines either.

How far will you travel? Rail choice options

Just France Dual-country Multi-country

* All 4–10 days within 2 months
  • Eurail Select Pass (5–10 days within 2 months in your choice of 3–5 neighboring countries)
  • Eurail Select Pass 'n Drive (5–8 train days + 2 days of car rental within 2 months in 3 neighboring countires)
  • Eurail Global Pass (15 days to 3 months consecutitive, or 10–15 days within 2 months flexi; 20 countries)

I was going to include prices, but it is simply way too complicated, since it depends on your age, how many days you want the pass to cover, flexi or consecutive, how many pepole are on the pass, whether its first of second class travel, and whether youre getting a car. All the details and current prices are at RailEurope.com.

Railpass tips and FAQ

Discounts for groups, families, youths, and seniors
  • Groups/Families: Two to nine adults traveling together each get 15% off. This is called a "Saver pass" and the only catch is you must all stick together, as you're all on the one pass.
  • Youths (under 26): On second class passes, you can get 24%–35% off the price of an adult pass.
  • Children (under 12): Kids ride at 50% off.
  • Seniors (over 60): You can get 15% off the France pass (sorry; no discounts on other passes).
How does a railpass work?

From the date you buy a pass, you have six months to start using it.

The day you want to begin using the pass, you have to have it validated at a European train station. Aside from reserving seats or sleeping berths, this is the only time you'll have to wait in a ticket line.

Most passes are Flexipasses. They give you a certain number of days (say 2 to 9, or 5 to 10) within a set window of travel (one month or two).

Printed on the flexipass are as many little boxes as you've bought days of travel. Every time you board a train, just write the date in the next free box (in ink). When the conductor comes around, he checks your ticket to make sure you've put down the right date.

You can get more mileage out of a pass by waiting to validate it until the day you leave your first city or whenever you need it to kick in.

Use it smartly. Remember that the pass isn't valid in England. If you're starting a trip in London and then moving on to Paris before gallivanting around the rest of the Europe, consider that the pass will only save you $15–$20 off the cheapest regular ticket on the Eurostar train into Paris.

If you happen to be considering the consecutive-day of a Eurail Global Pass, just buy the Eurostar ticket individually (without the discount) so that you don't have to validate your pass until the day you leave Paris. On a month-long trip, this strategy may mean you can drop down to the 21-day pass rather than the one-month one and save some serious cash.

Do overnight trains use up two days?

Normally, a railpass day lasts what a normal day does: from midnight to midnight.

However, for overnight trains the railpass "day" starts the evening before.

If you board any overnight train leaving after 7pm (and traveling at least through 4am without a change of train in between), you write the next day's date on the pass.

You must make seat reservations for some trains

With a railpass you can take any train you want, and don't have to pay any extra for it—with three exceptions.

High-speed trains, night trains, and (this is fairly new) trains that cross international borders all require seat or sleeping berth reservations.

Unfortunately, that costs extra (anywhere from $10 to $80). You can buy these seat reservations in advance through Rail Europe, or just pick them up at local train staitons as you go.

The following trains in France require reservations:

These other European trains also require reservations:

  • ICE Sprinter (Germany)
  • InterCity Express (Greece)
  • Le Frecce, IC, and EC (Italy)
  • AP and IC (Portugal)
  • AVE, Euromed, Alvia, Altaria (Spain)
  • Scenic trains (Switzerland)
  • SJ (Sweden)
For Eurail Global Pass: Consecutive-day or Flexipass?

The Eurail Global Pass comes in one of two styles: The regular, consecutive day version gives you, say, one month in which you can ride the rails as often as you darn well please.

The cheaper flexipass version grants you a certain number of unlimited-ride days you can use, one-by-one, at any time within a set time period, usually two months.

Consecutive-day passes are best for those taking the train very frequently (every few days), covering a lot of ground, and making many short train hops. Flexipasses are for folks who want to range far and wide but plan on taking their time over a long trip, and intend to stay in each city for a while.

Buy the pass from outside Europe

The family of Eurail passes is available in Europe from major city train stations—though most guide books and travel agents, including Eurail itself, will swear up and down it isn't.

However, since they cost up to 150% of the U.S. price, it might as well be unavailable. Do your wallet a favor and buy any pass before you leave home.

When should I use up a railpass day?

If you're using a flexipass, you need to pick for each journey whether or not to use up a railpass day on it.

When you first get the pass, calculate quickly how much per day it costs.

Then, every time just before you go to get on a train, pop over to the automated ticket machine (or, if lacking, up to a ticket agent) and check out the price for the trip you're about to take.

If it costs less than a day's use of the flexipass—and you plan to travel more days than the pass is going to cover—just buy the ticket and save the railpass day for a long-haul trip where you're really going to need it.

When don't I need a railpass?

Nifty as they are, rail passes aren't the wisest investment for every trip. Eurail is primarily for people on an extended, whirlwind tour; the Selectpass can be handier on short, more focused trips, but it still may be overkill if you only plan to take a few train rides over the course of your visit.

Will any pass be right for you? The answer will be different for every trip, so get ready to do some math. For example, you'd have to travel at least 22 days (24 days on the youth pass) on a two-month consecutive-day pass before it starts costing less per trip than the 15-days-within-two-months flexipass.

Are the extra days worth it? It depends on your travel plans and how much liberty you want to be able to jump on trains at a whim. After you've drawn up an itinerary, estimate how much you think you'd spend on individual tickets using Rail Europe.

Also look into no-frills airlines to see if they can make the connection even cheaper. If a rail pass will save you dough and still do the job, then go for it.

Will a rail pass actually save me money?

To see whether you a railpass will save you money on your trip, use the search engines for point-to-point tickets at Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com).

Plug in the data for all the train trips you plan to take, jot down the prices for each, add them up, and if the total is close to or greater than the cost of the railpass that will do the same job, the choice is clear.

Discounts that come with the pass

There are actually a lot of extras and discounts that come with a France Rail Pass. Among them:

Other rail passes also often get you discounts on private rail lines (such as those in the Alps), high-speed lines, and discounts or free travel for ferry crossings (Italy to Greece) and some boat rides on rivers (Rhine, Mosel) and lakes (especially Swiss ones).

These bonuses can change from year to year, so check with the agency that issues you the pass and read the literature they send with it to see what extra goodies you may be getting.

What if I'm going into a country not covered by the pass?

Rail passes are good all the way up to the borders of the countries they cover.

So if you're traveling from a Eurail country to a non-Eurail country—say Vienna, Austria, to Prague, Czech Republic—you can go to the ticket window in Vienna and purchase a ticket for just the stretch from the Austrian/Czech border to Prague. Your pass will cover the Vienna-to-the-border segment.

Train or plane?

Once the single greatest value in Europe, railpasses have become merely another excellent tool in these days of cheap no-frills airline flights and pricey train tickets. when city-to-city flights in Europe can take 90 minutes and cost as little as $50, why take the train at all?

Well, for one thing, you have remember to factor in the true time investment for a plane flight. Most folks look at the plane timetable and say "Oh, the plane takes just 90 minutes, while the train takes 3 hours. Obviously, the plane is faster."

Not so.

Rail Europe, fastest way to travel in EuropeRemember you have to factor in the time to take to get to airport A and then into the new town from airport B.

Figure at least an hour each way, building in a bit of cushion in case you just miss one airport shuttle and have to wait 15 minutes for the next. Trains, on the other hand, connect you directly from one downtown to another.

Plus you need to check for a flight in an hour ahead of time. (You only need bother showing up at the train station maybe 15 minutes before departure.)

So you see: you need to add a minimum of three hours to find the total time it will take to do the air option—longer if your research shows that it takes more than an hour to get to or from one of your airports, and many low-cost carriers operate from more distant airports, like Luton in London.

Suddenly, that 90 minute flight is eating up 4.5 hours of your time.

How's that train looking now? (RailEurope even has a smarmy add pointing this out using graph lines that I pasted above for your amusement.)

In the end, you have to do some research to determine when is the right time to use a railpass, and when to mix-and-match regular old train tickets with low-cost flights.

This is where a flexi-pass, good for a certain nunber of days within a set time frame, can come in very handy, giving you the freedom to buy individual train tickets for short rail journeys, use the pass on medium-length hauls (best for trips of more than five hours and on overnight runs), and then fly to farther-flung places like Greece, Spain, Ireland, or parts of Eastern Europe.

» More on no-frills airlines




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