It’s almost as if Europe was made for train travel – it’s relatively small, well-connected and culturally diverse. Perhaps it’s for this reason that exploring Europe by train is one of the most popular and iconic backpacking trips there is. And, if you want to see a lot of different places in a short amount of time, a European rail pass can be the ideal way to achieve this.
Just because it’s popular, though, doesn’t mean it’s always simple. Look a little closer at your options when buying a rail pass and it’s easy to get confused. What pass do you need? Where and when will it be valid? What are all the rules and regulations?
For this reason, we’ve compiled a short and simple introductory guide to Europe’s rail passes – to help you make the best decision for your trip.
InterRail or Eurail?
The first thing you’ll notice when you begin your rail pass investigations are that there are two main types: the InterRail and Eurail passes.
InterRail is for European citizens and residents (anyone who has resided in the EU for at least six months prior to purchasing their pass), plus people from Turkey, Russia and a few North African countries. InterRail passes cover this area. Note that you cannot use an InterRail pass within your home country.
InterRail offers slightly better value, so if you have the choice then opt for the InterRail pass.
What’s included in a rail pass?
A rail pass functions as a ticket, meaning that you do not need to buy tickets once you are in Europe and can use them on pretty much any train. A rail pass can save you a lot of time, effort and money as it means you do not have to buy individual train tickets for each journey – making them an ideal option for longer trips.
What kind of passes are there?
- Global – these entitle you to unlimited travel across all participating countries. This is a good option if you plan on seeing a lot of the continent, are unsure of your plans at present, or want the flexibility and freedom to go anywhere you like on a whim
- One or more countries – you can also buy passes for one country, or for two or three adjacent countries. This can be a more budget-friendly option if you already know you’re planning to concentrate your travels in a particular region. You can always supplement your pass by buying additional train tickets if you end up venturing further afield – it still might work out cheaper than buying a global pass, so do your research!
- Consecutive travel – this gives you continuous and unlimited travel within the timeframe of the pass. If you’re planning on covering a lot of distance and travelling most days, this is the option for you.
- Flexi travel – rather than being able to ride the train every day the pass is valid, this limits you to travelling up to a set number of days (for example, 10 days over two months). Obviously this works out cheaper if you’re planning on seeing fewer places, are staying in places longer, or already know your itinerary – and keep in mind that you can always buy tickets for shorter, cheaper trips rather than using your pass, and may still save money compared to buying a pass that allows unlimited travel.
What’s not included?
Buying a rail pass is often a great deal – but there are a few catches. Certain trains – especially inter-city ones to or in France, Spain and Italy – require you to reserve a spot ahead of travel. Reservation costs can vary, but are usually around €10 in Western Europe and €5 or less in Eastern Europe (where they are less common).
If you get an overnight train then you will need to shell out on a ‘couchette’ (bunk space) to sleep in. This is generally around €25 in a 6-bed cabin and €50-75 in a 2-bed in Western Europe, and more like €15-25 in Eastern Europe.
It’s also worth noting that some long-distance trains in France have restrictions on how many rail pass holders can travel on any one train, meaning you might not be able to travel on the one you want using your pass.
Finally, rail passes do not include any other form of travel other than train – so you’re still going to have to pay for things like buses, trams and subways – and only cover trains run by the national railway operators. Rail passes also are not valid on the Eurostar between Paris and London, although they do entitle you to a special fare which, although cheaper than the standard ‘on the day’ fare, is significantly more expensive than simply booking your place on the Eurostar a week or more in advance.
We hope this is helpful. Bon voyage! Tell us your rail stories in Europe!