What to Know About Train Travel in Europe

In the not-so-distant past, if you were a 20-something traveling around Europe, there’s a good chance your journey relied on a hefty backpack and a Eurail pass.

The pass, which has been around for 60 years, enables rail travel in 33 European countries and remains a popular choice among backpackers and beyond. The offering has evolved significantly since launching in 1959, expanding from 13 initial countries and, as of 2020, going digital, eliminating the need for pesky paper tickets. Other recent upgrades include a simplified pricing structure and more discounts for youth and senior fares.

On the flip side, critics say Eurail passes have lost some of their luster because of increasing restrictions and additional fees in recent years, as well as competition from budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet. Even so, it’s hard to beat the convenience and flexibility of a single-purchase rail pass—and arguably the most iconic way to journey throughout Europe, from Finland to Portugal to Turkey.

“It’s a classic way to get around Europe—it’s phenomenal,” says Mike Fuller, owner of ItaliaRail.com, a U.S.-based site that sells Italian train tickets and is expected to soon offer Eurail passes. “There is a renaissance in rail travel among North Americans going to Europe.”

Considering a pass for your next European adventure? Here’s what to know before getting on board.

How do Eurail passes work?

First off: Eurail itself is not an operator. It’s a specific type of rail pass that enables international passengers to travel on national and regional rail carriers operating throughout Europe (its counterpart, Interrail, is available for E.U. citizens and residents). Under a newer, more simplified pricing system, passengers can now choose between a Global Pass and a One-Country Pass.

With the Global Pass, options are based on train travel days within a certain amount of time, starting at four days within a one-month window for $216 (the most popular choice, starting at $473, offers 10 travel days within two months). On each travel day, pass holders can ride as many trains as they want from midnight to midnight. Be aware there are booking fees associated with each ride—more on that below.

A One-Country pass, meanwhile, offers travel within one country or a particular region (like Benelux, covering Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, or Scandinavia). Options range from three to eight travel days within one month, with prices starting at $150 for Italy, one of the most popular destinations.

Eurail’s mobile pass and rail planner app have further simplified planning and logistics. The mobile pass is delivered straight to your inbox after purchase—no more waiting on a paper ticket in the mail or filling out a “travel diary” en route. Instead, passengers upload the mobile pass into the route planner app while connected to Wi-Fi and organize their trips from there. Once on board, inspectors validate the pass by scanning the barcode in the app.

Those digital enhancements have been increasingly popular, especially for U.S.-based travelers, according to Yi Ding, Eurail’s business and growth manager. Ding says the features have added an extra layer of flexibility and convenience for passengers, many of whom now plan trips a few weeks in advance instead of months—one of several pandemic-fueled shifts in buying patterns. “We’re happy to really see that more than 90 percent of American travelers actually use the mobile pass instead of a paper pass to travel around Europe,” Ding says.

How do you score the best deal?

Calculating the savings from a pass—and whether it’s worth it to buy one in the first place—can be a complex task involving a breakdown of your itinerary, estimated days of travel, comparing prices with point-to-point tickets, and other factors.

If you have an idea of how many cities and countries you want to visit over a certain number of days, you can price your options both ways—via a rail pass and then point-to-point tickets. Check out Eurail’s handy trip planning feature, which provides suggestions for the best type of pass for your itinerary. You can then see how those fares stack up against the cost of point-to-point tickets via individual countries’ rail operators or comparison sites like Omio.com.

Also consider how much flexibility you need: Do you want the option, for example, to tack on a side trip based on a recommendation you picked up en route, or a more firm itinerary based on a transfer to a nonrefundable flight deal you scored? Generally speaking, “if your travel plans are firm and dates are fixed, you don’t necessarily need a pass,” says Mark Smith, founder of The Man in Seat 61, a website specializing in rail travel. “But if you want the freedom of waking up in the morning, and saying, ‘We’re in Berlin, should we go to Amsterdam or Warsaw?’, you don’t get that freedom with advance purchase tickets.”

For some travelers, Smith suggests a “mix-and-match” approach. “Instead of buying, for example, a 10-days-in-2-months pass to cover eight or nine planned journeys, it can be cheaper to buy a 7-days-in-2-months pass plus a normal ticket for a day when you’re only doing a short local hop such as Florence to Pisa, or a cheap advance-purchase ticket for a journey at the start of your trip that you know you plan to make,” he explains.

Finally, keep in mind that the convenience of a pass can offer significant non-monetary value, especially for longer journeys across one (or more) different countries. Buying point-to-point tickets often means navigating unfamiliar booking systems in various languages (and on websites that may have trouble with U.S. credit cards). And because different carriers have different booking platforms, that can mean multiple tickets for a single trip. If you’re not up for those extra steps, a pass is a good fit.

What about hidden costs?

Reservation fees, which are not included in the cost of the Eurail pass, can take some travelers by surprise. Even with the DIY option of self-service through the mobile app, you’ll pay a booking fee of €2 Euros per traveler per trip, plus a domestic train reservation fee, which varies per country and train type (night and high-speed trains, not surprisingly, are more expensive and almost universally require advance booking).

According to Eurail’s website, reservations average €10 for high-speed trains and €15 for international, but for the most popular routes in Western Europe, fees on certain routes—Paris to Basel, for example, can go as high as €68 (approximately $79).

Smith has a simple rule of thumb for getting a sense of pricier routes. “Draw a line right down the middle of Europe,” he notes. “To the left of that line, countries like France, Italy, and Spain are pass-unfriendly. To the right of that line, Switzerland, Benelux, Denmark, Germany, Austria and points east are pass-friendly. You generally don’t incur extra costs, and in most cases there are no reservations required.”

What about extra pass perks and discounts?

Among Eurail’s most well-known deals is its youth pass, which, as of 2019, is now available for travelers up to 28 years old. Seniors 60 and older, meanwhile, receive a 10 percent discount, while two kids up to 11 years old travel for free under an adult ticket.

Don’t forget about other discounts, either, from ferries to local trains to hotels—all of which can add up to significant savings. (In fact, the Greek Islands Pass was updated in 2019 to include ferry service to 53 islands—up from 28—making it an excellent choice for that island-hopping adventure on many a travel bucket list). Some discounts require advance reservations, while others are only available to be booked in person. Be sure to check the fine print for deals in the particular country you’ll be visiting.

Finally, if you see a great deal—like the 20 percent discount on passes that Eurail offered at the end of 2020—don’t be afraid to grab it and plan your trip later, as passes are now valid for 11 months after purchase.

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler