How To Get The Most Out Of European Rail Passes

Once you've settled into your seat aboard one of Europe's fine trains, let go of your buyer's remorse and enjoy the ride.
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A few weeks ago I was chatting with a EuroCheapo reader about her upcoming trip to Germany, France and Italy. She and her husband were planning to move about entirely by train.

They planned tostart in Paris, spend a few days and then take a train to Cologne, Germany. After two days there, they'd take a train up to Hamburg. Three days later, they'd head south to Florence, Italy and, finally, Rome. All of this in just under two weeks.

Her question was a practical one: Which rail pass should they buy for the journey? A Eurail pass? Select pass? Special regional pass?

Of course, the question wasn't an easy one. She hadn't considered that perhaps a rail pass wasn't the best solution -- maybe she should just buy point-to-point tickets.

Buy pass or pass by?

There are so many configurations of rail passes that you can spend days clicking through the options. On the Eurail site you can explore the European rail passes available to Americans.

Other third-party resellers of Eurail passes include Rail Europe, which also sells point-to-point European train tickets to Americans. On their site, visitors can fill in their travel plans and the site will show you the many pass and ticket options. Even on EuroCheapo, we list out the most popular rail passes for Americans.

To figure out our readers' puzzle, we had to break down the trip: Paris - Cologne - Hamburg - Florence (via Munich) - Rome. This came out to five travel days, including the overnight from Munich to Florence. This would take us through five countries, including France, Belgium, Germany, Austria and Italy.

Here are the rail options that we found for our reader's trip.

Option 1: Eurail Global Pass
Cost: $1,204 for a 15-day Eurail Global Pass "Saver" (for two people), plus seat reservations and supplements.

The most famous train pass options for Americans are the classic Eurail "Global" passes, which allow first-class travel (unlimited for a set number of days) across 23 European countries. These passes make sense for travelers who desire maximum flexibility and plan to spend lots of time on long-distance trains.

Pros: You can hop on and off trains willy-nilly (well, except for seat reservations you'll need to buy for high-speed and international trains). Most countries are covered by the pass (except, notably, the United Kingdom).

Cons: Passes are expensive and you still need to purchase seat reservations for high-speed trains. Only available to adults in first class.

We concluded that this was "too much pass" for our reader's needs, as she'll only be traveling for five days during that two-week period.

Option 2: Select Pass
Cost: $940 for a Select Pass "Saver" for two people.

This pass covers five days of first-class travel within two months in five bordering countries (plus seat reservations and supplements).

Pros: More economical than a Eurail Global Pass.

Cons: Only works for bordering countries. (You'll have to buy extra tickets to pass through countries not covered by your pass.) Not necessarily cheaper than buying point-to-point tickets. Only available in first class for adults.

For our reader, this sounds like a decent deal. However the amount doesn't account for any seat reservations or supplements (for example, for the overnight couchette that we'll want to reserve from Munich to Florence).

We could also save a bit by purchasing a three-country pass (for France, Germany and Italy) and then buy extra tickets to travel through Belgium and Austria. However, this sounds like a hassle. (And aren't rail passes supposed to make things easier?)

Option 3. Other passes
Cost: $1,142

Also available are single country and regional passes covering clusters of bordering countries. There are dozens of options here. A France-German Regional Saver Pass, for example, covers four days of first-class travel for two people within two months for $732.

For a little help, we plugged our details into a Web site selling Eurail passes. They suggested a hybrid approach: paying for a point-to-point ticket from Paris to Cologne, then using a German Rail Pass ($396 - two people) and a Eurail Italy pass ($376 - two people) to cover the rest.

On the site, seat reservations cost about $12 or $13 per train, per person. The overnight couchette (sleeps three), costs $67 per person. Their package would total $1,142 for two people, including reservations. (They don't mention it, but it sounds like we'd also need to buy extra tickets for the portion of the trip that would pass through Austria.)

Option 4. Point-to-point tickets (through a third-party site)
Cost: $1,336

Another option is to buy point-to-point rail tickets in advance through a third-party rail site. When I priced it out, these tickets on the same trains cost $1,336, including reservations.

Thus, the rail passes seem like the way to go, right? Not necessarily...

Option 5. Point-to-point tickets (through the official European rail sites)
Cost: $756 (plus foreign transaction fees)

Most American travelers don't realize that we can book rail tickets online for many European countries, printing off tickets at home or picking them up at the station. Furthermore, if you buy them in advance online through the official rail sites, you can often find sales that you won't find on other Web sites.

I did the same searches on the national rail sites and found the following fares. (Note that these searches were done June 27, 2012. Ticket prices are constantly changing and sale fares sell out.)

Ticket one: Paris - Cologne
Website: SNCF (in French)
Cost: €118 ($146) for two tickets; $158 on third-party sites.

This isn't a huge savings, and it's a hassle for most Americans, as you have to book the ticket in French in order to stay on the official SNCF Web site. Most American travelers would be better off booking this through a third-party site in English. (The SNCF site does, however, frequently offer great deals. Here's our guide to booking in French.)

Ticket two: Cologne to Hamburg
Website: Deutsche Bahn (in English)
Cost: €137 ($170) for two tickets, with reservations; $250 on third-party sites.

That's quite a savings. Even better, they offer an upgrade to first class for €147 ($182).

Tickets three and four: Hamburg to Munich, overnight to Florence
Website: Deutsche Bahn
Cost: €326 ($405) for two; $816 on third-party sites.

This ticket offers the biggest savings. For €326 ($405), the German railway's Web site offers two second-class seats to Munich, plus two beds in an economy double cabin for the overnight to Florence. (This is a sale fare. They list the regular price as €596, or $740.)

Ticket five: Florence to Rome
Website: Trenitalia
Cost: €28 ($35) for two tickets; $112 on third-party sites.

This is another big saver. Trenitalia, the Italian railway, offers sale fares on the high-speed train from Florence to Rome. Great deal!

Total costs

Thus, we can purchase the same tickets directly through the national rail sites for $756 (plus whatever foreign transaction fees your bank tacks on, as you'll be purchasing something abroad). This is a significant savings over either rail passes or point-to-point tickets purchased elsewhere.

However, this solution is clearly not for everyone. It requires extra work and research, and not all European countries make it easy to use their sites or book in advance from abroad. And it goes without saying that if you're not comfortable booking a ticket in French, you shouldn't even bother with the SNCF site!

Furthermore, maybe you like heading to Europe armed with a rail pass, knowing that most of your train travel is covered and that you can switch plans with little consequence. If that's the case, go for the pass!

If, however, you have the time to search for your trains on the official rail sites, you should. You'll probably find some sales that you won't see elsewhere.

Either way, once you've settled into your seat aboard one of Europe's fine trains, let go of your buyer's remorse and enjoy the ride.