Compared to flying, travel by train in Europe has the advantage of city center to city center journeys, few restrictions on luggage and a greater chance to socialize along the way. For those visitors planning to tour the summer festivals or mount a cultural campaign, a selection of rail passes simplify the process, while a little planning can reap huge savings.
Buy a Pass
Depending on your country of residence, two main options are available. Non-European residents can purchase the Eurail Pass, which covers 24 countries. For a sweeping itinerary, the Global Pass allows travel across all participating countries, while travelers with a narrower focus would be better off taking a Select Pass, which allows travel through four bordering countries, or the Regional Pass, for two-country combinations. European residents, however, can buy the InterRail Pass, whose Global Pass covers 30 countries, while the One Country Pass allows unlimited travel within 27 countries. For the Global Passes, passengers can either choose continuous travel for a defined period, or take a Flexi Pass which allows a certain number of travel days, making it the better option for those who want to spend a longer period of time in just a few destinations.
City to City
While passes are ideal for those who plan to travel on three or more consecutive days, for example, or do not have a clear itinerary in mind, train companies increasingly follow the airlines’ model in offering cut-price tickets booked in advance online. Travelers who have a clear itinerary are best served by booking city-to-city tickets at discounted rates, typically three months in advance. This applies above all in Eastern Europe where rail fares are much cheaper. As Jane E Fraser wrote in "The Sydney Morning Herald," 80 percent of high-speed journeys in Europe require reservations in advance, so confirmed tickets are already a tacit prerequisite. The only drawback to the point-to-point ticket booked online is that it will almost certainly be nonchangeable and nonrefundable.
Non-Europeans cannot buy Eurail passes in Europe, while European residents cannot use an InterRail pass for travel within their own country. Both passes must first be activated by obtaining a stamp on the first day of travel from a station official or ticket office, and pass-holders will still need to reserve seats for travel in many Western European countries. "Lonely Planet" warns that there will frequently be extra charges on long-distance trains, particularly in France, Italy and Spain, where a reservation fee is applied, but many travelers will find the charges nominal. Switzerland, Germany and Austria do not usually require compulsory reservation. For overnight journeys, passengers have the option of reclining seat, couchette -- shared compartment -- or a private sleeper cabin. Travelers under 26 or over 60 should also look out for some very attractive discounts.
Where to Go
Passengers with a Global Pass could theoretically travel from Ireland in the West to Turkey in the East, although travel on the EuroTunnel beneath the English Channel is not included. National Geographic recommends a handful of iconic journeys that are possible using a pass, among which are The Chocolate Train, which runs through the Swiss mountains from Montreux to Broc, and the Balkan Flexipass, which whistles through the former Yugoslavia, Romania, Greece and Turkey. Rick Steves, however, recommends against investing in a rail pass for southern Spain, Ireland, Croatia and Greece because the rail network is so limited. Also, be warned that high-speed services in Italy and the Thalys service, which serves Paris and Amsterdam, both charge hefty supplements.
- USA Today: 10 Essential Tips for European Train Travel
- Rail Europe: A Single Stop for European Train Travel
- Eurail: Travel Europe with the Eurail Pass
- Lonely Planet: Europe by Train, How to Get More Bang for Your Buck
- Rick Steve’s Europe: Travel Tips, Trains & Rail Passes
- National Geographic: Top 10 European Train Trips
- Vacations by Rail: European Rail Tour Packages
- Sydney Morning Herald: The Cheap New Way to Use Europe’s Trains
- Photo Credit Francesco Scatena/iStock/Getty Images