By far the most popular way to experience continental Europe is by train. Countries like France and Germany have some of the most advanced and well maintained trains in the industry. It goes without saying that rail travel is fast but with newer high-speed trains travelling at up to 186mph (300km/h) you will be able to reach your destination in a fraction of the time it takes by road.
Each country however has its own set of rail providers, for example in France the rail network is largely dominated by the SNCF network and the high-speed TGV trains. Trying to plan an itinerary which spans several countries by rail with traditional point to point tickets is an expensive minefield. In fact you will find it difficult to even book tickets outside of some countries such as Sweden.
The good news however is that several companies offer rail pass schemes that are honoured on many different rail networks throughout Europe. While the options may seem bewildering at first our comprehensive low-down aims to give you all the info you need to buy the right pass for your holiday.
The standard model for most rail passes is to allow the holder to travel free on participating rail networks for the duration of the rail pass. However some rail networks only offer concessions to those holding a rail pass. You can always check exactly what rail companies you can use before you buy a rail pass. In addition many trains will require that you have a reservation. You will normally be able to reserve a seat on a train up to 10 minutes before you leave but you may want to reserve earlier on busy trains. For the most part you will not be charged for the reservation on presentation or your rail pass although again this varies.
The Eurailpass is the best known rail pass, it has been around for decades and covers most routes in 17 European countries and come valid for 15 days, 21 days, 1 month, 2 months or 3 months. A cheaper “Youthpass” provides second class travel for those under 26 for the same durations.
More recently Eurail has issued a flexi-pass, this kind of pass entitles the bearer to a certain number of days travelling non-consecutively during the period of validity. For example a flexi-pass is available allowing 10 days travelling within 2 months at a much lower price than a 2 month pass. This kind of pass is ideal if you want to spend a little time at each destination.
Additionally Eurail offer “saverpasses” for group or family travel which can save up to 15% on the individual ticket price.
Inter-rail is another company offering European rail passes valid throughout Europe. With 28 locations under its belt the Inter-Rail pass has a lot to recommend itself. Inter-rail’s pass works on a zone system. Europe is divided up into a number of zones with 2 or 3 countries in each zone. Passes are then charged based on the number of zones you are visiting and the period that the pass is valid for.
By far the best value for money is the 1 month “any number of zones” pass, if you are under 26 you can also get a substantial discount on this pass. However if you know you are concentrating your travel in a small area and one of the zones correspond to the countries you want to see then you may find one of the 1 or 2 zone passes a better deal.
The ScanRail pass is a rail pass allowing free travel throughout Scandinavia. The entire national rail networks in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark are covered as well as a small selection of ferries and buses. High speed trains are not covered but many offer substantial discounts to holders of this pass.
This pass is available in two “flexi” versions offering either 5 days in 2 months or 10 days in two months and a 21 day consecutive pass. Discounts are offered to children, youths (under 26) and senior citizens.
This really is one of the cheapest ways to travel around Scandinavia, especially as some of the other pass schemes have poor coverage of Scandinavia.
EuroDomino passes provide between three to eight days travel within a 1 month period in a single European country. These passes are significantly cheaper than other European passes and are only available to residents of European countries. Pricing varies according to the country that the pass is issued for.
If you are going to restrict your travel to one country this is probably the most convenient and cheapest pass to book with the possible exception of national passes available locally in the destination country. With many countries refusing to accept payments from outside their borders this makes the EuroDomino a much safer choice for most people.
These passes also have the benefit of having second class version available for those over 26 years of age, which can bring down your travel expenditure significantly. Although this does come with the sacrifice of some comfort.
Some routes, most notably the channel tunnel offer a rail and drive pass. These come in two flavours, either trains that can carry your car such as the Eurostar or rail passes which offer a number of “car days” in between train days in which you will have access to a hire car. Eurail offers “bonuses” which are effectively 50-100% reductions on car hire with some of their passes.
These tickets are useful for exploring harder to reach and rural sites although you will need a full driving licence and may need an international driving permit.
If you are concentrating most of your travel around a few location then buying individual tickets is the best way to go. For backpacking though the rail passes above probably represent the best value for money and offer the most flexibility.
- Travellerspoint – Train Travel Europe
- Eurail – official Eurail site
- Europrail – Europe rail passes for US travellers (prices in $USA)
- Inter-Rail – official Inter Rail website
- Scanrail – has a very nice flash driven site
- Rail Europe – sells various rail passes including Eurodomino
- Railpass.com – has rail maps for various European countries
- The Eurostar