Europe. The dream trip. The trip that everyone in their younger years thinks of, and the memories that the people a generation or two ahead of us think about when looking back on their youth. Backpacking through Europe with a rail pass and no worries is the dream trip for most. Sadly, the ways to get around Europe have changed immensely to make rail passes not as lucrative, but more so expensive, and slightly restrictive. With that, I thought I would throw together a post about the modern way to tramp around Europe, on a budget.
This is the year to go to Europe. Looking at the Euro hanging around $1.15 is salivating. I have never seen the Euro that low, let alone a handful of other currencies that the USD is kicking ass in right now. What does that mean for us? Travel got cheaper. How much cheaper? One year ago from today, the Euro was at $1.35 (meaning it took $1.35 to buy €1). Today, it is $1.14. The savings? $0.21, or 18.4%. That is like getting 18% off of your total trip cost…See why this is the time to go to Europe?
The Breakdown I have been to Europe a lot. A lot as in I don’t remember how many total, because they don’t stamp your EU passport, but last year alone I went for three full trips, and a long layover in London. In all my trips, I have learned how to get around the continent on a budget. I want to share with you my ways of getting around, and hopefully provide you with a few companies that will help you save some money while tramping around Europe. I will break this down into sections:
- Rail Passes
- Using Trains in Different Countries, like which ones are better to just buy tickets instead of getting a pass.
- Night Trains
- Discount/LCC Airlines
- Car Rentals
Due to length, and most people’s attention span, we will split this into a few different posts. Rail Passes in Europe Rail passes in Europe are pretty complex. There are two providers of rail passes for foreigners. Eurail is the main one, and Rail Europe is the other one. Ironically, Rail Europe sells the Eurail passes, so I would just stick with them. Interrail is a program for Europeans to get rail passes.
The Man in Seat 61 is a train travel website that covers trains all over the world. He has a pretty good breakdown of each the Interrail and Eurail passes. (Click on the links for his articles). I will have a bit more of a Eurail emphasis, since most people that read this blog are not citizens/residents of the EU. The Interrail pass is very similar, just cheaper and has a few more countries included in the pass. There are tons of Eurail passes. You can get anything from a 30 country pass, to a single country pass, and everything inbetween. These are your options in categories:
- Global Pass- allows you unlimited travel during your purchased period in all participating countries. Note: Some trains require reservations, an added fee.
- Select Pass- allows unlimited travel during your purchased period in the defined countries that are bordering each other.
- Regional Passes- allows unlimited travel during your purchased period in two countries.
- One Country Pass- allows unlimited travel during your purchase period in a single country.
So, if you look at the above, you have quite a few options. Now throw in the date options, and you are really talking about a lot of options. Passes are sold as “Consecutive” or “Flex.” Consecutive means that, from the time you validate your pass, you have a given number of days to use the train. So if I have a 22 day consecutive pass, and I start the pass on the 1st of the month, I can ride as many trains that my heart desires until the 23rd of the month. Flexi passes are flexible passes, meaning you get a certain number of days to use within a period. This is excellent for city hoppers who want to spend a few days in each city for their trip, then continue to the next city a few days later.
Rail passes are great for flexibility, but purchasing the correct pass takes some serious planning to ensure that you do not overpay for a pass that you will not use to the fullest. Eurail passes are expensive too. They start at about $50 for a single country pass, and cruise all the way up to $1000 for the Global pass. With that, you have to plan it out and make sure that you will fully use your rail passes. While planning, don’t forget the reservation fees that are required on some trains too, like the TGV in France.
I have purchased two rail passes in all of the trips that I have taken to Europe. My first one was when mom and I went to Switzerland. Switzerland is notoriously expensive. The Swiss Pass enabled flexible travel on all of the nations trains, plus some really good discounts on gondolas, funiculars and other mountain railways. This was really valuable, as the discount did not require use of a day, and still enabled you to get the 50% discount on cable cars and other mountain like things. In other words, if you get the flexi pass valid for a month with 4 days of travel, you can use the discounts associated with your pass between your travel days, and 50% off cable cars is well worth the value. When we got the pass, it also included half price on trains (if you did not want to use a day from your pass) and the post bus, as well as free entry to a bunch of museums. Another benefit? It allowed you to ride the scenic trains, like the Glacier Express while using a day, where the Eurail passes didn’t let you do that.
The second time I purchased a pass was for Germany three years ago. The big seller for this one was it included the bus from Prague to Munich, which would have come out to a solid $60 back then. They also had routes available to Milan, and some others. These and the ability to ride ICE trains (high speed) without a reservation made the pass worthwhile to me.
As a heads up, it was cheaper to buy straight from Deutsche Bahn than through Rail Europe or something…which is a fairly common trend, so shop around before you invest. One other thing to note is the youth pass price. A youth in Europe is considered anyone under the age of 26, and enables you to buy a cheaper pass than adults. Why 26? That is apparently the time that you have enough money to reasonably support yourself. I love the EU. Rail passes are great, but there are some downsides. I find the biggest downside is the cost. Rail passes are really darn expensive, and when you look at the cost of some of the reservation fees, it is ridiculous, kind of like airlines charging for a ticket, then charging for fuel surcharges. I can totally see it for night trains and scenic trains, but in France in particular, you are subject to buy a reservation because they only allow a certain number of seats for rail pass holders. The TGV can run as high as $30 for a seat reservation! Let me get this straight…I paid $700 for a rail pass that allows me the right to ride the train, but to ride the train I have to reserve a seat for every segment at an even higher price? That is total BS. France is by far the worst for this, and Eurail has some suggestions for alternative routes to get between big cities in France/ to/from abroad. Even these routes are ridiculous. They suggest a 7.5 hour alternative to the Thalys between Paris and Amsterdam, which usually takes a touch over 3 hours.
Eurail has a list of the prices for all reservation fees, in general terms. Below is a table to make it a bit easier to read.
|Country||Train Type||Reservation Fee (in €)||Required||Routes|
|Austria||Rail Jet||3,50||No||Vienna to Prague, Budapest, Munich, Zurich and intermediary cities|
|Belgium||Thayls||30-39||Yes||Amsterdam-Brussels-Paris, also for Köln-AMS|
|4,50||Yes||Train to Airport in Brussels|
|Bulgaria||Ekspresen||0,25||Yes||Express trains in country|
|Croatia||IC||1,00||Yes||Zagreb to Split, Rijeka, Osijek and Cakovec|
|Czech Republic||IC/EC||2,00||No||Express trains b/w big cities|
|SuperCity||8,00||Yes||High speed b/w big cities|
|SJ High Speed||7,00||Yes||Copenhagen to Sweden|
|ICE||4,00||No||ICE to Germany|
|Finland||IC||1,36-4,17||No||Countrywide, Res. Depends on Distance|
|IC Night||9,00-20,60||Yes||Countrywide, Map Here|
|TGV||6,00-60,00||Yes||Countrywide and International, Map here More expensive the further you go, Italy is €60.|
|Germany||ICE/IC/EC||4,50||No||Copenhagen to Vienna and all inbetween, Map Here|
|ICE Sprinter||11,50||Yes||Commuter Routes|
|INTL||3,00||Yes||International b/w Hungary and Romania|
|Italy||EC||10,00-15,00||Yes||North to South and International|
|International||4,00-39,00||No/Yes||Thayls, TGV and ICE to France and Germany|
|Norway||Long Distance||6,30||No||Countrywide, Option for 1st class @ €11,30|
|Poland||TLK||Free- 2,30||Yes||Express Countrywide|
|EX/EIC||2,30-3,80||Yes||Express/Intercity in country|
|Night||3,00||Yes||To Czech Republic|
|Portugal||Alfa/IC||5,00||Yes||High Speed/Intercity countrywide|
|Spain||AVE||10,00||Yes||High Speed Countrywide|
|RENFE/SNCF||12,00-26,50||Yes||Barcelona to France|
|SJ High Speed||7,00||Yes||To big domestic cities, and Copenhagen/Oslo|
|Snälltåget||2,00-29,00||Yes||Malmo to Are via Stockholm|
|Switzerland||Scenic||10,50-70,00||Maybe||Scenic Trains in country: Bernina, Glacier etc.|
|INTL||4,00-25,00||Yes/No||TGV-Paris, RailJet-Austria, ICE-Germany, Italy|
|Turkey||Long Distance||NONE||No||For long distance domestic trains|
What a piece of art. So as you can see, the seat reservation fees vary drastically. What can we conclude from the above table? The further east you go, the cheaper the reservations, and France is a total rip off. If you plan to Eurail through France, don’t. Beyond that, the table should help you to determine if a rail pass is worthwhile or not. How to figure out if it is worthwhile? Get a general outline of what you want to do, then look at seat reservation prices, and then look at the rest of this post to see if a rail pass is actually worthwhile for you.
As a general rule, a rail pass is worthwhile if you want to do the big cities, meaning you will tie together a bunch of high speed trains for two weeks while cruising around Europe. With that, you are not looking at a budget trip as much.
Is a rail pass worth it? It depends. If I go to Norway this summer, hell yeah I am getting one. If I go to Croatia, hell no I am not getting one. If you want the flexibility and don’t care about the price, then it is for you. Traveling by train in Europe surely does have a certain charm, and is a great experience. If you are looking to save some more money though so you can stay in Europe longer, look towards the bus and other rail routes. If you solely want to travel by train in Europe, the countries that are most worthwhile, in my opinion, are the Scandinavian countries, Spain and Switzerland (Switzerland only if you buy the correct pass, which is the Swiss only pass). Outside of these countries, there are really expensive reservation fees, which would result in some taking the regional trains instead. Is it worthwhile to use your $700 Global pass on the regional train? Not in my opinion.
Trains Without A Rail Pass Everyone thinks that they have to get a rail pass when traveling to Europe. That is false. As a matter of fact, in most countries, I think it is a rip off to get one. The best example? Italy. Regional trains in Italy are cheap, usually a quarter of the price compared to the Interregio trains, which get you there just a few minutes faster usually. How cheap? A fare from Venice to Milan will run you about 19,00 Euros on the Frecciabianca, which is like an Inter City train in Italy. That does not sound like a worthwhile enough number for a rail pass to me, considering that the Eurail Italy pass is $167 for 3 days of travel, for a youth. You can conveniently look up the prices to trains in Italy using the Trenitalia website.
If you run these kinds of fake searches for the cities along your route, you will learn whether a rail pass is worthwhile for you or not. Regional trains don’t seem to be popping up on TrenItalia, but they are guaranteed to be cheaper. I think under the Italian page you can access them, but I was not successful in the 2 minutes I devoted to the issue.
Ouigo is a discount French high speed train that is usually the price of the seat reservation on the TGV. The prices vary depending on how far out you book. Tickets for tomorrow, from Paris to Marseille are €30, and if you book two months out, I can see tickets for €10. Right now, you can book tickets until early July, where availability for €10 tickets is open for about half the dates, mainly Monday through Thursday:
Now, there are some other pretty good deals out there, that are country specific. In Germany for instance, I remember the regional ticket, which allows up to 5 people to take trains anywhere in the state (we did Bayern to go to Neuschwanstein). The cost is based on per person, but the more people you have, the cheaper it is. If memory recalls correctly, it starts at €19 and goes up to about €40. For 5 people to go anywhere you want in Bayern for the day, that is not a bad gig, especially for those day trips from Munich!
Regional trains are often the winner for low cost transport in Europe. Yes, they are slow, and sometimes frustrating, but hey, you see more when you are not cruising from city center to city center at 200 MPH. If you are into saving some cash, and it is the difference between extending your trip another week or not, then why not look into these options? If you want to look at prices beyond the high speed, elite trains, try checking out some of the train websites for each country. The big ones are SNCF in France, RENFE in Spain, Deutsche Bahn in Germany, TrenItalia in Italy and SBB in Switzerland.
I thought I would throw together a comparison between buying tickets and purchasing a rail pass for a pretty generic itinerary. On most people’s first trip to Europe, they usually want to go to the big iconic cities like London, Paris and Rome. We did exactly that. Let’s start in London. It is easy to get to with great connections from both LCCs and legacy carriers. If you are interested in getting London via LCCs, check out my RTW on LCCs post or my Complete List of LCCs. Let’s say you arrive London on May 10th. The itinerary from London is as follows:
- May 15th: Hop on the Eurostar. Booking early can yield $54 tickets, usually on Monday-Thursdays.
- May 20th: Catch the Ouigo ($12-25) to Marseille, where you can enjoy a few days on the French Riviera, maybe making your way slowly to Nice by regional train, which should cost about $15-30.
- The regional trains are €20 from Nice to Milan, and can be any day of the week without large price variances.
- After a day or two in Milan, or more with a few day trips to things like the Italian lakes, take the train to Rome, maybe with a stop in Florence at no extra cost. €40. THese trains are available for any day.
In total, we are looking at about $130. A rail pass cannot cover this trip due to the segment on the Eurostar. For the France and Italy segments, you would have to buy the €203 Youth Regional Pass…not even an adult pass, which would enable 4 days of flexible travel. This is a rip off, since you still would need to pay for seat reservations. Looking at this itinerary
Night Trains Night trains are a dieing breed in the world of LCCs and fast travel. WIth that, some still exist. I find night trains to be really expensive, but when you factor in the cost of travel and a night in a hostel, you usually break even. From an experience perspective, you can’t beat the feeling of waking up to the pitter pattering sound of the tracks zooming by.
If you want an idea of the routes that are available, check Eurail’s night train page. It seems to be the most complete. Rick also has a good little intro to night trains, and Seat 61 has the holy grail of knowledge (including booking), per usual. Most night trains in Europe run from to or through Germany, it seems, and end up in places as far away as Stockholm, Barcelona and Istanbul.
Basically, what I have said in the last few sections about trains is this: If you want to wing it, get the train pass, but you will spend a lot more money. Planning in Europe is the only way to really do it now. Back in the day, before TGVs and trains that went under the ocean, you could flash your rail pass and jump on the train bound for whichever corner of Europe that you wanted. Today, you have to pay stupid reservation fees and supplements. The more you plan, the more you can weigh the options of buses, planes, trains, ferries and ridesharing to get you from Warsaw to Lisbon. This way saves money, and we still get the experience of traversing Europe on your own accord, just without the passport stamps to prove it, that was a good 15-20 years ago.