Rail passes are available for many single countries in Europe. There are also rail passes that apply to multiple countries, and of course the granddaddy of them all, the Eurail Global pass, which covers 33 countries, i.e. most of Europe. There are also passes for two people traveling together, and other options (and prices) for traveling with children. So when does it make sense to have a rail pass versus buying individual tickets? The answer requires answering a few questions, and then applying a little mathematics.
Step 1 will be determining which rail pass you are considering using, and then figuring out the cost. I think the following questions are the ones to ask yourself right at the start of this decision-making process:
1) Are you traveling alone or with someone? And if you are traveling with someone, will you both be on the same itinerary, or at least on the same itinerary for the days where you'll be traveling by train?
2) Are you going to travel first class or second class? Your initial reaction might be, "I don't need to travel first class." However there are some distinct advantages to traveling first class, which include the following considerations:
- More space between rows and wider seats might be worth the extra cost alone, especially on longer rides.
- During busy travel times, like holidays and over summer vacation, trains can be full. A first class seat is more likely to be available because yes, trains can be full, VERY full, during peak travel times.
- First class tends to be quieter. Besides families traveling with children (who generally travel 2nd class), European schools use the train as the primary method of transportation for field trips. It's not unusual to find train cars loaded with schoolkids of all ages.
- In many cases, the first class rail pass covers surcharges for certain types of express trains, whereas the second class pass does not.
- There are amenities in first class you may not get in second class, which may include having a meal or beverage delivered to your seat, access to special panorama coaches, or in some countries, access to first-class lounges in some stations.
3) Are you going to be a "rail warrior", taking train journeys every day across a country or across Europe, or are you planning on stopping for several days at each destination? The reason this question is important is because rail passes can be order with consecutive days or with a number of days in a given month.
4) How flexible would you like your schedule to be? The railpass allows you to jump on most trains at any time, while the railways in most European countries have fares that change over time- the earlier you book, the better your fare. However those advanced tickets are locked onto a single train, so if your plans change or you miss the train, you are out that money and will have to purchase a new ticket. To have the same flexibility as a rail pass, you'll have to pay the full fare, even if you book the ticket in advance.
Besides a little bit of self-reflection, you'll need to do a little online research, so you know the cost of the train ticket if you purchase it either in advance or at the time of departure. Most countries have their own website for their national railway system, which also shows schedules for trains similar to what sites like Travelocity and Expedia do for air travel. If you search online for phrases like "train schedule Germany" or similar you'll usually come across them, along with lots of other sites that will provide schedules and costs. My recommendation is to use RailEurope ( www.raileurope.com) as a starting point for international travel. At this point you aren't trying to pick an exact train- you are trying to estimate costs and understand directionally how much that train trip from Frankfurt Airport to Munich is going to cost you. Remember to double the cost if you are traveling with a second person. You're going to want to create estimates for every major railway journey you'll undertake, as well as the date you plan to take it. Don't worry about the trips that are local- they'll usually be pretty cheap. But anything that crosses a border or any day you take a train trip or series of trips that take more than an hour in a day should be part of your calculation. If you are connecting trains you don't need to list those separately, but if you plan to get off the train somewhere, spend a few hours, and then get on another train, maybe to head back to your 'base', you'll need to list both of those even if they occur on the same day. When you get done, you should have something that looks like this:
Our next step is to determine our rail pass options and what the cost would be to cover those seven days and two countries. For this I used www.Eurail.com. It allowed me to put in the destinations and number of nights, and it will provide a recommendation. There is a sale going on right now as I write this (fairly common in the first few months of the year), but let's look at the regular prices instead. The recommendation from Eurail is a 7-day Global Pass. This gives you unlimited train travel for 7 days in a month in 2nd class for $412.
Why choose 7 days? Because that day where the only train travel is to Potsdam from Berlin and back isn't 'worth' a day with the rail pass. So if we deduct the $16 for that day's worth of train tickets and one day from our train travel days, we end up paying $425 via tickets or $412 for the rail pass. That's right- you actually save money with the Eurail Global Pass, and don't have to restrict yourself to any particular trains. And if you want to enjoy the comforts of first class, that's only $124 more than the individual 2nd class tickets would cost, anyway. With the sale going on as I write this, a first class 7-day Eurail Global Pass to cover that trip is only $14 more than the individual 2nd class ticket price total!
There are other perks to the Eurail Global Pass that may sweeten the deal. For example, if you decide to take a cruise down the Rhine while you're in Cologne, you'll get a discount because of your pass. Plus, since your Eurail pass day runs from midnight to midnight, you can use it for local trains that you may want to take the remainder of your travel days. Finally, if you decide to skip Kiel and decide to go to Legoland in Denmark instead, or maybe visit Paris instead of Rotterdam, the pass will cover those trips, too.
There are a myriad of other options, of course, depending on your itinerary. If we were flying into Amsterdam first and then spending most of our time in Germany, it may make sense to pay for the Dutch rail travel by buying tickets and have a German Rail pass for the remaining time in Germany. It's all a question of knowing what your rough plans are, laying everything out in a table, and comparing the costs. Then weigh the difference in cost against the flexibility of the rail pass, versus what your budget will allow.