Railpass question

By Jay Brunhouse

by Jay Brunhouse


“Hello, Jay. Sure appreciate your making your e-mail address available to your readers. I’d like to get your thoughts on something. . .

“For years, I, like most other Europe rail enthusiasts, considered that the Eurailpass (in whatever particular ‘flavor’ best suited for the journey) was a no-brainer for Europe itineraries covering a lot of ground. I had always assumed it was saving me money in addition to eliminating the hassle of having to buy tickets at the station.

“It was only after a recent trip to Europe, when my Eurailpass got lost by FedEx and didn’t make it to me in time for my departure, that I was forced to buy the tickets at each station and learned, to my amazement, that I actually spent less on the tickets than I would have spent buying the railpass!

“My question is this: is there, in your mind, a clear price advantage with the Eurailpass in most travel scenarios? (On this particular trip I happened to be bouncing around mostly in Southern Europe, where I know tickets tend to be cheaper.) Or is the Eurailpass not always as economically sensible as is commonly thought?” — Jonathan


“Dear Jonathan, thanks for your e-mail. The answer to your question is ‘It depends.’

“Railpasses have a price advantage for long-distance trips. They are not competitive for short trips. I always advise purchasing flexipasses so that you can use the passes for traveling on the long-distance trains but ticketing separately for anything costing less than $30-$40, depending on the cost of the pass.

“The supreme advantage of railpasses is the convenience of being able to pay in dollars so that you don’t have to worry about the euro exchange rate. In 2005, the passes are relatively cheaper than in the past few years.

“Best wishes, Jay”

Chart your course

Advance planning is your key to saving money traveling by train. You need to consider which country or countries you are visiting; how many train trips you plan to take in each country; whether you can justify a first-class pass; your age; the number of people traveling with you plus their ages, and the number of long-distance trains you will use.

With a little effort, you can adjust your itinerary to milk your railpass. Check the prices of single tickets by consulting www.raileurope.com and the websites of the railroads you will be using and compare the total of the single-ticket prices with the cost of a railpass.

Originally, Eurailpasses and BritRail Passes were designed for continuous use. Eventually, managements introduced Eurailpass Flexi and Flexi BritRail Passes that you could use for the number of days of your choice within a specified time period. Now you can choose a whole galaxy of flexible railpasses, including the popular Eurail Selectpass. One or more of these products is available for travel in every European country except for the former lands of the Soviet Union. (Liechtenstein, Andorra and Albania have no passenger trains.)

Travelers planning to visit Europe in the spring (through June) can compound their savings by buying at the last tick of the old year’s clock, before railpass prices generally increase. Eurail products for 2006 will increase an average of 3%. When you buy before the turn of the calendar, you have six months to validate your railpass in Europe before boarding your first train.

Eurail everywhere

Since its inception, the Eurail system has progressively added coverage to more countries. For 2006, Romania will be added, making 18 countries in all honoring Eurailpass products for unlimited passage over their national networks, although some trains may require a surcharge.

For those of you with wide-ranging travel plans, a Eurailpass is your best bet. It continues to be the favorite of youth/student travelers. Eurailpasses let you make a grand tour without ticketing every leg. The flexi variation gives you the freedom to stay as long as you want (within two months) in one place without squandering the money you would have invested in a consecutive-day pass.

The radical Eurail Selectpass, first offered travelers on Jan. 1, 2001, and expanded in 2003, turned upside down traditional railpass buying and the travel habits that had gone with it. A Eurail Selectpass is more economical than a Eurail Flexipass if you limit your travels to 10 days and three, four or five adjacent Eurail or select Eastern Europe countries. You select the countries you know you will visit.

Your best choice for visiting only one or possibly two countries is a railpass valid for unlimited travel within the country’s border. Find national passes in Britain, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and most Eastern European countries. Greece, Poland and Sweden passes will be added in 2006.

Regional passes taking you through Scandinavia, Eastern Europe (Austria, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) or the Balkans combine travel on multiple networks.

Take two

Recent years saw the introduction of 2-country railpasses combining travel in a country with relatively high tariffs with a neighboring country with a lower price structure. In addition to the 13 two-country railpasses available in 2005, in 2006 you will be able to also buy the new 2-country combinations of France-Germany, France-Benelux, Germany-Austria and Germany- Switzerland.

Travelers need to juggle the cost of the 2-country railpass with the cost of buying two separate national railpasses or perhaps buying one national railpass and ticketing the second country separately. The price advantage, compared to buying separate national railpasses, is that you can use them for longer cross-border trips and need not use a day box on each of two national passes each time you cross the border.

On the other hand, 2-country passes are more expensive than even the national pass of the more expensive country. If they were cheaper, savvy travelers would buy a 2-country pass only for use in the expensive country.

All Eurail products, most BritRail products and most 2-country railpasses as well as Swiss and German national railpasses offer youth passes for those under 26 on the first day of travel and also give discounts for groups of two or more travelers traveling together. Seniors get price breaks on BritRail products, the France Railpass, the Balkan Flexipass, the Scanrailpass and the Norway Railpass only.

Editor’s note: In his April 2006 column, Jay will present complete 2006 prices and details in his annual “Railpass Roundup.”