When it comes to train travel in Europe, the big question is always the same: is it better to purchase a railpass or point-to-point tickets? Railpass marketing is persuasive, and I'm often emailed by travellers who want to make two or three train trips which could easily be booked online for €30 ($40) each, asking if they should buy a $500 railpass. So check out these four different options before assuming you need a pass! These prices were correct at the time of writing so please use them as a rough guide only!
Option 1: Invest in a railpass
When to use it: If you intend to clock up a fair old mileage and (crucially) want to stay completely flexible, then a railpass can be the just the ticket. It's especially likely to be the best bet if you're under 26, as 'youth' passes are much cheaper than adult passes and better value compared to normal tickets.
How it works: You can buy a pass covering most of Europe ('Global') or just one chosen country, for a variety of different durations, from either the Eurail pass range if you live outside Europe, or the InterRail pass range if you're a European resident. 'Continuous' passes give a number of consecutive days' unlimited rail travel, ideal if you're going to be on the go much of the time. 'Flexi' passes give a number of days' unlimited train travel to be 'spent' on any dates you like within the overall duration of the pass, making them more economical if you plan to stay put between journeys.
A word of advice: If you buy a pass, remember that there may be extra charges to pay. In France, Italy and Spain, virtually all long distance trains require passholders to pay a reservation fee, typically €3-10 a trip. Thalys trains from Paris to Brussels and Amsterdam now charge passholders a whopping €39. On the other hand, in Switzerland, Germany and Austria reservation is hardly ever compulsory and there are few if any passholder surcharges. Passes also don't cover Eurostar between London and Paris - there's a £57 passholder fare, but if you book in advance on the Eurostar website you'll find regular one-way fares from £39.
Option 2: Buy point-to-point tickets at the station as you go along
When to use it: This option makes more sense than a pass if you're only going to make short journeys, or journeys in Eastern Europe where fares are so cheap anyway.
How it works: A trip from Florence to Pisa for €5.80 each way hardly justifies a pass, and in Eastern Europe, Ljubljana to Zagreb costs less than €17, Prague to Krakow around €35. To check fares, you'll need to find the train operator website for each country, there's a list on the Seat 61 website.
Option 3: Buy cheap point-to-point tickets online in advance
When to use it: This is what railpass agencies would rather you didn't know. Over the last few years, most Western European train operators have adopted airline-style pricing, with expensive flexible fares on the day of travel and some remarkably cheap fares if you book in advance. This means that if you’re willing to put in some planning time, you could pocket the savings.
How it works: Naturally, the cheapest fares are non-refundable and non-changeable, but if you have a fixed itinerary and are happy to pre-book one to three months ahead, this is often cheaper than a pass. For example, the French Railways website sells tickets from Paris to Amsterdam from only €3 ($45), €4 less than the €39 surcharge you'd pay with a pass, and there's no postage or booking fees to pay, seat reservation is included, and you print your own ticket (Tip: If you're from the USA, say you're from Canada to avoid being bumped to Rail Europe).
The German railways website sells tickets from Berlin to Prague from €29, or Amsterdam to Prague by overnight train from €49 with couchette or €79 with a bed in a 2-bed sleeper. In Spain, a 'web fare' from Madrid to Seville costs €33.30 on the Spanish Railways website, and Tren Italia offers 'Mini' fares from Florence to Rome for €19 or an overnight couchette from Venice to Paris for a 'Smart' fare of €45. The key thing is to book in advance direct with the relevant European train operator. You'll find guidance on which websites to use for which journey on the Seat 61 website.
Option 4: Mix and match
Of course, why not pre-book a cheap advance-purchase ticket for a long-distance journey at the beginning or end of your trip, a railpass for flexibility in the middle, and a normal ticket bought at the station for a short trip where it wasn't worth spending a day on your pass?
Mark Smith is the Man in Seat 61.
For inspiration on where to travel in Europe by train, ride over to lonelyplanet.com and take a look at the article on 'Europe's 8 best night trains'.