Few things capture the travel imagination more than the idea of hopping across Europe by train. Short journeys through breathtaking landscapes, having breakfast in London and dinner in Paris, you get the idea. Especially from the American point of view, such travel borders on the improbable and even magical. While train may be the best way to get around Europe, there are many ways to enjoy this transportation mode of the masses, but one of the best known is Eurail.
As someone who has a job, isn’t nomadic and doesn’t travel for weeks at a time, I thought my days of train hopping with Eurail were over. That was before we planned an ambitious Christmas-time journey that would take us to Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Germany. The idea was simple. We would stay in Brussels, a centrally located city, and take day trips to Paris, Amsterdam, Bruges and Cologne. I looked at the train schedules and the longest trip was 2 1/2 hours, perfect for a long day out. I approached Eurail.com, told them my plan and they were good enough to supply us with two Eurail passes. Now that the trip is over, I want to write about the experience, good and bad, and answer the question: Is Eurail worth it for the average traveler?
Based on our travel schedule, we were presented with a Eurail Select Pass good for three countries over a five day period. The five days did not have to be consecutive, but they did have to be used within a two month period. A financial bonus with the Eurail system is that they count the BeNeLux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) countries as one, which was great since most of our travel was within Benelux. The pass retails for $305 per person.
The Fine Print
I’m a travel nerd, so as soon as that prized FedEx from Eurail.com arrived I tore it open and consumed every bit of information available. Right away I noticed something strange. The trains we would need to take to Paris, Cologne and Amsterdam were all premium trains. That meant we needed reservations, which meant we had to pay extra.
I was dismayed, so I contacted the super helpful Eurail.com customer service team to learn more. This is where our method of travel, day trips, was a hindrance. We could indeed use the Eurail pass to visit these three cities without paying anything extra, with conditions. To get to Amsterdam without extra cost we would have to endure a longer train ride, an issue when you only have a day to spend in the city. For Paris, we would have to travel to Charles De Gaulle Airport and then take the train back to city center. This clearly made no sense. Finally, to reach Cologne there was one train we could take for free, but it was in the evening with no return. That wouldn’t work either.
That’s when I realized that Eurail really is meant for people traveling from one city to the next over a period of time. Traveling from one major city to another and returning the same day is much more difficult. But I don’t think most tourists travel like we did, so if you plan to explore a few countries within a week or two, continuing on rather than returning, then Eurail is a great option.
The Costs – Buying individual tickets versus Eurail pass with reservations
If we had purchased the tickets individually, without the benefit of a Eurail pass discount, the fees would have been approximately as follows:
Brussels – Paris – $154 round trip, per person
Brussels – Amsterdam – $116 round trip, per person
Brussels-Bruges-Ghent-Brussels – $50 round trip, per person
Brussels – Cologne – $82 round trip, per person
Total – $452 per person
We didn’t do that though, instead we bought a few reservations. In the end we decided to only purchase premium train reservations for Paris and Cologne, mostly because we had no other choice. The longer Amsterdam trains were covered with our Eurail pass, as were the trips to Bruges and Ghent. So, in addition to the Eurail pass we purchased the following:
Brussels – Paris – $82 per person, round trip
Brussels – Cologne – $82 round trip, per person
Total – $164 per person
Ok, at this point I apologize for all of these numbers, but I’m working towards a point here, so bear with me.
For two people, with the above (and unusual) travel schedule, had we purchased the tickets individually we would have spent around $904. With the Eurail pass and extra reservations we spent $774.
The Real Results and Final Thoughts
We used the Eurail pass in a fairly atypical way, at least I think we did. I can’t imagine that many people would travel to some of these destinations as day trips. That means we really put the benefit of the Eurail pass through its paces, taking it to the extreme of what it can do and it was still cheaper than buying the tickets outright. For people using the pass in a more normal way, traveling from one city to the next, the pass would result in even more savings.
You have to make sure that you select the right pass for your trip though and that you read through all the fine print. I’m ashamed to say that I was honestly surprised I had to pay extra for certain trains, and I really shouldn’t have been.
Money is one thing, but what about the experience? Simply said, we had a blast using the Eurail pass and exploring Western Europe by train. First, in all honesty it was very easy to use. When we went to Bruges, we just hopped on the next train, the conductor stamped our passes and that was it. We could go almost anywhere without paying anything extra, a liberating feeling. It’s also nice not to feel restricted with travel and to have the flexibility to change schedules at a moment’s notice. For example, in Amsterdam my partner became quite ill and we had to cut our day short. Rather than lose money on a reservation for a later train, we just took the next train back to Brussels without worry.
Is the Eurail pass appropriate for every trip? No, of course not. But if you are planning on doing any exploration, be it within one country or ten, then I think the Eurail pass is not only the best decision economically, but for ease of mind as well.
Have you used a Eurail pass before? What did you think?
37 thoughts on “Is Eurail Worth It? A Review by a Thirty-Something Non-Backpacker”
Excellent recap Matt. Will share with our career breakers! I plan to go to Europe this spring and wanted to look into eurail – so this got me started.
Excellent! Glad you find it useful
I had a similar experience a few years ago. It used to be that Eurail passes covered pretty much every train in Europe, possibly with a seat reservation charge.
I wanted to travel from Amsterdam to Paris. It turns out that the only trains from Amsterdam to Paris aren’t considered regular trains and are operated by a separate company called Thalys. (Although I believe Thalys is actually owned by the French, Belgian, Dutch and perhaps German railways, they told me that it was a private company and had separate rules.)
There was really no good alternative but to take Thalys between Amsterdam & Paris, so I tried to purchase the surcharge to use Thalys. That’s where it got extremely annoying. You had to go to a special booking office at the Amsterdam train station. They told me that the number of seats available for Eurailpasses on Thalys was capacity controlled, and that no seats were available for Eurailpass holders for the next 2 days – even though there plenty of seats available for sale on every train. I finally decided to just get on the train and deal with it there. I found a door open where no one was checking tickets. The conductors were rather frustrated when I didn’t have the Thalys surcharge voucher, and it seemed like it was an unusual occurrence. It took them like half an hour to figure out what to do and eventually they took a credit card. I don’t remember if they charged a penalty on top of the normal surcharge. The train never filled up and I never took a seat away from anyone.
I wouldn’t care if 1 or 2 premium trains on a route were excluded from Eurailpass, but to say that there are no trains you can use between two major European cities completely invalidates the premise and promise of Eurailpass, in my opinion.
Carl, you have a fair point. In such a situation I would do two things. First, contact a Eurail specialist. They had an expert help me find no-charge trains that I couldn’t find myself. 2nd, if you do have to use Thalys, or other premium line, you can buy reservations in advance through Rail Europe. They were extremely helpful with my planning.
I’m sure your experience will help other travelers immensely! Dang small print. Traveling by train is indeed a grand experience and I highly recommend everyone spend at least some time on a train.
I recommend everyone spend time in Europe but not using a eurail pass. The reservation system is confusing, conductors rude, routes questionable, and the ‘return’ policy for unused passes is an utter disgrace. The pricing system – even in the peak of summer was totally comparable to the eurail tickets already purchased.
Take the train, it’s wonderful, relaxing and refreshing, but purchase your ticket in the city you’re departing from and enjoy the ride
Great review and interesting to see it made from a non-nomadic perspective! Being a European myself and having used Eurail a few times I’m definitely in favour. Where does it work best? Eastern Europe. It’s worth it for hopping through these countries alone.
I’ve looked into a rail pass several times, and it always seems like it is more difficult to use than fun and freeing. But then I’m a planner–so I’d likely have my tickets booked far in advance anyway, which would result in lower fares. I think passes are made for people with lots of time and little money (sadly, most people–myself included–have little of either!)
I like your day trip idea, though. We did Amsterdam as an overnight trip from Paris last summer and it was great. We left our backpacks in our Paris apartment and took the first train to Amsterdam in the morning and one of the last ones the next day. It was a great–and economical–way to visit another city on our must-see list. (Though we liked Amsterdam far more than we liked Paris, so we wished we’d done the opposite–two weeks in Amsterdam and one night in Paris!)
Like I said, it really depends on what kind of traveling you’re doing. I’m a planner and even booking ahead with the reservations, Eurail was still the cheaper option. And we LOVED the day trips idea. Doing it again next year, but in a different part of Europe.
I have used German and French rail passes in the past – the French one bought through Eurail and the German one bought through bahn.de. I actually wrote a similar post last year examining the value and I think the one thing you left out of your analysis is that Eurail marks up the costs of individual tickets. If you buy at the train station or through an individual country’s website, you save money.
Good to know Katie, thank you! I don’t think I was aware of that.
Very insightful. Many thanks for sharing
This is a great post weighing the pros and cons of purchasing a rail pass. We went to Europe a few years ago and bought the Benelux pass in addition to round trip tickets to London. We were only traveling for three weeks and we had my young son with us, who was able to travel on the trains for free. I think you make an important point in that moving forward to another city each time helps to make the Eurail pass a more viable option. We went from Frankfurt to Brussels to London, back to Brussels, then on to Amsterdam, Berlin and then back to Frankfurt. We didn’t have any additional fees and had no problem getting trains. We figured out that we saved several hundred dollars by purchasing the Benelux pass versus separate tickets.
and I think you did too. As I wrote, the Eurail pass is the only way to go if you keep moving onward. For us, although more dubious, it was still a good deal.
I’ve used Eurail and Britrail 2 years in a row. Next time I go over, I’m definitely doing the same. On one journey, I used Eurail (with the BritRail added) to travel from Edinburgh to London to Paris to Lucerne to Munich to Prague to Vienna. We definitely put it through the paces. On the second journey I was going to school in London for several months and used a BritRail pass to travel back and forth to various locations within the UK. And used my Eurail pass to travel to Germany several times over. I saw another person comment about the inflated prices they post, and I will say, I was fortunate enough to have friends in those countries check the kiosks and rail station prices for me. Eurail pass still won my $$ for cost effectiveness. On some trains you could get general seating, but if you wanted to GUARANTEE a seat, it was recommended you purchase a reservation. We simply asked which trains were not full trains (plan BEFORE or AFTER morning and evening commuters) and made sure we had a seat (or for longer journeys, we bought a reservation). Plus, most attractions/hotels aren’t ready for you first thing in the morning anyways. Either way, you have to do your homework if your goal is to save money… but it CAN be done. I’ve recommended this method to many other study-abroad folks or friends just visiting overseas. This too, coming from an over-thirty non-backpacker. Thanks for the post!
We bought a Eurail pass from Eurail.com and it said reservation fee for Paris to Lausanne would be 9 Euro. Imagine my son’s surprise when the fee was actually $100. The entire ticket would have only cost $114. If you want to take the fast trains, they require a seat reservation. If you are only traveling a few days during your stay, then don’t buy a Eurail pass. Back in the 80’s when I used the Eurail pass it was a different story. There weren’t fast trains that required reservations. If you have all the time in the world and don’t mind spending a lot of extra time on a train, the pass might be worth it. Otherwise forget about it.
Thanks for this post! I am about to embark (in 4 months) on a 6 week trip throughout Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, France and the Benelux, so this was very helpful. I recently posted “my maths” in trying to work out what pass, if any, would be best for me. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
We’ve used the Eurail pass two years in a row. Last year was our first time, we paid extra for about 5 reservations because we thought we had no choice. We didn’t save that much money.
This year we managed to figure out which trains to take at what time to avoid all reservations except for the obligatory res for Paris, saving hundreds of dollars.
So it depends on the kind of travel you do and also how much research you’re willing to do.
Hi Nat! How did you figure out where to find trains that don’t require reservations? Any booking sites you recommend? Thank you!
Hey, thanks for the informative post. I do have a few questions however.
A friend and I (20 years old) set to embark on our first backpacker trip and we intend to travel from Amsterdam down to Italy up to Norway and back to England visiting each country along the way for a day or two. Do you recommend using the Eurail? It is pricey and as students money is the main issue. If you have any useful information would you mind sharing with me please?
Actually check out this great post on Art of Backpacking that should answer your question: http://artofbackpacking.com/when-cheaper-purchase-eurail-pass/
I can only voice my extreme frustration with the eurail pass now compared to my experience in 2006 when my wife and I travelled extensively and easily in Germany, France and Spain. Compulsory reservation fees, impossibility of making these reservations online, supposed lack of seats make it impractical to book hotels, plan connections, or keep to a planned itinerary. A total scam and blatant gouging unless the number of trains has dramatically decreased and the number of passengers has astronomically increased since 2006 ( A soccer world cup year in Germany).
At least the Britrail passes have kept to their mandate. Lots of trains, no need to reserve, no extra fees. What you see is what you get. Too bad about Eurail.
Hi Al, what would you recommend, especially for travelers seeking the most flexibility?
My family (2 adults, 1 kid 5 yrs old) are planning to travel as follows:
Rome (3 days, 3 nights), Venice (1 day), Interlaken (3 days, 2 nights), Paris (2 days, 1 night).
I have total 10 days of travel, start will be in Rome and ending at Paris. I am ok with couple of night travels if required. Can you pls suggest if I should go for the eurail global pass or do point to point booking?
DO NOT Buy a Eurail pass. We just came back from France & Germany. In France, we were almost never able to use our Eurail passes. They only have a few seats for Eurail passes and they were always booked on the fast trains. If you want to be stuck on really slow trains, your Eurail pass will work. Eurail’s website is deceiving.
Did you make reservations beforehand?
I’m using a regional Eurail of France-Berelux for 5 days. This was very helpful. I knew I had to make reservations and I’m currently filling out those forms and it’s a big hassle but I’m glad to see you were happy with using Eurail. Thank you!
I always enjoy reading analytical posts such as this. I also enjoy getting wrapped up in the details and planning, it’s exciting.
We are planning a 6 week trip to Europe this summer and are planning on plenty of train travel. In our case of 1-way travel spread out over time and long distances it looks like the Global Pass is definitely the less expensive route. I’ve sampled our definite major routes for the cost with the pass and without. I did find some rides that were cheaper without a pass than the cost it would have been with a pass. I think that pretty much no matter which way we slice it the pass is going to prove to be more economical, but we will have to figure out how many “travel days” we actually need on the pass to get the best value.
it takes some experimentation to find out what will work best for your trip
Hi Matt, very rude people at euro rail. Especially Joyce. We want to take ice out of kaiserslauten to paris. Spend the night in paris and then go to lake combo. Lake combo to Verona. Verona to Venice and Venice to Vienna. Is there a sight that will help me with reservations. We leave for Frankfurt 4/17/2015. You have a great site.
thanks, you can coordinate that all on Rail Europe in advance or just by using the country-specific sites.
I recently returned from a three week holiday extensively using a two week Global Pass on June 1, 2015.
Having used the Eurail extensively in my college years I can definitely say this wonderful pass is no longer as it was in the past.
Bluntly, the pass is basically useless in almost all of France and the Netherlands (Amsterdam to Paris), as reservations need to be made so far in advance to get in the quota of allocated seats and the price for some reservations are close to what the ticket would have cost purchased in advance anyhow. Both these Country’s extensively use high speed trains so the hop on hop off flexibility is also gone.
I experienced a similar situation (though not nearly as bad) in Italy as they also now have high speed trains that require reservations, that said, in Italy it was very easy to purchase a reservation minutes before boarding the train at the Trenitalia automated kiosk and they were only 10 Euro per reservation per leg of your trip, also Italy has an extensive network of non-high speed trains that may only cost 3 euro per leg. Italy is also very different from France and Netherlands as the train network is very inexpensive and since you now need to fuss with the reservations and ticket machines anyhow, there is no reason for a train pass.
On the other hand, Switzerland,Germany and Austria are very welcoming to Eurail passes and travelling is a breeze! Hop on any national train you wish and you will be treated with a hello and a smile!
If my next trip involves rail travel in central Europe I would definitely purchase a pass valid in Switzerland, Germany or Austria and only buy point to point for the rest.
Hope this helps some of you! Safe and happy travels!
Hello Matt and others. I am studying abroad in the Fall in France and was wondering if you would consider the eurail pass the best way to travel? If not what are some other good ways? I plan on trying to travel most weekends. Thanks for your help!
We’re trying to do a sweep through Rome and Florence before taking a ferry to Barcelona. The literature makes I look like this should be a simple “fun” thing to do, but execution seems to be a total nightmare! We have the tickets, but we can’t seem to make the reservations for the fast trains between Rome and Florence. hen we found the route to the port near Florence, but that doesn’t take reservations and then I finally clicked around to find the Grimaldi lines Ferry… NO AVAILABLE FERRIES for the dates we want to go. What are we supposed to do? Take 20 hours worth of trains with 4-6 stops/transfers instead? OMG I’m going to pull the last of my hair out.
I recently went to Europe for a month with my husband and an 18 yr old granddaughter. Did extensive research for up to 6 months in advance. The eurorail for three adults for unlimited travel was $2500 .after I read the small print about fast trains,trentalia,reservations we decided the cheaper way was renting a small car for three out of four weeks(as we was in England before and after) out of train station gard du nord in Paris. Cost was $1500 plus gas and tolls. We paid for the extra “walk away” coverage. Which covered even if the car was destroyed. But how fantastic it was to be totally free. We stayed near big cities and simply bought short train rides or used the subway. Didn’t have to drag luggage thru trains. We did see people dragging luggage and was glad we rented car and used local transportation. Went from Paris,Belgium,Amsterdam,Reims France thru Mont Blanc tunnel,Geneva,Genoa,Pisa,Assisi,Naples,Rome,Venice,st Martin ,Austria,Germany ,givern, France ,Versailles and right back to Paris. Trip of a lifetime and a car was a relief.
NEVER BUY A EURAIL PASS unless you are a legal expert and have weeks (and the eyesight) to reads the fine print…My wife and I (retired) travelled on a pass in May 2016 only to be fined 50 EURO by an officious railway officer… even though we had diligently followed direction (2) of the ticket cover and completed the TRAVEL DIARY…..as advised. This proved to be a misdirection and there were it seems small panels on the ticket itself..(largely unreadable for older travellers) that required a date……Other passengers had experienced the same FINE GRABBING…and we do not therefore recommend using this companies services….They did respond to our complaint.. noting they had referred the question of the ticket structure to their HO…but refused to refund what in our opinion was effectively stolen money. IN our opinion…NEVER USE THEM…..Rob Sintes NZ Tourist.
DO NOT BUY! I’m sure all my issues have been repeated in previous comments, but EURail pass is a scam! They have NO customers service number, and in July/Aug will take at least 3 days to get back to you be email, usually with a useless response. Just don’t do it unless you only plan on taking trains that don’t require seat reservations. HORRIBLE GLITCHY WEBSITE! Caused me so much hassle when I went to Europe for 6 weeks, traveling between major cities.
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