From Brexit and the Greek crisis to the state of Spanish politics, Europe may be in a turbulent period right now but, for visitors, there is one travel service that reliably sews the continent together: the Eurail pass, now nearly sixty years old.
Eurail was established at another critical time in Europe's not-too-distant history. The network launched in 1959 when the continent was rebuilding after World War II, primarily as a means to attract visitors from the U.S., which remains its biggest market to this day. Though it was once thought to be the preserve of penny-saving backpackers, over time, the typical Eurail passenger has matured. Today, the majority of passengers are over the age of twenty-six and travel in first class.
The Eurail pass has also long been assumed to be the most budget-friendly way to get around Europe but, in the post-Open Skies Treaty landscape dominated by low-cost airlines, how does it stand up?
Eurail still has an edge over budget airlines.
The rise of the budget airline has been one of the biggest travel trends to shake up the European continent over the past twenty years. However, there is a necessary pact made when you book a bargain-priced fare on one of the many discount carriers. That $20 steal of a one-way ticket between Paris and Rome can quickly double or quadruple in price when you add on baggage and credit card fees, seat selection and transportation costs to and from the airport. Ryanair, for example, flies to Paris - BVG, a good 50 miles northwest of actual Paris, which is a good indication of the other major cost of budget air travel: the cost of your time. Wouldn't you rather arrive in the heart of your destination and get to exploring right away?
On this point, the train certainly holds the advantage over the airlines; European train stations are generally centrally located. While you don't have to worry about baggage fees, that's not to say there aren't some additional costs that can quickly add up. When traveling with a Eurail pass, watch out for certain trains (especially in France and Spain), which require reservations (€9, for example, for France's high-speed TGV) and need to be booked in advance as only a limited number of passholder seats are available on any given service.
It offers flexibility and can save you money.
The one-month Eurail global pass costs $876 in first class (the only class available to those over twenty-six) which means a month's unlimited travel in twenty-eight European countries costs just $30 a day. But only if you use it every day. A pass that allows seven non-consecutive days of travel within one month, on the other hand, costs $529, or $76 per day. Factor in any additional reservation fees and the Eurail pass soon loses its money-saving appeal. Therefore, the pass is best recommended for those who plan to travel far and often.
It's in its flexibility that the Eurail passes offers best value. If you are firm on your travel dates and are able to book months in advance, you are more likely to save money by simply buying point-to-point train tickets (a Berlin to Prague train ticket, for example, can cost as little as $21 when booked far in advance). However, if you value the freedom to roam around the continent, of taking lots of trips, and hopping on and off when the mood takes you, the Eurail pass is the way to go.
Download the free Travel Planner app for maximum ease of checking timetables while on the move; it's even available offline. Another point to consider: In our era of heightened transportation security, the best-laid travel plans can easily come apart with even just one delay or train cancellation. A fully flexible schedule can avoid the financial pain of missing a connecting train booked with a non-refundable ticket.
You can combine a rail trip with a sail trip.
Eurail's ferry network might be one of its most underrated features. While some may be familiar with the pass' Greek island-hopping opportunities, there is a world of other sea routes you can explore with your pass. With Eurail's ferry partnerships, you can take heavily discounted trips around Scandinavia; between Ireland, France, and Britain, and between mainland Spain and the islands of Ibiza, Majorca, and Formentera, to name just a few routes.