Europe Rail Pass: value for money?

Rail TravelLater this month we will be travelling overland from Lisbon back to London. From the point where we reach the Spanish city of Merida, a little east of the Portuguese border, our journey will be made exclusively by train.

Seeing that we will be crossing two large countries and spending three days making lengthy train journeys in each, my initial reaction was to look into getting a rail pass. Being a veteran of three InterRail journeys in my teenage years I found the idea of getting another rail pass a very tempting one, if driven mainly by my own nostalgia. So I started to do my research and it didn’t take long for me to find that the numbers simply didn’t stack up.

The options for buying rail passes now are far better than they once were. Rather than just a flat fee for a month you can now choose to pay for a set number of days of travel within a given time period (for example 5 days within a month), so that you only pay for travel days and not for those times when you’re actually visiting wherever it is that you’ve bothered to come all that way to see.

Our trip is simple – 3 days across Spain (Merida-Cuidad Real-Zaragoza-Girona) and 3 across France (Spanish border-Montpellier-Nice-Paris) with a Eurostar back to London.

The cost of a one country rail pass to include 3 days of travel is £155 (£106 for those lucky enough to have celebrated less than 26 birthdays). So for us we would buy one for France and one for Spain. In addition we would need to book reservations on some of the trains – these would cost €36 in Spain and €5.50 in France, and £57 for the Eurostar to London – a total of £404 each.

I have chosen to book these tickets using the Renfe and SNCF websites and my total tickets costs (per person) for Spain are €138 while for France, including the Eurostar, the total is €131. A total of €269, or £238. I have booked in advance only those journeys where I could secure a good discounted fare. Where there is little difference between the walk-up fare and the web fare I’ve left it for us to book on the day.

So £238 for self-booking against £404 for using the InterRail pass system (£306 had I been a few years younger). I was quite surprised to find this difference particularly as, when I had been a young InterRailer there was no question that I was getting outstanding value on my investment in a one-month pass.

A pass does give the user several benefits – the main one is the flexibility of being able to get on any train and to change your plans at short notice. We have an itinerary that has several fixed points within, meaning that we could sacrifice this flexibility for the cost savings we are making.

But this little bit of research has left me wandering: for a person aged between 26 and 60, can a rail pass ever be a financially better option? Is it likely that you would travel so much in 3 days in one country that you would run up over £155 in fares? The only scenario that I can imagine it would pay is if you would otherwise do no planning or pre-booking and you just paid the walk-up rate for a few of the most expensive high-speed trains.

Have you bought a full-fare InterRail and got value for your money? If so, it would be great to see a travel itinerary that made these rail passes prove to be a good purchase.

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10 Responses to “Europe Rail Pass: value for money?”

  1. I read this with interest as I’ll be going across from London to Riga next month and am still debating between trains and buses. There’s something fun about backpack travel on a bus, but trains do free up more time to actually spend at destinations. But they’re certainly more expensive. Very interesting, thanks for the post!

    April 6, 2011 at 9:56 am
  2. I did a 6-week trip across Europe in Dec of 2009 and we planned to travel mostly by rail. We had quite a set itinerary of places to visit and I was quite surprised to find that buying point to point tickets was much much cheaper than buying a rail pass.

    April 6, 2011 at 1:27 pm
  3. I’ve found similar results. I think they’re a good deal if you’re traveling in specific countries, but places like Spain and Italy don’t merit their use. You also have to be very careful, as with budget airlines and the like they’re really not that good of a deal any more.

    April 6, 2011 at 5:40 pm
  4. I used a Eurail pass myself and I like to think that it was worth the price – mostly because I had a student discount and also because I didn’t have to worry about a thing. And in my case, the worry-free price is always worth it (ask my fiancé about that!). I thought it was incredibly easy to use and overall a great deal.

    In the end though, I think that if you are older than 26 and have a little time on your hands, it’s definitely worth taking some extra time for research and just buy single fares instead of a Eurail Pass.

    April 7, 2011 at 3:25 am
  5. hey Andy – sorry to veer off your rail pass topic – you’ll be passing through Spain! Are you stopping any where – maybe Ciudad Real?? I’d love to meet Sam and hang out for abit!

    April 7, 2011 at 9:38 am
  6. I’m working the numbers on rail pass v.s. regular booking right now too, for a group of 11 I’m taking to Switzerland this winter. The pass might be worth it because I’ve got 8 kids – we’ll see.

    April 8, 2011 at 3:08 am
  7. When I was planning my aborted Balkan trip last year I had a stupidly complicated spreadsheet set up to compare rail pass vs singles and came to the conclusion that there was very little in it, especially when you factor in reservations and sleeper supplements, and that was a journey with at least 6 separate legs. Unless you have a fair bit of flexibility built into your trip I’d say it’s probably not worth getting a rail pass. Maybe if you’re sticking to western Europe and doing 5 trains or more, but even then it’s worth doing the maths.

    April 10, 2011 at 1:12 am
  8. Thanks Jools – I think that’s the point. It’s always worth doing the maths and working out what the better option is, esp. for the over 26s. Once upon a time when the rail pass was a mere £125 with no supplements (I know I’m old) you could make up the month’s worth of travel in under a week. Not so now.
    Sonja, I’ll be interested to know if it works out for your large family group. Sounds like you’ve got a busy adventure ahead of you 😉
    Thanks to everyone for sharing your thoughts and experiences. Happy travels!

    April 11, 2011 at 8:41 am
  9. It’s true that it really pays to do your research! Personally, in the instances when the difference between a pass and booking individual trains is nominal, I like the idea that a pass gives more freedom. However you have to realistically ask yourself how many countries you can hit and still have the time to take in and enjoy them – sometimes, if you book in good time, it can make more sense to book individual legs.

    In the past I have had grand plans to visit 10 cities in 20 days but it all depends if you like being always on the move and how much down time you factor in. Maybe I’m getting old (no youth passes for me) but I tend now to just be going to one or two places at a time, so individual trains is the way forward!

    June 6, 2011 at 11:41 am
  10. EuRail/RailEurope has a France-Spain pass for a pair traveling together at $335 USD (£214) each.

    Of course, I agree with Eurotrip Tips on the worry-free aspect of it being worth something. In Vienna last summer, I nearly got a fine for riding without a ticket. The ticket machines didn’t sell tickets to Budapest (only Bratislava) and the other passengers told me I could buy a ticket on the train (it was 5am so the ticket office wasn’t open). Of course, they were mistaken. Luckily, the ticket checker didn’t fine me and only made me get off in the middle of nowhere to buy a ticket.

    I nearly missed my flight from Budapest to NYC that morning.

    July 18, 2012 at 6:27 pm