Europe by train: why a rail pass doesn’t make sense

If you’re planning a rail trip in Europe you’ll probably need to decide whether it’s worth buying a rail pass or getting individual tickets as you go. Choosing the wrong option can leave you heavily out of pocket.

While arranging a recent trip from Rimini in Italy back to London it soon became clear that getting a rail pass was not a financially sensible option. However it was only when I dug a little deeper into the details that I discovered just how poor value an InterRail pass is these days.

The Route

View Rail Trip across Europe in a larger map

Breakdown of Rail Costs

Leg 1 Rimini to Bologna

Price paid – €9 (advanced online booking)
Price if bought at station immediately before departure – €9.20

Leg 2 Bologna to Venice

Price paid – €9 (advanced booking)
Price available at station – €10.75

Leg 3 Venice to Verona

Price paid – €9 (advanced booking)
Price available at station – €7.40 (for a slightly slower train)

Leg 4 Verona to Innsbruck

Price paid – €38.40 (no discount for advanced booking)

Leg 5 Innsbruck to Vaduz (Liechtenstein)

Price paid – €9 (advanced booking)
Price available at station – €30.90

Leg 6 Buchs to St Gallen
Paid at station – CHF 19.80 (€16.50)

Leg 7 St Gallen to Rorschach
Paid at station – CHF 4.60 (€3.80)

Leg 8 Rorschach to Lindau (ferry across Lake Constance)
Paid in local tourist office – CHF 17 (€14) (it is quite a bit cheaper to pay on ship in Euros)

Leg 9 Lindau to Schwangau
Bavaria ticket bought at station – €26 covers two people for travel anywhere in Bavaria on train or bus for the day. Cost for one person – €22; for three people €30; for four, €34. Astonishingly good value, especially if travelling in a group.

Leg 10 Schwangau to Nordlingen
Bavaria ticket – €26 for two of us

Leg 11 Nordlingen to Rudesheim
Price paid – €24.50 (advanced booking)
Price at station – €61

Leg 12 Rudesheim to Luxembourg
Price paid – €19 (advanced booking)
Price at station – €45.40

Leg 13 Luxembourg to Arlon
Price at station – €10

Leg 14 Arlon to Brussels
Price paid – £6.50 (€8) as a supplement to my Eurostar ticket, to allow me to travel from any station in Belgium to Brussels within 24 hours of departure of Eurostar.
Price at station from Arlon to Brussels – €20.

Leg 15 Brussels to London by Eurostar
I paid £45 for this leg, but have left it out of the comparisons as it is a ticket that almost all travellers will book in advance and even those with an InterRail pass will need to reserve and pay for.

Summary of costs

I paid a total of €188.20 (£150) to get from Rimini to Brussels.

If I had booked nothing in advance I would have paid €293.35 (£235) for all train and ferry tickets for the same journey.

If I had bought an InterRail pass to do this trip I would have paid €381 (or £320) for a pass that would allow me 10 days travel within a 22 day period (the cheapest of several options).

In addition I would have had to buy my Eurostar ticket, pay reservation fees of €10 each for two of the Italian trains (I could avoid these by waiting for a slower train) and would still have paid the ferry ticket to cross Lake Constance.

So an InterRail pass would have cost me over €200 more than I actually spent.

More surprisingly, I would have saved over €100 if I had just turned up at each station and bought my tickets immediately before departure, compared with buying an InterRail pass. Even someone under 26, who enjoys a hefty discount for their rail pass, would only just cover the cost of their pass when compared to walk-on fares.


So What?

I love rail travel and am a big fan of the idea of rail passes. Some of my fondest teenage memories involve me travelling with my InterRail pass and exploring the far-flung corners of Europe. But the costs now appear to have risen to a prohibitive level.

I recognise that my itinerary is only one example (I have done a breakdown of a Lisbon to London trip last year and found a similar result) and that there are some routes where the pass might be a better option. But these are, I suspect, few and far between.

I hope there will be many more European rail trips for me. Train travel is without doubt the best way to see the many highlights and the unsung surprises that our wonderful continent is blessed with. But with the high cost of a rail pass and the additional supplements on one side, and the fabulous deals such as the Bavaria Ticket and the €9 advanced fares on the other, I can’t see myself splashing out on an InterRail pass anytime soon.


Author Information

Freelance travel writer

4 Responses to “Europe by train: why a rail pass doesn’t make sense”

  1. It’s been six years now since my last big trip around Europe, and even then it was easy to see that an Interrail pass was not my best option.

    I guess it depends how many journeys you plan on making, but even back then it seemed that I’d have to be hitting the rails almost every day to get value from it.

    July 17, 2012 at 1:19 pm
  2. As someone who prefers travelling to reading about it, this post is pure platinum. I hope enough people from the companies behind the various rail passes read this and do something about.
    As a footnote at the moment (till 31 August) it is possible to buy a ticket for any rail journey in Belgium for €7.50, but if travelling on a short journey such as Brussels to Leuven it is cheaper to buy a standard ticket at the station.

    July 18, 2012 at 12:43 pm
  3. Thanks John and John.
    Suspect that you’re right about getting on the rails pretty much every day to make a full month pass pay. You can get passes that cover 3 or 5 days in a two or three week period and if you make really long journeys on those days then perhaps it will pay. But then, those examples where it does pay to use a pass are the exception rather than the norm.
    Thanks also for the Belgian information John. Worth knowing for those heading that way shortly. I presume these are advance fares?

    July 18, 2012 at 3:59 pm
  4. Thanks for the breakdown!

    Rail Passes are based on the idea of just showing up and hopping on a train so advanced booking is almost always cheaper.

    I think RailEurope (only available for non-Europeans) is a little better deal. The 6 Day Germany Pass + German Extension would cover pretty much everything between Bologna and Brussels. For a pair traveling together it would be $343 USD each (£219 or €279)

    I sell both point-to-point and RailEurope passes but when clients ask for the cheapest it’s almost always point-to-point. Rail Passes have lots of bonuses (like hotel discounts and such) that only make financial sense if you’re going to use them.

    July 18, 2012 at 6:08 pm