Eurail passes: Great deal or big scam?

Train Office

Most travelers are familiar with the slew of European rail passes offered through Eurail or through your local STA agent. Travelers can purchase country specific passes, lump a few countries together on one pass, or even purchase a “global pass”.

Country specific passes are available for 17 European countries, allowing travelers to really get around and see a lot of one area. Eurail also offers select passes that lump together 2 to 5 adjacent countries on one pass. All of this is capped off with a Global Pass that combines travel in up to 21 countries on one pass. Country passes start at as little as US$45 and regional passes at US$299. The global pass starts at US$559. Travelers can run into the occasional “booking fee” as they use these passes to get around Europe, but these prices very rarely exceed 15 euros each. Considering transportation is a traveler’s main expenditure, these prices can sound quite appealing.

Sounds pretty sweet, however there is a catch. All of this travel must be done within a certain time limit, and on a limited number of days. With these passes, one essentially purchases a specific number of days in which to travel within a 2 month time period. Meaning, you only have 5 days within a 2-month time period to travel across 3 countries.

One could argue that this will rush your travels, as you try to capitalize on distance on such a short amount of travel days. In this way one travels at a sprint as they try to gallop across their specific grouping of countries, and it can put a damper on the spontaneity of travel. Train travel is the preferred means for travelers in Europe, as it allows one to take in the beautiful scenic countryside. It is also a classic backpacker staple that is not to be missed.

For some travelers these passes might seem like an easy escape from the hassles that come with maneuvering around a foreign country. However other travelers, myself included, enjoy the fresh experience of trying to make your way through new and complicated means of transportation.

I recommend these passes to the 25 and under traveler who is planning to stick to travel within Western Europe where train prices are significantly higher. These passes are generally aimed at the student crowd, and the 25 and under traveler gets a serious price break. Indeed, the prices quoted above are the bottom most student pricing. Costs double or triple from there for certain passes and combinations.

Additionally, train travel in Western Europe is continually increasing in price, as it is easily the preferred means of transportation. For travelers wishing to see, say, France, Italy, and Germany, these passes really are a great deal, considering one can’t even get from Paris to Nice on a second class ticket for less than US$100. Imagine trying to travel the length of Italy and France, and swing back around through Germany, and you’ve easily bought a Select Pass three times over already.

However, in Central or Eastern Europe these passes seem like a scam to those travelers who have done some research into the price of local transportation. Why pay US$299 for the Austria – Czech Republic – Hungary pass, when you can get across all three countries for around US$30 round-trip by taking advantage of the regional bus transportation?.

On one hand I feel these passes can help the right traveler, namely the 25 and under Western Europe traveler who may only be able to hit the road for a few short weeks. Otherwise, I feel they are not to be relied upon. They are only more economical in a limited area, and there are far greater experiences to be had by figuring the workings of local transportation and freeing yourself of limits and schedules.

Posted by | Comments (9)  | April 26, 2010
Category: Backpacking, Europe, On The Road, Travel Bargains, Youth Travel

9 Responses to “Eurail passes: Great deal or big scam?”

  1. Terri Fogarty Says:

    I have to disagree about the rail passes. They do have reduced rates for students but also have reduced rates for seniors.
    And, having traveled to eastern Europe, the language barrier is much more pronounced. For anyone traveling for the first time, who is just a little nervous, I recommend getting your tickets and passes before you leave.

  2. Colleen Wilde Says:

    Actually, I have found that the language barrier is easily more pronounced in Western Europe, particularly in France, Italy, and Spain.
    Regardless, even if you use these passes, you still have to book, so you will still have to interact at ticket booths even minimally.

  3. Rebecca Says:

    Who knew that rail passes had to be used within a certain time limit and are have specific days! It was my understanding that you could just by a pass and use it anytime you’d like. Thanks for the clarification.

  4. Rebecca Says:

    Oops! I meant “buy a pass.” Typos do happen!

  5. Read This Stuff (1) | Masticating with Anastasia Says:

    […] Potts always has interesting stuff on his blog, including this post about Eurail passes and whether or not they’re worth it. Basically he says that if you’re travelling in […]

  6. silvia Says:

    well, at least in Austria you pay for a single ride from Vienna to Salzburg (3h) 40€. The cheapest way to travel is in most European countries not the train. The long distance busses are much cheaper (and of course not so convenient). The cheapest option is a ride share (Mitfahrgelegenheit in German). The aboved mentioned trip between Vienna and Salzburg is usually for 15€. There are specific sites on the web, to find a ride share, or ask locals you meet along the way. They are often really inclined to meet travellers and find someone to talk over a long trip.

  7. Joe P Says:

    Eurail passes are a scam … these are the worst items ever. They do not deliver what they promise. They may be flexibale, but it is nearly impossible to get a first class cabin like we paid for. Top it off, their refund policy is a joke. They get 15% for ripping people off. I would recommend that you NEVER buy a eurail pass … ever.

  8. Carol Says:

    NEVER, EVER BUY A EURAIL PASS, WORST SCAM EVER!! My husband and I bought a Eurail pass for our trip to France this year and it ended up costing us more than it would’ve to get single tickets thanks to the ridiculous reservation charges amounting up to 40 Euros to go from Bordeaux to Paris, only a 3hour train ride… To top it off they are so deceiving showing a video on their website where you can go up to a counter and “reserve” your seat right before you go on your trip being that you are a “pass holder”, that is a joke! Anytime we tried to book a seat on a train at the SNCF office or at a railway station in France they told us that the seats allotted to Eurail pass holders were all booked, what a surprise!! Guess what they don’t tell you in their website: Eurail only has a ridiculously low select number of seats available to pass holders on each train, even if the train is empty, SNCF is not allowed to give you a seat on the train you want given that the Eurail seats are already taken by the time you figure out where you would like to go and when. If they do happen to have a seat rest assured that it would be on a combination of several trains with changes and wait times to make a trip last 16 hours instead of 8 for a very high cost. Worst scam ever, we would not even recommend this pass to our worst enemy, even the SNCF staff would tell you so, they feel sorry for you to have bought into the Eurail scam… Thanks Eurail for making an otherwise great trip through France a nightmare!

  9. Blaine burke Says:

    Just got back from Madrid, Paris Bayeaux Munich Berlin trip and Eurail is big rip off ….May have been good years ago but is now a con…especially in France….quotas in France travel so you get suckered into full price travel…and staff are rude also… Just saying….can,t wait to get their post trip survey ….don’t do it!! Best to go by air or wing it……