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European rail travel: Passes vs. point-to-point tickets

SmarterTravel

While Eurail passes offer North American travelers the easiest and most convenient way to get around Europe, sometimes you can get a better deal by using simple point-to-point rail tickets. So, how do you know when to use a rail pass and when to purchase point-to-point fares? The answer depends on many factors and requires a little research on your part, but finding the best rail option for your budget and itinerary is worth the potential savings.

Why rail passes work

Eurail offers a wide range of passes that cover single countries and regions, two or more bordering countries, or—for the really ambitious traveler—a 17-country pass. Passes allow unlimited travel for a set number of days, either to be used consecutively or within a certain time frame. For example, a four-day Britrail consecutive pass allows unlimited travel over a four-day period, while the four-day Britrail Flexipass allows unlimited travel on any four days over a two-month span. Flexipasses give you more freedom, but cost more than consecutive passes.

Rail passes are most useful if you plan on traveling extensively throughout one or more countries and want the flexibility to travel wherever you like within a certain region and make stopovers. Also, many travelers like passes because they can avoid the hassle of waiting at a ticket counter and trying to book a fare in an unfamiliar language. With a pass, you can simply hop on a train and show the pass to the conductor. (However, some trains require reservations, which you will have to make at either a ticket window or over the phone.)

Why point-to-point tickets work

In the some cases, you may be able to save money by using only point-to-point tickets or combining a pass with point-to-point tickets for journeys that fall outside your pass’ coverage area. Outlined below are situations where you’re likely to save by using point-to-point tickets.

  • Travel between London and Paris or Brussels: For rail travel between these cities, you must purchase point-to-point fares on the high-speed Eurostar. Advance reservations are required.

  • Short journeys: If you plan on making a side trip or two from one city, point-to-point fares are often much cheaper than rail passes. For instance, if you were planning a trip to Brussels with side ventures to Bruges and Antwerp, Belgium, your total cost for round-trip point-to-point tickets would be about $62 ($48 for travelers under 26). The cheapest rail pass covering Belgium, the five-day Benelux Tourrail Pass, costs $163 ($109 for travelers under 26)—over $100 higher for adults. Before booking, always compare prices for point-to-point tickets with passes to see which offers the best price.

  • Adding extra days on to a rail pass: Some rail passes only allow travel for a set number of days and do not allow you add extra days. The Balkan Flexipass (which covers Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Romania, Turkey, Serbia, and Montenegro), for example, is only sold in five-day increments. If you want to travel in this region for six days, you’re likely to save by using the five-day pass ($189 for adults, $112 for travelers under 26) and adding on point-to-point tickets for the sixth day rather than buying the 10-day pass ($330 for adults, $196 for travelers under 26).

  • Side trips outside your pass’ coverage area: For single rail journeys that fall outside your pass’ coverage area, using point-to-point tickets can be cheaper than buying a pass that covers the entire trip. For instance, if you were planning to travel extensively throughout France and Spain for 10 days and make a side trip to Genoa, Italy, you’d get the best price by purchasing a 10-day France n’Spain Flexipass and a round-trip point-to-point ticket between France and Genoa ($476 for adults [$433 for the pass, $43 for the point-to-point ticket], $363 for travelers under 26 [$331 for the pass, $32 for the point-to-point ticket]). If you were to only use a rail pass, you’d need to buy at least a 10-day Eurail Selectpass covering France, Spain, and Italy for $542 ($372 for travelers under 26). (However, two adults traveling together will get the best deal with the 10-day Eurail Selectpass Saver, costing $460 per person. There is no under-26 discount for this pass.)

Which passes or point-to-point tickets do you need?

Figuring out what rail passes you need and when to buy point-to-point tickets can be quite complicated, but luckily, you can get help for free. The easiest way to make a smart purchase is to speak directly with a rail sales agent who can take a look at your itinerary and make recommendations as to which passes or tickets will be the most affordable and convenient. They can also tell you if you’re eligible for a discount.

Rail Europe, the biggest seller of European rail products, offers advice either over the phone (888-382-7245) or through e-mail. The Rail Europe website also does a good job of covering all the passes, and allows you to check prices and book point-to-point fares between hundreds of cities.

Other rail sites offering helpful advice both through sales agents and online resources include Railpass.com and RailConnection.com. Both sites are owned by the same company and can be reached by phone at 877-RAIL-PASS (877-724-5727). These sites also offer “RailSaver” technology, a unique web tool that can tell you what passes and tickets to buy based on the itinerary you submit. The tool can be found on either site or on RailSaver.com.

To use the RailSaver, you must submit your name, age (to determine if you are eligible for certain discounts), and citizenship; the start date and city of your trip; each city or town you plan to visit by rail; the number of nights you plan to stay in each destination; and your preference for first- or second-class travel. Finally, you must indicate whether you only want to use rail passes, whether you’re willing to use both rail passes and point-to-point tickets for best combination of convenience and price, or whether you want the cheapest option regardless of convenience. Click on the calculator icon, and the RailSaver will tell you which passes or point-to-point tickets to buy based on the information you submitted.

We tested RailSaver using numerous itineraries, and in most cases, found that it gave good recommendations. Within a few seconds, it was able to calculate prices for passes and individual tickets, including discounts. We especially liked that it could offer different suggestions for the same journey based on preferences for convenience and price. You can then purchase the suggested options online if you wish.

However, the RailSaver technology does have a few flaws that users should note. Namely, it does not cover some family discounts or Rail n’Drive passes and it cannot be used to plan trips for more than two people. Also, in one of our tests, it did not suggest the correct pass when we were searching for the cheapest option. Because of these limitations, it’s a good idea to use the technology as a planning tool, but buy tickets over the phone through a sales agent to ensure you get the best deal.

We contacted Eurail representatives to find out their view of this technology, and found that their opinion agreed with our estimation of the tool. “We think the Railsaver technology is a very useful device for planning rail travel in Europe,” said Director Simone Beyler. However, for purchases, Beyler also recommended booking through an agent: “General sales agents can counsel travelers based on their intimate knowledge of Europe’s rail network, and draw attention to important factors travelers may not consider on their own, that can save time and money—something technology alone cannot do, since technology can only respond to data input.”

When and where to book

If you plan to use a rail pass, you’ll need to book it before you travel, as passes are not readily available in Europe. All rail agents charge the same price for passes, though shipping fees may vary. Fees start at around $12 to $15 per order.

You may be able to avoid shipping fees by booking directly through Eurail. In the past, Eurail passes were only sold through separate rail agents. But earlier this year, Eurail began selling several of its passes directly to travelers for no extra shipping cost. Currently, the Eurailpass, Eurail Selectpasses, the Germany-Benelux Pass, and the Hungary-Romania Pass are available with free shipping through the Eurail website. If you need to speak with a sales rep about which pass is best, you’ll have to contact a second-party rail agent.

Booking point-to-point tickets is a little more complicated. Overall, rail agents report that travelers are likely to get the best price on a point-to-point ticket by buying them at train stations in Europe where lower-priced promotional fares may be available. Point-to-point tickets purchased through rail agents outside Europe are sold at set prices that are usually higher than in-country fares. Also, fares purchased through rail agents are subject to shipping and handling fees, which can significantly increase the total cost. Rail Europe adds a $7 handling fee per segment, along with shipping fees that start at $15 per order. Railpass.com does not add handling fees, but still charges shipping fees that start at $12 per order.

However, according to Rail Europe representative Chris Lazarus, one benefit to purchasing point-to-point tickets in advance from a rail agent is that those tickets are valid for up to two months and allow unlimited stopovers en route as long you don’t backtrack. For instance, if you buy a ticket from Paris to Milan, you’d have the freedom to hop off at other cities, such as Lyon, France, along the way for a few days. Some tickets purchased in-country have similar benefits, but discounted or promotional fares may have stricter rules.

The bottom line: If you’re just trying to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, buy your fare at the train station to get the best price. If you’re traveling a long distance and would like to make stopovers, or if you’re uncomfortable booking a fare in a foreign place, book in advance.

Low-cost intra-European carriers

When planning how to get around Europe, don’t forget about all the budget airlines offering cheap flights between cities across the continent. If you’re making a long distance journey and want to get to your destination quickly, flying can be the cheapest and most convenient option.

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