If you have ever been to Europe, chances are you have probably taken a train at some point. They are generally a quick and easy way to move between cities (or countries!). But when you are planning your train travel, how do you know you’re getting the best deal? It seems a lot of first-time travelers to Europe automatically assume that getting a rail pass or otherwise booking your train tickets through Rail Europe is the way to go. Sure, it’s easy – the web site is in English, the currency is in dollars and you can feel secure that you are all set ahead of time.
However, it can be almost as easy to get a rail pass or book tickets through the rail companies of individual countries (or at the train station itself). And it can be cheaper.
To prove this point, I compared a recent itinerary to Italy and a recent itinerary to Germany and compared what each trip would have cost:
(1) purchasing individual tickets through Rail Europe;
(2) purchasing individual tickets on the national rail web sites;
(3) buying a rail pass through Rail Europe; and
(4) buying a rail pass on the national rail web sites.
Here’s what I found (all prices refer to 2nd class tickets for an adult over age 25 and do not include the additional cost of reservations):
My itinerary: Naples to Rome to Florence to Venice.
- Individual ticket cost on Rail Europe: $142 to $198
- Individual ticket cost on Trenitalia, Italy’s national rail website: $104-$175
As you can see, booking through Trenitalia could save at least $23, if not more. Even better, you don’t have to book through Trenitalia that far ahead of time – you can wait until you’re in Europe.
Now, how does a rail pass compare?
Rail Europe offers an Italy Rail Pass for 3 days of travel in a 2 month period for $227 – nearly $30 more than the most expensive tickets would cost to purchase individually and over $100 more than the cheapest!
Trenitalia offers the same rail pass for about $162 – a much better deal than the Rail Europe pass, but still possibly more expensive than booking individual tickets.
That being said, as you add extra days of travel to your itinerary, the value of a rail pass increases. When I added a Venice to Rome leg onto my trip and compared the cost of individual tickets against the Trenitalia 4 day pass, it was still less expensive in some cases to buy individually, but in many cases the pass proved to be the better deal.
Let’s try another example.
My itinerary: Frankfurt to Trier to Cologne to Heidelberg to Stuttgart
- Individual cost on Rail Europe: $297-$367
- Individual cost on Bahn.de, Germany’s national rail website: $196-$293
Again, there was a significant savings by booking through Bahn.de.
Rail Europe’s German Rail Pass costs $273 for 4 days of travel in one month, while the same pass from Bahn.de is about $265 – just slightly less expensive than Rail Europe and in the mid-range of what it might cost to book individually on Bahn.de. And, like Italy, adding extra days to your pass increases its value.
So what should you think about when planning your train travel in Europe?
- Don’t assume Rail Europe provides the best value – it usually doesn’t, particularly if you are traveling in just one country.
- Check out the national rail sites for the country you are visiting. Many have sites in English that are straightforward to navigate. You can often book online or, at the very least, check timetables and prices before purchasing at the station. Here a few:
Czech Republic: www.cd.cz/eshop
Hungary: www. Elvira.mav-start.hu
- You can save money if you’re willing to travel at unpopular times. The ticket prices I list above are all in ranges because prices vary throughout the day.
- Keep in mind that rail passes are only good for a certain time period, often 1 month. Buying a pass for 7 days of travel may be a great deal, but do you want to feel pressed to keep moving in order to get your money’s worth?
- Don’t forget to take into account the additional cost of seat reservations. These can be mandatory on some trains and, even if not required, are a good idea on popular routes.
Have you traveled in Europe by train? What are your tips to save money?