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Rail Pass or No Rail Pass?

If you’re heading for Europe this summer—and plan to travel around while you’re there—you may well be considering some form of rail pass. Before you buy, however, take a close look at all your alternatives.

The variety of pass options is staggering: 24 one-country passes, dozens of various two- and three-country combinations, a handful of multicountry regional passes, “Eurail Select” passes covering any three, four, or five adjacent countries, and the original all-countries “Global” Eurail pass. Most passes cover unlimited rail travel in their geographic area, and most passes include a bunch of extras.

Pass prices are not greatly changed from last year. Changes range from about 3 percent up to about 4 percent down, depending on the pass; BritRail passes are up about 7 percent.

New this year is Turkey, included in the Global and Balkan passes, but the only rail connection is through Bulgaria and, as far as I can tell, trains are not operating on the Istanbul-Ankara route yet. France has dropped out of the three-, four-, and five-country Select passes. And although Greece remains in the program, no cross-border trains are currently operating.

Rail passes come in two basic forms:

  • “Consecutive” passes that cover unlimited travel on each day of the total validity period, from four days of travel out of four consecutive days to 30 days of travel during a month.
  • “Flexible” passes limit you to travel on only a specified number of days—typically, from three to 15 days—out of a longer total validity period up to months.

Most rail-pass families also offer options based on who you are:

  • “Saver” passes cover two (or up to three) people traveling together at prices about 15 percent below single passes. But both pass holders really have to travel together on every trip. One can’t go off for a separate side trip while the other takes a nap.
  • Reduced-price passes for seniors age 60 or over are available only for France, Britain, and the “Balkans.” The French pass, in first class, is only a bit more expensive than the any-age second-class pass and is a good value. But the senior BritRail passes, in first class only, are quite a bit more expensive than the corresponding any-age passes in second class.

You may have a choice of your travel class:

  • Passes available only in first class include the Eurail Global and Select passes, passes for Balkans, Europe East, Greece, Romania, and several two-country passes with Austria.
  • In these countries, youth passes for travelers age 16 to 25 are available only in second class. BritRail offers a unique discounted first-class option for youth accompanying adults.
  • Norway and Scandinavia passes are available only in second class.
  • Other pass families give you the option of first or second class.

Rail passes in the larger and more developed countries are expensive, starting at around $150 a day for short-duration Swiss first-class passes and at around $60 to $70 a day for short-duration second-class passes in the bigger countries. The price per day goes down as you buy more days, but you’ll still pay around $40 a day. And even with most passes, you have to pay extra for mandatory seat reservations on top trains.

The train is a great way to travel around Europe. But don’t buy an expensive pass when individual tickets will cost less:

  • Plot your itinerary in advance, concentrating your train travel into as few days as possible.
  • Decide on a class: In the most developed countries, second class is more than adequate, but first class is more comfortable and less crowded.
  • Check the price of the least expensive pass that covers your needs. Unless you want to spend almost all of your time riding trains, flexible passes are the better option.
  • Check the cost of individual point-to-point tickets for the same trip, on websites such as BritRail, Eurail, RailEurope, Deutsche Bahn (good for all over Europe), and RailEasy (good for tickets in Britain).

If a pass looks good, buy at one of the online agencies.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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