Using trains in Europe is, overall, a really great experience. Although it can be expensive, and being a stingy backpacker means that you’re always looking for ways to have a good time without having to throw away the euros. So is getting a Rail Pass the simple solution? Is it all train, no pain?
We used a rail pass in Eastern Europe, believing that it would give us flexibility when we were strained for time. And it definitely had benefits, but there were also times where it fell off the tracks. The take-home message for us was that it depends how flexible you want to be, and how much you are willing to fork out. If I had to make a crappy graph to describe this concept, it would look something like this:
Rail passes are expensive – but if you are certain that you’ll use them enough, they will be less expensive than buying each ticket outright (especially if you’re booking last minute).
Benefits of a rail pass:
- You can hop on a train with little notice, giving you a lot of flexibility with how long you spend in places
- Less stress because you don’t have to rush to trains as much, as you don’t lose anything if you miss one
- Covers a lot of countries and train services
Pitfalls of many rail passes:
- A lot of companies will still require you to book a seat/reserve a place on top of buying the rail pass, and of course this is an additional fee (anywhere between €2 – €25 per trip). So when calculating, include this cost, especially in Western European countries.
- They are generally really expensive, and there’s a shipping fee of €12
If your travel style is super-organised and planned in advance, then it’s recommended to buy train tickets online individually when the are first released by the companies. If you want a bit more flexibility and are happy to wear the cost, Rail Passes can be good – just make sure you do the calculations and ensure it balances out.
And trains are not always the cheapest option – if you are very cautious about cash, look at buses, rideshares and hitchhiking!