If you only want to visit a specific city, such as Rome, then a cheap budget flight from the UK is probably the sensible option. If you could endure 20 hours on a bus, this is the cheapest option. But if you want to travel city centre to city centre, see some wonderful countryside or maybe sleep away some night miles, then rail travel is still the best choice.
In my early travelling days an InterRail Pass (Eurail Pass for non-EU nationals) was the only realistic option unless you bought tickets as you travelled and had a smattering of language skills to help you buy them.
Today, in the age of electronic ticketing, it’s a simple matter to purchase tickets online before you travel. There are also companies like Railbookers who will purchase all your tickets and book your hotels for a seamless tailor-made package or Great Rail Journeys who have ready-made rail packages and a tour manager to accompany you.
EU citizens buy an InterRail Pass but non-EU nationals buy a Eurail Pass, but they’re basically the same. If you have dual nationality you still need a Eurail Pass if you have lived outside the EU for more than 6 months.
There are so many types of pass - under 25 yrs, over 25 yrs, family ones, group ones, first or second class and they can provide travel within a single country or cover the whole of Europe.
A 5 day second class pass for Italy costs 222 euro and allows 5 days of unlimited rail travel within a 2 month period; a first class Global pass (Europe-wide) giving 15 days over 2 months costs 895 euro.
First class passes cost more, but there are plenty of discounts - groups travelling together save 15%, under 25s save around a 20%, under 14s save 50% and under 4s go free.
Rail Pass Pros:
- Freedom to meander around a country or the whole of Europe without a fixed itinerary
- Simplicity of not having to buy tickets on-route
- It allows the maximum freedom to chop and change your route, unlike pre-booked tickets where you lose your money if you miss the train.
- Overnight sleepers are a great way to save on accommodation and travelling time, a 6-bed couchette costs around 40 euro a double around 105 euro and a single around 127 euro.
- Slower local and regional trains don’t need seat reservations and are the best ways to see the countryside
- Lump sum committed up-front
- Sleepers and hi-speed trains require seat reservations, which need to be made by phone, via an agent or at the station
- Popular routes may have limited or no seat available during the high season
- If you definitely need to take a specific train you should make a seat reservation costing about 4-5 euro but Thalys and Hi-speed TGV train reservations cost around 33 euro per trip
- A Eurail pass does not include Eurostar trains from London to the continent
Rail passes can be a great idea but it’s important to think through the type of trip you want to do. If you’re going to travel a lot and want maximum flexibility, they’re perfect. If you have limited time or a detailed plan to visit a few major destinations it might be better value to book budget flights and buy a few local rail tickets when you’re there.