Rail passes or point to point tickets, what's the cheapest option?

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This is quite a confusing issue for those new to travelling by train in Europe. You would assume that rail passes exist simply as a cheaper way to travel in Europe, you just buy the pass for the countries you'll be visiting and the costs will work out way cheaper than buying normal tickets... right? Well not exactly, and we'll try to explain why...

Say for example your European trip is for 14 days, in that time you'd like to spend 3 days in London, 3 days in Paris, 2 days in Amsterdam, 3 days in Berlin and finally 3 days in Vienna. For this trip you would need a rail pass covering France, Germany, Benelux and Austria and a separate Eurostar ticket. The rail pass could be either the global pass giving total flexibility and freedom or you could use the Eurail Select Pass which allows flexible travel in 3, 4 or 5 countries on selected 'travel days'.

The cheapest Eurail global pass would cost around £490 ($800) and the Eurostar ticket would be around £60 ($100), a Eurail Select Pass would cost around £325 ($530). So using a rail pass this trip would cost either £550 ($900) for total flexibility or £385 ($630) with 5 days of travel in 4 counties, but wait a minute France dropped out of the Select pass program last year (2013) and is only available with the global pass, so ignore option 2 there, your cost for this trip using a Eurail pass and Eurostar ticket is £550 ($900). The big question is will these 4 trips cost more than that if you booked them at the station, or even better in advance before you left home?

You are effectively spending £490 ($800) on 3 journeys in Europe, the pass seemed like the right choice before you read this, but let's look at what these journeys might cost...

Paris to Amsterdam

Using the Thalys train service this journey will cost from as little as £30 ($50) if booked very early and up to £110 ($180) if you pay for a full ticket at the station.

Amsterdam to Berlin

If you book this in advance you can get this ticket for as little as £35 ($60), this rises to £100 ($165) on the day of travel for a standard fare ticket.

Berlin to Vienna

This journey can also be booked early for as little as £40 ($65), this increases to around £110 ($180) for a full standard fare.

So the totals are:

Rail Pass and Eurostar £550 ($900) *

Buying point to point tickets at the station £380 ($620)

Buying point to point tickets in advance online £165 ($270)

But it's not quite that simple...

As you can see in this situation the rail pass looks very expensive. However this is completely ignoring the benefits of the rail pass including:

  • You can travel for the entire day with the rail pass, not just the time taken for these journeys, so you can effectively cover much greater distances that would cost a lot more.

  • You're not booked onto a specific train in advance, if you miss one you just get the next one when you arrive and make your reservation at the station (if required).

  • the cheapest rail pass option would give you 5 travel days, we're only using 3 journeys here so you'd have 2 more travel days left over in this example.

In Summary

Whilst this is quite a simplistic example it does show that rail passes are not always cheaper. The general rule is that the rail pass will start to make sense the more it's used, it will generally never make sense for just a few journeys as above but if you're constantly hopping on and off trains, travelling overnight and generally not staying in one place for long the maths will sometimes swing in favour of the rail pass.

Also, in reality the convenience offered by the rail pass will have significant value for some people, if you're not on a tight budget and want flexibility and ease of use without having to scour 10 different rail websites and order tickets separately the pass will often make more sense for you.

* Supplements are ignored for this simple comparison, with a rail pass you are expected to pay supplements when making reservations on high speed services. These will be part of the cost of the pre-booked ticket. They will generally be up to 10 euros for premium high speed train services.