Should You Buy a Rail Pass When Backpacking Europe
So you going to backpack through Europe. You bought your airplane ticket, prepared for your trip, and started to pack. Now your wondering about how you will get from point to point once you are there. One very popular option is getting a rail pass. Pending on where you plan to go, rail passes may be a valuable option for you. It might be more beneficial for you to combine individual tickets and discount airfare (see my past article about discount flights).
Should you buy a rail pass?
Despite popular opinion, rail passes may not always be the best option for you. Pending on where you go it may be much more cost-efficient to buy individual tickets for shorter destinations and use discount airlines for longer destinations.
Recently, I went on a backpacking trip through Eastern Europe. The countries visited on this trip include Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Turkey. For this trip, most rail pass options offered would have been a waste of money. Since I was not entirely sure exactly where I would go, it would have made figuring out what pass to get nearly impossible. Out of all the places that I visited on this trip, rail pass options would only be valid for a few of those countries (only the ones that are members of the European Union).
For most European travel east of Italy and Germany Rail passes are simply not worth it.
Calculating individual ticket prices:
One common way people determine if it is better to purchase a rail pass or individual tickets is by searching for the cost of individual tickets online. Then they see if the average cost of the individual tickets is more or less than the cost of the rail pass. If you do Google search for Europe rail tickets you will get to a variety of websites that offer you both rail passes and individual rail tickets. These third-party websites often significantly inflate the cost of individual tickets and may not show you all of your travel options. I am convinced they do this (in part) to try to convince you that a rail pass is a worth wild investment.
For instance, when searching tickets from Budapest to Belgrade (Serbia) using a popular online European rail booking site, a second class ticket costs $54 (around 34 euro) and leaves three times a day. In reality, however, there are several trains that take this route each day and night and the price is much cheaper. When I bought my ticket, I paid only 20 euro for the same route directly from the ticket window only thirty minutes before the train departed. For many destinations (particularly in Eastern Europe) it is most cost-efficient to purchase your tickets directly from the ticket window. Reservations are often not needed very far in advance (if at all).
There are so many trains that leave for each destination, that the trains are never 100% full. In the unlikely event that a train is completely full, they will often simply add more compartments to accommodate the additional demand.
Advantages to a Rail Pass:
If you couldn’t already tell, I am more than a little bit cautious of using prepurchased rail passes, mainly because of the often exorbitant prices that come with them and because purchasing a rail pass often gives you less flexibility in what countries you want to see and in changing your plans once your trip starts. Rail passes do however offer some very distinct advantages. They allow for more adventurous traveling. If you are not sure exactly where you want to go, rail passes allow you to get on and off the train at random places you find interesting along the way. Often times, you cannot do this with individual tickets because the tickets given to you are often for specific trains at specific times. In addition, if you plan your trip well, it could save you some money.
Buying a rail pass in advance means you must plan out in advance what countries you want to visit. In order to make the most use of your rail pass, you must travel a specific amount of time. If you later decide you want to travel a different route or length of time, you might not get the full benefit of having the pass as you first thought. In addition, there are often individual specials for certain trains that you may not take into account when calculating whether or not a rail pass is worth it. Even with rail passes you still must pay for a reservation on many trains (even trains where reservations are not needed for passengers with individual tickets). Many great countries are not part of the euro rail program. By deciding to only use a rail pass you may be inadvertently deciding to skip a really fantastic country.
Still not sure?
There are many websites that can help you determine if a rail pass is the right option for you. In order for you to determine this, you must have a basic idea of where you want to go. There are also several different types of rail passes that you can purchase. One website that helps determine the most efficient pass for you is Railpass.com. They also do a good job explaining each of the different rail pass options along with associated costs.
Stay tuned for post updates on how to find the approximate cost of individual tickets.