When it comes to getting around Europe easily and affordably as a family, I’m in love with Eurail passes.
Though they do look pricey at first glance (and they are – let’s not kid ourselves that European travel is especially cheap, though there are certainly ways to save), they can be well-purchased and well-used.
It’s important to mention that we don’t feel that train is always the right way to travel.
In certain places, or depending on the length of time that we have, renting a car or even taking a short flight with a budget airline can work out better. In fact, we’re particularly fond of renting cars when we want to stay in smaller towns and villages (with less rail connections), get out into the countryside (zero rail connections), or settle in one location for 2-4 weeks. Driving offers unparalleled freedom and flexibility and when vehicles are rented at weekly or monthly rates, they can work out quite affordably as well.
But most of the time, we find rail to be both an efficient and cost-effective way to get around tightly-packed Europe. You can get across most countries in a day or less, sometimes even passing through multiple countries in a day. All big cities and most smaller towns are connected.
Trains are comfortable and almost always clean (in Western and Northern Europe, trains are even luxurious sometimes), offer beautiful scenery, don’t require getting to the station extra-early (like for flying), usually offer many different times and options throughout the day, and are even nice for kids because they can typically have a bit more space to spread out and move around within the cars.
Although point-to-point tickets can sometimes work out cheaper (and it’s always worth it to compare prices), we have found that overall, a carefully planned out Eurail pass saves both money and hassle.
Here are our money-saving tips for using Eurail with a family
Did you know that kids aged 4 and under travel free on trains?
Unlike the 2-year limit on airplanes, you can have up to a 4 year old traveling on an adult’s lap. When we had Eurail passes on our Big Trip, we only had to buy four passes for our family of six, since the youngest two were 1 and 4 at the time.
Occasionally we actually had to have them sit on our lap, when the trains were full on popular routes. But more often than not? They had their own seats and we could all stretch our leisurely. It was awesome.
Keep an eye out for special deals.
For example, there are currently two fantastic deals going on (and I don’t earn a penny for promoting these – I just want to give you examples of the types of deals that you should be on the lookout for):
1) Get extra travel days if you buy your pass this spring (before high season). Get up to 5 free extra travel days on a Global Pass, or 1 extra day on a Regional or Country Pass. Depending how carefully you use your days, this could be valuable! (Valid until March 31 or possibly April 30th for some passes, 2015)
2) We have never seen this before, but at the moment, not only are children 4 and under free on a parent’s lap, but all children aged 4-11 actually get a FREE child’s pass when traveling with a paying adult, AND up to 2 children can travel with each adult!!! This is amazing. We are so excited to be able to take advantage of this deal when we head up to Scandinavia next month, because it means that our entire family of 6 can travel for the price of 2 adult passes. Wow. (It looks like there could be a date cut-off on this deal for Global passes, I can’t quite tell. But for Select and One Country passes, I don’t see a deadline.)
Of course, these change from time to time and there are usually more deals in low and shoulder season than in high season (generally May-Sept), but nonetheless, always look for the special offers available!
Get family passes.
If you’re willing to commit to always using your passes together (and for traveling families, this is realistically what you’ll be doing anyways), then you can purchase a Family pass where you get an automatic 15% discount on each pass. Unless you’re planning to split up and have both adults traveling somewhere different at the same time, this works perfectly for families.
Travel 2nd class whenever possible.
Now, if you’re traveling on a Family Global Pass (a pass that lets you travel in any Eurail country), your only option is 1st class. But for Select, Regional and single country passes, you can opt for 2nd class and there’s no reason not to.
In most of Europe, 2nd class is perfectly acceptable, if not actually nice. This is less true the further East and South you go, but honestly, we hardly ever found the trains to be bad enough that they actually bothered us.
Be very choosy and strategic about which pass you buy.
Now, we went all out with the Global pass on our two-month Europe trip. This was because we were actively moving around the entire two months, but also because we intended to visit 8 countries and use the train several days per week. When I started tallying up the prices for point-to-point tickets for what we wanted to do, it was clear that the Global pass was the winner (and of course, we got the 15% off and only bought 4 tickets, so that helped immensely).
This also meant that we had free use of the rails anytime we wanted to take a day-trip jaunt somewhere outside of the city we were staying in and could even do things like visit Salzburg, Austria from Munich, Germany for the day without a second thought.
This winter, however, we are back in Europe and will not be using a Global pass. We are traveling around less (we’re just finishing up a month in the same town in France where we rented a car), and so we’ve chosen a select group of countries we’d like to visit.
I have carefully gone through all the possible variants on:
- Select passes (where you put together up to 4 adjoining countries to create-your-own pass)
- Regional passes (these cover 2-3 adjacent countries that people typically like to visit together)
- And single country passes.
After much thought and number crunching, I’ve decided our best bet is a Select pass that covers France, Switzerland, Italy, and Croatia/Slovenia (this is sort of a bonus deal – 2 countries for the price of 1). I can’t tell you which pass will be best for you, only that you need to really look through the options and compare your cost breakdown.
And then, be conservative with how many days you need your pass to be. Look up the distances/times between the places you’ll be traveling to determine how many actual travel days you think you’ll need (see the DB website below).
It’s usually worth it to work in one extra day as a buffer (because things just happen when you travel and you never know why you might need that extra day), but try to be as precise as you can so that you can choose a lower priced pass.
Travel off-season if you can.
The last couple of winters I’ve seen Eurail passes go on 20% discount, and I think they commonly offer more discounts during off-season. We bought our current passes (good until March 31st) at 20% off.
This was perfect for us, since we were already planning an off-season trip (partly because the dates worked, partly to save money). As we head up to Norway in early April, we’ll be getting a Single Country pass, and again, because we’re traveling off-season, those awesome deals I mentioned to you above? We’re getting to take advantage of both our kids being free AND getting an extra travel day!
Keep in mind that high-speed and night trains will likely charge an extra fee.
This fee is usually a “compulsory reservation fee”, meaning you have to pay a set amount (we’ve paid as low as 2.50 Euros up to 15 Euros per ticket holder) to travel that particular route. Sometimes you just can’t avoid the high speed trains, especially when you’re traveling a major route (for example, Rome to Florence or Paris to Geneva), and this is where you typically get dinged with the reservation fees.
If you have more time than money, it’s always worth looking to see if non-high-speed trains are available for the same destination and use those instead. Note that the Deustche Bahn website will tell you whether any of the trains you need to take require a reservation.
You can see in the image above (a screenshot from the DB website of our route from Nice, France to Firenze, Italy) that our first train is a Regional Express and requires no fee, but our next two trains (an Intercity and EuroStar) are faster trains between more major cities and both require a fee.
As for night trains, in our experience, by the time you pay the extra fees (much heftier than a reservation fee – often more like 14-50 Euros per ticket, depending on the type of bed/room you’re paying for), they’re not usually worth it for families.
We didn’t feel comfortable sleeping with our kids in the open-style seating overnight. Once when traveling between Vienna and Venice, we opted for the 2nd class couchettes (small rooms with bunk beds). In the end, we paid at least what we would have for a hotel room, probably more (on top of using up a rail day). However, if the night trains help to save time by getting you where you need to go while you sleep, then they can be a worthwhile option, so that’s something to consider.
Not all countries are equal in cost.
Global passes are more expensive simply because they cover both the higher and lower priced countries (although honestly, they’re still a great deal in that sense because you’re getting the expensive cities at a discount).
But when you start choosing countries for Select, Regional or individual countries, the prices look very different. Scandinavia is particularly expensive, as are France, Germany, Austria and Spain. Larger countries cost more than smaller ones (this makes sense because you’re covering larger distances, right?), but the further East you go, prices drop a lot (check out Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Romania, for example).
Always double check what other perks come with your rail pass.
For example, we got a 30% discount on our Italy-Greece overnight ferry because we held a pass that was valid in both countries. The same is true for ferries between Ireland and France or the UK, and ferries between Denmark and Norway are discounted 10-20%, depending on the route and whether you’re in low or high season.
Don’t use up a full travel day for just a short, inexpensive point-to-point trip.
If you’re trying to maximize your 8 days in 2 months (for example), and you want to take a short trip between two French villages, it may be better to pay for it out of pocket and save up your travel days for when you’ll be covering a lot of ground on more expensive routes.
A few excellent train travel resources:
- Eurail website – This is the official website for buying Eurail passes. It also offers plenty of helpful information for figuring out how to use your passes, help you find discounts that go with your pass, look up rail maps, etc.
- Rick Steves – My favorite brand of Europe guidebooks, his website is a fantastic resource. I especially love looking up questions I have in the travel Forum, but his rail section is also very thorough and helpful. He also sells Eurail passes directly through his site, for at least the same price as on the Eurail website (including whatever current deals are being offered) and with the exchange, it even ended up slightly better for us buying off of his site when our credit card gave us hassles on the official site this winter.
- The Man in Seat 61 – This website offers very detailed instructions and helpful information about traveling by rail in any European country, shows how to interpret and understand rail schedules and rail tickets, gives really practical tips for travelers, and more.
- Deutsche Bahn – This is the best site I know of for looking up rail schedules and figuring out how to make your journey work. It’s a German site, but I’ve linked to the English version. As you look up rail stations or particular cities/towns, try to find the correct spelling for that place in the local language. For example, we say Florence (Italy) but Italians actually called it Firenze. Same goes for Venice (Venezia), Rome (Roma), etc. Many place names, once translated into English, lack a standard spelling, so you’ll always want to try to find the true spelling. The DB site does take this into account for English speakers (in fact, the three Italian examples I gave all show up by their English spelling as well), but don’t take for granted that you’ll find the right place if your spelling is off.
See all posts in the Smart Family Travel series.
Note: You MUST buy your Eurail pass before leaving your home country. You cannot get it once you have already arrived in Europe!