Understanding rail passes
What is a Rail Pass?
A rail pass is a travel document that entitles you to travel on European trains in a specific geographic area (country/countries), for a specific number of days.
Let’s use Italy as an example. If you buy a three-day Eurail Italy Pass you can take as many trains trips as you like during three days of your choice within a two-month period, starting from the date you activate your rail pass. The number of days during which you can take the train with your rail pass are typically referred to as Travel Days, while the period within which you can use your travel days is referred to as the rail pass validity period.
A travel day lasts from midnight to midnight. During this period, you can take as many train trips as you want within your rail pass area of coverage. For instance, with your Eurail Italy Pass, you can take a train from Milan to Rome, then up to Florence and back to Milan, all in one day, using only one travel day on your rail pass.
What about overnight trains? To be fair, even if your train departs in the evening one day and arrives at its destination the next, in most cases it will count as one rail day and not two. The rule is that you must board a train that departs after 7:00 PM and arrive at your destination after 4:00 AM without changing trains. On the other hand, if your train departs before 7:00 PM, or involves a connection, you will need to use two days of your rail pass. This policy is sometimes referred to as “the 7:00 PM rule.”
The main benefit of traveling with a rail pass is that it’s generally more cost effective than tickets if you plan on taking three or more trips. Additionally, if you’re not completely sure of your full itinerary in advance, you can purchase the rail pass first, and then decide the specifics of your travel and trains later on.
For a given geographical area, you may find that rail passes come in several variations, such as Flexi or Continuous, Adult, Youth, Senior, Saver etc… Don’t worry, when you book with Rail Europe, we offer you the most economical rail pass or combination of rail passes possible, based on your traveling party and the number of travel days you indicate. In other words, if we see that you are traveling with children, we automatically give you the child rate if available. Likewise, if you indicate that you are a youth traveler, we’ll automatically give you the Youth price if offered on the rail pass you want to buy. Check out our rail pass FAQ section for more details about discounted rail pass options and various other technicalities.
Last but not least, it’s very important to understand reservations when traveling with a rail pass. We have a whole section devoted to reservations, but in short, be aware that having a rail pass doesn’t necessarily mean that you can hop on any train at will, within the geographical area covered by your rail pass. Depending on the country, the type of train and the route, you may need to purchase seat reservations at an additional cost. It does take away a bit of the flexibility offered by rail passes, but this is the policy that certain rail carriers have put in place, especially for high speed trains and night trains. Make sure to read our reservation FAQ for the lowdown on the subject.
Hey, look! Some bonuses! Your rail passes are packed with additional benefits, also known as rail pass bonuses. They run the gamut from discounted shopping in retail stores, to preferential rates on other modes of transportation like ferry or bus, to rebates on hotel nights, reduced admission at museums and attractions, etc… You can review the detailed list of a rail pass’ bonuses on our website by clicking the bonus tab on its rail pass page.
I already paid for my rail pass. Why do I have to pay a seat reservation fee on top of it?
This is a requirement that’s defined by each individual European railroad, and which varies from one train to another.
However, there are essentially three types of trains in Europe: trains that are “reservation required”, trains that are “reservation recommended” (but optional), and trains that are “non-reservable.”
So while rail passes offer rail travel by country all over Europe, they can’t account for the mix of reservation requirements on your specific trip. As a result, you’ll still need to buy a reservation for “reservation required” trains. Requirements vary, so we encourage you to read our detailed article on reservations to understand when you may need to purchase one.
Why should I buy my rail pass from Rail Europe?
With over 50 different European train companies, it’s much easier for the North American traveler to ride the rails than plan their own trip on them. That’s why we’re here. We combine the maps, schedules and fares of over 50 different rail companies across Europe, creating one-stop to plan and book your European train travel. And we have special relationships with carriers that started over 75 years ago. These relationships have led to special agreements benefiting our clients, including technology that enables us to offer and sell more train travel options than any other provider. And importantly, our rail passes are at competitive hard-to-beat prices. Combine that with the extraordinary level of customer service, and it’s an unbeatable deal.
So, we hear you. Customer service? Everyone says that. But here’s what it means at Rail Europe.
We’re not just a one-stop shop for all your travel needs, but the only North American travel website giving you access to rail schedules for over 50 different European train companies, and we’re able to sell you reservations for traveling with a rail pass as well. Then once you purchase with Rail Europe, you can load your itinerary on our iphone app and mobile site and continue to add trips before you leave home. Another incentive? Unlike rail passes which must be bought prior to leaving North America, trips and seat reservations compatible with your rail pass can be bought in Europe using our app. Hurray to spontaneity!
But our customer service starts even earlier in the process, offering a unique tool to ensure that you find the right rail pass. Our passfinder tool not only helps you find a rail pass, but if you already know your itinerary, it lets you compare the cost of traveling with train tickets versus rail passes and reservations by using our multi-city booking tool. No other website offers these features, designed exclusively for the North American market. And if you still have questions or need assistance, you’ll find our rail travel consultants are available by phone and email at any point before, during or after your travel.
Lastly, we offer an exclusive Rail Protection Plan that allows you, for a small fee, to change your rail pass or have it entirely refunded as a credit toward a future purchase for any reason. (Passes are usually only 85% refundable.) How about that? True customer service even if you decide not to travel.
What's the difference between a rail pass and a train ticket?
A rail pass and a train ticket are two completely different types of travel documents.
A train ticket is valid for a single journey between two cities. Many tickets also include a reservation, which mean that they are valid only for a specific train, on a specific date and at a given time. To learn more about tickets, read our article: tickets explained.
A rail pass, on the other hand, is good for travel in an entire geographical area (1 country, 2 countries or more). With it you can take as many train trips as you want within that geographical area, for as many travel days as you bought, within a set period of time (the pass validity period).
For any given itinerary in Europe, you can generally choose between both: train tickets or a rail pass, and individual reservations as needed.
In general, traveling with a rail pass is more cost effective when taking three trips or more, but it really depends. Why not use our booking engine to automatically compare the cost of your travel using a rail pass to that of train tickets and decide what’s right for you?
Follow this link to our rail-booking engine and choose the “Multi-City” option. Then fill in the rest of your travel itinerary and click on Check Fares. Our system will show you the most cost effective options for both train tickets and rail passes based on your plans.
What is the difference between a flexi pass and a consecutive pass?
A flexi pass is valid for a specific number of travel days to be used within the overall validity period of that rail pass. For example, 15 days of unlimited train travel to be used within a 2-month period. With this kind of rail pass, you can pick and choose any days (they don’t have to be consecutive) to travel within the rail pass’ validity period.
Consecutive rail passes such as the Eurail Global Pass, are valid for unlimited train travel during the whole duration of the pass’ validity period. In other words, with a 15-day Eurail Global Pass, you can travel for 15 consecutive days by train. Even if you don’t take the train each and every day, those days will count as used.
What is a travel day on a rail pass?
A rail pass travel day is a 24-hour period, from midnight to midnight, during which you can take as many train trips as you want. Since rail passes use calendar days, trips within 24-hours of each other but on different days will count as two travel days.
The only exception to this rule concerns overnight train trips. Overnight train trips departing after 7:00pm and arriving after 4:00am without any change of train will count as one travel day, and the arrival date should be recorded on your rail pass. But overnight train trips departing after 7:00pm that arrive or involve a connection between midnight- 4am count as two travel days.
What is the "validity period" of a rail pass?
The validity period of a rail pass is the time period within which you must complete your travel with your rail pass. This period is calculated from the date stamped on the rail pass by the rail official.
With a flexi pass this period is defined as a certain number of calendar months – usually two. For instance, if you are traveling with a 5-day Eurail Italy Pass and your rail pass is first stamped on July 1, you must use your 5th travel day no later than midnight of August 31.
With a continuous day pass the validity period equals the number of travel days. For example, if you’re traveling with a 1-month Eurail Global Pass first stamped July 1, you can’t use it to travel past midnight on July 31.
Can I use my rail pass on any train within its area of coverage?
In general, yes, but there are some exceptions and a few rules to keep in mind.
First, be mindful that some trains (such as many high speed and night trains) require travelers with a rail pass to purchase reservations at an additional cost. Make sure to read our detailed article on the subject.
If you take an international train, make sure that your rail pass covers not only the country of origin and country of destination, but the countries through which your train will travel. For instance, if you’re taking a train from Munich to Venice, it’s obvious your rail pass needs to cover Germany and Italy. But trains connecting these two cities also travel through Austria, so your rail pass will also need to cover Austria as well.
Lastly, some private rail lines in certain countries don’t offer reservations for rail pass holders and don’t accept rail passes, requiring you to locally purchase a stand-alone regular ticket. When you book your rail pass, you will receive a map and travelers guide that shows its full coverage. This is especially relevant for travelers with a Swiss Pass or Eurail Pass that includes Switzerland, since Switzerland has many of those private rail lines. Germany, France, and the UK also have a few private rail lines not included with our rail passes. .
Does each trip I take require using a separate day of travel on my rail pass?
No. You can take as many train trips as you want within one day and only use one day, as long as your last train ride ends before 11:59pm.
How do I use the bonuses that come with rail passes?
The travel bonuses that come with your pass must be redeemed locally.
There are two types of bonuses. “Free” bonuses (such as a free airport transfer) require the use of a travel day on your pass. If you’ve already used up all your travel days, you can’t take advantage of the “free” bonuses anymore. “Discount” bonuses do not require you to use a travel day, but do require that your pass still be within its validity period. In other words, even if you’ve used up all your days on a pass, you can still claim “discounted” bonuses as long as the pass’ validity period has not lapsed.
The exception to this rule is the Swiss Passes. Although a “discounted” bonus doesn’t requires you to use a travel day on your Swiss Pass, the pass must still be valid and you must not have used up all your travel days to redeem such “discounted” bonuses.