Is Eurail worth it? 5 train trips in Europe within 3 weeks.
April 1, 2014 1:52 PM   Subscribe

I am traveling to Europe this upcoming May and I am stuck on whether it is best to use a Eurail pass or buy point-to-point tickets. I know which dates I want to travel and my accommodation is all pre-booked. Are point-to-point tickets always more cost effective? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

My partner and I (in our mid-twenties) are traveling to the following cities:

Barcelona - Marseille
Marseille - Paris
Paris - Berlin
Berlin - Prague
Prague - Frankfurt

The easiest option seems to be the new Eurail 4-Country Select Pass, which precisely covers 5 travel days and works out to about $544 per person. However, I've been doing some research on Seat61, and a tentative online search of these trips purchased point-to-point would seem to cost around $420 per person.

That's certainly decent savings, but some of these trips involve transfers with short turnaround times (10 minutes). They are also the economy tickets, so the train on your ticket seems to be the only train you can ride. On the other hand, it sounds like the Eurail now often requires separate reservations, especially for many of the routes that we are riding. Apparently, they can cost up to ~30 euros each.

Any thoughts on which option is best? Any tips on where to find discounted fares?
posted by ageispolis to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Based on my own adventures I think Eurorail is the way to go. Flexible and very economical.
posted by Rabarberofficer at 1:58 PM on April 1, 2014

If the two of you always travel together you can get first class "saver" passes.
posted by saradarlin at 2:06 PM on April 1, 2014

I would get the point-to-point tickets. Most of your journeys can be done directly (except maybe the ones to and from Prague) and I have found German trains to be on time. Why not save over $100 PP?
posted by emily37 at 2:15 PM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Rick Steves has some tips at the bottom of this page about deciding between passes and tickets when the cost is close.
posted by soelo at 2:18 PM on April 1, 2014

Also, look for cheaper fares on SNCF (for France) and (for Germany). Some fares you can buy at home and print the tickets, but for some you may need to buy online and pick up there, which usually requires a chip-and-pin credit card (uncommon in the US, common everywhere else). I carry the Marriott Rewards Visa card because it is chip-and-pin and I use it pretty exclusively for international travel or things like this. Also for your trips to Paris check idTGV and Ouigo sites.
posted by emily37 at 2:23 PM on April 1, 2014

Does your itinerary require you to be in each city at a particular time, or even on a particular date? Are both you and your partner the kind of person who can stick to a schedule and won't chafe under "No, we have to leave this thing we're doing now so we can make the train!"?

If so, go with the point-to-point tickets. If not, the flexibility of the Eurail pass is worth the $100.
posted by Etrigan at 2:43 PM on April 1, 2014

Buying individual tickets in advance will be the cheapest (~250). As you said, those tickets don't offer any flexibility and the trips sometimes take longer/have more transfers (not always!).
To me it seems like the lack of flexibility would not be a big deal for you - sorry, if you consider this rude - but you are a couple who pre-booked everything and has a fairly strict plan where & when to go. Also, you are each others entertainment, even on long train rides or while you'll wait for the connecting train. It does not sound like you'd want to hang around hostels until you find cool folks that you spontaneously decide to travel with. So what do you need the extra flexibility for?

If you buy tickets in advance you can get from Barcelona to Marseille for €90 each.
Then Marseille-Paris for about €40 each. Overnight (direct) train Paris - Berlin is €53,50 each. Daytime trains start at €90.
From Berlin - Prague you'll get for €29 each. Fares for Prague to Frankfurt also start at €29 (same Deutsche Bahn link). That's not even 250 per person for your entire route.

If you can commit to those trains/departure times, you'll have more money to spend on fun stuff along the road. Happy travels.
posted by travelwithcats at 2:47 PM on April 1, 2014

Anything involving a TGV is going to need booking ahead anyway. This will probably be all 3 of your French legs. I would look into booking separate tickets.

Booking can be a bit of a nightmare though. You've probably missed many of the really cheap seats, as they get released on Deutsche Bahn and SNCF three months out. The Spanish release them whenever they feel like it, so there should still be tickets for Barcelona - Figueres. The French website can be impossible for non-French credit card holders. We had to book some of our legs through Rail-Europe, which was generally OK, except for one which was more expensive (I ended up going 1st class as it was only a few dollars more). Deutsche Bahn is a joyous experience by comparison.

However, having a look at the Eurail website, you have to nagivate all of the above in order to make the reservations. Which doesn't sound like a great deal to me.

10 minutes is generally plenty of time to change trains.

I would consider flying from Barcelona to Marseille and Paris to Berlin though. They're both quite long trips, and there are cheap flights available (My sister trained Marseille to Barcelona last year - booking that trip was particularly difficult).

Memail me if you want help. It really is surprisingly complicated.
posted by kjs4 at 3:54 PM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

10 minutes is generally plenty of time to change trains.

But not always, and at a large station you'd want to be very clued in about which platform you're arriving at, which you're leaving from, and the shortest distance between them.
posted by holgate at 5:00 PM on April 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Paris to Berlin will be most of a day by train. That's one leg I would definitely consider flying. They're both in the Schengen zone, so a flight is basically like a domestic flight in the US; if you're at the airport within an hour of departure, you should have no problem, and it's a short flight. On the high-speed trains, you don't see much of the countryside.

When I was a grad student in the 90s, I usually took the train, because with a Europass it was a lot cheaper than flying (I was in Berlin for a year, and my wife was in Paris). But once, a week after I broke my arm, I decided it was worth spending the money to fly. It was like night and day. And I generally like the train; back in 2007 I spent much of a day traveling from Lyon to Florence by train (changes in Geneva and Milan), even though the flight would have been a few hours shorter and no more expensive.

Otherwise, if you can print out tickets in advance, buying point-to-point tickets is probably your best bet. Getting tickets at the station in France can be a hassle; without a chip-and-pin card, you can't print them out at a machine, and since most people use machines for everyday travel, lines at the ticket counters move slowly, since people at the counter are either (1) people with complicated travel plans or lots of questions, or (2) foreigners without chip-and-pin cards, most of whom don't speak French well/at all, and many of whom have problems with English too (even if the SNCF agents speak decent English, which is often but not always the case).

FWIW, the Deutsche Bahn website suggests that the fastest overland transit from Prague to Frankfurt is to take the express bus to Nuremberg and then the train from there. Otherwise you have to go via Dresden and Leipzig, which adds over 2 hours. Via bus and train, it's 6 hours. I don't think the rail pass would be valid on the bus, but I might be wrong. In any case, check it out.

(BTW, the website is usually the best way to find railway itineraries between European cities, even outside of Germany. When I lived in France, it found routes that the SNCF website did not, mostly because of the balkanization of French railway service into regional and national, but sometimes just because the German site seemed to be better programmed.)
posted by brianogilvie at 6:48 PM on April 1, 2014

P.S. The site is not necessarily the best place to buy tickets; rather, it's the best for timetables.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:50 PM on April 1, 2014

My partner and I used Eurail when we went to Europe in 2009. Our plans changed, and we didn't end up using one of our trips, so it wasn't a good decision for us financially. Even without that, we tried to book seats on a particular high-demand train and were knocked back, despite the fact that there were seats available, because we were travelling on a Eurail pass. (Frustrating since we'd effectively paid more than the ticket would have been anyway!) I dislike being treated like a second class citizen so I would avoid Eurail on those grounds, personally.
posted by Cheese Monster at 7:05 PM on April 1, 2014

Hi all,

Thank you for your helpful comments. We ended up booking point-to-point, and opted for a flight from Paris to Berlin. For anyone interested, the prices per person:

Barcelona - Marseille - €49
Marseille - Paris - €37
Paris - Berlin (flight) - €60
Berlin - Prague - €39
Prague - Frankfurt - €50

=€235, or $360!

Much cheaper than the Eurail, and that's not even taking into account the cost of the added reservation fees. And travelwithcats, I don't consider your suggestion rude — no worries :) We're using AirBnb throughout and so booking ahead made sense.
posted by ageispolis at 10:24 PM on April 1, 2014

Just a note on quick change times - most tickets you print out will have the arrival platform and departure platform. Having travelled extensively through Western Europe by train (and using the German rail system a couple of times a month) 10 minutes is plenty of time to get from one platform to another, even in large stations.

With a lot of inter-city train tickets you also get free public transport in the city of arrival (basically to get you to your accommodation) so just check, it might save you some.

If you want any advice on travel within (or general travel tips) for Paris and Berlin feel free to memail me.

Have a great trip!
posted by Megami at 10:51 PM on April 1, 2014

The French website can be impossible for non-French credit card holders. We had to book some of our legs through Rail-Europe, which was generally OK

Brief follow up to agree here--I had the experience last year of trying to book a Thalys trip directly through their own website. The attempted credit card transaction (on a perfectly good card) was not only declined, it generated a phone call from a human at the issuing bank for my card within 10 minutes or so asking me if I knew anything about suspicious activity on the card. Yikes.

So, I booked my Thalys and SNCF tickets through RailEurope, which was trouble-free for me as a USA person with USA cards. Printed out tickets in advance, took them on the train, tickets scanned fine, no fuss, no muss.

Later I also purchased a short ticket for a day trip out of Paris, where RailEurope gave me the SNCF ticket code so I could print out the ticket at the station. That also worked just fine: I got to use my USA card online, and also get the convenience of avoiding the trouble lines at the station as others have mentioned.
posted by gimonca at 6:41 AM on April 2, 2014

If you're doing Paris-Berlin I'd take the City Nightline sleeper from Paris- details are on Seat 61 - I've taken in Paris-Munich a couple of times and love it. That would be double with a rail pass - although you'd still need to pay a supplement for a sleeping compartment.
posted by prentiz at 10:31 AM on April 2, 2014

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