Is Eurail Pass Worth It?
I bought a 3-month Eurail Global Pass for $1958 (current price as of Nov 29, 2012 is $2034). My trip was from August 19 to November 15. After adding it all up, I saved more than $600. But looking back, I'm not sure I would do it again. I don't regret it, but now that I know more about how everything works, I think I can travel cheaper and better without one.
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Why I bought it
I had only a few concrete plans where I had to be in certain cities at a certain date. But for the most part, my plans were open. Because of that, I figured it would be a good idea to get the pass. On average, I spent 4 days in each city. In some situations, I had little choice but to take a flight because of time. My trip also included a 12-day cruise. So to be fair, I didn't use it every place I went.
After looking at some ticket prices, I figured I would easily get my money's worth. And the idea that I didn't have to worry about buying a ticket the day of travel and be stuck with an outrageously expensive ticket (like a same-day flight) was comforting for me since I wanted to keep my plans open-ended.
Why I probably wouldn't buy it again
Overnight trains are not worth it to me
You could pay something like $500 (without the pass) for basically a tiny room shared with 3 other strangers and you're sleeping on a wobbly train. There are many pros and cons (more of the latter in my opinion), but the bottom line is that budget airline is a much better solution. If you plan enough in advance (>1 month, I would say) you can go the same distance for about $150 (often even less than $100) and you can get there in 2 hours. At first, my thinking was that I was saving some money by not having to pay for a night of lodging at a hotel for example. But what I didn't factor in was that the Eurail pass doesn't mean you get a free overnight train ride. You have to buy a reservation for a cabin which are about $100 a pop. I would much rather spend that on a budget airline flight. For the amount of time I save, and the discomfort I avoid, it's worth it to me, even if I have to pay for a night of lodging. And considering the price of the ticket without a pass, that makes my decision even more easy.
1st class is not as nice as it sounds.
One of the perks they try to sell you on is that your tickets are 1st class tickets. On flights, the difference is much more noticeable than on trains. With trains, you get a little more leg room, maybe a slightly more comfortable seat, maybe less people, you can order food from your seat. But these comforts aren't worth the price in my opinion. The pass doesn't even guarantee you will get 1st class. If there is no space, then you're out of luck unless you buy a reservation. You may even find yourself on a train that is fully booked and you will be standing shoulder to shoulder with people who paid much less for their ticket. I also found that when it was necessary to buy a reservation, I was given a reservation in 2nd class anyway. For overnight trains, you aren't automatically upgraded to the best cabins. 1st class tickets often cost 60% more than 2nd class tickets. Definitely not worth it for what you get. The fact that an adult Eurail pass is only available with 1st class tickets tells me that it's a selling point that is meant to make it sound a lot more luxurious than it really is.
Last minute train prices are not *AS* bad as last minute airline prices
I was able to take advantage of a flexible schedule by having the opporutunity to buy tickets 10 minutes before the train left and not have to worry about being charged $1,000 more just for buying a last minute ticket. Again, it's very different than flights where they charge you out the ears for a last minute flight. If you can buy your ticket in advance, you can save a nice chunk of money, but it's not likely to hit your wallet as badly as a last minute flight. You will almost always benefit from at least planning ahead and sticking with it. But if there's a situation where you can afford to keep your plans open like for a short train trip that might cost 20€, you're not going to break the bank if you buy a last minute ticket even if it doubles to 40€. The more prepared you are, the better off you'll be.
Replacing overnight trains with budget airlines, taking 2nd class trains, and still staying flexible with last minute tickets, I'm pretty sure I could travel cheaper and better without a Eurail Pass.
The good things about Eurail Pass
Just hop on without a ticket (some countries)
In some countries, the pass let me just hop on a train and go without a ticket. All the German-speaking countries I went to allowed this. In Eastern Europe, I found this to be true as well. In Italy, I always had to buy a reservation. But from then on, I could just hop on. This has more to do with train culture, but it was nice to not have to wait in line to buy a ticket and just hop on.
In Switzerland, I was planning to take a train from Lucerne to Berne. I was just going to take the typical route. But my awesome host suggested I take the slower but more picturesque route down through Interlaken. The panaramic train designed for just this was really nice. Because I didn't need a ticket, I could change my plans the night before with no sweat. However, I think this can be accomplished without the pass as well. Now that I know that buying a ticket at the station just before my train was to depart isn't such a big deal, this flexible plan is still possible even without the Eurail pass. But having a pass certainly does keep flexibility to a maximum.
It MIGHT be worth it if you...
take a train every 3 days
If you're traveling every 3 days, I think the ticket costs would add up pretty fast. But it also depends on where you are. Some countries are more expensive than others, obviously. If you plan on spending a lot of time in Eastern Europe, ticket prices are cheaper. But traveling every 3 days would be difficult for me. It can be exhausting. I tried to cram as much as possible into my 3-month trip, but every now and then I needed a break where I spent the entire day doing nothing but recharging my travel battery.
take a lot of overnight trains
If you don't mind overnight trains, nothing makes the price more worth it than overnight trains. Just keep in mind that you still have to pay reservation fees which were about $100 each for me. But if you're planning on driving up the price on your tickets to get your money's worth, this is the way to do it.
just want a worry-free train experience
Especially in the "hop-on, no ticket/reservation necessary" countries, a pass can be really nice to have so that you don't have to worry about any tickets at all. If you're the kind of person that likes to buy city cards because of the free unlimited transportation and museum entries, then a Eurail Pass could be a good way to go, especially if you don't mind paying a bit more in the end (not that you would notice since you probably don't want to do the math anyway).
Plan your trip to be longer than the length of your Eurail Pass
You're likely going to spend a couple days at the beginning of your trip before your first train ride. And you're also likely going to spend a couple days at the end of your trip after your last train ride. I highly recommend you do both so you can adjust to Europe when you arrive, and you can leave some padding for safety at the end of your trip to make sure you don't miss your flight out of Europe for whatever reason. Either way, you can wait to activate your pass until your first train ride, and you probably won't need it much to spend a couple days in your last city.
Do the math
There are plenty of websites where you can find out how much tickets cost. Train costs don't fluctuate the same way as flights do. You can trust that the price you see is likely close to what you will actually pay. The one I used most is bahn.de. Deutsche Bahn is by far the biggest and most widely used train system in Europe. I won't get into the complexity that is the European train system, but Deutsche Bahn is like the McDonald's of train companies. Even if you have open plans like I did, you can at least get a feel for how much tickets will cost so you can decide whether or not a Eurail Pass is worth it for you.
Know the other benefits of having the Eurail Pass
Many countries offer special beneifts if you have any type of Eurail Pass, Some include free rides on local transportation, discounts on special transportation (especially useful in Switzerland where the special trains that take you up snow-capped mountains are very expensive), free access to waiting lounges (the good ones have wifi and snacks), and others. Make a habit out of checking the benefits so you can squeeze as much out of the pass as possible.
Simple research goes a long way
Find out as much as you can about the rules of the country you are going to. Some places let you just hop on without a ticket like in Germany and Switzerland. Some places require a reservation like Italy. I knew when and where I needed to go in Italy, so I bought all my reservations the moment I arrived so that I could hop on quickly. If you're not sure about the rules, you may need to go to the ticket office where you might have to take a number and wait for an hour to talk to someone.
Train travel in Europe is a lot simpler than plane travel anywhere else in the world. Coming from the US, I'm not used to arriving at the train station 5 minutes before my train departed and not freaking out that I would miss my train. With the pass, I knew that I could just take the next train if for some reason I missed the one I was planning on taking.