Taking your first major trip through Europe is a big step for most student travelers. What awaits you is one of the world’s most diverse destinations; a land with dozens of languages, cultures, and a plethora of possible places to visit. In most European countries, train travel remains the most comfortable, relaxing, and affordable way to get from point A to point B.
There are many rail pass deals in Europe that will allow you to travel to most countries on the continent. The two major companies are Eurail and InterRail. Some of their passes allow you to travel as much as you like within only one country for the duration of the pass, while others allow you to travel in a small number of countries, and still others allow you to travel in as many as thirty countries.
However, considering the costs and limitations involved in prepaid rail passes, it is wise to think this purchase through thoroughly through beforehand.
Are You a Planner or a Wanderer?
Some student travelers on their way to Europe prefer to have at least a flexible itinerary so they are sure to see some of the continent’s best-known attractions and cities. Particularly if your time in Europe is limited to a month or less, you will likely end up getting to a lot more places if you have a rail pass and an accompanying itinerary. Once you have purchased the rail pass, however, having a solid plan and allowing for only a very small degree of flexibility is essential, otherwise you could actually end up spending much more money than you would if you were to simply get your tickets as you go.
A lot of people don’t like this pressure of advanced planning and would rather be able to travel freely, making their minds up as they go along regarding their next destination. The classic backpackers would probably never dream of getting a rail pass and, instead, would prefer to wander spontaneously until their money ran out or they found a job somewhere to keep them in a place they like a little longer. There is a lot to be said for this kind of travel and, contrary to the impression you might get from meeting people staying in big hostels in major cities, this breed of traveler is still very much alive.
What’s Your Bottom Line?
If you have decided that you would in fact like some structure to your trip, the next task is to estimate your travel costs to decide whether or not a rail pass will save you money.
InterRail offers a one-country pass and a global pass. The price of the one-country pass varies greatly depending on the country you choose. The cheapest destination is Turkey, starting at €36, and the most expensive ones are Great Britain, France and Germany, starting at €139. Global passes cover thirty countries including almost all of Western Europe and much of Central and Eastern Europe as well. Student prices for people 25 years old or younger start at €175 for a ten-day pass including five days of travel. Unlimited passes are available for 15 or 22 days or one month.
Eurail has single-country passes starting at €37. Rail passes for 3, 4 or 5 countries start at €183 while passes for all countries covered by Eurail (23 in total) start at €287. There are passes for unlimited travel in any given time frame or just ten to fifteen days out of two months. (Check online for latest rates and details.)
Originally, such rail passes were only available for students, but they are now available for people of any age. Prices for students still come with a generous discount, however.
The more time you spend on the move, the more value for money you will get out of the rail pass. For those who want to do a whistle-stop city tour in Europe, a rail pass can save a great deal of money, particularly in countries like the UK where rail tickets are among the most expensive in the world.
Purchasing tickets individually, rather than having a rail pass, can be much cheaper if you are not planning to be on the move a great deal and/or you are spending more time in each country. In some countries, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, domestic train tickets are often very cheap. For example, you can cross from one side of Czech Republic to the other (about five hours) with the extremely comfortable Regiojet trains for around €10! Slow trains, which stop in many small towns along the way, tend to be cheap in most of Europe.
If you are planning to spend most of your time in Eastern Europe, a rail pass will rarely be cost-effective enough to make it worthwhile. In many Eastern European countries, the most economical (and sometimes the only) option is to do exactly as the locals do – purchase train tickets as you go. Among the countries which may not be covered are Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and some of the Balkan countries. If you are planning a trip to any of these countries, you will need to buy point-to-point rail tickets locally or travel by bus.
You should also budget for unexpected costs which may arise. For example, if you are just transiting a country, the transit country will still need to be covered by your rail pass, even if you don’t get off the train at all. If it isn’t, you will need to pay extra to the fare collector on board.
Also, when you have your rail pass, you will still, in most countries, have to reserve a seat or couchette before you set off. In some countries, you will have to pay a small additional reservation fee for each train trip you take. Rail passes generally only cover you for second-class travel, and upgrading your seat will also cost extra.
So consider these two factors carefully – how much you want to plan, and how much you want to spend – and you will be far more likely to make the right decisions about your student train travel through Europe.
About the Author Charles Jackson has been an enthusiastic traveler ever since spending two years in Venezuela and the Caribbean in his mid-teens. Since 2003, he has spent the years traveling on and off in Eastern Europe. He has worked in hostels in both Romania and Lithuania, and has lived in Ukraine, Czech Republic and Georgia.