Thursday, April 27, 2017

A primer on the world of European rail passes

The TGVs of France are among the fastest most efficient train
in Europe (wikipedia)
EUROPE  Rail travel through Europe is one of the fastest, most efficient ways to see the continent. Rail passes also include hidden practical bonuses many travelers never consider when planning a trip such as no high cost fuel expenses, travel city center to city center, eliminating parking costs, no more reading maps, ability to stretch your legs, on-board restrooms, food services and even an opportunity to work, take a nap or just relax.

Many American travelers frequently overlook the benefits of rail travel in Europe because we have become so dependent upon cars, or so unfamiliar with high quality rail service, that we fail to consider an alternative to the automobile.
Italy's high speed Italo
Rail Europe is a traveler's one stop shop for all things related to traveling by train, but with a little advanced understanding of how rail passes work will put you way ahead in the game of trying to manage the seemingly overwhelming number of tickets that are available.

In the simplest of terms, there are only two basic types of pass. The first is a consecutive day ticket and the second is called a "flexipass."
Trains take you city center to city center faster than planes
in many cases  (wikipedia)
The consecutive pass originated back in the days of "if-it's-Tuesday-it-must-be-Belgium" travel to Europe. At that time, a trip to Europe was considered a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity so travelers would go for extended periods and wear themselves out trying to see everything in a single itinerary.
Railway stations are your home away from home  (wikipedia)
A consecutive day rail pass was good for a given number of days such as 8, 12, two weeks or even as much as one or two months. Once validated however, if they did not use the pass every day, travelers felt as if they were losing money because they were not getting the full value of their rail ticket.

Thus evolved the "flexipass" which allows travelers to choose how many days they would like to ride the trains and to designate how long they plan to be in Europe. For example, a couple might opt to use four days of train travel within a two week period, thereby allowing them to ride the rails on any four days they chose until the validation period runs out.
Trains operate in any kind of
 weather (wikipedia)

Those two basic concepts have led to an infinite number of off-shoots and that is where passes can begin to get confusing.

As time went on, and travelers became more savvy, and the demand for a limited number of countries on a pass arose. Many visitors opted for a single country pass since they were only planning to stay in Germany, France or Italy, for example.

In an effort to make rail passes more flexible and adaptable for train riders, Rail Europe developed several plans that give a traveler virtually unlimited options while, at the same time, reducing fares.

National passes that are good for only a singe country have become very popular and, since all the travel is in a single country, the price is lower.
Steam train crosses Glenfinnian Viaduct in Scotland
Later, Rail Europe developed combination passes which include two, three, four or five countries depending upon the length of time a traveler plans to be in Europe.

The benefits of these passes are the bonuses which are often one of the most overlooked features of traveling by train. With a Swiss Travel Pass, for example, pass holders can use virtually every form of transportation in the country just by showing their pass. There are supplements for some of the most popular mountaintop excursions, but these are almost always discounted at 25 to 50%.
A British Sprinter train races through the countryside
Better yet, for visitors to Switzerland a rail pass allows free admission to nearly 500 museums throughout the country.

Certain countries are grouped together as a single destination such the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Le Train Bleu restaurant
is a reminder of an era past
To simplify things even more, rail passes have evolved so that  visitors can select several countries that border each other. Riders can choose which countries they desire based upon their individual travel program.

A Saverpass is a product which can be used by 2 to 5 people traveling together for a nice discount.

There are also Youthpasses providing special rates for travelers under 26, while children and youths who are under 16 and traveling with an adult or guardian often can ride for free.
A vista along the Cambrian Coast in Wales  (wikipedia)

Keep in mind that railway stations can be like your personal tourist office away from home where you can get information, schedules, food, restrooms, lockers, gifts, medicine and, in some places, book a hotel.

Rail pass prices go from calendar year to calendar year so there is no need to worry about changes in any given year.
Germany's sleek and comfortable ICE  (wikipedia)
Traveling by train through Europe is easy, fast, convenient, efficient and relaxing. A little reading on how rail passes can be your biggest ally will make you a true believer.

All it takes is a little basic training.