Before buying a rail pass, outline your travel itinerary and weigh your alternatives. If you're traveling over long distances, could you save time or money by flying between cities instead? (See Europe -- By Plane or By Train? for a rundown on the cost of flying versus riding trains in Europe.)
If you're making mostly short hops between nearby cities and towns, add up the price of individual point-to-point tickets on RailEurope.com -- buying your tickets as you go may be cheaper than purchasing a rail pass.
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Choosing a Rail Pass
There are dozens of different European rail passes available, from the comprehensive Eurail Global Pass (covering unlimited travel within 22 countries) to passes for specific countries and regions. Some rail passes are consecutive, meaning that they can be used for unlimited travel on consecutive days over a given travel period. Others are known as "flexi" passes, and are only valid for a certain number of travel days within a certain duration of time (such as five days in a month). If you plan to spend several days exploring each city on your itinerary, a flexi pass is probably your most economical option. If you're planning to visit a new place nearly every day, a consecutive pass may better suit your travel plans.
Interested in pairing a car rental with your rail pass? Some passes are available in a "Rail 'n Drive" version, which includes not only rail travel but also a few days' car rental. (Be sure to comparison shop before purchasing to see whether you can get a better car rental deal on your own.)
If you're traveling with a companion (or several), keep your eye out for Saver passes, which are discounted passes available for two to five passengers traveling together at all times. Other discounts are available for youthful travelers (under age 26) or -- more rarely -- for seniors over age 60. Children age 4 - 11 generally pay half the adult fare, while children under 4 are free.
For more help with choosing a rail pass, see Eurail Passes and European Country Rail Passes.
Where to Buy Your Rail Pass
Here are several reputable companies that specialize in European rail pass sales and are knowledgeable about the different options. Note that many, but not all, require you to purchase your pass before you arrive in Europe. You can also purchase passes from any travel agent.
When to Buy Your Pass
You must validate and begin using your pass within six months of purchase. Rail pass prices typically increase on January 1 of each year, so if you're planning to travel in the first half of the year between January and June, it is often worthwhile to buy your pass in December before the next year's price increases take effect.
Because of the changing exchange rate of the U.S. dollar to the euro, prices in U.S. dollars for rail passes may fluctuate during the year. But like airline tickets, the price you pay at the time of purchase will not change, regardless of currency fluctuations.
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Lost Rail Pass Refund Program
You can protect your pass against loss or theft with a pass protection program. If your pass is lost or stolen while traveling in Europe, the unused portion of the pass will be refunded when you return home. (You must supply a police report, replacement passes or tickets, and other documentation in order for your claim to be processed.) Ask your travel agent or rail pass provider for details.
For more information, check out our European Train Tips.
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