Before buying a Eurail 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? 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 or other similar agents -- buying your tickets as you go may be cheaper than purchasing a rail pass.
Choosing a Rail Pass
There are dozens of different Europe rail passes available, from the comprehensive Eurail Global Pass (covering unlimited travel within 28 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 "flexipasses," and are only valid for a certain number of travel days within a specified duration of time (such as five travel days within a month). If you plan to spend several days exploring each city on your itinerary, a flexipass 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.
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. Other discounts are available for youthful travelers (under age 28) or -- more rarely -- for seniors over age 60. Children 11 and younger generally travel for free when they accompany an adult.
Buying a Eurail Pass
Here are several reputable companies that specialize in European rail pass sales and are knowledgeable about the different options. Note that non-E.U. citizens generally need to purchase their pass before arriving in Europe. You can also purchase passes from any travel agent.ACPRail.com
When to Buy Your Pass
There are limits on how far in advance you can buy a rail pass. You must activate and begin using your pass within a set period after purchase, which varies from one agency to the next (RailEurope.com requires you to use the pass within six months of purchase, for instance, while Eurail.com gives you up to 11 months).
Because of varying exchange rates, prices in U.S. dollars (or any other currency) for rail passes may fluctuate during the year. To save money, compare prices on multiple sites and keep an eye out for offers such as free additional travel days.
Rail Pass Insurance
You can protect your pass against loss or theft with rail pass insurance, which is offered by most agents. 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 Europe Train Tips.