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Rail Travel in Europe - Comparing Costs

Tips for taking the train in Europe

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Do you need a railpass or should you just be footloose and buy a ticket at the train station? The answer may surprise you.

One of the most frequently asked questions about European Rail Travel is "How much does it cost?" followed by "Should I buy a railpass?" I've kept track of my expenses on my summer of 2003 trip just to give you an idea of the cost of a trip done entirely by walking up to a ticket window and buying the day's train ticket. I'll compare it to what it might cost had I rented or leased a car for the same trip, and I'll tell you how a railpass would have worked had I bought one.

The Journey -Europe by Rail

Two of us traveled in a round trip from Zurich through Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, and back to Zurich. We bought tickets by walking up to the ticket counter at rail stations and purchasing them.

Each country maintains its own pricing structure. In general Italy is relatively cheap for train travel, as is the Czech Republic. Germany and Swizerland are fairly expensive, so the total trip is pretty representative of what you'll find in Europe.

The table below outlines our trip. Costs have been translated into US dollars and rounded, even though all tickets were purchased in local currency.

Rail Travel - Leg of Journey Cost for 2
Zurich - Bellinzona Switzerland 70
Belinzona to Padua, Italy 71
Padua to Venice, Italy 6
Venice to Villach, Austria 73
Villach to Vienna, Austria 58
Vienna to Brno, Czech Republic 41
Brno to Prague 30
Prague to Leipzig, Germany 70
Liepzig to Nuremberg, Germany 108
Nuremberg to Munich 21
Munich to St. Gallen, Switzerland 90
St. Gallen, Switzerland to Zurich Airport 35

TOTAL for 2 people- $673

Note: Be aware that you can't order tickets for local trains off the internet as far as I know. The prices you'll see listed on the Internet for Padua to Venice, for example, will cost considerably more than we paid because they're for the most expensive express train running on that line--another reason to do like the locals and just buy your tickets when you need them. For overnight trips and on international trains that require seat reservations, you will want to buy your ticket a day in advance if possible.

So what about leasing a car?

The cheapest rate for leasing a car (a small Peugeot) for 30 days listed by Auto Europe at the time of writing was $719--and you still have to pay for gas. Of course, if there's more than two of you this might turn out to be the budget option. You can see more in a car, and can motor around the countryside, visiting smaller towns and country villages. But if you just want to see the major cities it's easier to forgo the car and related parking headaches and just hit the train stations. I try to vary my trips by the size of towns I want to visit--last year it was the major centers and I went by train, next year I'll take in smaller towns and villages and lease a car.

What about a EurRail pass?

Railpasses can be a bargain. Back in the 70s they were always a good deal. Today you have to plan your trip well to make use of the many types of European Rail passes available.

I've prepared an article to allow you to get a good overview of Eurail passes: Rail Passes - Which Eurail Pass is Right for Your Vacation? It covers the basic decisions you'll have to make to make a rail pass work for your travel budget and contains links to the pass with pricing information.

You'll find that on a trip like mine above, the prices for a rail pass for each person would exceed our example. That's because we've traveled relatively short distances each trip, visited countries where rail travel is relatively cheap, and used second class tickets rather than first class.

I hope this information is of use to you when choosing a method of traveling though Europe. There is more information in the link box in the upper right corner of this page. Have fun traveling!

Detailed travel planners for many of the destinations mentioned in this article are available from our European Travel Planning Map.

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