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Ed Perkins on Travel: Eurail Passes: Great, but with gotchas

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Rotterdam/Netherlands: People on a central platform of a railway station with trains on either side.

Even with COVID-19 and $7.50 to $9 a gallon gasoline, the basic rules for getting around within Europe remain as they were years ago:

-- Rent a car for exploring the countryside and staying in country inns.

-- Use a low-fare airline for long intercity or international trips.

-- Take trains if you're staying in cities or towns that are no more than 500 miles apart.

For those who don't already know, Europe's main tourist-destination countries maintain dense, efficient passenger rail networks—something the U.S. hasn't had since 1940, if ever. Trains are fast, comfortable even in second class, and frequent. Fares can be high—sometimes even higher than low-fare airlines' rates—but the product they offer is also a lot more comfortable and convenient.

If you're heading to Europe this summer or fall and thinking about traveling around by train, as always, Eurail Pass is a great way to arrange your rail travel. These days, your choice is between one-country passes and the "Global" passes that now cover 33 countries. Today's Global passes aren't your father's passes: They're available to adults in both first and second class, for a variety of validity durations and numbers of travel days, with discounted prices for youth and seniors. Currently, the least expensive pass covers any four travel days within a month for $271 in second class, $361 in first; youth age 12 to 27 pay $204 and $271, respectively, and seniors 60 or over pay $243 and $325. An adult pass for seven travel days in a month costs $369 and $491, with comparable reductions for youth and seniors. The more days the pass covers, the lower the per-day price, which ranges from around $70 for four days to $36 for 15 days.

Clearly, the pass works best if you can limit your long-haul travel to the number of days you buy, and maybe pay cash for short trips on non-pass days. In addition to great prices, Eurail Pass enjoys the great benefit of flexibility. You do not have to lock in your specific train trips well in advance. Instead, you can wing it after you arrive.

The one major Eurail Pass gotcha is stiff "seat reservation" costs. On many trains you don't even need reservations, but you do on almost all high-speed trains, and a few operators add fees that are really co-pays in disguise, just like hotel resort fees. The worst offender is TGV Lyria between France and Switzerland, where you have to pay 52 euros in first class, 25 euros in second, even for the short 70-mile trip from Bourg-en-Bresse to Geneva. You find similar gouge fees on France-Italy trains and others. You can determine the exact fee when you check schedules on Eurail's online timetable.

Also, Eurail Pass doesn't cover all European trains. Specifically, it excludes some small private railways in Switzerland and some of the new "open access" trains by foreign lines that compete with former national monopolies, such as the Paris-Lyon train operated by an Italian Frecciarosa high-speed train. These exclusions, too, are indicated in the online timetable.

Eurail Pass isn't always your best bet. In general, if you're keeping within one country, a single-country pass is usually less expensive than a Eurail Global Pass. The main exception is Switzerland, where the Swiss Travel Pass costs more than an equivalent Eurail global pass. But the Swiss Pass includes most of the private railways that Eurail excludes, as well as local transport.

Numerous reports show that you can often beat Eurail Pass prices by buying individual point-to-point tickets. But that means buying nonrefundable advance-purchase tickets and locking yourself in to specific schedules weeks or even months before your trip.

Overall, I've concluded that you can't beat Eurail Passes for convenience and, in many cases, for value. But real penny- or euro-pinchers can often travel for less than pass prices by buying individual train tickets at nonrefundable advance-purchase prices. Either way, the trains are great.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)

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