One of the more difficult questions to answer is whether it’s cheaper and better to buy a rail pass or individual tickets when traveling by train in Europe.

If the trip involves one or two short trips in a single country, the answer is fairly obvious: it’s tickets. But the picture starts to get blurry when there are more trips, longer trips and especially when more than one country is involved.

Intercity-Express BerlinThere are other factors involved beyond price. With a pass, you merely walk aboard the train, find an open seat and away you go. With a few exceptions, seat reservations are not required in Germany, Austria, and especially Switzerland. Point-to-point tickets, however, usually lock the purchaser into a specific train. Many rail tickets are now sold like airline tickets; in exchange for an advance-purchase discount, the buyer loses flexibility—there is a penalty to change or cancel the ticket. Thus a last-minute decision to stay in a town one more night, or perhaps get away earlier than planned, can have financial consequences.

Often overlooked in making the ticket/pass decision are discounts and extras that come with passes. The Swiss Pass, for example, grants free entry to more than 400 museums, including most of the important ones.

The major difficulty in grappling with the pass vs. tickets question is knowing how much point-to-point rail tickets cost. Pass prices are easy to determine. Since those prices are set by the European railroad companies that own Rail Europe, rail pass prices are virtually the same wherever they are purchased. (Note: It’s best to buy passes online. Rail Europe charges higher rates for passes sold by phone and also adds a service fee.

Price Shopping for European Rail Tickets

Tickets are another matter. There are several resources for finding city-to-city rail ticket prices, none is perfect. An obvious place to begin your search is the above link to the Rail Europe page. The pass and ticket prices found there are the same as at Rail Europe’s site and, in fact, our rail pages are powered by Rail Europe and coded to enable us to make a few dollars on each transaction generated by our website. However, the Gemut.com/Rail Europe timetables do not display all of Europe’s trains—unlike the websites of the German (bahn.com/en/view/index.shtml) and Swiss (sbb.ch/en/home.html) railroad systems—and our prices for point-to-point tickets may not always be the lowest.

Let’s compare:

Your results may vary but, as this is written, second-class Munich-Berlin fares for a mid-August departure quoted at the Gemut.com/Rail Europe website, range from $177 to $211, depending on departure times. Bahn.de shows regular fares from €116 to €129 (about $167 -$186), but offers advance purchase tickets from €59 to €89 ($85-$128). What’s more, electronic tickets from Bahn.de can be purchased online with a credit card.

Tickets purchased at the above Rail Europe price can be exchanged, subject to a seven-percent charge, or refunded at 85-percent of the purchase price. Bahn.de advance purchase tickets can be canceled for a €15 euro fee up to the date of travel. After that, only an exchange is possible by paying the €15 fee plus the difference between the advance purchase fare and the regular fare.

The same Munich-Berlin route, purchased only a week in advance, shows the same prices at Gemut.com/RE, while Bahn.de’s best fare is €89. Bahn.de also offers an €129 ($186) first-class fare that handily beats Gemut.com/RE’s $273-$336 range.

There are other advantages to buying tickets online from Bahn.de. Try to book a last-minute point-to-point ticket online at Gemut.com/RE and you’ll find only a paper ticket option (must be shipped to you) and a message to call the Rail Europe office. On the other hand, Bahn.de will send your last-minute ticket via email for printing at home. Print-at-home electronic tickets from Gemut.com/RE are currently only available for France, Spain, and, Eurostar tickets.

For the Munich-Berlin ticket purchased through Gemut.com/RE, your seat reservation is usually included in the ticket price, though no seat preference is possible. With Bahn.de, the seat reservation is an added €2.5 (€3.5 in first-class) but the purchaser can specify aisle or window, zone (quiet or phone), and type of compartment (open saloon, saloon with table, compartment).

International City-to-City Rail Tickets

Finding prices on international tickets is a greater challenge. The obvious source is Gemut.com/RE, but given the numbers above, one wonders if the same tickets aren't cheaper at the websites of the European railroads.

For a mid-August, Frankfurt-Paris trip, the lowest fare at Gemut.com/RE was $75, but for just one late-day and one crack-of-dawn departure. The rest ranged from $126 to $265. Bahn.de had several departures at €49 and €69 ($71-$99). But Bahn.de can’t sell you a ticket that doesn't involve a German city, so how does one price a Vienna to Rome ticket? Gemut.com/RE had mid-August second-class fares ranging from $151 to $216. Austria’s railroad website (oebb.at/en/)—far less English-user-friendly than Bahn.de—quoted an advance purchase fare of €29 ($42), but could only be purchased for the overnight train. At the Italian railroad’s website I found a €99 ($143) fare but the ticket could only be picked up at an Italian rail station or sent regular mail to an address in Austria—hardly a solution for a North American buyer. The only choices for a Vienna-Rome ticket seem to be: (1) Pay the higher price at Gemut.com/RE or; (2) Wait until you get to Europe to buy the ticket, though by then the advance purchase option may be gone.

To price/buy tickets involving Switzerland, use rail.ch. Like Bahn.de, it’s English-user-friendly and has the entire timetable of European trains—though it will only quote fare on trips involving Swiss cities.

The Problem with France

Domestic or international tickets that involve France, but not Germany or Switzerland, are even more complicated. Though France rail’s voyages-sncf.com is French language only, SNCF operates an English Website. But to protect its U.S. subsidiary, Rail Europe, the French redirect U.S. users of their site to the main Rail Europe website and it’s higher prices. But there’s a trick: you can get the best rates by registering as a resident of Canada, or even Afghanistan. It’s all legal, you have every right to buy at the site’s lowest fares. They won’t ship the tickets but they can be picked up at a rail station in France or, in some cases, printed by your home computer. For a late-July Paris-Milan trip, sncf.com/en/trains/tgv quoted a best fare of €82 ($118) vs. Gemut.com/RE’s best price of $170.

It seems fairly clear that the best fares for point-to-point European rail tickets are available from the websites of the various European railroads. The problem is, if one of the cities involved isn't in Germany or Switzerland, these lower fares are difficult for U.S. citizens to purchase.—RHB