Saturday, January 24, 2009

Rail passes - the economical way to see Europe

By George Pandi, CanWest News Service

Rail Europe, the European railways' agency that distributes go-as-you-please passes, has just announced its new products and prices. The good news is prices remain close to last year's level, with the Eurail Global and Select passes going up just one per cent, French and Swiss passes about five per cent.

Four new passes came on line. The two-country, first-class Eurail Austria-Hungary Pass for four days of travel in two months costs $263. The two-class Italy-Spain pass for four to 10 days starts at $337 on second class; ferries between Italy and Spain offer reductions to pass holders. Two new national passes cover Ireland, five days of travel in one month for $218, and Croatia, three to eight days in one month, starting at $127.

Veteran travellers -- who had turned Eurailpass into a verb, as in "we will be eurailpassing this summer" -- panicked when they didn't see the word on the 2007 list. But the classic pass that took millions on summer-long explorations changed in name only, to Eurail Global Pass, in a minor branding exercise.

For those not familiar with the concept: Rail Europe's passes are valid on all trains -- often on buses and ships as well -- with unlimited mileage. With a consecutive pass you can travel daily from four days to three months; flexi passes let you choose the days of travel within a period, one or two months. The price varies with the number of travel days, the countries covered, and the class. For example, the single-country Czech Flexipass costs $98 for three days in 15, second class; the 18-country Eurail Global Flexi offers 10 days in two months, first class, for $880.

The favourite of nomads under 26 is the second-class Eurail Global Pass Youth: $1,361 buys three months of daily travel through 18 countries. The flexi version offers 10 days in two months for $572, 15 days for $751. Less peripatetic adults prefer the Eurail Select Pass that lets them choose three to five bordering countries and five to 15 days in two months. Prices start at $473 for for five days in three countries.

There are 22 more multi-country passes that combine from two to six countries and 19 national passes. Some are open-ended: you can buy additional travel days. The cost drops by about 15 per cent for two or more people travelling together if the pass has a Saver versions; as well, there are youth and senior discounts.

Passes include supplements, but not seat reservations, which cost about $5. However, on the French TGV the compulsory reservation increases with distance and is, in effect, a high-speed surcharge. Note that you can't reserve aboard the train and may have to pay the full fare as a fine. "Premier" trains (Artesia, AVE, Thalys, etc) are not free with passes, but those with a pass get considerable discounts, for example, on the Madrid-Seville AVE the first-class fare is $207, but pass holders pay $53.

See or 1-800-361-7245.

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