New Eurail passes: Great, but with gotchas
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New Eurail passes: Great, but with gotchas

Train station in northern Italy.

Late last year the folks at Eurail made some big changes in the venerable Eurail Pass program. Now, your choices are either a one-country pass, available in 29 countries or small country groups, or a "Global" pass that covers 31 European countries. And Global pass options have expanded greatly: They now cover both first- and second-class travel, with discounts for youth age 12-27, children age 4 to 11, and seniors age 60 or over. They're now available for as short a period as four days of train travel over a period of one month, and as long as 15 travel days over a two-month period and unlimited travel over a three-month period.

For short trips, the revised passes easily replace the former profusion of two-, three-, and four-country passes, and the longer periods expand the flexibility of the original Global options once confined to first class, with no senior discounts.

Prices remain close to prices on earlier two-to-four-country passes. The four-day one-month adult pass costs $278 in second class and $371 in first class. Senior four-day/one-month passes cost $250 in second class and $333 in first class; youth passes cost $209 and $278, respectively.

Overall, the revisions are a big improvement over the system in effect for most of the previous two decades. The senior options are especially welcome, offering discounts in areas where most former passes and individual-country passes offered no senior deals at all. Youth deals remain attractive, as well.

But the new passes are burdened by one big gotcha that can throw your pass calculations completely askew: Really stiff mandatory fees for many key international high-speed trains that Eurailpassers would likely expect to be covered in full by the Pass. Eurail.com posts the following sample extra fees as "seat reservation" fees; other sources call them "supplemental" charges. However named, they're mandatory for travelers on any Eurail Pass. I list a few examples as second-class/first-class fees in euros; U.S. dollar prices are about 12 percent higher:

-- EuroCity Austria, Germany, and Italy via Brenner Pass: 14.50/20.90

-- Eurostar: 30/38.

-- ICE France-Germany: 13/30

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-- France-Spain (Barcelona-Paris): 34/48

-- TGV France-Italy (Paris-Milan): 62/82

-- TGV France-Switzerland (Paris-Geneva): 25/52

-- Thalys Belgium-France: 20/25

These fees can make a big difference in your trip planning. I'm laying out a trip later this spring for which I originally planned to use a senior four-day/one-month pass, costing $333 and covering Paris-Interlaken-Bologna-Paris. But then I found mandatory fees totaling $165 for the trains I would normally take, hiking my total rail bill to $498. I also found that I could find good deals on advance-purchase rail tickets for individual trips. I located, for example, a first-class Paris-Basel ticket for 39 euros (about $40), including a seat reservation, on a TGV itinerary that fit my schedule: That's less than just the separate seat-reservation fee I would have to pay with Eurail Pass. I found, overall, that I'd be better off with individual tickets on most trains and an economy flight from Bologna to Paris.

This exercise left me with two main take-aways:

-- You can't beat the new Eurail Passes for convenience and, in many cases, for value, especially for travel within individual countries and between countries with low fees, and for flexibility on your entire trip. Miss a train, catch the next one.

-- But, on some popular international trains, if you're able to buy individual train tickets at nonrefundable advance-purchase prices, you can avoid stiff fees and travel at lower cost than if you bought Eurail Pass and had to pay those stiff supplementary fees.

Stiff fees on high-speed international trains is a serious flaw in the current Eurail Pass product. I have no idea whether the folks at Eurail are trying to solve the problem, or even if they can. But if those fees remain, Eurail Pass will not be the no-brainer it would be without those mandatory fees.

(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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