The million dollar question. There is no yes or no answer when people ask if they should purchase a rail pass for the countries they are traveling. Personally, I have traveled with a Japan Rail Pass and also with a Eurail Pass, which I will touch on later. Before I go on, the number one thing I want to stress is a rail pass is what you make of it. I have seen more places than I would have originally because I had the rail pass. Knowing that I could travel anywhere within the network for “free” (because I already purchased an unlimited pass) really led to some cities and towns I would have never thought to go to.
If I had been restricted to paying per ticket, I believe I would have concentrated more on the major destinations and would have jumped around far less. The rail pass gave me freedom, which is exactly what I want when I travel. If I meet someone at a hostel who knows of a Bunny Island, then I want to be able to go there without thinking twice about finances.
The Eurail pass was not cheap. It was hard spending $1300 **(prices have changed since 2013) for my 3-month unlimited global pass. After months of contemplation, I decided that $1300 was worth the price of complete freedom.
Because I had dropped a small fortune on the pass, I knew I had to make the most of it and see as much as I could in those three months. I ended up using my pass 36 times throughout Europe. Some of the places I wasn’t planning on going to but did were Sicily, Bran, Varna, and Bruges. Breaking this down I spent $36 per train trip. Sometimes with inter-country trips the price of a point to point ticket would have been cheaper. For the most part, $36 was a steal!
My experience with the rail pass was mostly positive. If you don’t have set plans like me and want the convenience of waking up and then deciding what to do, this pass was golden. If you know exactly where and when you are visiting purchasing PTP tickets before your trip might be more financially beneficial to you.
Restrictions with the Eurail Pass
The pass did not fly as an FBI badge. I could not flash it anytime and sit and do what I wanted. There were restrictions.
- The price I paid was based off a youth rate. If you are under 26 you qualify. That being said I only had to show my passport once and that was the first time I used the rail pass in Norway.
- High-speed and overnight trains sometimes charged a premium to use. This ranged anywhere from 10-50 Euro and was usually determined by the leniency of the train conductor. These prices were also completely subjective. Sometimes it was not noted what or if we had to pay. A lesson learned the hard way when we got thrown off a Hungarian train at 2 am.
- Though some of the Balkans are included in the global pass, I found that Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro relied mostly on their broad bus network.
- Stay up to date in countries with political and economic unrest. Unfortunately, the crisis in Greece took a toll on railway networks, and we were not able to use the pass easily when traveling through.
Japan Rail Pass
Another purchase that hit the bank hard. However, after visiting the beautiful but expensive country for 3 weeks, I believe I made the right choice. Visiting Japan was another instance where I didn’t really know where or when I wanted to go until I landed in Tokyo. I still wanted the freedom to choose what I wanted to do on the fly. Ultimately, I spent $365 for a 2 week unlimited JR Pass. This sounds like a lot, and it was, but I did it for the flexibility.
I typically didn’t know my next move until the night before, but I had a lot to see in such a short amount of time. My itinerary went something like this.
Looking back now I can’t believe I explored so many places in 3 weeks. Many of these served as day trips, like Nara, Himeji, Kinosaki, and Naoshima. I was able to do these day trips because I had the rail pass. I could have traveled slower and seen fewer places. But to me Japan needed exploring, and I know I will be back someday to venture more and spend months maybe even years there.
Train travel in Japan made day trips easy to accomplish. It really is true that Japan has some of the most efficient train travel in the world. They are fast, extensive, and prompt. I mean that – if a train says it’s leaving at 10:03 and arriving at 11:29, you can bet your butt that will happen.
Stepping on a train 17 times broke down to $21.50 a trip. Seeing as it cost around $105 to get from Tokyo-Kyoto, I found the pass to be well worth the cost. The JR Pass also let me use some of the Shinkansen bullet trains – which were a real highlight of traveling through the country.
In my experience, the passes are what you make of them. I knew that I spent X amount of dollars for unlimited travel and was determined to see and make the most of that luxury. If you have a short amount of time in a country, plan ahead, and don’t anticipate hopping around, then PTP tickets may make more financial sense.
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