It’s almost time to start making plans for summer travel to Europe, and using a rail pass is a cost-effective way to get around the countryside on daytime jaunts and to travel between cities. Depending on how much you plan to travel, such passes represent a huge savings, but they need to be purchased before you leave North America. It can be confusing. The number of different types of rail passes has exploded in the past few years. It’s sometimes difficult to know which one is best for you and your family. Here are some hints:

Single Country PassesRail Europe offers rail passes for travel within any of a number of frequently-visited European countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. These passes allow you unlimited rail travel within that country for a certain number of days within a two-month period. For example, a rail pass for three days travel in Italy within a two month period cost $216 per adult and $121 per child in 2012.

The rules for each country differ slightly, but generally the travel days do not have to be used consecutively. Most countries offer a youth pass (for those under 25) and a saver pass (for 2-5 persons traveling together at all times.)

Multi-Country Passes – Do you want to see more than one country, but don’t have the time or energy to explore all 20 countries offered with the All-Europe pass? Then a multi-country pass is for you. These passes include rail travel to a variety of country combinations, such as France/Belgium/Netherlands, Austria/Croatia/Slovenia, Norway/Denmark/Sweden and Germany/Austria. For example, a pass that allows four days of travel within two months in Italy and France costs $331 per adult and $167 per child.

All-Europe Passes – For those people that have a lot of time to travel Europe (lucky you!), the classic European rail pass still exists. With the Eurail Global Pass, you can travel throughout 20 European countries for 15, 21, 30, 60 or 90 days. There’s also a flexi-pass that allows 10 or 15 days of travel within a two-month period. These passes start at $749 per adult and $376 per child in 2012 for unlimited 15 days travel. For comparison, a single rail ticket from Paris to Rome costs $145 one way.

About Rail Passes
All of the passes discussed above must be purchased before leaving the United States or Canada. Most are non-refundable, so guard them carefully as you would your airline tickets. The time period on the pass begins when you get it validated at the first train station ticket counter. You’ll need to show your passport when you do this.

Rail passes are generally valid for first class travel (second class for youth passes.) Sleepers, couchettes or other sleeping compartments require an additional charge. Pass holders also get extra perks, depending on the country, such as discounts on museum admission, free ferry travel, and discounts on sightseeing tours.

Have you traveled with a rail pass in Europe before? Did you enjoy the experience?

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