How a rail pass could be just the ticket for cheap travel across Europe for all ages

Across Europe, budget-friendly initiatives are designed to tempt people out of their cars and into more sustainable forms of transport

Slow travel is back in fashion. Fearful of climate concerns, an increasing number of people are opting to swap the faster – and let’s be honest, often cheaper – flight option for a ferry/rail/bike combination.

But even if you can’t afford the time required for a slower trip to your destination, flying but then swapping a rental car for the train this summer can still make sense.

It may also save you money, thanks to initiatives across Europe aimed at getting people out of their cars and back on the train.

So, with this in mind, here are some options for low-cost travel this summer. Each has their own rules and, in general, they don’t offer travel on the high-speed services, so it will pay to examine the terms and conditions of each closely before you purchase.

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Germany

Cost: €49 a month

Eligibility: Open to all

Where to buy: Irish residents can buy a rail pass via bahn.de or the DB Navigator app. The original European low-cost rail ticket, the €9-a-month pass, was launched in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, offering unlimited travel across Germany. More than 50 million passes were bought by residents and tourists but, unfortunately, it was just a temporary measure.

The good news is that while its replacement is more expensive, at €49 a month, it is here to stay.

The Deutschland-Ticket (D-ticket) is now valid right across Germany, on all local public transport, including the RB, RE, S-Bahn trains (SPNV) and also on public transport such as buses, trams, subways, etc. (ÖPNV) – but not the high-speed ICE trains.

This means that while you can still travel by rail from Munich to Berlin, for example, it will take longer than the faster intercity option. But it will save you money. A ticket from Berlin to Cologne on the faster intercity train will cost about €80 one way, for example.

A word of warning. The ticket is only available on a monthly subscription basis, so be sure to cancel it – by the 10th of the month – once you no longer need it.

France

Cost: €49 a month

Eligibility: Those aged 27 and under

Where to buy: The new “pass rail” is expected to go on sale in June via SNCF Connect

Catch an Olympics soccer match in Nice, then head to Marseilles for some bouillabaisse. Keep going west to catch some waves, then fly home from Biarritz.

This year the French government is set to launch the new “pass rail”, which targets those aged 27 and under. The pass will be eligible on local TER as well as intercity trains – but not the more expensive, high-speed TGVs. It also won’t apply to the Île de France region (ie Paris).

If you’re a little older than 27, there are other passes to consider in l’Hexagone, as the country is sometimes referred to. If you’re heading to the southeast of France, for example, you could consider “le Pass Occitanie Rail Tour”. Covering regional routes operated by liO Train across the Occitania region, it covers towns including Montpellier, Rodez, Nimes and Toulouse. Intercity and TGV trains are excluded.

The pass would, for instance, allow you to fly to Toulouse, then take a bike or a boat on the Canal-de-Midi before getting the train to Carcassonne for some medieval viewing, and head south for a beach holiday in Argelès-sur-mer or Collioure, via Narbonne and Perpignan.

The pass costs from €20 for two days of consecutive travel and up to €60 for six consecutive days of travel. You can buy it at www.ter.sncf.com/occitanie.

In Brittany, if you haven’t opted to take the ferry and drive, you could consider a TER BreizhGo pass. For €55, you and up to four other travellers can enjoy unlimited travel in the region for two days, including the weekend. A seven-day pass is available at €110.

If you fly to Rennes for example, you could take the train to see the walled town of St Malo, and enjoy the beaches in the area, before travelling west to Quimper or Vannes.

Belgium

Cost: €18 for one week/€35 for one month

Eligibility: Under 26

Where to buy: www.belgiantrain.be

If you’re spending a week, or a month, in Belgium this summer, the Youth Holidays pass offers excellent value, starting at just €18 for unlimited travel across the country.

The catch? You have to be under 26, and the pass only applies in the summer holidays. This year it will work from June 29th until September 1st.

You can use the pass to travel to and from Brussels airport, but a supplement (€6.70) will apply. You can also travel part of the way to Charleroi Airport, which is where Ryanair flies into, with the pass.

Portugal

Cost: €49 (no further discounts available)

Eligibility: Everyone

Where to buy: At a Comboios de Portugal office

Fly to Porto with Ryanair and after a few days sipping port and eating sardines, take the train down to Lisbon, with some stops on the way in Aveiro and Fatima. Then on to Cascais for some lounging on the beach, before hitting Albufeira and the Algarve. Get the train direct to Faro and choose between Ryanair and Aer Lingus to fly home to Ireland. All without renting a car, and all for the princely sum of just €49 each.

If this sounds like a plan, you should consider the Passe Ferroviário Nacional, or National Train Pass.

You will have to get a CP card for €6 at a ticket office, for which you will need some passport pictures (CP stands for train operator Comboios de Portugal). The pass will then be loaded onto the CP card.

If you want to hit the Algarve after Lisbon, bear in mind that you will have to pay extra for this as the route is an intercity one and not part of the regional route network covered by the pass. However, once in Portimao, you can again use your CP pass to travel up and down the region, including to the airport in Faro.

Don’t expect the pass to offer access to the swiftest train; Porto to Lisbon will take less than three hours on the intercity train. With the national pass, you will be confined to regional trains, and so should expect trip times of closer to five hours.

You can claim a refund for any time portion of the pass you don’t use.

Ireland

Cost: €88 four days/€128 for five-day pass (€64 for a child)

Eligibility: Adults/adults + children

Where to buy: Selected ticket offices including Dublin Heuston and Connolly; Cork, Limerick, Sligo and Waterford. The passes are not available online.

If you’d rather stay in Ireland this summer and travel around via rail, you also have some options – although they’re not as attractive as those available on the Continent.

With a Trekker pass, for example, you’ll pay €88 for four days of consecutive travel – so travel from Dublin to Cork on a Monday for example, down to Killarney on a Tuesday, up to Limerick on a Wednesday and back to Dublin on the Thursday. Buying the pass would save you money – an adult open return ticket from Dublin to Cork is €71.20 for example. However, the timeframe is particularly tight.

A better option might be an Explorer ticket, which costs €128 for five days of travel – but this time you’ll get 15 days to do it all in.

Inter-rail

Finally, if being confined to just one country doesn’t float your boat, why not consider an Inter Rail pass? Equally attractive for both the young and the young at heart, the pass now covers 33 European countries.

While it may not be as keenly priced as the one-country passes mentioned above, if used well, you can certainly cover plenty of ground at a low cost.

A second-class seven-day pass, for example (to be used for travel within a one-month timeframe), will cost €286 for someone aged between 12 and 27 (youthpass); €381 for an adult aged between 28 and 59; or €343 for someone aged 60 or over. You can upgrade to first class for an extra €93 per person.

Children aged 11 and under are free, and you can buy a pass online at interrail.eu.