Take the Train: Railpasses Around the World
By Marie Javins
You've earned or wangled several weeks off work, and you've picked out a dream trip --sightseeing an entire region up close. An unlimited mileage railpass is usually the best way to accomplish this, whether that region is Europe, the US, Japan, or India. A railpass doesn't lock you into a set itinerary and is usually cheaper than point-to-point separate tickets.
Not all countries have railroads, so with a few exceptions, you will be limited to the developed world. It takes a lot of money to build infrastructure and the countries with the most comprehensive railway systems are usually wealthy, developed countries or countries with a colonial history. Of the countries with railroads, only the most touristed offer railpasses. Most railpasses must be purchased in your home country, prior to travel.
Types of Railpasses
The variety of railpasses is complex -- some are country-specific, while others cover an entire region. Some are good for multiple consecutive days, while others are for a specific number of flexible days within a set period. Passes in Europe and North America can even combine rail travel with car rental or flying.
Discounts are available for students and seniors. Sleeper trains require advance reservations and supplementary fees, but it is cheaper than paying for a night in a hotel, and by traveling at night you have more time to see the sights.
- How Railpasses Work
Every country has its own system for pricing and selling passes (follow the links below), but all railpasses work essentially the same way. You buy it at home and carry it with you or pick it up at your destination. Reserve a seat at the train station, but if you don't have time, board a marked "Unreserved" car. Write the date on your pass, if necessary, take a seat, and wait for the conductor. If you are in the wrong place, he'll straighten you right out, not to worry.
Don't lose your railpass! Keep it with your money and passport, or buy insurance for it, if that is available from the seller. And if you're traveling in the first half of the year, buy your pass by December 31. Prices go up on January 1.
COUNTRY-SPECIFIC RAILPASSES AND INFORMATION
- The Americas
North America Railpass
30-day pass for any Amtrak or VIA train in the U.S. or Canada. Available to anyone. The 15-day Northeastern North America pass is only sold to international visitors. Prices increase during peak season.
Amtrak's 15-30 day pass is only available to international visitors to the USA.
Good for 5-7 days of travel on Amtrak trains and buses. Must be used in specified time, either 7 or 21 days. Not valid on long distance trains to points beyond California. Available to US citizens and international visitors.
Covers 12 days of Canada travel within a 30-day period. Available to both Canadians and international visitors. Prices increase between June and October. viarail.ca
Lets your travel for 10 days in Canada's Quebec City-Windsor corridor. Available to all, but must be purchased at least five days in advance. viarail.ca
Mexico, Central and South America
Mexico has railways, but no railpasses, as buses are much more popular with tourists. South America has relatively few railways, and rumors of railpasses are sketchy and unsubstantiated.
Offers one national and three regional 4-10 day passes which provide passage on almost all trains, JR buses, airport trains, and one ferry. The JR-West Rail Pass is the only pass that covers the "Nozomi," one of the fastest trains in the world. National passes and certain regional passes can be used on the "Shinkansen," or bullet trains. Passes that include Tokyo provide free passage on the JR subway lines, which is a tremendous bonus for budget travelers. JR passes must be purchased prior to arrival in Japan, and are not available to residents of Japan.
Visit Malaysia Railpass
Good for either 10 or 30 days of travel within Malaysia. Not available to Malaysians or Singapore citizens, but can be purchased within Malaysia or at the Singapore train station.
Can be purchased within India, but only by foreigners. It is not necessarily a financial bargain, but does guarantee a seat on sold-out trains. Tourists can use the International Tourist Bureaus located in Delhi, Varanasi, and Jodhpur train stations for assistance and information.
Non-Australians should buy these passes in their home countries, good for 14-30 days of consecutive travel. There is also a flexible pass that covers 8-29 days of travel within 6 months, and at least 6 regional passes. Some of the passes include free bus tickets.
Best of New Zealand Pass
Count points instead of days. For six months, buyers can see New Zealand by train, ferry, and bus for points instead of dollars. Buy points at the beginning of your trip, and then each trip costs some of these points. A trip from Auckland to Rotorua, for example, takes 63 points. An eleven-hour trip from Christchurch to Queenstown will set you back 145 points. If you don't have enough points, you can always buy more.
The most famous and versatile railpass is actually several different passes. All must be purchased outside Europe, by non-Europeans. The granddaddy of them all, the First Class Eurailpass, is valid in 17 countries and good for 15 days to three months of consecutive day travel. This is more than most people need, so Eurail developed the cheaper Flexipass and the Europass for those who wanted to spend less money and more time in one place. The Flexipass is available for 10 to 15 travel days over a two-month period. The Europass is good for travel only in 5-7 countries. The other Eurail passes are variations of these, but offer discounts for youths and people traveling in pairs or groups. The Eurailpass/Drive combines car rental with a Europass. eurail.com
EU citizen's version of the Eurail pass. Prices are per zone (Europe is eight zones), and passes are good for one month.
Scanrail Pass and European East Pass are just a few of the passes that cover regions of Europe. Many of them offer additional discounts for buses and ferries. All must be purchased in your home country and are not available to Europeans. EU citizens can buy a similar pass, the Euro Domino, that is not available to non-EU members.
Most European countries feature their own railpasses, some with rail/drive options, good for a set number of days within a specific time period (usually a month). Passes must be purchased in your home country and are not available to citizens of the respective countries. railpass.com/eurail/passes
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