Seniors on the Go: European railpass changes next year

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Even though the Eurail railpass idea has been a constant in European travel for more than 50 years, the details keep evolving. The latest addition is Turkey, which will be added to the Eurail Global and Eurail Select pass lineup starting the first of the year. The Global option is the current version of the original "valid on all the participating systems" concept, and the addition of Turkey raises the total number of countries to 24. The Global option is available in two versions: "continuous," covering 15 days to three months of consecutive-day travel starting any time during the three-month period, and "flexible," providing 10 or 15 travel days over a two-month period. Select passes cover three to five adjacent countries, with a wide range of dates. The Select option covers almost all possible combinations of three, four, or five adjacent countries, with flexible versions for a range of traveling days.

For now, the Turkish railway system is not well geared to international visitors. The system is building two high-speed lines, linking Ankara with Istanbul and Konya, but the Ankara-Istanbul line is only half completed, and as far as I can tell, the railroad is not currently running through trains. Moreover, the rail system doesn't serve either the popular Antalya or Pamukkale regions well. Currently, the only all-rail connection with the rest of the Eurail network is through Bulgaria. International trains linking Turkey with Greece are currently suspended. Ultimately, when the new high-speed lines are completed, the Turkish rail system will be very useful, but for now, if you're visiting Turkey, plan on flying or taking buses.

As another addition, the private Westbahn railway in Austria will be joining the system. That line provides frequent express services between Salzburg and Vienna, in competition with the state system. According to RailEurope, Westbahn is the first such private line to join the Eurail group. The emergence of private lines on major European rail systems, under the "open access" provisions that are becoming more widespread, raises a challenge to the Eurail group and users of its passes, depending on whether the private systems elect to enter the system. And not all private lines join: The new Italo high-speed trains I tested earlier this year have not joined. If other private lines do not join, opportunities for pass users might get a little tighter as the established state railways lose market share and cut service on competitive routes.

This year's main loss is in France, where the SNCF has opted out of the "Select Pass" program. However, France will stick with its various two-country passes, as well as the single-country France passes and the multi-country Global passes. The information I've seen hasn't said anything about why SNCF made this move -- you'd probably have to be French to comprehend it, anyhow. Meanwhile, you can buy Select passes involving France through the end of the year, and those will remain valid for trips starting within six months of purchase.

And if you're considering a trip before next summer, RailEurope is running some current promotions:

-- A twofer on Swiss rail four-day "saver" passes: Buy by November 21; complete travel by November 30. As with all "saver" passes, the two users must travel together at all times.

-- Discounts of 20 percent off five-day German Rail Passes for travel between November 15 and December 31; buy by November 29.

-- Discounts of $50 on Eurail Select Passes, for most combinations of three, four, or five adjacent countries, valid for up to six months after the date of purchase. Buy until the allocation 600 passes sells out, but no later than December 7.

As with most railpasses, they're most useful if you plan a limited number of long-haul travel days during your trip; if you plan frequent shorter trips, you're better off buying individual tickets as you need them. And some travelers claim that individual tickets are usually a better bet in Italy, regardless of how you plan to travel.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins(at)mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)

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