Whether you're splitting to Split this summer or ringing in the spring in Kerry, there are some new European railpass options you should check out for 2007.

You can already find passes that cover one country, two countries, a region or up to 18 countries at once -- the famous Eurailpass, now called the Eurail Global Pass. This year brings two new single-country passes, for Ireland and Croatia, and two new two-country passes, for Austria/Hungary and Italy/Spain -- that last one including two ferries between Italy and Spain, an unusual way to see a bit of the Mediterranean while avoiding France.

A few other existing passes have changed names: the Trenitalia Pass, Benelux Tourrail Pass and Portugal Pass now fall under the Eurail brand.

Meanwhile, as they do every year, railpass prices have gone up just a bit. The price for the flagship first-class adult 15-day Eurail Global Pass at Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com) has gone up from $644 to $651, with other passes seeing similar small jumps. The youth version of that pass, available to riders under 26, went up from $419 to $425, and the popular three-day France Pass went up $1 from $125 to $126.

Do New Passes Pass The Test?

As always, railpasses pay off if you intend to take a lot of high-speed trains, want to make a lot of long-distance day trips from a central base, or don't want to have to negotiate with reservations offices that only speak, say, Hungarian.

Buying point-to-point tickets for your trip, on the other hand, makes the most sense if you're primarily taking short journeys (for instance, in the Benelux countries) or traveling in Eastern Europe, where individual ticket prices can be very low.

Most adult railpasses are also first-class-only, which is great for comfort but not necessarily for saving money.

I compared the new passes to the prices of individual tickets bought directly through national rail websites, which would match the prices you get at the ticket office for tickets not bought too far in advance.

Ireland's a small country, but tickets are pretty expensive per mile, so you end up breaking even if you take an energetic cross-country journey. For instance, Dublin-Waterford-Cork-Killarney-Limerick-Dublin came to $184.14 as standard class point-to-point tickets, as compared to the $190 five-day, second-class Ireland pass. Throw in an extra stop or two and you're saving money.

Similarly, if you're planning to crisscross Portugal using high-speed Alfa trains, that pass pays off for you. The three-day Portugal pass costs $126, while first-class tickets from Lisbon to Porto, back to Lisbon and then on to Faro comes to $133.84.

It's harder to make the new Croatia pass look like savings, but there's a big plus to the pass anyway: with the pass you can generally just hop onto domestic trains, rather than having to deal with reservations agents who may only speak Croatian. (The high-speed trains from Zagreb to Split and international trains both need reservations.) A first-class run from Zagreb to Zadar, to Split and back to Zagreb costs $106.97 on the official Croatian rail site, while the three-day Croatia pass costs $143.

Things get more complicated with the two-country passes because of the number of possible itineraries you could take. A four-day, first class Austria/Hungary pass costs $230, with additional days costing $34. As that's only a $3 increase from getting a just-plain-Austria pass, it's like getting Hungary almost for free. Therefore, it's a good deal if your travels take you primarily around Austria and you dip into Hungary for a few days. The deal doesn't work the other way around, as passes and train fares primarily for Hungary are cheap.

The unusual Italy/Spain pass (it's unusual because they have no land border) costs $339 for four days in first class, or $298 in second class, with additional days costing $34-38. If you're going second class, six days on the two-country pass is a negligible savings over two three-day single country passes, but the savings becomes considerably larger if you go first class.

You'll still have to pay extra for any stops you make in France between the two countries, or take two routes between Italy and Spain that also aren't totally covered on the pass: the Elipsos overnight train from Barcelona to Milan or the ferry from Barcelona, Spain to Civitavecchia, Italy. With both routes, you get discounts but you'll still have to pay a fare.

If you know where you're going beforehand, always price out your trip both as point-to-point tickets and as a pass. Use both RailEurope.com and the individual European railway sites to determine whether it would be cheaper to buy your tickets here in the US, or when you get to Europe. Find railway sites by clicking on one of the "passenger" links at Rail Fan Europe; most pages have English language versions that you can get by clicking on a little word "English" or a British flag hidden somewhere on the homepage. Of course, having a pass gives you last-minute flexibility, bonuses on a wide range of ferries and US-based hand-holding -- it all depends on how you personally travel.

You Better Shop Around

Rail Europe has also improved their booking engine for point-to-point tickets, tapping into the airline-style pricing systems running in several European countries and bringing their prices closer to what you'd pay on the ground. You're still often paying a bit extra for the luxury of being able to buy all your tickets at one US-based site (with US-based customer support), but you can find some deals.

For instance, a ticket from London to Leicester, UK bought directly through the Midland Mainline web site cost $39.18 on one train -- but $97.95 on all the other trains that same day. On Rail Europe's Web site, all of those trains cost $78.

A second class ticket from Paris to Lyon bought through Rail Europe's new system cost $96 (that France railpass is almost always a deal.) That ticket cost $100 on the official Voyages-SNCF website, though they also had an online-only special for $64.69 which can be picked up at an SNCF ticket office in France.

It pays to shop around, of course. While Rail Europe is the biggest and oldest dealer of railpasses in the US, there are other upstarts, including Railpass (www.railpass.com), Eurail (www.eurail.com) and All Europe Rail (www.alleuroperail.com) with ever-so-slightly different prices. The 15-day Eurail Global Pass, for instance, is $651 from Rail Europe, but $635 from Eurail.com and $636 from Railpass.com. But Rail Europe's reputation and customer service are, in part, why we have partnered with them for our own Frommer's Europe By Rail line of books and continue to recommend them.

Contact Rail Europe at www.raileurope.com or at 888/382-7245.

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