Encouraging Every 18 Year Old To Travel

Do you agree that every teen should have a chance to travel with a youth rail pass? A European Union parliament member encouraged understanding between EU nations by giving teens free rail passes.

EDITORS NOTE: Begun in 2018 (read on for details), this program now distributes the free Discover EU Youth Rail Pass through an annual competition. Check out current rules and be ready to apply today.

And if you want to know how the program originated, here’s the original story:

October 2016: A prominent member of the European Union Parliament is proposing that every 18-year-old receive a free trans-Europe train pass so they can get to know Europe better. Let’s help this idea go viral.”

Manfred Weber is Chairman of the EPP Group in the EU Parliament, and the youngest-ever group leader of the European Peoples Party (formerly Christian Democrats). As a German, he comes from a long tradition of wandern -– loosely translated as purposeless hiking -– and, like many students, had wandered the world before or after university. As a leading member of the EU government, his words carry weight.

Young Travelers Know Familiarity Breeds Respect

In this video, Mr. Weber comments on the idea of offering every 18-year-old European a free Interrail pass, a railroad pass that works like the Eurail Pass, which can only be purchased by travelers outside the EU. Both passes are administered by Eurail Group G.I.E. and provide unlimited travel: Interrail to 30 countries and Eurail to 28; fares depend on how long the pass is valid.

Mr. Weber believes that travel to neighboring countries is key to “creating a positive perception of the EU among younger generations.”

“The aim of offering every 18 year-old a free pass is that participants will feel more European after coming back from their trips to their home countries,” insists Mr. Weber, “as it can be a gateway to exploring the geographical, historical and cultural richness of Europe at first-hand.”

Rail Systems Surprised by EU Free Pass Program

I wondered, if the EU Parliament passed this measure, would Eurail Group follow suit and match the Interrail offer for foreign 18-year-olds traveling within Europe?

“This is an EU Parliamentary initiative, and was not initiated by Eurail Group and is not being led by Eurail Group,” said Nadine Koszler PR & Communications Manager, Eurail Group G.I.E., who noted that the idea began with two young advocates in Berlin. “For that reason, it is limited to the European product, Interrail, and not the Eurail Pass.”

Eurail Understands the Value of Travel

The Eurail Pass – a brand name synonymous with ‘backpacking’ — debuted in 1959 to encourage foreign travel to Europe after WWII. Interrail began as a youth pass for European rail travelers in 1972, and was expanded to all ages in the 1990s.

Ms. Koszler acknowledges the transformative effect of the Eurail experience.

“As part of its mission, Eurail Group G.I.E. strives to provide our international guests with a unique and life-changing travel experience by offering freedom to travel flexibly across Europe, discovering its cultural, geographical and historical richness and diversity and connecting them with local people and fellow travelers.”

Will Weber’s great idea remain a sound bite or become policy? Koszler says that 70% of current Interrail passholders are young; however, it’s too early to measure the cost of implementing the program specifically for EU 18-year-olds. Among U.S. Eurail passholders, only 36% hold youth passes (ages 12- 25), largely because Eurail’s liberal family pricing allows up to two children ages 4-11 to travel free with each adult passholder.

Young couple watching trains pull in at a large railway station.
This young couple is waiting for their train to pull in for a multi-city train journey using a Eurail Pass. Photo c. Eurail Group

Get American Teens on Trains

Dozens of studies affirm that exposure to new cultures is highly educational and “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” as Mark Twain put it in Innocents Abroad.

If European teens, who have been able to move freely between EU countries and cultures their entire lives, will be enriched by more domestic travel, then surely this is a sound idea for their American counterparts. Let’s give all 18-year-olds a free pass on Amtrak, the official United States railroad system connecting more than 500 destinations and 46 states.

How Amtrak Values Train Travel

I asked Chelsea Kopta, Amtrak Media Relations, asked about the feasibility of this idea in the U.S., and she mentioned that Amtrak already provides a discount to students ages 13- 25 year-round, with a valid student ID. Ms. Kopta added, “We also offer a one-of-a-kind Amtrak Residency program, designed to allow professional writers and authors who are passionate about writing and train travel to work on their craft in an inspiring environment [at no charge].”

Does Amtrak value train travel as an educational activity, as Mr. Weber sees in Europe’s Interrail? No. “Delivering intercity transportation with superior safety, customer service and financial excellence” is their mission statement.

Amtrak as Change Agent

We should demand more from Amtrak, and support that demand. Americans hear how broke the system is, which is supposed to excuse the poor infrastructure, lack of service, and number of train accidents that occur. However, the Department of Transportation made a $2.45 billion loan for infrastructure repairs on the busy Northeast Corridor, which carries one third of all passengers, in June 2016. According to the Cato Institute, taxpayers gave another $250 million in operating subsidies in 2015. It sounds like much of Amtrak’s service outside that Northeast Corridor is underutilized.

How Would an Amtrak Pass Work?

At present, Amtrak offers a USA Rail Pass allowing passengers to book 10 train travel segments within a 30-day period for $499. If just 25% of the estimated number of 18-year-olds in the U.S. took advantage of a free USA Rail Pass, some would argue it would be huge expense for Amtrak but, of course, there’s no cost to Amtrak in filling empty seats on trains that are running anyway.

The Value of Investing in Youth Travel

Additionally, in Amtrak’s 5 Year Budget and Business Plan (FY2015-2019), the company announced its strategic goal to “grow a loyal, long-term customer base,” because its ridership skews older than they’d like. Noting that satisfaction and loyalty among current customers is key, they add, “we must also appeal to a new generation of passengers to sustain the business. […] Consumers who are currently between the ages of 18 and 34 will soon be entering their peak earning and traveling years. Research indicates that within the next 5-8 years, they will account for approximately half of all business travel, while Baby Boomers’ business travel spending will drop sharply.”

Given the stated interest in attracting millennials and their younger siblings, wouldn’t a free USA Rail Pass be a sound investment in marketing rail travel and guaranteeing its future? Not to short change the environmental and safety benefits of getting teens off the highways.

As every parent knows, the ROI of giving our 18 year-olds a chance to experience America for themselves — and appreciate the diversity of its people, the scenic beauty of its many environments, and the states’ rich variety of cultures — would be much higher than the value of a few train tickets.

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