Across Europe: Three months’ worth of Eurail pass tips and experiences
My three month Eurail pass just ran out and I figured it would be a good time to pass on some info and tips that I found out along the way. As a reference point, I was traveling through Europe with my rail pass during the summer of 2006 from mid-May to mid-August.
I should note that there are several types of Eurail passes. My pass offered me unlimited traveling between 18 European countries. There are other passes that offer travel in one, two, or sometimes three countries. Also some passes offer unlimited travel and others offer a certain number of travel days in a set period of time (for example five travel days over a month’s period of time). They all vary in cost, so depending on where you are going and how much you will be traveling, you could save some money like this.
I get a lot of questions as to whether or not it is worth buying the Eurail pass. This entirely depends on what kind of traveling you will be doing. If you will be moving around lots from city to city and country to country, it will be probably be worth it (see my comment on being 26 or older and the first class pass below). However, it’s not entirely worth it if you will be staying in one or two countries and not moving around between the cities that much. The rail pass does not work on city buses or inner-city metros (basically inner city transportation). The rail pass has its greatest value when you will be moving around a lot and when distances are fairly great.
Train travel is quite expensive in some countries and quite cheap in others. In Switzerland for example, it is quite costly to get around as it is in the Scandinavian countries. However, Eastern European countries are quite a bit cheaper. So if you will be spending your time in the Eastern European countries, it may not be worth getting a pass (lots of Eastern European countries aren’t even covered by the pass, probably because it is so damn cheap to travel through them).
If you are on or over the age of 26 years old, you are now forced to buy a 1st class pass which adds considerable cost (I believe this changed in 2006, before you were still able to buy a 2nd class ticket if you were 26 or older). This is quite unfortunate, and could be a deal breaker as to whether or not it’s worth it. I’m 26, so was forced to get the first class pass, and if I remember correctly for a one month pass it would have cost me close to 950 US dollars and for a three month pass around 1700 US dollars (averages out to about 560 US dollars per month). So it’s almost a huge rip off if you are only traveling for one month (or at least you have to use it quite a bit to get your money’s worth from it). I’m not entirely convinced it would have been worth it for me to buy a one month pass at the first class rate, again it really depends on how much you will be moving around. It definitely “pays off” (value-wise) to stay longer and buy the longer rail pass.
1st class doesn’t buy you more comfortable seats; it just buys you a cabin that is less full. At times it was actually really great, because 2nd class would be completely booked or just really full of people (if you have a 2nd class ticket, you will be stuck standing in the hallway if you can’t find a seat or ask the conductor nicely if you could go to 1st class for free since 2nd is totally full), and 1st class will be quite empty and you can always find a seat and put your bags down. 1st class also tends to be a bit quieter. It’s quite funny to see the 2nd class passengers looking confused as to how a scrub traveler can afford the 1st class seats; I’ve gotten some really funny looks. And of course if you have a 1st class pass you can always sit in 2nd class.
One huge benefit that I think everyone else will agree with me on is that it allows incredible amount of flexibility. We changed our travel plans several times and didn’t have to worry about scheduling train trips or losing money on them. Granted, if you are buying point to point train tickets, it’s almost as easy as having a rail pass (from a flexibility point of view).
It’s also great to buy the rail pass and then you can more or less forget about having to buy tickets and waiting in lines. I think I would hate sitting there seeing how much I am spending on each individual ticket and thinking about all the money that I am spending to get to these places versus having the rail pass and feeling limitless and going where ever I want. You are much more likely to travel more and see more places if you don’t have to think about how costly it will be to get you there. The less stressed you are about cost, the more likely you will be to move around more. Once I bought the rail pass, it kind of felt like all trains were free to me and that there was no cost associated with it – it basically made me feel less stressed about money.
With the rail pass you can get discounts on some buses and ferries. Overnight train travel is quite a bit cheaper with the rail pass. When taking overnight trains, I paid about 25 Euros for a bed in a six-bed bunk, and I think it costs closer to 100 Euros without the rail pass. Overnight trains still cost money (even for seats) but it’s a lot cheaper with the rail pass. Seats are in the 5-10 Euro range. The discounts on ferries (between the Scandinavian countries or between Italy and Greece as well as other ferries) aren’t always worth it and it’s almost the same cost if you didn’t have a rail pass. However, with the rail pass you can be upgraded to a cabin (beds and stuff) for free if they are available, but you have to ask for it (never tried it, learned about it afterwards). I can’t remember if that is for 1st and 2nd class rail passes, doesn’t hurt to ask. Also in areas where trains don’t travel (such as northern Scandinavia), you can get discounts on buses with your rail pass that are quite substantial.
One important note is that a rail pass does not mean that all trains are free. Some trains require a reservation (cost will vary on which country you are in, varying from 5-15 Euros). Also, for faster trains (some of these trains are quite a bit faster and others just make less frequent stops) they will also charge a surcharge. You can spot these trains that cost extra money by certain key words such as “EuroCity” and “Fast” vs. the typical InterCity (IC trains). I have never had to pay extra for an InterCity train or an InterCity Express train. If you go to the counter and ask for a train connection, they will usually give you the schedule for the extra-cost train first (I guess they assume you will just want the faster one) if it exists. Keep in mind that you can always catch IC trains to the same destination, you may just have to change a few times and it will take longer, but you can avoid the extra costs this way. So if you are looking to save some money, just ask if there is a way without taking the extra-cost train. If you buy the Eurail pass, they give you this handy little booklet that has all the major train connections and times in it and it has a tiny little “R” in a box next to your train if you need a reservation. If you get on one of these trains without paying, someone may kick you out of the seat (because they have it reserved) and or the conductor will make you pay the standard reservation fee plus an extra surcharge for buying it on the train (not sure if this is always an option).
Just to touch on another thing with reservations (besides what I have put above), during the season when Europeans take vacation (which is usually starts in July and goes through the end of August), trains get quite full since Europeans use the train system to go on their vacations. During this European vacation season, I noticed the trains were quite full (2nd class seats was sometimes jammed and 1st class had an unusually large amount of people). During this time of year, Europeans reserve their seats ahead of time (it’s their vacation, kind of like booking a plane ticket), meaning you could be stuck without a seat or you might have to upgrade. Seats being booked and full trains also goes for Friday and Sunday evenings, where people are getting away or traveling for the weekend and then coming back.
The Rail pass connections booklet:
If you buy the Eurail pass, they give you this booklet that has all the major train connections in it – it is extremely handy, definitely bring it along. Keep in mind that this booklet does have a few errors as far as times go, so this could bite you from time to time. It doesn’t have all the trains and connections in there as well. And sometimes they only have the trains in there that have the surcharges. You can get all the train connections on the web as well (I used www.sbb.ch, which is the Swiss transit system, but it has all the other countries’ connections as well; it has an English translation option as well, I highly recommend this site). A note on the website, when putting in the names of cities, you will have to put in the European spelling of the city, not the English one; for example its Milano, not Milan, and its Praha, not Prague (in some strange cases it is the English spelling, so if it doesn’t work, try both).
First off trains are late and you will miss connections. Perhaps the only train connection thing to be careful of is that cities (mainly the large ones, Paris and Barcelona for example) have several train stations and the station that you came into isn’t necessarily the station you will be leaving from. So if you are connecting to another train in a city, you may have to go to another station to catch your out-going train. Make sure you account for this and make sure you are in the right stations. Sometimes we didn’t look close enough and we ended up missing a train.
Protect your rail pass:
Spend the extra 12 dollars to get the security on your rail pass. Things get stolen and damaged; it’s totally worth the extra 12 dollars to make sure your rail pass doesn’t totally bite the dust. On that note, guard your rail pass like your passport – if you loose it or it gets stolen, you can’t buy another one in Europe and you will have to buy point to point tickets. If you get the insurance, at least you will get money back. You could potentially buy another one on the internet and have it overnighted to you, but you will most likely be buying one that is of a shorter time frame and it will be quite costly.
Your rail pass only works in 18 countries and even in some of those countries it’s completely useless. So first off make sure you can use the pass in the country you want to go to (duh), otherwise you will have to buy the extra portion (train connections in the Eurail booklet cover connections and trains that aren’t covered by your rail pass, be careful about this). Also I have found that in the following countries the rail pass is useless due to the following reasons:
- Greece: The rail pass offers no discount for the ferries between islands, and although trains are used here (only on the mainland), you will most likely be using buses since 1) that’s what everyone else uses, 2) there are better and more frequent bus connections, and 3) they are faster. I maybe a bit biased here, however, since I spent pretty much all of my time on the islands and on the islands they don’t have train transportation, so the rail pass doesn’t have much to offer in Greece except maybe on the mainland (we used a bus to get between Patras and Athens). On the mainland it may still be worth a damn.
- Spain: Trains are only good to get between the major cities. Now, I haven’t spent much time in Spain, so take this with a grain of salt. Everyone uses buses in Spain, they are faster, more reliable (that’s what I have heard) and they don’t have stupid connections. To get between cities and certain places you sometimes have to go way out of your way and make stupid train connections (taking a considerable amount of time), where buses offer a more direct route at a greater frequency. To give an example, I went to the train station in San Sabastian to ask for a train to Barcelona, the attendant looked at me, puzzled, and asked why I wouldn’t take a bus (odd huh?).
Other important information:
- Your rail pass is only valid with your passport. You are supposed to have your passport on you at all times, but they usually don’t check. In fact, I think I was only asked three times for my passport over the entire three months and two times were in France (I think they saw that I was from the US and wanted to hassle me).
- The passes are made of paper and they aren’t extremely durable. I actually laughed at it when I first got it, I thought there was no way in hell that this piece of paper was going to survive three months of traveling. I had to use some tape to hold it together a bit. I also kept it in this small water seal bag (after the 1st month) and it did a great job of protecting it from further wear. On that note, I don’t think they are water-proof at all. I guess what I am trying to say is, they are made of what appears to be normal paper and they aren’t very durable.