Europe by Rail Part 1: Picking your Eurail Pass
Backpacking and rail travel compliment each other like red wine and soft cheese. It is easy to imagine the romance of backpacking Europe by train: gazing out your window over the sweeping vistas of the Swiss Alps, nibbling pain au chocolat as you plan the next leg of your journey. The possibilities seem endless: Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Madrid . . . Where, oh where will you go?
When you are planning your trip, the list of cities you’ve only read about can seem dizzying. You needn’t let the excitement of having Europe at your fingertips overwhelm you. This short guide will lead you through three easy steps to enjoying your perfect European rail experience. First, choose a rail pass that suits your style (or forego the pass altogether). Second, make some plans to prep for your trip. And third, take off on your adventure with a few travel tips in your back-pocket.
Step 1: Pick Your Pass (Or Go It Alone)
There are a myriad of options today for travelers who want to see Europe by rail. High speed trains. Scenic routes. And seemingly countless types of rail passes including the popular Eurail Select Pass, Eurail Global Pass and multi-country passes like the France Italy Eurail Pass. This huge amount of choice allows each traveler to plan the trip of their dreams. Do you want to be able to zip from Rome to Paris on a moment’s notice? Perhaps you don’t plan on venturing north of Monaco? Whatever your travel tastes, there are train options to suit your style. Keep the following considerations in mind when choosing the right rail pass for you, or you may decide to skip the pass altogether, and buy point-to-point tickets instead.
---Consider Your Countries
Do you dream of visiting 21 countries in a single month, or are there only 3, 4 or even 5 countries that make your “must see” list?
The Eurail Global Pass gives you access to 21 countries, but is quite expensive. It also leaves out much of Eastern Europe, excluding amazing places like Poland. If you are only interested in a few countries, consider a Eurail Select Pass or a Regional Pass. The Select Pass allows you to choose 3, 4 or 5 bordering countries, for example, Italy-France-Spain. The Regional Pass gives you access to a pre-determined area, such as “France-Italy,” Or is there only one country you want to explore thoroughly? Single country passes are available too.
---How Long Will You Linger?
Think about how long you would like to be in each of your “must see” places. The Eurail Global pass is the only pass that allows you to choose a “continuous” or “flexi” option. Continuous passes give you unlimited travel from 15 days up to 3 full months, while flexi passes allow you only 10 to 15 days of train travel within a two month period.
If you know you want a Regional, Select or Single Country pass, the options are more limited. These passes all work like a “flexi” pass, providing a set number of travel days that can be used over the course of 1 or two months, depending on the pass.
If you do decide to go “Global,” the choice between continuous or flexi depends a lot on your travel style. If you plan to spend a week or more in eight or nine different cities, the flexi pass is right for you. But if you want the ability to “drop in” to a huge variety of places - 20 hours in Rome, 10 hours in Monaco, perhaps four days in Barcelona - a continuous pass is a better bet.
Choosing the class for your pass depends on your age, budget and personal tastes. Youth under 26 always have the option of buying a second class rail pass, while adults are generally limited to first class passes, with a few exceptions. Of course, adults may also decide to buy point-to-point tickets, making second class tickets an option.
The difference between first class and second class varies depending on the country and the type of train. First class cars usually have fewer seats, for a quieter and more spacious journey. Generally speaking, the difference between first and second class is less noticeable in northern Europe. In southern Europe, especially Italy, second class cars on busy routes are often so crowded that people without a reservation are left standing shoulder to shoulder. First class is also considerably different on certain premier trains, where a meal and complimentary beverages may be included.
---Dig the Discounts
Be sure to check for specials and discounts. Youth under 26 receive lower rates by purchasing youth passes, and some passes offer discounts for seniors over 60 as well. If you are traveling with a partner or friends, you can take advantage of the “saver” discount available on most passes, which provides a reduced rate for two or more adults traveling on the same trip.
Make sure you are aware of any extra bonuses that come with your pass. Many passes provide special rates for museums, day cruises, scenic train routes and hotels.
---Do You Want to Mix It Up?
Think you might want to mix it up and add some ferrying or driving to your life on the rails?
The Global Pass, and certain Regional and Select passes, offer great discounts on ferry travel. For example, Hellenic Mediterranean Lines, operating ferries between Brindisi, Italy and Patras, Greece, offers pass holders 30% off during high season, and 50% off during low season. Other popular country to country routes with discounted ferry service include Denmark and Norway, Germany and Finland, Ireland and France, Italy and Spain, and many more.
Or do you crave the open road more than the open sea? The Eurail Drive Pass offers 3 to 4 days of rail travel paired with 2 days of rental car travel, plus the option of buying additional car days. There are also Drive passes for individual countries, like the FranceRail’nDrive pass.
---Does Travel Freedom = Financial Freedom?
Before you take the plunge and purchase a pass, consider if point-to-point tickets are a more affordable option. Tickets for regional trains and trains in southern and eastern Europe are often incredibly cheap. For example, a second class ticket between Milan and Venice can be purchased online before your trip for only $28, and would likely be even cheaper if bought in Italy. Make sure you also account for extra fees you will have to pay after purchasing a Eurail pass, such as reservation fees and supplement fares for highspeed or overnight trains. These fees can add up fast, making a Eurail pass considerably more expensive.
Then again, a rail pass does give you a certain freedom that can make you feel almost weightless – that incredible feeling that Europe is your oyster. If you decide to buy a pass, remember to buy in advance! Rail passes are only available outside of Europe.