Eurail inspires visions of hopping on and off trains, getting off on a whim, and jumping back on whenever the urge strikes. But the reality of the pass is that Eurail planning is a large part of making everything work smoothly. Here are some beginner insights and tips about how we began planning for our 3-month trek across Europe.
The bottom line is that Eurail is something I would do again. Everybody can have a say in the destinations they’d like to see. You can change your mind (for the most part) and hang out longer in a wonderful place or with wonderful new friends. You always have a ticket if you’re running late, miss the train, or miss a connection.
But the planning required from day to day can be difficult and lengthy. When smart Europeans try to help you and direct you to the German trainable site, you may easily end up asking the wrong question in the wrong language at the ticket window after waiting in line for 20 minutes with a screaming child, and wind up in tears.
In order to crack this nut, you’re going to answer the following:
1. What are the Best Helpful Sites & Apps that Will Make Me Cry (and also help sometimes too)
1. Somewhere in the middle of planning the ultimate train trip, I woke up and found myself wanting to take a Rick Steves’ packaged tour. Gone are my intrepid, independent, “authentic” travel days. Put me on a bus with retirees, please, then talk to me about great works of art over the loud speaker.
And here’s why: when I google “How to get from Brussels to Paris without Thalys” (the not-covered, pricy, high-speed train that is ruining my life by existing) the eminently less stupid forum participants over there make me feel dumber by throwing around terms like RER and CDG and TGV. Uh-huh. Just what time is the train? The point is that the fora are packed full of good, free, smart advice. Go there. But realize there’s a time investment involved to even be able to interpret what they are saying, let alone putting it into action.
Take a picture of it with your phone, put it in an Evernote folder about this leg of your trip (check out the great planning advice on their blog), and hit Youtube before you leave (Tips and tricks? Someone’s already posted some) and make sure you understand how to work your Eurail planning app (works offline!) well enough to search for trains that do not require reservations and supplements (that’s Eurail speak for cash money, not a reference to Vitamin C).
In the end, there are a couple of ways to spend the day lollygagging your way from Brussels to Paris, and answering questions like this one really help you find the best internet resources out there for future reference:
1. Another good rail forum, where the responses mystify me as well. They know what they are doing!
2. My Eurail planning app, set to ignore the high-speed trains, tells me I can. Sometimes this app is wrong! Double check!
3. It won’t weed out high speed trains and tends to present them as your only options, but Rome2Rio is a travel planning dream. Go. Play. Get an idea of costs and benefits. Which brings us to…
2. Is Eurail Worth it?
They tell you to do all the math, then they tell you the trains run like airplanes and fares change depending on when you book. Good ol’ Rick Steves even made a map with approximate fares.
Travel days are important if you choose a flex-pass with a certain number of days on it. At first, I figured my major city stops, then day trips out from the city center (think Versailles and Disneyland Paris). Then a Google search in the fora told me these trips wouldn’t be covered anyway. Argh! How are you supposed to plan if you don’t know which rail operators function in every city in Europe? The truth is: you really can’t. There will be some extra fees, oozing out your wrinkle-free travel slacks as all travel budgets tend to.
Start estimating your big trips. You will have to decide on the smaller trips when they present themselves, and cut what becomes a hassle.
When I did, Eurail became immediately cost effective for my needs.
Add in a child, and chances are good you’re going to want to just do the pass — up to two kids 4-11 travel free and grown-ups over 26 are forced into first class. Did you see what happened there? You just got a discount AND an upgrade! In fact, the train jaunts that weren’t covered by our passes have started bothering me — why am I paying this double fare everywhere I go? Bah!
Another consideration that should flip you toward “buy the pass” is the amount of flexibility you’ll need. The pass gives you the most compared to tickets because it does not specify the exact train you must take and the stops you are allowed to stay. Got a couch surf in a strange little town and alter your course? Easy. Nothing on AirBnb? Done. Need to fly out of the cheapest city in all of Europe? Head to Frankfurt from anywhere without worrying about how you’ve just ruined your budget.
Don’t get me wrong; there are many times a pass is NOT worth it. Maintaining the flexibility to take off anywhere, anytime is not the reality. But there is still a place for the rail pass, and families especially (or single adults traveling with up to two kiddos) should consider the pass a savings in not only cost, but maintaining some flexibility as well.
Further, there are many “tight” connections that your rail app will tell you about. Twenty minutes at the station and kids need to use the 50 cent toilets and it’s Italy so the train was 30 minutes late? Oops. Now imagine that in between figuring this out, you have six minutes to buy the next ticket for the next train. No. Not happening. The rail pass help with kids because I didn’t have to buy tickets every day, adding another 5 minutes at every station, ten minutes the night beforehand, and another line to make the purchase with kids and the fear my credit card will flag me for fraud again and not let me buy when I need to. And there I am with no SIM card, no WIFI, and nowhere to go. No thanks. The rail pass equals peace of mind and easier transport when everyone is already stressed in between destinations.
3. What train companies are covered?
To go ahead and estimate costs and lines, you’ll need to know exactly which trains are covered. This is written on the inside of the Eurail pass cover along with a list of countries covered by your particular pass. Sort of. Yet the lines on the map show a fraction of what you’re allowed to take. You can take any train wholly covered by one of these companies (watch for rail companies operating a portion of the line you want to ride). Covered operators are:
Austria / Liechtenstein
OBB / Westbahn
|France / Monaco||SNCF (parts of lines are sometimes covered...this is where it all goes off the rails for planners)|
|Greece||TRAINOSE, Attica Group, Minoan Lines|
|Italy||Trenitalia, Attica Group, Minoan Lines|
|Switzerland||SBB, CFF, FFS|
Yet I found that sometimes the SAME TRAIN was listed as covered, and just because I was considering going the next day, too, I put that day into the trip planner and found a note telling me the train was not covered. Turns out it wasn’t. If I hadn’t have looked, then asked in the station while buying supplements, I’d have been screwed.
That was a scary moment I was simply lucky to catch. Beware, and consult not only the app but a map.
On another train, I handed the ticket checker my purchased ticket for a line not covered by Eurail into the popular Swiss Matterhorn destination of Zermatt. He said, no, that isn’t a ticket for this train. He told me this was my “freebie.” I felt stupid.
When I went straight to the ticket counter on arrival to make sure the same piece of paper I had in my hand for my return trip was a real ticket, I was assured it was, as was the first ticket that had been rejected. These are hard communication issues when you’re working with a vocabulary of about 10 common German words and one of them is “potato.”
This part of the equation is just part of travel, but handing someone a pass did make it less stressful.
3. Is the price worth it?
Ours was. But would we have taken all those trips if we went the non-Eurail route? Nope. So Eurail did force us to spend a bit more and get a LOT more. While the kid trips are all free on Eurail, reservations are not. Extra tickets for lines covered by Eurail are not. We paid for a few of these, but of course, you can decide ahead of time if it’s worth it for you. This is the limit of the pass flexibility.
Our trip included several long, expensive legs (without paying for a child’s ticket) which made the pass work for us.
I was always a little scared we’d be the first kicked off overcrowded trains, but though we did have to sit through some rides where passengers stood in the spaces between cars, we were never asked to leave. We traveled off-season, though, from September to November. Summer travelers beware. There are plenty of horror stories out there about not being able to use passes. And there’s no price that’s worth not having a ticket at all when you want to travel.
We did have our (local!) hosts put us on the wrong train heading out of Amsterdam on the difficult trip to Paris without TGV. Guess what? There was no way back from the time lost, and we stopped in the Hague and booked the TGV. Sigh. Take this cost into account — you will not always do the right thing. You will not always have days to fix it.
These extra trips can, of course, be avoided, as can the needed reservations for longer, more popular trips. If you have a flexible schedule and want to explore many different, off-the-beaten path cities, hopping off the train with the flexibility to hop back on the next day without penalty can add value (watch the passes that promise a set number of travel days, as these prove themselves *only* for longer trips!) the unlimited passes for a set number of travel months can be golden.
Watch the rules, read the maps, plan a few hypothetical routes, even if you want your “real” trip to be more spontaneous. Only then can anyone assess the value of these — though remember, your kids are free. While college kids and peak season travelers can go wrong, it’s hard to mess up the pass’s value for families.