Europe is scary! For those of you considering a summer romp through the continental continent, Caitlyn Levin, an Actual European, details her journey through Europe and describes the workings of the mysterious Eurail system.
If you’re thinking about traveling around Europe this summer, you’ve probably already heard the term “Eurail” thrown around, and if you’re anything like me, you have no idea what it means, because (being fairly ignorant of how train travel works) the concept is completely new. I was in a similar situation this past Spring Break, when I decided to embrace my Junior year abroad and travel forth into the great unknown of Europe–scary, I know. Friends told me that if you’re making the great train trip, a Eurail pass is the way to go. There’s an abundance of information on the Internet about Eurail passes, but most of it is confusing who have never traveled anywhere in Europe by train before.
Thrown into deep confusion, my research into these multi-faceted passes began.
Basically, a Eurail pass is a train ticket that enables you to take multiple trains through multiple cities on multiple days. Simple, right? They’re often recommended to people, especially young people, who want to travel via train through Europe with the flexibility to plan their course as they move. It sounds easy—and for the most part, it is—but it’s important to do research beforehand to figure out whether or not you actually need one.
The passes are produced by Eurail Group, a non-profit organization, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Firstly, they’re broken down into four categories:
These passes vary in price depending on which countries you choose, and how many “travel days” you want to have. “What is a travel day?!” you shout.
A travel day is a day on which your ticket is valid. When you get the ticket, there will be little empty boxes on it, one for each travel day you bought. When you want to use the ticket, you simply fill in one of the little boxes with the date, and then you can travel as much as you want that day, through any of the countries that are included on your pass.
The point of the passes is to save you money and to make Europe more accessible to non-EU citizens (who are the only people eligible to buy them). So the question is, will it actually save you money? The answer to this question is different for everyone, so you’ll have to do a bit of research. If you’re only traveling around one country, then check the price of the pass for that country, and see how many travel days you will need. There are a variety of places where you can check the price for train travel. Most countries will have their own rail network and you can look at booking tickets directly through them (but be warned, most places won’t give you an e-ticket, and shipping can be outrageous). Travel agencies are more than willing to help out for a small price—raileurope.com is an online agency that specializes in train travel and will help you get an idea for what your trip would cost. Comparing the price of the pass with the point-by-point total seems really simple, but there are some hidden fees to watch out for during the process.
First of all, when you see or hear the term “reservation” remember that a reservation is not the same as a ticket for the train. For many trains, a ticket is all that is necessary, but for most high-speed trains, a reservation is required in addition to a ticket. When traveling with a Eurail pass, you always have a ticket, but never have a reservation. Nearly all reservations come with a fee, and in some cases that fee can be more expensive than buying the ticket on its own (The THALYS trains in Belgium, for example, charge you a huge reservation fee if you’re traveling on a Eurail pass). In Italy, they will often require a seat reservation and will charge a fee to make it.
The tricky thing about these reservations is that you usually don’t need them. Basically, the Eurail pass is a ticket to any train that’s covered under the package you bought, if the train has seats available. During the peak season in the summer, a reservation might be a good idea. It will guarantee a seat on the train, even if the train is packed.
Reservations can be difficult to make if you’re in the United States, because the easiest way to make them is to go to a train station in Europe and speak with someone at the ticket desk. Travel agents can help with this, and some will even do it for you online.
All of this information seemed really overwhelming to me when I was doing my research—and some of it was absurdly hard to find and sort out—but the gist of the Eurail pass is this: If you’re going to be traveling through multiple countries (especially if you’re going to travel through all of Europe), the pass is definitely going to save you money. Not only does it cover unlimited travel on the days you chose to use it, it also covers regional trains in the city once you get there, which in some cases is like using the subway for free all day. Berlin, for example, has a huge S-Bahn network that runs through the city just as thoroughly as the Underground system, and if your travel day is activated, you can ride the Bahn to your heart’s content without paying a Euro penny.
The pass comes with a travel guide that lays out all the rules and regulations to watch out for while traveling and tells you about special discounts in each country to which your pass entitles you. It also comes with a giant map that shows you the train routes drawn through all of the countries and a book with timetables of popular trains in it, broken down by country—very handy when you’re standing in Poland unsure of your next move. If you’re a type-A personality like I am and you need to plan your trains more thoroughly, OBB has a route planner that allows you to search for specific trains on the day you think you’ll be traveling and tells you if those trains require reservations or not. Use it, and feel your blood pressure decrease.
Overall, if Europe in general is your destination this summer, check out what they’re offering over at Eurailtravel. The website provides more information than you could ever need and links to sales agents that can give you even more excruciatingly detailed information about how the passes work. If your goal is to see as much of Europe with as little debt as possible, the Eurail pass is truly the way to go.
The oblong fruit of your language requirement labors via Wikimedia.