TLDR: Eurail travel may not be the most economical, but it is often more convenient, once you get the hang of it. Jump to the bottom for a quick overview.
In Western Europe, it’s almost always the case that budget flights will be cheaper (and faster) than taking trains. So why would anyone want to buy train tickets?
That was my assumption until a friend suggested I buy a Eurail Pass.
What’s a Eurail Pass? It basically gives you unlimited travel for a certain timeframe and specified countries (for example, 15 consecutive days, or 7 days spread over three months) on trains in the Eurail network. Sounds too good to be true? Well it is actually, but if you are a little more careful with planning, or have flexible plans, consider getting a pass.
How the Pass Works
I ordered the pass online and received it in the mail about a month later (if I remember correctly, you can opt to collect it at a Eurail Aid Office) – do remember to take this time into consideration. The package contained the pass itself, a guidebook (which has the Eurail aid office locations), a flyer with instructions on how to report a lost pass, a map, and a booklet of train timings. I then had to activate the pass at a Eurail Aid Office or ticketing station. This I did at the office in London, on the first leg of my trip.
In general the pass works as such – fill in the travel details on the pass before getting on the train and show it in lieu of a train ticket. Booking is not always necessary, and you can check the train schedules online using the Eurail journey planner or the booklet of train schedules. Usually, the conductors check the tickets only after you are seated, but apparently they can ask you to leave the train if you do not fill in the journey details. Pretty simple. However…
All is not Plain Railing
Certain train services on the Eurail network require reservations. This is where it starts to get a little irritating – not all train tickets are completely free after buying the pass. In countries like Switzerland you can just hop on a train after filling in the trip details on your pass. However, for certain train services you must pay an additional fee to reserve a seat. Countries like Italy offer reasonably-priced, fixed reservation fees (about €10). Others, such as the French TGV (bullet train) have reservation prices that vary with time (and place of booking apparently, more on this in a bit).
These train services also have limited Eurail slots, so you may want to book early. There isn’t really an easy way to book the tickets online – you either have to use a form written in German (Google Translate only helps to a certain extent), visit a Eurail Aid Office (not an option if you don’t live in Europe, and even then, I don’t think you can pay online), or call them.
We chose to book them at the Eurail Aid Office in London since we were activating our tickets. The London office is decent (although we took a while to find it), we had our tickets done for most of the trip and were out within the phour. Note – search for the location online, some of the information given in the booklet they send is outdated.
There were some quirks though – an example is when we tried to book a Paris-Lyon TGV connection due a week and a half later. Apparently, all the Eurail-allocated seats had been booked, so we were given the option of booking a slightly discounted ticket at €67.50 each (ouch, I know) or sit a “free” 5-hour commuter train instead (the TGV train took only 2 hours). We decided to think it over and make our decision in Paris.
At the Gare du Nord station in Paris, we were told that “zat waz in London, now you arh in Pari” so there may yet be tickets. So, we queued 2.5 hours (yes, not kidding) and thankfully managed to reserve two tickets on the TGV at €34.50 each. Phew! Lesson learnt? If you can’t live with or afford the uncertainty, book your tickets early. Otherwise, Eurail might be better for those with flexibility in their travel plans.
Note that I can’t speak much for trips in Eastern Europe, but those options are definitely available on the pass. Also, remember England is NOT part of the Eurozone, so Eurail passes do not cover trains in England. However, Eurostar does offer discounts for Eurail travellers (we paid £59 instead of £89 for a London-Paris connection).
With that, a quick overview…
- Flexibility – travel when you want, even on a whim. Sometimes you just have to hop on a train, as we did when the weather in Interlaken was bad. And worry less about baggage restrictions.
- Scenery – of course, not all train routes offer this, but journeys into Switzerland are almost always a sure hit. The Eurail map actually lists a few “scenic routes”.
- Convenience – unlike flights, no need to check in. Additionally, train stations are usually better located than budget airports. Usually much, much better – think additional 45 minute shuttle bus to the city centre versus a metro station right outside the train stop.
- Dependability – unlike buses (oh, and we know about buses) trains are usually on time, so you can plan connections within 10 – 30 minutes of each other.
- Longer travel journeys – trains often have a few stops enroute where they pick up and drop off customers. You may also have to change trains, so a 5-hour journey does not mean 5 hours of sleep, unless you are on a sleeper train.
- Booking systems are still a little backward – I don’t think you can pay for tickets online. we wasted precious time queuing in Paris – though it probably saved us valuable booking time on the other legs of the journey.
- Not the cheapest – that is, compared to buses or budget flights. Ryanair is really dirt cheap if you are within luggage restrictions.
- A little confusing – especially if you are a first-timer in Europe. I still don’t understand how they can have different inventory in London and Paris.
Some Last Words
As you can see, while the idea for the pass is great, there are still tons of opportunities to develop and improve on the system – from systems that aid booking to those that check trains on trips with multiple stops. Startups, anyone?
Overall, I do feel that the pass is a great option to consider. For us, we bought a few more days than necessary, and so probably did not fully utilise the value of the pass. But if you plan the amount of travel days right, it is worth getting – save one or two days in case so you can make a spur-of-the-moment trip.
Unfortunately I can’t quite give an exact figure for the costs of a train ticket – they do vary across services and length of travel. For example, the TGV ticket, which seems to vary in price, costs around €67.50 for a Paris-Lyon trip. In Switzerland a direct ticket from Interlaken West to Bern (2 stops in-between) cost CHF26. A trip further down a few more stops to Basel doubled the price.