This past summer I spent 2 months travelling around Europe with a Eurail pass, where I took a total of 12 trains through 8 cities and 7 different countries. Over the course of the trip I rode a mix of high-speed trains and regional trains, I sat in crowded trains and empty trains, and I even missed a few tight connections.
Travelling by train proved to be a really fun way to see Europe, however, I also picked up a few tips and tricks after having a couple of train mishaps along the way. For anyone thinking of seeing Europe with a Eurail pass, here are a few things to keep in mind:
The Rail Planner app is your best friend
What I loved about this app is that it downloads all the train schedules on to your phone so that you can access them offline. It’s perfect for planning your travels on the go and making alternate plans to catch a later train if you missed a tight connection. Also, the app allows you to filter your rail options based on: direct connections only, trains without a compulsory reservation, and trains with a bicycle carriage. Super handy!
Don’t forget to validate your Eurail pass
Your Eurail pass needs to be validated at a train station before you can start using it, and you want to give yourself plenty of time to do so. Don’t try validating your pass on a Sunday morning in small-town Germany when they run on restricted schedules…your train may leave before the office even opens!
Take extra care filling out your pass
It’s also really important that you fill out your pass every time you start a leg of your journey. Because the Eurail pass gives you a specific number of travel days within a certain time frame, if one of the train officials catches you with an incomplete pass, they’ll think you’re trying to squeeze some free travel days. Same goes if you make a mistake filling out your pass; if you try to change your mistake, this will look like tampering. You must fill out your pass in ink, and you want to be really careful since any errors could result in a lost travel day.
Be aware that some trains require reservations
Yes, even with your Eurail pass, some of the high speed trains and overnight trains require that you make a reservation ahead of time. You can check this on the Rail Planner app when you plot your route – trains requiring a reservation will be market with an ‘R’. Additional reservation fees and surcharges apply to these trains on top of the cost of your pass.
Consider taking the regional trains to save money
If you don’t want to pay additional fees to travel on certain high speed trains, and if you have time to spare, you can always opt for the regional trains that travel at a slower speed and make more frequent stops along the way. It may take you twice or thrice as long to reach your destination, but it’s a good opportunity to enjoy the scenery or read a book.
When I was travelling from Luxembourg to Paris, I had the option of taking the regional trains which would get me to Paris in 6 hours, or taking a direct high speed train that would have me there in 2 hours. Since the later required paying an additional fee, I opted to take the slower train and catch up on some work instead.
Know when to bite the bullet and pay out of pocket
Travelling on the regional trains may save you money, but if you need to cover a lengthy distance and you don’t want to spend 2 days stuck on a train, you’ll have to pay out of pocket to upgrade to the faster trains.
As an example, I needed to get from Paris to Madrid in a day. When I filtered the routes avoiding trains requiring a reservation, I found that the journey would take anywhere between 44-55 hours – I couldn’t do that. However, if I was willing to upgrade to trains requiring a reservation, I could cut my travel time down to 10 hours. Sometimes it’s worth paying out of pocket.
Need reservations? Make them well in advance
Train travel is a popular way to see Europe, and during the summer months certain routes can fill up. You don’t want to show up at the station a few hours before catching an overnight train from say Prague to Amsterdam, only to discover that there are no seats available. If you’re planning to travel on a route that requires a reservation, book it as soon as you have concrete travel plans.
Sometimes it’s worth missing a tight connection
If there’s one thing that stressed me out about train travel, it was the tight connections. I travelled on routes that gave me as little as 12 minutes to haul all my luggage off one train, check the timetable for my next connection, run halfway across the station to find the next platform, weave my way through a mass of people, and then haul my luggage onto the next train. That’s enough to make you break out into a mild panic!
That’s why I decided that sometimes it’s best to just miss that tight connection and catch the one leaving after that. If it’s a popular route, the next train may leave within the hour or sooner, which gives you plenty of time to grab a snack, go to the washroom, and find your way without feeling rushed.
Choose your pass carefully
I had a Global Pass that gave me 15 days of travel within a 2 month window, and it also gave me the freedom to travel through 28 countries. However, looking back, I hardly made use of all those available travel days! Before you get a pass, think about where you want to go, and then decide if you really need the Global Pass or if a One Country Pass or a Select Pass (that covers 2-4 neighbouring countries) would be more efficient and wallet-friendly.
Lastly, bring snacks on board!
I don’t know about you, but I like to snack all day long (it’s what keeps ‘hanger’ at bay). However, what I found was that not all trains sell food onboard. This is especially true of regional trains, so if you have a long travel day ahead of you, it’s best you bring a few snacks on board.
Have you ever travelled on a Eurail pass?
Do you have any train travel tips you’d like to share?