You’ve decided to travel Europe by rail but you’re still not quite sure if an Eurail pass is for you, and if it is, how to use it?
Having traveled all Europe with two Eurail Global Passes in a span of 3.5 months, I feel pretty comfortable in my knowledge on how the system works. This comprehensive post intends to go from the basics of acquiring your pass to getting the most for your money. It is not only based on dry guide facts, but also from my experiences and mistakes. This way, you can get on the road, or should I say, the tracks, feeling comfortable that you’re going to have a smooth ride and experience. So…
The pre-trip planning…
What are Eurail passes for?
Eurail passes a made to ease your train travel experience through Europe for a specific time period (up to two months) and a specific number of countries (up to 26 covered countries). It is also designed to give you a lot of flexibility on the road and to lower the cost of your transportation.
Eurail passes are created by a European train carrier-owned consortium called Eurail, which sells European train passes to non-European citizens through various sellers. If you’re a European citizen, you will need an Interail Pass instead. Eurail and Interail are separate and different passes, but they strive to achieve the same goal and they are used pretty much the same way.
Should you buy a Eurail Pass?
There are different types of Eurail passes with different prices, duration, and coverage. The type of pass you choose will depend on how much, and where, you intend to travel.
If you intend to take just 2 or 3 trains in one or a few countries, then it’s probable that a Eurail pass is not for you, as the individual train tickets might cost less than a pass that might go partially unused. But on the other hand, if you know you will be jumping here and there and using the trains constantly, then a pass might be the best option for you.
I recommend thinking of a preliminary itinerary and going to a site like RailEurope (which I’ve used to do this) and compare the total price of all point to point tickets versus the pass.
For example, in my first “rail trip” to Europe in 2010, I visited 5 countries (which is a considerably big trip), but when I did my comparison, it proved to be cheaper buying my tickets point by point. But, this year, my European trip was much bigger, so the passes made a lot more sense.
How to Buy your Eurail Pass?
I want to state that my Eurail Passes for my 2012 trip were sponsored by Eurail Travel, so I didn’t go through the “Buy Now” process. But, this is a pretty easy process once you’ve analyzed and pinpointed the type of pass you need. You simply need to visit this page and just go through the buying and selection process like any regular purchase.
You must buy your Eurail Pass while at your home country (non-European country), with enough time before your trip to be able to receive the pass by mail. Passes are only mailed to the purchaser’s address (or address of choice within the country), so if you are on the road (like I was at the time of acquiring my pass), your pass will be mailed to any address at your home country and then your friend/family must mail it to you. Tickets are not available electronically (ie. PDF).
Usually, the pass should be bought from six months ahead of your trip, up to a week ahead (but always consider shipping time to your address). After you buy a rail pass, you have six months to validate it at a train station in Europe (we’ll cover validation soon).
Most Eurail passes must be purchased in the U.S. (or respective non-European country) and are not sold in Europe, but there are some exceptions: Passes like the multi-country pass are sold at some of Europe’s major railway stations, but their price tag is higher than in the U.S. Some countries also offer their own local pass at their major station, but again, at a higher price.
Things to note: You can save a lot of money on your passes if you’re 25 years old or younger, or if you’re a party of two or more. Of course, second class passes are cheaper than first class, and I highly recommend getting a second class instead of first. Why?
- If you’re a backpacker like me, then traveling cheaply is more important than “luxury”.
- In 99% of the European trains, the only difference between second and first is simply, upholstery. Maybe a slight difference in open seating arrangement is that first class has 3 seats per row vs. second class that has 4 slightly narrower seats per row on the same space.
- When reserving a berth on a sleeper train, most probably you will select second-class reservation since the reservation fare is much cheaper (I’ll cover this soon).
- And, a few trains don’t even have a first class section, so you will have to seat on second class anyways.
Which pass to buy?
There are three main things you have to decide before buying your pass: countries to visit, duration of trip, and estimated “train travel days”.
There are 4 major passes:
- Single Country Pass: Best if you’re interested in traveling in one country or area.
- Regional Pass: If you’re interested in traveling to two bordering countries.
- Select Pass: If you’re interested in traveling to three, four, or five countries. (These must be bordering. ie. Portugal > Spain > France > Germany > Czech Republic)
- Global Pass: If you’re interested in going up to 23 countries.
After you know which pass you want, then select the duration (usually 2 months, except for the Global Pass which varies) and the number of “Train Travel Days”.
Train Travel Days are the number of days in which you will actually use the train, during the span of your whole trip. For example, if you will only take 5 trains in five different days, then you might choose 5 Train Travel Days. But, if you take the same 5 trains but take 2 of those trains in one single day, then what you need is 4 Train Travel Days. Train Travel Days options vary depending on the pass you choose.
Let’s start traveling!!!
How to validate your pass?
Before you take your first train, you MUST validate your pass at a train station in a country where Eurail is valid. A railway official will fill in the start and end date of your pass as well as your passport number. In addition, they will stamp your pass to validate the date on which train travel begins. Activation is required within 6 months of the issuing date. To validate, you must provide proof of ID (passport) and the pass.
Learn from my mistake: I validated my pass in Athens, where I started my trip, but I failed to notice that they didn’t stamp my pass. It wasn’t until I was on the sleeper train from Bucharest to Budapest that the train conductor noticed the lack of stamp, so I had to pay the full fare for that train and validate the pass (again) in Budapest. (validation is free)
Understanding how train travel days work…
A day on a pass is usually one 24-hour period, commencing at midnight. Once you hop on a train during a calendar day, it counts as a travel day in your pass. But, during that calendar day you can take as many trains as you like, and it still counts as one travel day.
But, have in mind that there’s the 7 p.m. rule…
What is the 7 p.m. rule?
If you have a flexi pass (e.g. Global Pass – choose 15 days within 2 months), then knowing about the 7 p.m. rule can save you a few travel days! Simply, you can save travel days when you travel by night.
The rule means that you only need to use 1 travel day when you travel on a direct night train that departs after 7 p.m. (19:00) and arrives after 4 a.m. (04:00). But, the date that counts as the travel day is the arrival date.
The 7 p.m. rule only applies after the activation date of your pass. For example, if your Eurail pass is activated from July 6, you cannot use the 7 p.m. rule on the evening of July 5.
Have in mind, for example, that if you board a train before 7:00 p.m. that does not stop until after midnight (but before 4am), you’re still on one travel day (the departure date).
On ferries (yes! The pass is also valid on many ferries!) the 7 p.m. rule also applies. If the ferry is free (included in the pass), then you can decide which date to note in the travel calendar, either departure or arrival date. If the ferry is discounted, then there is no need to put a date in the calendar. Just show your pass and get the discount.
Now, plan your trip as you go!
Understanding train schedules and selecting the best trains…
Selecting trains is quite easy with the tools Eurail gives you as well as with the information found throughout all train stations. Along with your pass, you’ll receive a map of all major train routes in all Europe, a Eurail Pass Timetable, and a Eurail Guide.
Of great use on the road are the map and the timetable, especially the timetable.
The timetable is a book with all major routes, including most, if not all trains from destination “A” to destination “B”. Here (as shown in the image below) you will see the type of train it is, the schedule and duration, if a reservation is required (with the “R”), if it is a sleeper (with a bed icon), if you have to change trains and where (with the city name in the middle column), and which days of the week are they available (with the numbers from 1 to 7).
This was my train bible and it helped me plan on the go. I found out that the timetable guide is 99% accurate on its times, and those that weren’t accurate were just by 5 minutes before or after the stated time.
If you don’t have the timetable book with you, then you can visit a train station of interest and know the schedule of all trains arriving (white schedule) and departing (yellow schedule) from that station.
Another alternative is to visit Deutsche bahn.de to use their online timetable. The DB web site is the most complete resource for train schedules throughout Europe. So, usually, if they train route exist, you will find the schedules on this site.
Also, you can go mobile and do your schedule search with the DB Navigator app.
Wait, do I also need to make reservations?
Some trains do require a reservation (mostly sleepers/overnight, high speed, long-distance, and cross-country/international trains). The reservation guarantees that you will have a seat for the whole duration of the ride, but they can cost a fee from €0 to €30+. I found out that the average reservation for day trains is from €3 – €10, and for sleepers is €15 – €20.
The sleeper train reservations will give you the opportunity to reserve a bed or a couchette in a single berth, double berth, 4-couchette berth, or 6-couchette berth, depending on the class you have and the amount of money you are willing to spend on a reservation. If you’re not interested in sleeping comfortable, you can reserve a seat for much less.
Sometimes, a single route can offer trains with reservation and without, so it can be possible to avoid the reservation fees if you do a bit of research with the timetable book.
If the train you’re interested in taking does not require a reservation, you can just hop in and pick any seat on your class. Just make sure to write the journey’s information on your pass.
How to make reservations?
Reservations are very easy to make. My best recommendation is to go to the train station (many of them have a dedicated pass holder window) and say; “I have a Eurail Pass and I want a reservation for the train from “A” to “B” on X day (even possible for the same day) and at X hour.”
They will just tell you how much the reservation costs, and voila! You’re in!
As long as all train travel is done in the same country, you can make all reservations in a single station. For example, I can make reservations for trains from Florence to Rome, Rome to Naples, and Milan to Bologna, all from Milan Central Station… only because all trains are running in Italy.
Learn from my mistakes: There is a limited reservation availability for pass holders, so even if there’s space on the train, a ticket agent can tell you there’s no space for you with your pass. This is rare, unless you’re traveling during high season or a very popular route. In these cases, I recommend making the reservation at least the day before. If there’s no space for pass holders and you have to get on that train, then you will have to pay the full fare.
Travel report and keeping track of travel days
Your Eurail pass consists of a ticket and a pass cover. Each time before boarding a train, bus or boat, it is important that you record your trip in the “travel report” on the pass cover (in blue or black ink) and write the date of travel on your pass too. If you travel without having entered the trip in the travel report and pass, you risk a fine and payment of a full fare ticket. Well, a few times the train conductor got to my seat to verify my ticket before I documented my journey, and the worst case scenario was a few frowns from them while they made sure I wrote the information accurately (there were times I didn’t have a pen available!).
What if I need Assistance in Europe?
There are dedicated Eurail Aid Offices in some of the major train stations to assist pass holders making reservations. They are generally located at the international ticket windows and they can also help exchange incorrectly validated or issued passes.
Tips for getting the most for your money:
A few extra random tips to use on the road:
- When using the timetable guide, remember that the city names are written in their native language. For example, when looking for Copenhagen, you must look for København; or Wien for Vienna. Use the map to find the European local name for each city.
- Always carry water with you on long distance or sleeper trains.
- Use common sense with your backpack. Don’t leave it unattended inside the train and on overnight trains, you could lock it to something for peace of mind. Having said that, I never locked my backpack on any sleeper train, and luckily nothing happened, but I’ve heard horror stories from other travelers.
- If you have to make a reservation, do allow at least an hour before the train departs. Some major stations can get really crowded and the reservation line could take quite a while.
- Sometimes train doors close 2 to 3 minutes before departure, so don’t expect to come running and enter the train on the very last minute. Or at least, avoid that situation.
- When crossing borders, keep your passport accessible, as it will be requested by immigration (that is if the border is not between Schengen countries).
Tips to get the most out of your pass:
- You don’t need a month long pass just because your trip is a month long. With careful planning, you can select a pass that has a shorter duration than your trip, but still cover you to travel everywhere you want to. You can do this by starting or ending in a city where you’d like to spend a longer time or that is not covered by the pass. Selecting a pass for a shorter period will save a significant amount of money.
- Pay for short, cheap train rides out of pocket. If you know you’re likely to use all your day in the end, then pay for a few of the cheap local trains to save a travel day for the expensive train rides. I did this in Italy by paying $5 euro on a regional train, but then used my last travel day on a $50 euro train.
- Flexible travel days are better for longer or interrupted trips. If you’re a student that can only travel during weekends, then you can do more with a 2 months – 15 days of travel pass, vs a continuous days pass. Same applies to a two months long trip where you wont be traveling every single consecutive day.
- You can save with a flexi pass instead of a continuous pass since it covers fewer days in a longer time span. If you know you won’t be traveling by train every consecutive day, there’s no point in getting a consecutive days pass, but instead use the flexi days pass days wisely.
Wait, are there even more discounts and benefits?!
The pass comes with extra discounts and benefits in all the countries where it is valid. These range from discounts in local and international transportation, to free admission to museums, and others. But, have in mind if you use a free benefit on a certain day, you will have to fill in a travel day on your pass. All the current deals are shown in the Eurail Pass Guide that comes with your pass.
Websites for all countries included in the Eurail Passes:
- Austria – http://www.oebb.at
- Belgium – http://www.b-rail.be
- Bulgaria – http://www.bdz.bg
- Croatia – http://www.hznet.hr
- Czech Republic – http://www.cd.cz
- Denmark – http://www.dsb.dk
- Finland – http://www.vr.fi
- France – http://www.sncf.com
- Germany – http://www.bahn.de
- Greece – http://www.ose.gr
- Hungary – http://www.mav.hu
- Ireland – http://www.iarnrodeireann.ie, http://www.nir.co.uk
- Italy – http://www.trenitalia.com
- Luxembourg –http://www.cfl.lu
- Montenegro – http://www.zcg-prevoz.me
- Netherlands – http://www.ns.nl
- Norway – http://www.nsb.no
- Poland – http://www.pkp.pl, http://www.intercity.pl
- Portugal – http://www.cp.pt
- Romania – http://www.cfr.ro
- Serbia – http://www.serbianrailways.com
- Slovakia – http://www.zssk.sk
- Slovenia – http://www.slo-zeleznice.si
- Spain – http://www.renfe.es
- Sweden –http://www.sj.se
- Switzerland – http://www.sbb.ch
Hopefully this guide has covered the most important aspects of acquiring and using your Eurail Pass. If there’s any additional information you’d like to know or would like to share, please share it in the comments below.
Have you traveled with a Eurail Pass before? How was your experience?