Updated: January 2020
You’ve decided to travel Europe by rail, but you’re still not quite sure if a Eurail pass is for you, and if it is, how to use it?
Having traveled all over Europe with two Eurail Global Passes in a span of 3.5 months, I feel pretty comfortable in my knowledge of 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 hard 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 three months) and a specific number of countries (up to 31 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 plan 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 taking trains regularly, 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, on my first “rail trip” to Europe in 2010, I visited five countries (which is a considerably big trip), but when I made my comparison, it proved to be cheaper buying my tickets point by point. But, on my much bigger 3.5 months European trip, the passes made a lot more sense.
Also, on two different trips I made to Spain and Italy in 2018, both country-specific passes were cheaper for the number of trains and travel days I planned on using, rather than go with point by point tickets.
How to Buy your Eurail Pass?
You should buy your Eurail Pass online while at your home country with enough time prior to your trip to receive the pass by mail. If you’re already traveling through Europe, the Eurail passes can be mailed to your accommodation. Just let your hotel or hostel staff know that you’re expecting a package.
I recommend checking all the Eurail Pass shipping info to calculate the shipping and delivery cost and time based on your country. Be aware that passes are not available electronically (i.e., PDF).
The pass can be bought from eleven months to a week ahead of your trip. I recommend purchasing it at least a month ahead and always consider the shipping time to your address.
After you purchase a rail pass, you have eleven months to activate it at a train station in Europe (we’ll cover validation soon). As of 2019, you can also pre-activate your Eurail pass online. To do this, simply choose the “activate my pass” option at the Eurail.com checkout when you place your order.
While it’s better to buy the passes online, some European major railway stations offer some Global Passes, but their price tag is much higher than online. Some countries also offer their own local pass at their major stations, but again, at a higher price.
Things to note: You can save a lot of money on your passes if you’re 27 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 three seats per row vs. second class that has four slightly narrower seats per row in 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 anyway.
Which Eurail Pass to buy?
There are three main things you have to decide before buying your pass: countries to visit, duration of the trip, and estimated “train travel days.”
There are two passes:
- Single Country Pass: Best if you’re interested in traveling in one country or area.
- Global Pass: If you’re interested in going up to 31 countries.
After you know which pass you want, then select the duration and the number of “Train Travel Days.”
Train Travel Days are the number of days in which you will actually take the train during the span of your whole trip. For example, if you take five trains on five different days, then you might choose five Train Travel Days.
But, if you take the same five trains but two of those trains are taken on the same day, then what you need is four Train Travel Days. Train Travel Days options vary depending on the pass you choose.
For the Global Pass, for example, you can get either a continuous pass that allows unlimited travel for 15 consecutive days, 22 days, 1 month, 2 months, or 3 months — or a flexipass for either 3, 5, or 7 travel days within a one-month window, or 10 or 15 travel days within a two-month window.
If this sounds confusing, don’t worry, this search tool helps you pick the best pass for you based on your travel plans.
Let’s start traveling!!!
How to activate your Eurail Pass?
Before you take your first train, you MUST activate 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.
Also, they will stamp your pass to validate the date on which train travel begins.
Activation is required within eleven months of the issuing date. To activate, you must provide proof of ID (passport) and the pass.
Eurail now also gives the option to pre-activate your pass right when you purchase it. Simply choose the “activate my pass” option during checkout when you place your order.
Learn from my mistake: I activated 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 saw the lack of a stamp, so I had to pay the full fare for that train and activate the pass (again) in Budapest. (activation 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 pm rule?
If you have a flexipass (e.g. Global Pass – choose 15 days within two months), then knowing about the 7 pm rule can save you a few travel days! Simply, you can save travel days when you travel by night.
UPDATE: The 7 pm rule is no longer in effect. From now on, when traveling overnight, it is possible to only use one travel day. This is when you board the train before midnight and do not have to change trains anymore after midnight. In that case, you only indicate the day of departure as a travel day.
This is opposite to the now-defunct 7 pm rule which allowed you to use one travel day when you traveled on a direct night train that departed after 7 pm (19:00) and arrived after 4 am (04:00). But, the date that counted as the travel day was the arrival date. So, forget about that if you read that somewhere else.
If you need to change trains after midnight, you need to indicate that day as a travel day as well.
On ferries (yes! The pass is also valid on many ferries!)
the 7 pm rule also applies the same overnight conditions explained above apply. If the ferry is free (included in the pass), then you mark the departure date as your travel day.
If the ferry is discounted, then there is no need to put a date on 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…
UPDATE: Eurail no longer provides printed timetable booklets with its passes, instead, they now have a web-based timetable and a convenient app that works offline too. With the app, you can also make e-ticket reservations, find train stations near you, and visualize your trip on its map. It’s quite convenient and I recommend it now.
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 the main 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.
UPDATE: Should you still want to use a printed timetable, Eurail recommends purchasing one. You can pick the most up to date one on this list, depending on when you’re reading this. They work similarly to what I’ll explain below, but if you decide to use the app, it’ll be much easier for you to search for trains.
The timetable is a book with all the main 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 (or the app), 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.
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 in 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 the 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 native language 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 larger 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 at 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 covers 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 two months – 15 days of travel pass, vs. a continuous days pass. Same applies to a two months long trip where you won’t be traveling every single consecutive day.
- You can save with a flexipass 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
- Bosnia-Herzegovina – https://www.zfbh.ba
- 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 – https://www.bahn.de
- Greece – http://www.ose.gr
- Hungary – http://www.mav.hu
- Ireland – http://www.iarnrodeireann.ie
- Italy – http://www.trenitalia.com
- Lithuania – https://www.traukiniobilietas.lt
- Luxembourg –http://www.cfl.lu
- Macedonia – https://mzt.mk
- Montenegro – http://www.zcg-prevoz.me
- Netherlands – https://www.ns.nl
- Norway – http://www.nsb.no
- Poland – http://www.pkp.pl, http://www.intercity.pl
- Portugal – https://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 –https://www.sj.se
- Switzerland – https://www.sbb.ch
- Turkey – http://www.tcdd.gov.tr
- United Kingdom – https://www.nationalrail.co.uk, https://www.translink.co.uk (Northern Ireland)
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?
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