Riding the Rails in Europe

The first time I used a Eurail Pass was in 1982 when I was visiting Europe with my mother on an if-it’s-Tuesday-this-must-be-Belgium whirlwind tour. We arrived in Frankfurt, seriously jetlagged, validated our passes, and walked over to a poster that listed train times, destinations, and track numbers—in German.            

“O.K., Mom, which train do we take to Munich?” I asked. She’d been to Europe the summer before with my brother and had mastered the art of traveling by Eurail Pass, or so I thought. What really happened was my brother deciphered all the train tables, and all Mom had to do was follow along…which meant of course that I would have to figure this out on my own.

It took me a while, but I got the hang of it. Mom and I enjoyed quite some adventures rolling through Europe’s countryside that summer. From Germany, we went to Austria, then Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands (where I met the man I would later marry), and Sweden. I loved sitting on the train and looking out the window as the storybook scenery rolled by. It was like a movie: patchwork fields, winding rivers, soaring mountains, cozy farms, and centuries-old villages—amazing sights for someone from the suburbs of Virginia.

That summer of 1982 was just the beginning. Since then I’ve used Eurail Passes while backpacking with a friend, touring with my husband and young children, and most recently experiencing an empty-nester escapade when my husband and I journeyed through Scandinavia, the Netherlands, France, and Germany on a three-week train trip. Instead of lugging heavy backpacks and hanging out in crowded second-class compartments as I had done in my youth, Peter and I used easy roll-along luggage and traveled in first-class style.

Over the years I’ve come to believe that traveling with Eurail Passes is a fabulous way to see Europe, and it’s not just for students. Whether you’re touring with a friend, your family, or even solo, there’s a wealth of options available to meet your needs. But it pays to do advance research. Peter and I learned on our trip that some trains require reservations and charge a supplement, which can be quite hefty. We also found out that there are limits as to how many passholders can reserve seats on a train, which means you have to make your reservations far in advance, especially when traveling during summer.

Here are a few tips to help you make the most of your Eurail experience.

PLAN AHEAD
One of the first choices you’ll need to make is which Eurail Pass to buy. To help you decide, sketch out a tentative itinerary of places you want to visit and how long you want to stay in each city. If you want to skim through Europe—a day or two in each place—consider a Global Pass, which enables you to visit any of the 21 countries that accept Eurail Passes. You can choose a pass that’s valid for consecutive-day travel (from 15 days up to two months) or opt for the flexible plan: 10 or 15 days within a two-month period—perfect if you want to stay longer in some of your favorite cities.    

If you are planning to visit a specific region of 3-5 adjoining countries, a Select Pass will be appropriate. Again you can choose a pass that’s good for consecutive or flexible travel. Saver Passes (available for the Global and Select Passes) offer a 15 percent discount if two or more adults travel together. Youth Passes, good only in second class, are available for anyone under 26.

Planning your itinerary in advance can help prevent problems with reservations, especially when using high-speed trains. Peter and I learned the hard way that we should have made reservations in advance for the high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris. When we tried to reserve that morning, we found out that the first train with seats available to passholders didn’t leave until that evening. Instead of waiting around, we opted to take the slow train to Paris and enjoy a leisurely ride through the countryside. Best of all, we avoided paying the supplement!

FOLLOW THE RULES
Beware that sometimes reservations are compulsory and may require an additional fee. A list on the back of the map that comes with your Eurail Pass lists the routes that require reservations as well as the supplemental fees. High-speed trains to and from Paris have the highest fees, 100+ euros from London to Paris one-way.

Sometimes you might get lucky, however. When Peter and I took the slow train to Paris, which involved several changes, we actually managed to get seats on a Paris-bound high-speed train at Lille, thanks to a kind conductor and quick thinking.

Another suggestion is to read the fine print. For example, if you have a Select Pass, you must write down the date you are using the pass before you board the train—or risk a 50-euro fine. Also if you take an overnight train with a Select Pass, you can choose whether to count the day the train leaves or the day the train arrives, depending on which day you need additional train travel.

A FEW OTHER TIPS
• Pack light: Getting on and off trains can be daunting, especially if you are carrying too much luggage. Use a lightweight suitcase with wheels and pack light.
• Bring a picnic: Always carry snacks or sandwiches when you travel. It’s a pleasant way to while away the time on a train—and it also saves money. Look for a grocery store on the way to the train station and pick up fresh bread, cheese, and if you’re inclined, a bottle of wine.
• Keep an open mind: We tried to reserve couchettes in a sleeping car for a trip from Paris to Berlin only to discover that the inexpensive berths were all taken, and we would have to book more expensive first-class sleeping compartments. Instead we opted to rearrange our plans and stay overnight with a friend in Bremen, who was delighted we stopped by.
• Maintain your sense of humor: Once Peter hopped off the train to grab a couple beers at a station, and before he returned, the doors of the train closed. Yikes! I shouted out the window, “Stop! Wait for my man.” Luckily Peter returned just in time and was able to climb aboard. At first I was upset, but then we started laughing about what a great story we’d have to tell when we got home. We clinked our cold beers and rolled out of the train station toward another adventure. Toot-toot!

Getting Your Passes:
Visit www.eurailgroup.org for more information about Eurail Passes.

Where To Stay:
• Best Western Hotels are well represented throughout Europe. Look into purchasing a Best Western Unit Travel Card, available at travel agencies. You buy units at $25 each and then, using a directory, choose hotels based on how many units they charge. Many hotels have specials in the summer and charge just 3-4 units per night for a double room, making these properties a good bargain.
• Comfort Hotels International offers affordably priced accommodations throughout Europe. Visit www.choicehotels.com.

Peggy Sijswerda

Tidewater Women Magazine, Editor & Co-Publisher.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com
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