Picture a college student on summer break, roughin’ it as a budget backpacker in Europe. Or maybe a kid fresh out of high school, wanting to explore the world and opting to go on a gap year. Do you picture them in hostels? Riding trains? Well of course! It can be more affordable than other options! I opted to get Eurail like many backpackers on a shoestring budget before me. Isn’t it sort of a rite-of-passage? I wanted the flexibility to leave whenever, the ability to travel to multiple countries across long distances in a cost-effective way. I didn’t at the time realize that traveling by bus was an option and I didn’t want to fly because I’d have to worry about the size of my backpack and would have to buy my tickets in advance.
If you’re here then you must also be wondering what the heck this whole “Eurail” thing is and also if it’s worth it. Well, I’m here to guide you! I made SO many mistakes! Transportation was the biggest. I don’t want you to fall into the same dumb situations that I found myself caught in. So let’s get into what riding the trains in Europe is all about!
My first mistake was the unrealistic expectations that I had for traveling by train. I had taken a train before from Portland to Seattle but it’s been awhile. Being on a train for a long period of time was new to me. For Europe, I had romantic expectations of staring out the window at the Swiss Alps. Maybe I’d take an overnighter, I thought, and I’d wake up in Paris (of course perfectly rested). The reality of Eurail was much different for me because I hadn’t done proper research on extra expenses, logistics, travel times, or reservations.
Before I scare you away, I just want to say the Eurail wasn’t all bad. I am just not the best at navigation, to begin with. Being bad at navigation combined with not speaking or reading the language and not knowing the area is a whole different ballgame! I also didn’t realize that being on a train would make me motion sick. Let me tell ya, being unable to navigate combined with a killer headache from the train ride doesn’t really go well together.
I’ll get more into my experience later, but let’s start with what you need to know!
When I bought my ticket, I took advantage of a summer sale they were having, so I paid $350 for a 7 days/month pass in 2nd class. What this meant was that for one month from the day of activation, I could use the pass between 12:01 am and 11:59 pm on 7 different occasions. If you have an overnight train with a connection after midnight, this would be considered two days, even if you use it within a 24-hour frame.
However, just because you have a Eurail pass does not mean you wont have to pay any more in train expenses. If you need a train that requires a reservation, you have to pay a reservation fee. Usually reservations are for longer distances and nicer trains. I had to pay $100 in reservation fees to catch a train from Brussels to Barcelona. It was about $80 to reserve a seat from Barcelona to Vienna, etc. For a shorter distance like Amsterdam to Bruges, I didn’t need to pay a fee. My $350 Eurail pass turned into $750 with the associated fees.
If you break down the cost/day with my pass and no reservation fees, it costs $50 a day. So if you are using your pass to hop short distances like from Amsterdam to Brussels and on, then you may want to consider a different transportation option, or foregoing getting a pass and just solely buying a ticket when you are at the train station. You can also always compare the cost of buying a single train ticket at GoEuro.com.
Once you buy the pass, you will receive a pack in the mail after a couple of weeks. When you are ready to use the pass, you arrive at the station of your choice and a clerk at the informations desk will activate the pass. After this all you need to do it write your departure location, date and time, then where you will be traveling to. Each connection needs to be written separately.
When you are on the train, someone will come buy and validate your ticket. They do this by marking off one of the 7 days with their initials and the date. Although I had someone validate my pass before writing my departure and arrival locations, I was told that this could get you a ticket on some trains.
One reason that trains were so appealing to me was the amenities I thought all of them would have. First, I wanted something that would reliably have an outlet so that I would be able to charge my phone. I found that not all the trains or train stations had outlets and if I hadn’t carried a good portable charger on me, I would have found myself stranded somewhere. I also had an expectation that the trains would all have wifi. Usually only the trains you make reservations on would have wifi. In any case, the wifi would usually be unusable because of how many people were on the network.
When using the trains, I had also boarded two trains that didn’t have enough seats for everyone. In these cases, people would crowd into the room between carts where the doors slide open. I, fortunately, found a seat on every train, but I watched as a couple of people stood for upwards of an hour or sat on the floor as they waited for their stop. Others would squeeze past several times with their luggage in tow trying to find a seat. These were not the amenities I was expecting. To be fair, I may have been able to find this out prior if I had done more research.
Logistics of unfamiliar trains can get confusing. I wasn’t the best making my connections. The Eurail app helped because you could see when trains leave at a station, but trains frequently stop and the app doesn’t always update accurately. Catching a connection at some stations are easier than others. When you reach a station where you have to catch another train, you need to find what platform the train will be arriving at. Deciphering the platform from the signs that are in a different language is somewhat of an art. Some departures list the city of the final destination and not necessarily the city you are looking to go to. This is where the Eurail app comes in handy. Find the city you are traveling to, and find the train that corresponds to the final stop.
More confusing logics involved a high number of connections, self-transfers, and late trains. I was catching trains to countries further apart so sometimes I needed to make multiple connections. For each connection you leave the train you’re on and get on to a different train. Sometimes traveling to a new train involves a self-transfer. One case where this is common is in Paris. You may arrive at the station Gare du Nord but then have to get on to the city metro and travel to Gare de Lyon, a separate station. Sometimes the trains would also run late and you’d miss a connection because of it.
Food and Drinks
Just some food for thought, bring lots of water and snacks! Food on the food carts can be really expensive. It also helps to bring something to do other than sleep if you’re going to be on a train for hours on end. I took up travel journaling and it was the perfect way to pass the time and keep a record of all the happenings!
Before buying your Eurail pass, explore other options and make sure it’s the right decision for you! Are you able to navigate through new situations easily? Do you get motion sick? Would you like to be able to walk around? Are you able to cover the cost of reservations?
To plan, map out your estimated itinerary and look at the time spent on trains. Find out how many trains are offered on average from a specific station and the times they usually depart. Some trains don’t depart daily, so make sure the train you’re wanting to take offers times that you’re able to work with. Look to see how many connections are between each destination, and make sure the trains you want to take is covered by Eurail. Not all trains are covered by the pass and there are also a limited number of reservations for Eurail pass holders on certain trains. If you arrive to reserve a seat on the train only a couple minutes early, you may find out the train is full.
When I think about traveling by train, one memory sticks out. I ended up trying to go from Barcelona to Prague which was a projected 22-hour train ride with 8 connections. I ended up on a train with no food cart and had forgotten to bring food or water. On top of this, none of my trains had outlets and my phone was running on low battery. I couldn’t sleep, but I had to catch a connection in the middle of the night so I waited.
It’s 3 am now and I’m about halfway through this journey. The conductor is speaking overhead in German. I didn’t have a clue as to what he was saying. I just knew that I had no idea where my next platform would be, the train was running late and I had only originally had a 10 minute window to catch my connection anyway. When the train came to a stop, everyone raced across the platform to a train that was about to close its doors.
It turns out the train that everyone ran to was the one that I needed and I hadn’t got on. The next connection wouldn’t be for another 4 hours. I had met a girl from France who had needed that train as well and had also missed it. We ended up sleeping by each other on some benches at the train station. We both bike locked our backpacks and then used them as pillows. I think that was the moment I felt like a real budget backpacker.
In the end, I never made it to Prague. I ended up in Vienna after a 26-hour train journey. It was memorable though.
I can imagine that riding the trains in Europe can trigger anxiety for some. However, I think that traveling by train can be a good option if you don’t get motion sick, have time to spare and want to see a wide variety of Europe, want the flexibility to leave with only a day’s notice and are able to budget for the possible reservation fees. If you have explored other options and still think this would be a good fit, the Eurail pass is convenient and easy to use.
I hope this post was helpful! It was my honest opinion of my experience with Eurail.
If you are looking further into transportation options in Europe, be sure to check out my other post here on taking buses, budget airlines, and hitchhiking.
Also, be sure to leave a comment if you’ve used Eurail and let me know your experience with it!