Eurail: A Critique and Review

At this point in time I’d like to take break from retelling the narrative of my journey to offer some opinion and advice, of sorts, regarding the way I travelled around Europe, my major mode of transport: the European train network. Ultimately it was something that worked very well for me, but there were definitely lists of both pros and cons. However, some of these points aren’t really things that were explicitly bad, but rather minor details that easily slipped under the radar, and things that I would have liked to have been a little more aware of beforehand.

***

Choosing to do your Eurotrip with Eurail does require a little forethought and planning. Eurail is the company brand that offers passes to people who are citizens of non-European countries – Interrail is the service offered to European citizens – and therefore you can only purchase such passes outside of Europe, and they can only be sent to non-European addresses. This meant that while I did choose to have a very free and flexible journey around the continent, I had to choose and commit to that kind of journey from the very beginning. Passes come at 4 different levels: Global, which lets you travel up to 24 countries; Select, which lets you travel between any 4 bordering countries of your choice; Regional, allowing you to choose from popular 2 country combinations; and One Country, which is rather self-explanatory. From each of these, you can also choose a Continuous Pass, which allows you to travel every day within your set period, or a Flexi Pass, which meant your pass was valid for a set number of days, but you were only allowed to travel on a certain number of days – however, the amount of trains you could catch on those travel days was unlimited. It was all a bit confusing at first, but it’s quite simple when you put it into practice.

If you’ve been previously reading about my travels then it will be obvious I selected a Global Pass, and I chose a Flexi Global Pass that allowed me 15 days of travel within a 2 month period. This just meant that I had to keep track of how many days it would take me to get where I wanted to go, rather than worrying about how long I was able to stay in each place. It was a cheaper option, with a further 35% discount of the price for people under 26, and with a little bit of planning it was just as comprehensive and useful as the continuous pass would have been, for a fraction of the price. Once I had ordered it, Eurail posted me my ticket and trip log, a train timetable booklet, a Eurail map and an information guidebook. As confusing as some of the fine print was, I can’t deny that Eurail did try to give you all of the detailed information to help you prepare, and I tried my best to read over it carefully to maximise the use of my pass. There are things like discounts at hostels, hotels and cafes,  and reduced entry to some sightseeing attractions, and for your pass can even be used to make reservations on selected ferry lines.

Eurail Travel Log, which you're required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

Eurail Travel Log, which you’re required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

The Eurail Map I used for planning - as you can see, the original plans I made aren't quite what ended up happening.

The Eurail Map I used for planning – as you can see, the original plans I made aren’t quite what ended up happening.

***

Given some of the difficulties I came across, I obviously didn’t read the fine print closely enough. There were times when I got it right – in Stockholm, were I activated the pass, I saw that all the trains to Copenhagen were high-speed trains that required the purchase of a reservation. So I did that, no problems – since I already had the ticket, it was just a small fare to reserve a seat on the train. I had an allocated seat when I boarded the train, and other than a huge delay once the train was already en route to Denmark, there was no issue with the trip. However, when I went to travel to Hamburg from Copenhagen, I’d seen in the timetable that reservations were not compulsory, but when I went to ask someone at the ticket office where I should go to catch the train to Hamburg, she looked at me uncertainly and asked if I had a reservation.
“Oh… um… Do I need one?” was all I could think to say. She pulled a discontenting face which made it obvious she was reluctant to give the final word on that issue.
“Maybe. Perhaps not. You can go down to the platform and ask.” She pointed me in the right direction, and on the platform it was all rather chaotic. I eventually found where the 2nd Class carriages were and stepped onto the train and found myself a vacant seat. It was here I learnt that just because a reservation wasn’t compulsory, doesn’t mean you still couldn’t get one. Several times I saw people come over to other passengers and upheave them from their seats – those were obviously people who had reservations – and the displaced passengers usually had to stand up for the rest of the very long trip. I was lucky during that trip, however, and when the train inspector came along to check my ticket, he didn’t require anything more than a stamp to my Eurail pass to mark off one of my 15 days of travel. That was when I started to get the hang of compulsory vs non-compulsory reservations on the trains.

The ability to catch more than one train on each travelling day was also a life saver for me on the odd occasion, in conjunction with the handy Eurail iPhone app that I downloaded, which effectively made the timetable booklet redundant. When I found myself stranded in Hamburg without a place to stay, I referred to the app and put in ‘Hamburg’ as the origin and ‘Groningen’ as the destination. It searched the timetables and showed me exactly which train I had to catch to what cities, and because I turned on the function that only showed trains that didn’t require reservations, I was able to travel for the rest of the day for no extra charge, and that was how I ended up in the Netherlands with Gemma a day earlier than I had planned. It was generally the less frequented routes, such as the ones that took me to Groningen, which required no reservations, so the pass I had was particularly useful for things like that. Once I’d familiarised myself with how it all worked, I was able to really enjoy the flexibility of my pass knowing that I could stay an extra day or two in certain places, as I ended up doing in Berlin, without it having too much of an impact on the cost-effectiveness of my pass. The desire to take trains that required no reservations also encouraged me to see cities that I probably would have otherwise missed, such as Cologne, Brussels, and Bratislava.

***

There were other problems though. The one I had the biggest issue with was the inability to make reservations for a Eurail pass online. On my last night in Berlin, when Ralf was helping me try to book a ticket to Paris, there was no where for me to state that I had the pass, which would have resulted in me paying for the full-priced ticket (the trains to Paris were all full anyway, but that’s beside the point). This meant that for every journey I took with my Pass that required a reservation, I had to line up in the often monstrously long queues – in Paris, Barcelona, Rome, and Ancona – for what was ultimately a ridiculously small and simple exchange. Paris in general was just a nightmare for train reservations, both travelling to and from the city. In Cologne I got up extremely early and rushed to the ticket office – which had been closed by the time I arrived the previous evening – to reserve a ticket to Paris. The woman told me that all of the allocations she had available for Eurail customers were taken, and that I could pay a full priced fare for either 1st or 2nd Class if I wanted to catch that train. I hadn’t been aware of that point, and it was frustrating to know that there was room on the train, but my pass just simply did not allow for it. I assured her that full fares were not an option, and she eventually found a way for me to get to Paris that day by sending me via Brussels, but I still had to pay reservation fees, with the one for the French train company being particularly large for such a short distance – while Eurail passes are valid all across Europe, they operate in partnership with all the separate national train companies across the continent, which is why it cost me €30 to get from Brussels to Paris, but only around €9 to get from Stockholm to Denmark.

Then there were the difficulties of making a reservation for the overnight train from Paris to Barcelona. The evening that I wanted to leave was completely booked out, and the next day only had reclining seats available, rather than the cabins with beds in them. Desperate to not overstay in a city as expensive as Paris, I took the reclining seat class, which was still a hefty €50 reservation fee. I know that’s significantly less than than the price of the usual ticket, but after having paid around €550 for the pass in the first place, I never expected to be paying quite so much more for reservations. On the whole, I would have spent at least €100 or more just on those reservation fees for my trips, which is – to be fair – briefly outlined in the guide, but it was never really impressed upon me how often I would have to do that, or even indeed that my access to those reservations would be quite so limited due to allocated numbers. It’s also worth noting that while the Eurail pass is also valid for some of the ferry lines between Spain, Italy, Greece and Croatia – something I was considering in my initial plan – they are still limited by availability and incur extra reservation fees that are undoubtedly greater than the ones for train.

***

Then there were just a lot of random nuisances with the trains, as well as random restrictions on the pass. When I’d had my direction dilemma leaving Berlin, Ralf had suggested visiting Poland, but along with Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia, it was a country that was not valid for my Eurail pass. Anything east of Poland or Romania was also excluded, and while perhaps they’re not as popular destinations as parts of Western Europe, I thought they’d qualify for an inclusion in the Eurail pass, since it extended down all the way to Turkey – although perhaps that was an issue with those countries rather than Eurail itself.

The other place where I had problems booking tickets as Ancona. I lined up at the ticket office to ask about ticket availability for travelling to Zürich, as I would need to make several stopovers. The man angrily yelled at me and told me to speak to the information office in another part of the building. There, from the amount of effort it took to explain what I wanted – and I’m not even talking about language barriers – it was as though the woman had never had to deal with a Eurail pass before, and Ancona is a popular tourist port for ferries travelling to and from Greece and Croatia, so that can’t have been the case. After moving at a painstakingly glacial pace, she was eventually able to tell me if all the trains I needed to catch had vacancies – they did – so I thanked her and went back to reserve them. Of course, when I went to book it, all the prices she had quoted me were wrong, and I ended up having to pay a lot more for the reservations than I intended. I was also a little apprehensive about making reservations for Italian trains because from what I had experienced they were never running on time. It could take just one delayed departure to mess up my entire booked schedule and have me sitting on trains shooting across the country while I wrung my hands in stress and tried to figure out alternate routes.

Of course, in Switzerland I had the opposite problem. I anxiously checked the time on my phone as I stood at the end of the queue of people who were boarding the train. There were so many people in front of me taking so long to get on that, with a minute before scheduled departure time, I ran to the end of the carriage and jumped on there. While I was still walking to my seat, the train began its movements exactly on time, and I’m almost certain if I had still been at the end of that line, I’d still be on the platform watching my reserved seat haul out to Austria. You just don’t mess with Swiss punctuality.

***

There’s all kinds of hiccups that can make the planing of a Europe train expedition a rather stressful, touch-and-go affair, but in the end, despite all that, I would still say it was worth it, and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see a lot of Europe on a budget in a limited timeframe. With the pass I travelled through 12 different countries and bunch of different cities, having in-depth experiences in the cultures of almost all of them, and in the end it was a fraction of the price of what individual tickets would have cost me to do the same trip – even with the added reservation fees. It’s relatively simple – no complicated check-in or security search or customs – you just jump on board, find a seat and away you go. You get to see the countryside pass you by, and you really get an appreciation for the distances that you’re travelling that you really just don’t get when you’re hurling through the air in a big metal flying machine. You get in amongst the people and feel like a real traveller, and that was by and large one of the things I loved about train travel – almost every day felt like an adventure.

And after your big trip is done, if you send Eurail your travel log – which I assume they record for some kind of research purposes – they return it to you along with a little gift to say thank you for helping them with that research. I can finally throw away the countless ticket stubs I hoarded, knowing that I have this cute little USB stick to remind me of my Eurail adventures.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

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Bonjour: First Impressions of Paris

I stepped off the train in Brussels, counting my blessings that my train hadn’t been caught up with a bunch of strikes that had been happening throughout some of the train companies in Europe. I had plenty of time before boarding my connection train to Paris, so I left the station in search of a place to eat lunch. I hadn’t done too much research about Belgium, with the reality being I would be spending approximately two hours in the country, but I knew that it had quite a reputation for its beer, so I had expected a similar beer-centric culture to that of Germany, or even the Netherlands. I’d told myself I’d have one last hearty meal of brew and sausages before moving on to the finer delicacies that French cuisine would have to offer. So you can imagine my… not disappointment, but confusion when, after browsing a couple of restaurants in the area around the station, found myself eating a pasta dish, drinking red wine and being served by a waiter with a distinct French accent. It hadn’t been what I was anticipating, but in retrospect it made complete sense: Belgium is a tiny country wedged primarily in between the Netherlands and France – the customs and culture was obviously going to get a lot more French in the southern end of the country, the closer I came to Paris. Perhaps it was something I should have already known, but in all honesty, there’s something far more fascinating about making those kind of discoveries first hand.

***

I guess the first thing I really learnt about the culture in France is that nobody is in a great deal of hurry to get anywhere or do anything. Brussels had been the starting point of my trains journey – it hadn’t been late coming in from anywhere else, yet the French train company still managed to be delayed by about 15 minutes, with no real explanation offered to the passengers. Luckily it was a high speed train, and we arrived in Paris a little over an hour after we finally got going. But before I went rushing off into the city, I had some more planning and administration to take care of. While I had been sipping on my wine in Brussels, I had also been speaking to Gemma back in Groningen, filling her in in on my time in Berlin, telling her all the stories, and explaining the circumstances in which I had left and the situation I was in now. She helped me come up with a more realistic rough plan for my route around Europe, and agreed I needed to be a little more proactive when it came to moving on from each destination. So while the plan was still essentially free and flexible, I decided to book my train out of Paris as soon as I got there – being one of the most visited cities in the world, transport to and from the City of Lights was almost always sold out well in advance. So I lined up in the dedicated line for Eurail Pass holders… where I waited for over an hour. There were only two serving windows open, one of which closed while I was still waiting. The entirety of the staff seemed completely nonchalant and blasé about the growing line and mounting frustration that was becoming extremely visible among the crowd. No points for customer service there. The line continued to grow longer and longer behind me, and at the rate it was moving I was starting to fear I wouldn’t even make it to the front of the line before opening hours ended, and would have the shutters to the serving windows slammed shut in my face instead.

But I did make it there in the end, though once I did I made another unfortunate discovery – the train departing Paris on the night I had intended to leave was completely booked out.
“There’s nothing you can do? Nothing at all?” I practically begged the woman sitting behind the perspex window. I had been unsuccessful in finding any Couchsurfing hosts in Paris and, not wanting a repeat of my experience in Hamburg, had booked a hostel for three nights. That was the only affordable accommodation I had been able to find, and there hadn’t even been any room beyond those three nights. I’d been planning to get the overnight train to Barcelona, but if I couldn’t leave on that evening I would be stranded for a night in Paris.
“No, I’m sorry, there are no seats available for Eurail pass holders.” She did sound genuinely sorry, but it was still frustrating.
“Okay, well… How about the next night?” I had to book something, or Paris would end up being the city that I’d truly never escape from.
She tapped away at her computer before answering. “There are places available, but…” I held my breath. “There are no sleeper beds available. The best I can offer you is the reclining seat carriage.” That was, unless I wanted to fork out for a first class ticket, she had added – you’d think these kinds of people would have a better idea of how backpacking works, right?
Once again it wasn’t an ideal option, but it was as good as it was going to get. I still had the three nights in the hostel to figure out a plan for the final night, so I made the reservation for the overnight train before trudging off to navigate the metro system, trying to not let my frustrating first impressions of Paris ruin my mood.

***

With a new city comes the excitement of getting to discover a new local public transport system. For all the negative things I’d heard about how confusing and complicated the Paris metro system was, I actually thought it was brilliant, although maybe after so many cities I just found it much easier to learn and adapt. Or maybe every other city in the world has a system that is still more impressive than Sydney’s. Whatever, we all know I have a thing for public transport. For the Parisian metro, as long as you had a map tell you where your required interchanges were, it was extremely easy to traverse the city. There are over a dozen lines that can take you almost anywhere, which is very important because not only is Paris a huge city, it’s also quite spread out, with many of the famous and popular attractions being on opposite sides of the city, no where near each other. Unlike the U- and S-Bahn in Berlin, tickets were required to even enter the stations, but they were also quite inexpensive compared to anything I had paid in Berlin, and you had the option to buy in bulk to save a couple of euros. While my experience with Parisians had been an abundance of lateness and inefficiency so far, the metro was the one exception. I suppose it’s hard to be late when it doesn’t actually run to specific schedule, as far as I know, but the trains came frequently enough.

Coming from Sydney, a city that was created through urban sprawl and expansion from a central city, it’s always interesting to see maps of many European cities, such as Paris, and notice how well-planned they appear in comparison. Paris is divided into twenty districts, with District 1 starting in the centre, and the numbers of each subsequent district progressing in a clockwise spiral shape. I hadn’t realised this when booking my accommodation, and thus found myself on my way to the 20th District, the eastern-most district that reached the edge of the official city limits of Paris. However, such is the efficiency of the Paris metro that it only took me about 20 minutes to reach my station from Gare du Nord, the major train station in the city’s north. Once I got to the hostel, I settled in and freshened up before heading out to explore Paris. While I may have entertained my romantic ideals about the French capital, I’d heard very few first hand accounts of the city from people I knew, so I was interested to see what kind of nightlife dwelled in the City of Lights.