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.

Advertisements

Smells Good: A pit stop in Cologne

The end goal was to reach Paris. However, all the direct express trains were completely booked, and it was quite a long distance to cover via the slower, less direct trains. So keeping that in mind, I picked a geographical midpoint to make a one night stopover on my way to the City of Lights. And that’s how I found myself in the west German city of Köln, or Cologne in English.

Tim, an ex-lover and good friend of mine back in Sydney, had spent six months studying abroad and living in Cologne, so I had dropped him a line and asked him what there was to do in Cologne, and what sights were worth visiting. “Even if you don’t spend a night in Cologne,” he had replied, “It’s worth getting off the train just to see the cathedral. It’s right outside the train station – you could literally step outside, have a look around, then jump on another train.” The Dom – which I would later learn is the second largest church in Europe, after the one in the Vatican – was the pride and joy of the city of Cologne, and Tim assured me it was the only really must see attraction. “It’s can be a pretty fun city though. Have a little explore if you get the chance.”

***

When I arrived in Cologne in the early evening, I headed straight to my hostel – booked ahead the previous evening at Ralf’s – and crashed for a little while. Visiting hours at the Dom had finished for the day, so if I wanted to go inside I would have to check it out before I left in the morning. But after a brief chat with some English travellers in my dorm, a quick power nap and a much needed shower, I set out to wander the street a little bit. I’d been told by Simon and some of the other Berlin housemates that many people actually considered Cologne to be the gay capital of Germany, so I felt it somewhat mandatory to at least go out and do a little exploring. Cologne was very different to Berlin – it felt distinctly more… German. Despite having all the well-known German landmarks, Berlin is still quite an international, cosmopolitan city, and I noticed that feature even more when I visited Cologne, which looked like an older, slightly more traditional city. The streets were damp from rain, but they were very clean – a tribute to stereotypical German efficiency, I suppose. I believe they had also recently celebrated gay pride in Cologne too – either that, or there is always a rainbow flag flying outside one of the main government buildings.

The Cologne Cathedral, The Dom, the evening I arrived in Cologne.

The Cologne Cathedral, The Dom, the evening I arrived in Cologne.

However limp it appears in the lack of wind, that's still a rainbow flag!

However limp it appears in the lack of wind, that’s still a rainbow flag!

I was heading towards Hohenzollernring, what I believed to be a main nightlife street if my research skills and Google could be trusted, but I knew it as soon as I hit it. I emerged from the quite, dimly lit roads to a strip lined with shops, restaurants, clubs and bars. I headed towards Loom, the closest gay bar I had read about, but upon arrival discovered that it was more of a nightclub than a bar. In addition to that, it was a White Party – the club was divided into two floors: one for the exclusive admittance of those dressed in white, and one for unrestricted access. I stood out the front for a few minutes, pondering on whether it would be worth it. The thought of being inside a packed nightclub made me realise for the first time just how tired I still was, so I ended up skipping the club and continued wandering down the street. I’d well and truly given up on my goal I had once had of trying to experience the nightlife in every city I visited – there can be too much of a good thing, and I had since learnt that I would need to pick my battles when it came to that mission.

I did, however, descend some mysterious steps into one venue, which turned out to be full of salsa dancers. It was the last thing I had expected to find in a city in Germany, but I hung around and watched some of the dancers do their thing. It reminded me of when I used to take ballroom dancing classes back when I was in high school, and seeing all these people having such a good time reaffirmed by belief that when I eventually got home, I needed to get some hobbies. But for the rest of the night, I contented myself to getting some takeaway KFC and wandering back to the hostel to pass out in my dorm.

***

The following morning I woke up relatively early to head back to the station to book my train ticket to Paris, since the office that sold them had been closed when I arrived in Cologne the previous evening. However, I encountered more difficulties: all the direct trains had no available spaces for Eurail pass holders, and the only way I could get on that train was if I purchased a full priced first class ticket. Assuring the sales woman that that was not an option, I asked if there were any alternative routes I could take. After a bit of searching, she found two trains that could get me to Paris that day, with a connection in Brussels, Belgium. It seemed like my best and only option, so I booked the tickets and returned to the hostel to organise some last minute accommodation in Paris.

The train didn’t leave Cologne until noon, so I used the remainder of my morning to see the famed cathedral, the Dom. It was truly a towering masterpiece, so huge that I had to keep backing up and backing up until I was eventually able to capture the whole thing in a single photograph. The ancient Gothic architecture was exquisite, despite some scaffolding to disrupt the otherwise picturesque sight, but as with any church it was the insides that were the most impressive. Beautiful stained glass windows glittered in the sunlight pouring in from outside, and towering ceilings and long halls created a vast space that subdued all who entered into a respectful silence. Despite having no real affinity with Roman Catholicism, Christianity or organised religion in general, I still can’t help but be in awe of these kinds of places, and feel a sense of the spirituality they once harvested in times gone by. The churches all throughout Europe look nothing like most of the ones in Australia, which are usually fairly modern and quite plain looking at best. The Cologne Cathedral is indisputably a work of art. Even though hundreds of tourists pour through the doors of the church, it still remains an active place or service and worship – though I can’t help but think that a church that has a fully stocked gift shop has turned into a bit of a sellout somewhere along the way.

The Dom, featuring scaffolding.

The Dom, featuring scaffolding.

The echoing main chamber of the cathedral.

The echoing main chamber of the cathedral.

Stained glass window inside the cathedral.

Stained glass window inside the cathedral.

More impressive glass artwork in the cathedrals windows.

More impressive glass artwork in the cathedrals windows.

Shrine inside the cathedral, where worshippers can light candles of prayer.

Shrine inside the cathedral, where worshippers can light candles of prayer.

I wandered through the church for a while, observing some of the alters and statues, and by the time I was done it was time to check out of the hostel and catch my train to Brussels.