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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Recovery: From the city to the sea

I watched the Italian countryside whizz past me as the train carried me away from Rome. Eventually the train tracks became parallel with the seaside, and I gazed out into the distance over the Mediterranean. In one short trip I was going from coast to coast in Italy, from the capital city of Rome to the tiny port town of Ancona. “Ancona?” Valerio had asked me with a very confused expression, when I had informed him of my next destination. “Nobody… I mean nobody, goes to Ancona. Pass through maybe, but… well, there’s nothing there!” Ancona was a regular port for ferries that routinly carried passengers from the east coast of Italy to Croatia and Greece. It hadn’t exactly been on my high priority list of places to see, but while I had been searching desperately for a place to stay in Rome via Couchsurfing, I had received a message from Ike.

The interesting thing about Couchsurfing is that you can send requests to potential hosts, but you can also publicly post your travel itinerary so that hosts in areas where you are planning to travel are able to find you and invite you to stay with them. The majority of people who I have spoken to about this assured me that that was way too creepy for them, and that they wouldn’t just accept offers from random people they didn’t know, but my journey so far had showed me that taking a chance on the generosity of strangers can sometimes have the most rewarding results. I had been looking for other places to stay in while travelling Italy, but so far all my other searches had been unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Ike had sent me a message saying he had noticed I was travelling through Europe, and that if I ever made it to Ancona he would be happy to host me. We had stayed in correspondence during my frantic search for hosts in Rome and my breakdown in Madrid, and from what I could gather he seemed to be a nice and rather genuine guy. So when I arrived in Rome and had to make plans for my next upcoming destination, I agreed to visit Ike in his sunny little corner of Italy. Four days later, and I was stepping off the train into the blistering afternoon sun, where he was waiting to pick me up.

Ike was a fun and outgoing guy with a cheeky sense of humour, and just like when I had met Stefan – who had also stayed with Ike – we got on well straight away. I knew I had made the right decision in coming here – better to spend a couple of days in a town you’d never heard of with a fun stranger than wander around a well known city by yourself. I’d done plenty of that in Rome, so during my time in Ancona I was determined to do absolutely no sightseeing. I needed a break from all that. When we got back to his place, Ike showed me a map of the area and a bunch of information pamphlets about things to see and do. “There’s a short historical walk through the main centre,” he said, pointing at the map to a spot in the centre of town – Ike lived a little further up one of the many rolling hills that surrounded the port, about a 10 minute drive from the train station. “Stefan was very into that kind of thing, but I’m not sure what you want to do while you’re here.” I told Ike that I would be happy to find a spot on the beach and just chill out, so he gave me a few options for the nearby beaches that I could try, most of which were pretty easily accessible by bus. “I’d love to come with you if I had the time, but unfortunately I’ve got to work.” Ike even had to go back to work that afternoon, so he left me at his place to do some laundry and get some rest. When he got home, Ike cooked dinner and we had a night of great conversation over a bottle of wine. We talked about travelling, our Couchsurfing experiences, and he even taught me a couple of phrases in Italian. It was a fun and carefree evening, and I was already very pleased with my decision to stop by Ancona and take some time out in this Italian hideaway.

***

The next day Ike had to go to work again, so after a bit of a sleep in and a lazy morning, I caught a bus down the hill to the city centre and then transferred to another bus that would take me to the nearby beach of Portonovo. The bus was crowded with lots children and teenagers, and it was only then that I realised it was the height of summer and that school was probably out, and everyone in town would be heading for the beach. It also took a little longer to get there than I had anticipated – I was on the bus for over half an hour, going up and down the twisting and winding hills of the outskirts of Ancona before we finally arrived at Portonovo. I wandered through some of the shrubbery around the bus stop and down through a small woodland area before emerging onto the beach. The area had a handful of restaurants and other overpriced-looking places where you could hire beach chairs, but I bypassed all that and went straight to the waters edge.

There, I faced a problem that I hadn’t really faced since I’d been in Thailand – I was alone on a beach with a backpack containing valuables such as my phone and wallet, and I had no way of properly securing them. Even if I was to put a lock on my bag, there was nothing stoping someone from simply running away with it. The beach was fairly crowded, but not so much that I wouldn’t be able to see my things if I left them in plain sight from the water, and it was too hot to not go swimming. In the end I just had to take a chance and leave my backpack while I went into the water. I never swam too far from where I’d left it, but I was a little more relaxed than I had been on the beach at Ao Nang. And it was worth it – with the hot sun beating down on the crowds of beach goers, the cool blue water felt absolutely amazing to dive into. When I’d had enough of that, I crawled back onto the beach, lathered myself in sunscreen, and laid down to soak up some rays. I think it was something I’d first noticed lying in the park in Christiana during my time in Copenhagen, but the sun in Europe just doesn’t seem to be as strong as it does down in Australia. Obviously Italy has a lot stronger sunshine than Denmark – Ike told me he regularly uses 50+ SPF sunscreen – but compared to the sun in Australia it felt like a casual warm day. I was very conscious of my sunscreen use though, which allowed me to relax enough to actually doze off into a state of semi-sleep more than a couple of times. It was the perfect temperature, and I stayed there on the beach for as long as I dared before I thought there really was a chance of me getting significantly burnt.

The refreshing blue waters of Portonovo Beach.

The refreshing blue waters of Portonovo Beach.

Lots of people set up camp for a day on the beach in the gorgeous sunshine.

Lots of people set up camp for a day on the beach in the gorgeous sunshine.

I took one final dip in the ocean before heading back to the bus stop, and indulging in some amazing Italian gelato while I waited for the bus. When the bus finally arrived, slowly making its way down the hill from the highway, I hopped on board, thinking it would take me back to the centre of Ancona. I was surprised to find that its final stop was simply at the top of the hill. “Last stop – everyone off,” the bus driver called out to me. It was definitely up there in my travel nightmare scenarios – being forced off the bus but having absolutely no idea where I was or how I was going to get back. However, when I hopped off the bus I was momentarily distracted by the field of sunflowers that spread out in front of me in the paddock beside the road. I took the opportunity to take a few photos, and just sit back and marvel at the Italian countryside and the picture perfect landscape I had laid my eyes on.

The sunflower fields just next to the bus stop by the beach.

The sunflower fields just next to the bus stop by the beach.

But then it was back to panicking. Another bus with the right number came along, so I hopped on. It took me… back down to the beach. What the Hell was going on? I decided to swallow my pride, realising I needed help, and approached the bus driver, crossing my fingers and praying he spoke some English. I explained where I wanted to go, and he knew enough to understand and give me a reply: “Ahh – next bus!” I sighed, knowing it was about as much help as I was going to get, and stepped off the bus. It wasn’t too long before the next bus came trundling down the hill, and when it finally did I was relieved to feel it make the turn onto the main road that led back to Ancona. I had given up trying to understand how public transport timetables – or indeed, any kind of timed service – operated in Italy. I’m not one for generalising stereotypes, but I can honestly say that chronic lateness was something that I experienced in pretty much all public services in Italy. Countries like Italy and Spain are currently suffering from unbelievably high levels of youth unemployment, but I can’t help but wonder if the people who were actually employed were doing any more work than the people who weren’t.

***

That evening was my second and final night staying in Ancona, so when Ike got back from work we decided to go for a little drive to see some of the other parts around the area that I hadn’t been able to see by myself. We headed south down the coast, admiring the countryside in the dying daylight. At the small town of Sirolo, we stopped the car and got out to watch the sunset behind one of the cliffs. It was nice to be outside of the huge cities for a change, and to experience some very natural beauty such as this. I took a few photos before we continued on to the next small town of Numana. There we got out and walked around the town. It was a little more tourist-orientated than the centre port of Ancona had been, and the streets were quite well preserved in an older, historical style, with uneven tiling and cobblestones lining the streets. We walked down to the docks and looked out over the water as twilight settled in. It wasn’t quite as prominent as the white nights in St Petersburg, but even in southern Europe it still took a very long time for nighttime to actually become dark – often there was still a lot of natural light and visibility as late as 10pm. It was a strange phenomenon that I was only now getting used to.

Overlooking the beach at Sirolo at sunset.

Overlooking the beach at Sirolo at sunset.

The ocean view from our vantage point near Sirolo.

The ocean view from our vantage point near Sirolo.

Overlooking the town of Numana.

Overlooking the town of Numana.

Ocean views as dusk settles over the province of Ancona.

Ocean views as dusk settles over the province of Ancona.

After wandering through the old, steep streets, we headed back to the car and went home. I didn’t ask, but in a small town like Ancona I assumed that there wasn’t much of a nightlife scene, gay or otherwise. Even if there was, I don’t think I would have bothered going. My time in Ancona had been all about relaxing and taking the down time that I had been unable to take in the past couple of weeks. I helped Ike make some dinner and we had some more wine before retiring to bed. He was leaving for a work trip the following day, and I had several trains to catch. But I’d had a fun and memorable few days with Ike in Ancona. He’d told me that it was often just a passing through town for so many people, and that people rarely discovered the little gems of beauty it contained. At that moment, I was eternally grateful that I’d decided to travel the way I was travelling: solo, using Couchsurfing, and meeting all kinds of interesting locals along the way. It assured me that not only was I having an amazing once in a lifetime trip, but that I was seeing parts of the world that many other travels might breeze over without a second glance.