Hop On Hop Off European Train Travel

June 21, 2012 14 Comments »

First class car in Italy

The first class car in Italy

I lean my head back on the seat and gaze out the window as I gently rock back and forth. The landscape accelerates by me in a blur and I allow my brain to explore it’s dark depths. I think, “this could be anywhere, it looks like Illinois, Nebraska, or Wisconsin. I continue to suspend logic and reality – letting my mind wander with the rocking. Then my eyes catch a glimpse, I sit up more alert and focus in on it -a castle high on a hill in the distance. It has multiple towers and levels set in this picture perfect landscape – and my brain is now processing the fact that there’s no way I am in America – but I’ve been traveling so fast – it’s hard for me to keep up where I am these days.  A wave of happiness swept over me as I realized I would have never seen this if I had been on a plane flying between European countries.

It has always been a goal of mine to take the train around Europe and now finally when I’m well past the age of backpacking Europe, I find myself riding around Europe for 2 months on a Eurail pass. Since I was going to be traveling around to various cities as the “Go with Oh” Blogger, I needed a way to get from city to city and rail was the first and only thing that came to mind.

Train station in berlin

You'll fall in love with train stations in Europe

I’m a train lover – in fact I’ve had a fascinating history with trains as I worked for a railroad in my first job out of college.  I used to think that a Eurail pass was this free-wheeling, hippy-ish way to travel; you had one ticket and just hopped on and off trains much like those city Hop on-Hop Off tour buses. However when I received my Eurail packet in the mail back in the States, I eagerly opened it up and quickly realized that I had a lot to learn. There was a whole booklet on how to activate and utilize your pass. There were rules, restrictions, and guidelines; this is not the vocabulary of hippies.

Big sigh…hippy dream dies…but still excited.

My first order of business was to understand what exactly the pass got me. I had the Eurail Global Pass that allowed me to travel first class anywhere in Europe for 15 travel days over the course of 2 months; it was sort of the ‘mack daddy’ of Eurail passes, so this was a good start. However as I read on I learned that I couldn’t just hop on any train anytime (if I expected to get anywhere in a timely manner), instead many trains between countries required reservations and reservation fees.

My Route

I had planned to go from Rome to Venice to Vienna, to Berlin, to Paris, to Barcelona, with a few local jaunts mixed in.

Things you should know about the Eurail Global Pass

Reservations

Yes – you still have to make reservations in most circumstances.  You will definitely need a reservation for any overnight train.  In order to make this reservation and research process eaiser –  don’t throw that seemingly silly old school paper train schedule book away when they send it to you. It was my Bible for the initial research I needed to do to even consider a reservation. One would think that paper schedules are passé…but not for riding the rails across Europe. You can find a few sites with the schedules for the mainstream train routes, but since you are covering a variety of countries and train systems, there’s not really a great single place to go and figure this stuff out across countries. Plus – much of the time when I needed to do the research, I didn’t have wifi available. So – hold on to the booklet – you’ll look retro and cool paging through time tables – trust me.

Sleeper compartment

My sleeper compartment from Berlin to Paris

I used the book to figure out what trains I wanted to take and get the general timeframes, and then as I was near a station in a major city I would stop in and book the seat whenever I could. I did this for night legs (required), but I would highly recommend to reserve long legs across countries even if they are during the day. There is normally an extra fee – but you will know you have a seat.

Follow all of the rules, even if they seem stupid

The pass comes with an ‘operations book’ which explains how to activate your pass and how to use it. This right now should tip you off to the fact that it’s not as simple as just literally hopping on and off a train on a whim.

handwritten ticket

Handwritten Ticket

For many local routes you don’t even need to get a ticket as your pass serves as your ticket. However – you do need to fill in the date and location of your travel on your paper ticket by hand with a pen before the conductor comes around to ‘take’ your ticket. Yes, I know what you are thinking – this seems rather silly and absurd in this day and age. Ahem…follow all of the rules even if they seem stupid. And note that even if you have a ticket because you reserved a seat and had to pay a few extra Euros for that seat – you still need to have the date filled in on your global pass. This scribbling on your pass is essentially your ticket, and if you forgot to fill in the information on your pass because you were running to catch the train, then you are SOL. The conductor can actually fine you as without the scribble you are technically on the train without a ticket. Yes, this happened to me once, and the conductor luckily just gave me a stern look of disapproval and a warning. Phew.

First Class travel

As you reserve, make sure that you get your first class designation and seat. The Eurail passes are first class passes, and this my friends makes your life so much easier – take advantage of it! However do know that the quality of first class varies drastically between countries and trains. When I went from Venice to Vienna there was a leg of it that was on the bus, and even my bus seat was first class. It came with more room, and free coffee!

first class bus section

My first class bus seating from Venice to Vienna

A Couple of Tips

If you are going by train, then my best piece of advice is leave the rolling suitcase at home. Take a backpack as it’s so much easier to get on and off the trains as well as around the stations. Many of the stations in Europe are not accessible accept by stairs. Trust me on this – you will be happier.

You can reserve an international ticket even if you are not in the country you are reserving for. I was in Rome and I knew I needed to do an overnight train from Berlin to Paris in 4 weeks and I needed to reserve it now. I simply went to the Rome Termini, stood in line for a bit and then they helped me book my ticket between Germany and France.

Overnight trains can be expensive – even with the Eurail pass, but often you can still cover the distance in the day and actually get to pay less and see more. I saved 75 Euro by taking the day train from Paris to Barcelona – and I was sitting in 1st class!

Overall I loved exploring Europe by rail, it was a great way to see the countryside and avoid annoying airports and security!

What Eurail tips do you have to share?

More information:

Book your own Eurail Tickets
Eurail FAQ’s
Eurail Tips
Is Eurail worth it? A Review by a Thirty-Something Non-Backpacker
Journey by train through the Iron Route –  by Abi  from Inside the Travel Lab

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