Germany, Travel Advice, Trip Prep and Planning

Hop On Hop Off European Train Travel

14 Comments 21 June 2012

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

Your Comments

14 Comments so far

  1. Jerry says:

    This is really helpful information!

  2. Carmel says:

    I used a Eurail Youth pass when I was backpacking in Europe after college. My friend and I got yelled at because our ticket did not include passing through Austria on our way from Germany to Italy. You can buy a ticket on the train, but I would recommend not doing it that way. Getting yelled by the conductor is not fun, especially at midnight. Make sure if you’re passing through a country that is not included in your pass (even if you’re not stopping in said country) that you buy a ticket for that country. Read the rules carefully!

  3. Richard says:

    I love travelling by train in Europe. In all of my trips in Europe, I only once rented a car, when I went to a wedding outside of Hamburg. Even when I lived and worked in Europe, I had the chance to get a company car but took the money instead….walked to work every day, took trams, and trains (and some plane flights!)

    My tip? Just do it! Trains are a great way to see the countryside and to meet others. Yes, you have to still, in some cases, make reservations and pay for them, but at least for me, the Eurail or similar passes were just great, allowing me to hop on a train and go somewhere most of the time, without having to wait in line to get a ticket.

    I would suggest that you get a sleeper car/reservation if taking overnight trains.

    I’ve only had I think one bad experience on a train, but keep in mind that I have been to Europe many times and even lived there. So train travel was often.

    I once took an overnight train when visiting my sister, who was teaching English in a small village in the former Czechosovakia. I actually met her in Berlin, and we took the night train to Crakow, Poland. Sometime around 03:30 or 4:00 in the AM we both woke up and realized we were robbed…..think we were gassed, just outside of Katowice, Poland. We should have probably known better because most of the night, someone was walking up and down the aisle and tapping on doors with some sort of stick. As it turned out, however, although we were robbed (got my camera bag, my sister’s bookbag, etc.), it actually was an interesting and memorable experience…..won’t tell about it, now.

    I just love the European train experience!

  4. I *love* using the train in Europe! I’ve only done it a few times, but I think it’s so much easier to get around that way! I haven’t purchased a pass before – to be honest, it’s because I didn’t take enough time to figure out the pass + reservations thing – so I just bought individual tickets. I probably spent more money than I needed to, but I wanted to be confident that I had what I needed when I needed it. I may try the pass on my next trip in December and will refer back to this post for help! Thanks Sherry. :-)

    • Richard says:

      Hi, Jodi.

      It’s been a few years since I’ve been back to Europe, but I’ve been many times and even lived there once. So the options on train passes likely have changed, but there are different choices. To start with, you can get a pass that covers many European countries (the Eurail Global Pass….think it is currently 23 countries this covers). Or, you can get a “Select Pass” or a “Regional Pass,” passes which just cover a few countries. There are options to purchase passes for various lengths of continuous time, as well as options to use the pass X out of Y days. I’ve bought various types of passes. The Eurail pass, while more expensive, is nice because it does cover a lot more countries, and it is only first class (meaning you can also sit in 2nd). I once took a night train with my brother and sister from Vienna to Venice. That train was so crowded, and we did not have reservations, so we had to split up. It was nice that I had the first class pass so I could find a seat! Although I had to be separated from my brother and sister who found seats in 2nd class, that was one of the most memorable trips via train I ever took! Quite a cast of characters sitting in my section!

      I’ve never had problems with any pass. I think I’ve only had to make reservations for night trips as well as for high speed trains, such as the TGV from Geneva to Paris, the first time I went to Europe. Just read up on the rules and options, and you’ll be fine!

      • Thanks Richard. I appreciate the extra info!

        • Richard says:

          No problem, Jodi. I love travelling, and I love photography…..one reason I really like Sherry’s site!

          I also like telling others about my travels, so I’ll tell a story about that overnight train from Vienna to Venice!

          My first trip to Europe was in 1986, when one of my sisters was studying in Bescancon, France, close to the Swiss border. I met her in Geneva, when we started a week of travelling by train through Switzerland and its Alps. I just loved this. I especially loved taking the Glacier Express train from Interlaaken to Zermatt, a town I fell in love with (that’s where the Matterhorn is). I’ve been back 3 times since. You do have to pay extra for “special” trains like this, even if you have a pass. I’m not sure if we had to pay extra for the entire trip, but we almost certainly had to pay extra for the part from Brig to Zermatt.

          The Glacier Express, or even just half of it, which is what I’ve taken, is really nice. You ride that train halfway between the valleys and the Alps, and the views are spectacular.

          After Switzerland, we took the TGV to Paris, where we spent another week, and we celebrated my birthday. We did have to get a reservation for this high speed train.

          Another sister went to school in Munich in 1987/1988, so I went to visit her in September/October of 1987. Later that year, after Christmas, a brother of ours and I went back to Munich to visit our sister.

          We did take a night train from Vienna to Venice, which was extremely crowded. We had no reservations (so, I do recommend these for night trains, especially if you want a sleeper). We all had train passes, but we couldn’t find a train cabin with 3 seats in it in 2nd class (which is what my brother and sister had). I had first class, so I went to a first class car and found a cabin with 1 free seat, out of 6 total. I grabbed it.

          In that cabin, next to me, was a young guy from the Italian island of Capri. He was kind of a Sly Stallone, macho type (or pretended to be), but he was funny.

          Also in that car was an elderly woman. This was in late December; it was very cold outside; and there was snow on the ground. That train would often speed up, then slow down, especially when going through a small village.

          When that train speeded up and slowed down, that elderly woman often would stand up in our cabin, roll down the window, rock back and forth, and just say “wooo, wooooo, woooo, wooo, wooo,” or something like that. That guy from Capri said to me, “How do you say in American, @#**@” I won’t repeat it, but it was kind of funny.

          That elderly woman finally got out of our cabin somewhere half way through the trip, but the Italian guy proceeded to tell me all about his home in Capri and how wonderful it was. I’ve never gone there, but one of these days, I’d like to.

          My brother, sister, and I only had a day to spend in Venice. The entire day we were there, the city was shrouded in fog. St. Mark’s Square was especially enchanting with that fog. I’ll never forget it.

          I needed to get back home for work, while my brother still had an extra week. So he and my sister then took off for Rome. I took the train from Venice up north to Brig, Switzerland, as I had to eventually make my way back to Geneva for a flight back.

          The entire time I was in Italy on that train, there was fog, and you couldn’t see much. However, after going through the Simplon pass, starting in Domodossola, Italy, once it got out on the Swiss side, it was bright and sunny. It really was a nice, very memorable trip.

          That’s enough for now. I need to start planning another trip back to Europe to enjoy the trains (and everything else)!

  5. Andrea says:

    I agree with all of the tips here except the rolling suitcase one… I would have died without my wheels! Mine was a rolling backpack though and I could have used ut as a backpack if needed…. But didn’t once in 6 months. Vive ka difference, right? (;
    I too LOVE the train. I felt the sane way when i got my pass. Whoa, instruction overload! But once you get it, you get it. I had 3 months of unlimited train travel in Europe… It was expensive but I definitely got my money’s worth out of it. The only problem was when you’d see something from the window and want to stop but couldn’t! That happened more than once!

  6. Andrea says:

    Oops! Sorry for typos above…. Darn tiny phone keypad!

  7. Waegook Tom says:

    Thanks for the tips – I had NO idea that the Eurail passes came with so many stipulations! But, as you point out, if you want to use one then, well, you have to follow the rules.

    That first class bus looks tres fancy, by the way.

  8. Erik says:

    It’s a great way to travel for sure. It’s been 14 years since I had a rail pass, but it sounds like not much has changed! Gotta love that about Europe.

  9. Gunnar Todal says:

    Everyone expect the coming London Olympic Games. It is a good way to travel in the free time while we are awaiting for the Olympics.

  10. Hannah says:

    Thanks for all the helpful information! I am considering getting a Eurorail pass for my upcoming trip to Europe so this was of great help to me. Getting around by train sounds great – my only hesitation is how expensive it is. Would you say that traveling by train is the most budget-friendly way to get around, or did you look into any other options (bus, plane, etc)?

  11. Suzanne Fletcher says:

    I am planning on touring around Europe by train with my husband next year. He just turned 60 and we thought, just do it. We both love travelling by train and are looking forward to the winter ahead so we can plan our route.


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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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