The Lowdown on Travel with a Eurail Pass

Our Itinerary

The hardest part about traveling with our Eurail pass, good for 15 travel days within two months, was deciding where to go. We studied the maps, solicited ideas, hemmed and hawed, started in one direction and changed course midway.

Eurail pass basic railway map
Eurail basic railway map

Now that we’re at the end of our two Eurail months, I’m beginning to see a pattern. (I’m a little slow to pick up on these things.) We’ve chosen to visit “B” markets. That doesn’t mean second-class cities. It means we’ve visited medium to smaller-sized towns that are not, generally, foreign tourists’ top picks. For the most part, our stops have been in towns we haven’t visited before, and towns that are not major airline hubs. These are places one doesn't happen upon on the way to somewhere else. If you are there, it’s on purpose. On the other hand, these charming cities attract plenty visitors from their own countries.

The other pattern I’ve noticed is not a conscious choice, just fact. We’ve spent most of our time in river towns. Of course, that’s because towns have grown up on rivers and because rail lines follow rivers through mountain passes. The towns we stopped in with Eurail are connected by their historic flow of commerce.  The rivers make themselves known in these towns, no matter how the riverfronts have changed.

Finally, we’ve been reminded of one of the great things about cities supporting train travel. Instead of landing somewhere in the distance, we arrive right in the center of town. Usually, we found accommodations within a kilometer of the station, and walked to our hotel. Easy and pleasant.

You'll see the complete itinerary at the bottom of this post.

Using the Eurail Pass

For the most part, using the Eurail pass is a breeze, and we felt especially lucky and pampered to be able to hop on first class coaches. We always looked forward to our travel days and the time we’d have reading, writing, and looking out the window. At this time of year, in the off-season, we usually had four seats with a table between us all to ourselves.

The Panorama Trains in Switzerland eurail pass
The Panorama Trains in Switzerland give “Big Screen' new meaning

Except for the high speed trains, reservations are often not needed. But that’s where things might get confusing. Every country operates differently and manages Eurail pass holders differently. France regards Eurail passes a lot like airline miles; they limit the number allowed (it seems) and charge according to the advance purchase time and who knows what else. We eventually learned to get on the train first and ask questions later. Reservations really weren’t required on the regional trains, no matter what you might be told. But that’s France. In Italy we tried that and had to pay a surcharge to buy the required reserved seats on board. Another day in Italy, there was not a conductor to be found. Switzerland gets the award for best service. The conductors always confirm where you are getting off or changing trains, usually with specific platform information, too.

We only missed one train, trying to get from Trieste, Italy, to Ljubljana, Slovenia. We took a taxi over the border to the Slovenian station, and waited with a few other people for about twenty minutes. All of a sudden, everyone was gone. It turns out the trains were canceled because of a big ice storm a couple weeks earlier. Unbeknownst to us, a bus was replacing the train. We missed the bus, too, while we were watching the tracks.

Eurail Pass app
A screenshot of the Eurail Pass app at work, with departure, arrival, time of travel, and number of changes. Note Benefits option below.

The best bet is to use the Eurail website and Eurail app for timetables and planning. If it says reservations required, go to the train station and make the reservations. This will usually cost ten to twenty Euros. If it doesn’t say anything about reservations, just get on the train. The Eurail app also outlines additional pass benefits, country by country, like lounge use, airport transfers, etc. We liked being able to read the timetable using the app, and leave town when we were ready. But do allow extra time on weekends and rush hours for making your way through train stations.

We traveled by train a few times without using the Eurail pass. We thought (incorecctly) that we’d need to save travel days, so we bought tickets to Caen from Paris. Also, the United Kingdom doesn’t participate in Eurail (they have their own system), so we needed to buy our London to Paris tickets, our first time through the Chunnel. Our Eurail passes supposedly saved us some money on this leg (?) but the reservations did not count toward a Eurail travel day.

Italy’s fast trains serve beverages and snacks in first class. The London-to-Paris train served us a meal. The rest offered food and beverage service for a charge. As in Japan, the best bet is to take food and water with you if you’re feeling peckish. Most of our rail travel, though, was under three hours., so we weren't going to starve.

Eurail Pass SwissTravelPass
The Golden Pass Classic is a replica of the Belle Epoque trains, and very pleasant.

Swiss Travel Pass

We inquired about train travel in Switzerland at the World Travel Market in London before we started our Eurail journey, and based that portion of  our itinerary on their recommendations. Plus, they provided us a special Swiss Travel Pass that includes discounts on the most scenic routes. Most of our Swiss Travel would have been covered by Eurail, but we saved a couple Eurail travel days by using the Swiss pass. The Swiss Travel Pass also includes entrance to over 450 museums and public transportation in Swiss cities. That’s a fantastic deal if you have more time in Switzerland than we did. The U.S. agent for the Swiss Travel Pass (including the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland) is Rail Europe.

As it was, the journey was the destination in Switzerland. We took the Golden Pass Classic from Bern to Montreux, followed the Glacier Express lines from Zermatt to Chur (the Glacier Express Panorama train wasn't in effect at the time), and the UNESCO World Heritage route using the Bernina Express from Chur to Italy. Another route uses both rail and boat travel. In all there are ten panorama routes,  and the Swiss Travel Pass can pretty much cover them all on its Grand Train Tour of Switzerland. Yes, we could go back and cover entirely different routes.

For all of you who encouraged us to travel through Scandinavia or end up in Istanbul, we wanted to do that, too. Maybe next time. On this trip, we’ve tried to include scenic train routes (Switzerland), new destinations (Strasbourg, Ljubljana), day trips (Eurail includes many bus lines, too), and stops to visit with friends and family (Paris, Bern, Milan). Before this Eurail trip came about, we’d planned to spend this time, well, who knows where? We'd talked about the Balkan countries, Romania and Bulgaria. We just might need a Eurail trip, Part II.

Eurail pass train
This might have been the train we missed. It wasn't going anywhere, but the bus was.

Here’s our Eurail route, listing cities (and rivers or bodies of water) where we stopped. We’re posting city-by-city commentary on our hotels, restaurants, and good finds. Stay tuned for the best round-up of all time!

Paris, France; Nov. 9-12, 14-17; Seine
Caen, France; Nov. 12-14; Orne
Strasbourg, France; Nov. 17-20; Rhine
Colmar, France; Nov. 20-23; Lauch, tributary to the Ill; also Rhine via canal
Bern, Switzerland; Nov. 23- 25; Aare
Montreux, Switzerland; Nov. 25- 26; Lake Geneva
Zermatt, Switzerland; Nov. 26-27; Vispa
Chur, Switzerland; Nov. 27-28; Rhine
Verona, Italy; Nov. 28-Dec. 1; Adige
Trieste, Italy; Dec. 1-4; Gulf of Trieste/Adriatic
Ljubljana, Slovenia; Dec. 4-8; Ljubljana
(daytrip to Idrija;  Idrijca River)
Venice, Italy; Dec. 8-11; Venice Lagoon/Adriatic
Milan, Italy; Dec. 11-13; answer to the trivia question
Florence, Italy; Dec. 13-27; Arno

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32 thoughts on “The Lowdown on Travel with a Eurail Pass”

  1. I have not used a Eurail pass since college so this was a nice review of how to use the pass effectively and I love the 2 month expanded stay which is fantastic.

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      • That was a very interesting article. I just signed up for Travel Past 50, from the Travel Channel website, and have never been to Europe. Sounds like you had a blast without dynamite.

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        • James, you’ll have to go sometime, and we can say that, a few minor glitches aside that were mostly the French system being, well, French, Eurail is a great way to go. Be sure to get your pass before you go. And don’t be like us. Plan ahead a bit. The further you do, the more likely you are to get the schedule you want.

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  2. Living along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor in the US, can give one the wrong impression about train travel. In Europe, it’s a very different experience. On our most recent trip to Europe, we did all our travel by train with trips from Munich to Salzburg, to Vienna and from Vienna to Budapest. It was easy to book and mostly pleasant and I would like to once again apologize to the very nice Irishman whom I accidentally doused with half a bottle of coke.

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  3. We were fortunate to enjoy traveling across Europe for a month last winter using a first class Eurail pass as we made our way from Ireland to the Olympics in Sochi. Aside from a couple of confusing reservation-related issues (I may have overpaid for our high speed trip on LGV from Paris to Zurich), we think it’s the only way to go. Fun to follow along with you.

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      • Our routes were Paris – Carentan – Bayeux – Paris – Zurich – Vaduz – Munich – Stuttgart -Ludwigsburg – Prague- Vienna – Budapest – Bucharest. We considered adding Ukraine, but ran out of time. The experience got more “vintage” in Hungary and Romania, particularly on the overnight leg.

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    • Betsy, I would say the French are the worst when it comes to ticket clerks. They told us we had to pay for seats because they’d exhausted their seats for Eurail passes. When we got on the train, there were only two other occupied seats in our car. We showed our Eurail passes, and the conductor stamped them and that was it. We paid €150 for tickets we didn’t need.

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      • Yeah, same here. Refund? Mais non! The ticket clerk at Keleti Budapest was our favorite: a relic from the Soviet era who yelled at us when we pointed out her mistake putting us on the wrong train. Nose wart and all. We couldn’t get out of that office fast enough. There is a wonderful first class lounge in that station hidden in plain sight that we stumbled upon, which of course Magda made no mention. Good times!

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  4. Love your insights about visiting the ‘B’ destinations. Alas I haven’t been to most of the ‘A’ destinations yet and never by Eurail Pass. I love the app though and hope to follow your lead one day soon. Happy New Year!

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  5. Wow – you really made the most of those passes – I’m impressed! It looks like a fabulous itinerary! Anne and I had a miserable experience in Spain a couple years ago with some rail pass they sell only to Americans while you’re still in America, before you go to Spain. Too bad no one in Spain knew about them and we went through hell and didn’t save a penny in the end! I think I’d really like Swiss trains a lot. That Golden Pass Classic car is gorgeous. Anne will agree to ride anything with teal upholstery so it’ll be an easy sell!

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    • Irene, the only advice I’d offer to us aged challenged people is pack light. They don’t help with baggage, unless you hire a porter. We do travel pretty light, and the bags would go between the seats or overhead usually with no problem.

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    • Good question, Irene, and I cut that bit out of the story. Luggage stowing was easy, I thought. If the coach we were in had a luggage rack at the door, we’d each leave a bag there. If not, we found it easy to slide a bag or two under back-to-back seats. Tom used the overhead rack for his cameras; I can’t reach easily so never use the overhead. During the crowded holiday trip from Florence to Rome, we still found plenty of space, and that was regular 2nd class. Best advice is to take water. (I always say that. It cures everything.)

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    • We agree, Charles, and hire cars regularly. (The last time was in Normandy while on this Eurail trip, and before than in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.) While the train doesn’t take us to the far corners a car might, it takes fewer wrong turns!

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  6. Great info on the Eurail Pass! I love the idea of gazing out the window and watching the scenery go by as well as the fact that it stops in smaller, less visited cities. I also like that you don’t have to figure out your itinerary too far in advance since we try to be a bit spontaneous and stay longer in places that we really like. We’ll definitely plan on putting on some train miles when we’re in Europe next year!

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  7. Haven’t used (or even thought about) Eurail Passes since University. Have some big Europe trips this year, so might look into it again. Thanks for sharing!

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  8. Same here, Lance. Although we’ve used trains in the interim, it’s been within one country at a time. After this experience, I’m thinking of using a Eurail Pass for a specific country to get to more out-of-the-way towns.

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