Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Eurail Passes: To Buy or Not to Buy

As I mentioned in my Paris post and probably others, Eurail passes are a mixed bag.  It's unclear if we actually made up the amount of money that we paid for ours, although based on very rough estimations, we think we may have.  I'm not sure I want to run the numbers, though.

The passes are wonderful for hopping on and off regional trains at will, which we did many times. Without one, we may not have just hopped over to Pisa for a few hours.  It was also nice not to have to wait in lines to buy tickets every time we wanted to catch a train.  Some of those ticket lines were long!

Also, Switzerland has some lovely benefits for Eurail pass holders, namely that a pass covers the ferries in both Interlaken and Lucerne.  Woot!

However, there are a number of downsides:

1.  People aged 26 and older are not able to buy a second class pass.  We had to buy a first class pass, which was over $400 more per person (and that's with the discount you get for buying one 'group' pass for two people instead of two individual passes!).  I'm not going to lie, I enjoyed first class.  It was easy to get a seat because it was so often empty, and it frequently had some cushy benefits.  But not being allowed to buy anything else seems silly.

2. France severely limits the number of seats available for Eurail pass holders.  It would seem it is especially limited in first class.  We were told there were no first class seats available on a train that we noticed was very empty when we boarded.  And first class was usually much more empty than second class.

3. France charges a lot of money for reservations.  We paid 54 Euro (for the two of us) for a 3 hour first class train ride from Paris to Basel (Switzerland).  However, we did get breakfast, which was pretty exciting to me.  We paid 109 Euro for the first class "super reclining seats" on the overnight train from Spain to Paris.  As a point of comparison, we paid 6 Euro for local trains and 20 Euro for longer trains in Italy.

4. Making reservations for future train rides is an extreme pain in the arse, except in Italy where you can make reservations online using your rail pass (France allowed online reservations, but you couldn't tell it you had a rail pass).  As I mentioned in the Paris post, we spent 2 hours trying to make reservations for a Swiss train.  Not fun.  After Austria (or maybe even starting in Austria), we avoided all trains that required reservations.  Of course, that was easy to do since few trains require reservations in those countries.

5. Eurail ticket offices are not easy to find (thanks, France) and sometimes are even closed and long gone (thanks, Spain).

6. The pass itself is ridiculously flimsy!
This shows the front side.  I folded part of it to hide personal details.
Back side of the pass.   This is the full size of the sheet.
The official pass part is two little pieces of paper stapled to a much larger piece of paper that folds many times over.  There's a huge section where you must write down every train you take.  If you don't, ticket checkers may fine you or tear up the pass (supposedly).  This makes sense for those who have passes that can only be used for a certain number of days.  Ours was continuous, so what does it matter?  I skipped writing down a few of the small train hops, but wrote down the rest, mostly for our own records.  Only a couple of ticket checkers looked at it on the over 80 trains we rode.  Not to mention, the space provided isn't long enough for all the trains, so here's the very official piece of paper on which we recorded the remainder:
7.  If something happens to your rail pass (stolen, lost, etc), you must report it within 24 hours, and they will not replace it.  Your only option is to keep all receipts and records of any money you spend on trains, and they will supposedly reimburse you.  This made me paranoid, so I kept ours in my money belt the entire trip, which is why it looks rather wrinkled.

In the end, I am glad we had one.  Not having to buy tickets was awesome.  However, for a shorter trip, or one that includes fewer countries, it may not be worth it.  Especially if you'll be spending a lot of time in France, where reservations are ridiculously pricey, or in Italy, where trains are actually really cheap without a pass.


  1. I always guessed the Eurail pass was more like a plastic transit card you can buy and use on larger US subway/transit systems. I'm a little surprised to see it is paper based. What year is it again?

    1. That was what I was expecting, too - something plastic and durable. In some countries, people with local rail passes had ones that were like you describe. But sadly, the Eurail pass is really quite flimsy. It's like they are hoping something happens to it....