Everything you need to know before contemplating a trans-Europe adventure by train, including saving money on the most appropriate passes.
Here a few things you should know when planning a family train tour of Europe, a great way to travel if you have limited amounts of luggage. We want to thank Rick Steves, author of “Rick Steves’ Guide to European Railpasses” and other travel guides, and DER Travel Services for their helpful tips as well.
Understanding the Rail Pass Concept
Basically, a Rail Pass is a just a multi-use ticket that gives you access to a number of trains in different countries depending on price and region. Visit Rail Europe for detailed information on the large variety of passes and plans, so you can buy depending on your itinerary and the length of your trip.
Rail schedules are free with your rail pass at many European train stations. Schedules can also be obtained at most newsstands.
Master the 24-hour clock used in European train timetables. Conversions to the 12-hour clock involve subtracting 12 from the 24-hour time and adding p.m. to all times after noon (for example 17:00 is 5:00 pm).
In general, the differences between a consecutive pass and flexipass are that the consecutive pass is valid for a set number of days in a row (for example a 21-day pass is valid July 1-21 and then expires). A flexipass allows the purchaser a number of rail days to be used within a certain time frame (depending on the pass, the time frame can consist of a number of days or 1-2 months).
Differences between European Rail Pass Options
The Eurail Group has produced the best-selling Eurail Pass since 1959. It can be bought as a consecutive travel pass or flexipass, comes in First Class and Second Class, has many age-based pricing options, and covers 28 countries. Eurail’s new Children Travel Free initiative means that from 2015 on, each Adult Pass holder may bring one or two children ages 4-11 along at no cost; passengers under 4 ride free.
The Eurail Global Pass — their best known offering — allows travelers to explore up to 28 countries during various time periods. The longer the validity of the pass, the more it costs. The Eurail Selectpass provides unlimited train travel in any four adjoining Eurail countries, and for 2015, has been joined by the Eurail Flexipass that will enable travelers to visit non-contiguous countries by rail or ferry as well.
The Eurail Regional Pass provides unlimited train travel in any two adjoining Eurail countries. Eurail One Country Passes are just that; travelers can pick from 27 of the 28 participating countries.
Many variations on pricing exist, including family specials and seasonal discounts, so you’ll have to do your homework carefully, which is why the Eurail sales agents are so helpful.
Of course, many European countries have their own national railways and most have their own frequent-use pass or seasonal savings. If you’re not traveling across the continent, be sure to explore the local options, often available only after you arrive. (In contast, the Eurail products must be purchased outside of Europe.)
Despite its widespread adoption in Europe, most of Great Britain, except Ireland, does not participate in the Eurail Pass system. Therefore, you’ll need a BritRail pass to get on and off trains all over England, Scotland, and Wales. The good news: a Britrail Family Pass means that parents receive one free pass for an accompanying child (ages 5-15) with the purchase of one adult or senior pass. Any additional children purchase the appropriate pass at half the price of an adult. All children under 5 travel for free.
The Eurostar is likely Europe’s most popular point-to-point train service, connecting London and Paris (or Brussels) in three hours. Eurostar’s best deal is the second class Leisure Ticket; rail pass holders also receive discounts on Eurostar tickets. Children 11 years old and younger can obtain special child fares, which vary according to the time of year.
Understanding Train Travel Customs
Do your homework, carry a map or download the app, and be prepared for your rail adventure. Personal confidence will help you overcome the language issues you may face, but here are some helpful tips.
- To break through language barriers at the platform, confirm your plans in writing at the train station’s information desk (for example Milano-Verona 9:10-10:32).
- Double-check which station your train is set to depart from, many European cities have more than one train station.
- Make sure that the city on your train car’s nameplate is your specific destination (the nameplate lists the final stop and some, not all, of the stops in between). Each single car is labeled separately because cars are usually added and dropped throughout the trip.
- Consider making a seat reservation (for a small fee) on Friday and Sunday afternoons and evenings, peak travel periods for Europeans. Seat reservations are required for all long distance trains in most countries, yet many other trains do not offer them. Check in advance where to book your seat reservations; they’re required for all specialty trains, most high-speed trains and some EuroCity, ICE and InterCity trains.
- Reservations can be booked in Europe at train stations, by DER and other services before you depart for Europe or by the concierge at your hotel. Note that children younger than 4 travel free but are not guaranteed a seat when trains are crowded.
- Youth fare discounts vary widely. Children ages 4-11 pay half the adult fare for most European rail passes. Youth fares vary for passengers ages 12-25 (age at the time of validation of the railpass); the majority of youth fares are second-class but some are available first-class.
- First-class travel offers more space, quiet, storage room for luggage, and fewer seats per compartment or car since most Europeans opt for second-class train travel.
- Make a thief’s work that much harder: clip your baggage to the metal overhead rack and sleep with your valuables tucked into your clothes.
- Your rail pass does not cover sleepers and other advance reservations. To safely catch a few winks on overnight trains reserve a couchette — a bunk in a sleeping compartment monitored by an attendant. To ensure your reservation, obtain one in advance from a local travel agency or any train station, or simply ask the conductor on the train for late notice.
Participating Eurail Pass & Europass Countries
The 21 countries participating with the Eurailpass are Austria, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzogivina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.