Five myths about European train travel

We’re now in high season for travel to Europe, which means that many Americans will be traveling on Europe’s extensive rail network, many of them for the first time. Sure, it’s easy enough to buy a Eurail Pass before going, but is that the most cost effective way to go? Or is it cheaper to simply buy a point-to-point ticket? Here are five myths about rail passes in Europe.

1. It’s almost always cheaper to get a rail pass than a bunch of tickets.

Not necessarily. You basically have to sit down, look at a map and your schedule, and cost out your trip. If you’re just planning on taking a few train journeys, then buying point-to-point tickets might well be cheaper.

Not long ago, you had to book your tickets and then wait for them to arrive in the mail. No longer. Services like GoEuro allow you to book your tickets right before you leave, or even on-the-go once in Europe, using their app.

On the other hand, you can’t beat a Eurail Pass if you want to be spontaneous and you plan to travel by rail a lot.

“The Eurail Pass offers unlimited train travel in one to 28 European countries,” says Silvia Gorlach, Sales & Marketing Manager of the Eurail Group. “You can take as many trains as you like on a single travel day, without having the hassle and complication of buying single tickets. Generally, the more you travel, the cheaper the pass becomes. If seat reservations are required then pass holders can purchase them at a discounted pass holder rate.”

2. Trains are the cheapest way to travel through Europe.

That was once true but no longer. Europe has seen the rapid growth of budget airlines, far more in fact than we have in the United States. These carriers often offer rock-bottom fares that can make trains look downright expensive.

That said, airfare prices fluctuate according to demand, of course, while train and Eurail Pass prices are fixed throughout the season. There are also Eurail discounts for youths, those traveling with children or in groups of two to five people, discounts which you’ll never find on any airline.

“There are no luggage fees, and trains connect you straight from city center to city center, so there’s no need for expensive airport to city center transfers,” says Gorlach of Eurail. Nor is there the prospect of encountering the endless security lines that you find at the airports.

Of course, you could forsake trains and airplanes altogether and opt for the bus.

“There is a rapidly growing network of buses across the Continent,” points out Naren Shaam, CEO of GoEuro, a website that reveals travel options by rail, bus and air in one search.

“Not only are they usually significantly cheaper, but buses in Europe are very high quality, with comfortable seats, Wi-Fi, power outlets , food and entertainment systems.”

3. With a Eurail Pass, I don’t need to worry about reservations.

It’s not just Americans taking those trains. They’re filled with Europeans and with visitors from all over the world as well, and that can make for some very crowded trains. So while the Eurail Pass is great, you may have to shell out some extra money to actually get a seat on a train.

“On the majority of trains in Europe, travelers can board the train with just a Eurail Pass,” says Gorlach. “But some European trains, such as high-speed and long-distance international trains, can require a seat reservation all year-round. It comes at a discounted fee for Eurail Pass holders.”

Some observers take an even stronger view of the reservations situation. In other words, don’t travel without one.

“The Eurail pass gives access to most European trains, but it’s important  to know that most of the trains also need to be reserved in advance,” says Shaam. “Some of them charge a fee that’s not included on the pass, which can increase the total price of the journey.”

Gorlach adds that if the fees seem onerous, it’s important to know that on many routes it is possible to take alternate trains to avoid paying any reservation fees. To help you do that, there is a free Eurail Rail Planner App that allows travelers to filter route search options to only show trains that do not require reservations.

4. There really isn’t much difference between first and second class on European trains.

There is typically a very big difference between first and second class travel, and it’s not simply that first class costs more. It’s all about comforts. In a first-class compartment, the seating is more spacious and many seats recline. There is also more space to store your luggage. In general, it is much quieter and less crowded. In many countries, traveling first-class gives you access to first-class lounges in the train terminal as well.

“In some countries,” says Gorlach, “you can charge your devices and connect to Wi-Fi all from your first-class seat. Food is often served at your seat, so there is no need to head to the busy dining car.”

5. Eurail Passes also include those classic overnight sleeper trains that crisscross Europe.

Yes, if you can find one. It’s likely that sleeper car service going to and from Paris will end this summer. Germany recently phased out sleeper trains to France. But these trains, redolent of classic spy thrillers, still exist and yes, they have romantic names, such as “Berlin Night Express,” which goes from Berlin to Malmo, Sweden.

“Eurail Passes can be used on overnight trains,” affirms Gorlach of Eurail. “Travelers have the option to sleep in a reclining seat or book a shared or individual cabin onboard these trains. Eurail Pass holders have the advantage of pass holder discounts on cabin bookings.”

The Eurail Pass covers your journey. But there are fees for reservations, however, and extra fees for the cabin itself, which can be as high as 100 euros (US $112) for a private cabin. That said, the extensive high-speed train network all over Europe means that you really don’t need to spend a night on a train unless, for example, you plan to cross multiple borders in just one night.

“If you prefer to save the cost of a hotel night and spend the night traveling on the train, it’s even better to opt for normal trains that might take longer,” says Shaam of GoEuro. “It doesn’t matter because you’re sleeping. But the prices are much cheaper if booking ticket by ticket.  In this case, booking your tickets directly can be cheaper than the pass.”


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