To travel by train is one of the joys of visiting Europe. For non-europeans there is a rail pass that lets you travel across the continent. This rail pass is the Eurail Pass, and this guide will help you decide which pass to get, and how to get the most out of your pass.
Why travel by train in Europe
First-time visitors to Europe (especially Americans and Australians) might be shocked to find how comprehensive the rail network is across the continent. European governments still spend money on maintaining and expanding the railways, and train transport is a viable alternative to owning a car.
Most stations are centrally located which enables you to walk from the station to the city centre.
A relaxing way to travel
With a train you can just turn up to the station a few minutes before departure and get on the train. No need to check in your bags – you take them with you. Onboard you can stretch your legs and walk around, get a coffee, or do some work.
Admire the architecture
[Old meets new at Strasbourg Station in France.]
Many of the big railway stations are architectural marvels that are worthy of a visit even if you aren’t getting the train. I always visit train stations of any city just to see what it is like. In the case of Liège-Guillemins, I visited the city just to see the station that was designed by Calatrava.
[Calatrava’s Liège-Guillemins train station.]
Meet the locals
In the 1995 film, Before Sunrise, Ethan Hawke plays an American travelling Europe with a Eurail Pass. On the train between Budapest and Vienna he meets Julie Delpy, which is where the story begins.
I’m not trying to imply that you too will meet a Eurobabe by travelling by train, but I will say that your chances of doing so are severely diminished if you are on a tour bus with your fellow countrymen.
Independent travel by train means that you are riding with the general population, and not in a tour bus with fellow tourists. I would never have met the people I did who live in Europe if I was on a tour bus.
What is a Eurail Pass?
A Eurail pass is a train pass that offers unlimited travel in 28 European countries on most European railroads (and some ferries). The pass was started in 1959 (when it was known as a “Eurorail pass” or “Europass”) by a consortium of European railway operators and shipping lines.
The pass allows free train travel on regular trains where you can just on walk and take a seat. Premier trains (such as high-speed and night trains) require an additional reservation fee with your pass.
Who can use a Eurail Pass?
Rail passes are only available for non-European citizens. While it is rare for a ticket inspector to check your passport with your ticket, they do occasionally check to make sure the pass is in the right hands.
European citizens can apply for an Interrail Pass.
How many countries are covered by Eurail?
Officially there are 28 countries covered in the Eurail Pass, which are as follows:
While there are 28 countries listed, technically you can visit 31. It’s possible to visit Monaco on the French railways, and you can visit Liechtenstein via Austria or Switzerland. You can also visit Northern Ireland which is included with the Ireland pass, so that adds the UK to your country list.
[Monaco Train Station, operated by SNCF of France.]
Can you travel in Britain with a Eurail Pass?
Britain is not included in Eurail. If you want to travel by train in the UK there are some good rail passes available, including the BritRail Pass.
Types of Eurail Passes
There are several pass types, ranging from days available to travel and defined countries and regions. Passes are also sold by age and groups. The Youth Pass is for 12-27 year-olds and the Adult Pass is for 28 year and over. A family pass is for adults and kids (4 to 11).
Instead of creating a student discount, Eurail have opted for the system of selling 2nd class tickets for the Youth Pass, and 1st class tickets for the Adult Pass.
Here are the main pass types which are available to all age groups.
The Eurail Global Pass is the pass that Eurail is best known for, and it is also the most popular. This pass gives you access to every country in the Eurail network. It’s ideal if you are going to visit 5 or more countries, and passes can be either a select amount of travel days or continuous days.
5 days within 1 month
7 days within 1 month
10 days within 2 months
15 days within 2 months
15 days continuous
22 days continuous
1 month continuous
2 months continuous
3 months continuous
The Select Pass
The Eurail Select Pass lets you travel in 2, 3, or 4 bordering countries by train in 27 participating countries. You can choose the countries to tailor the trip of your choice, which is useful if you already know where you want to go. Eurail also list the most popular choices to give you an idea of itineraries.
One Country Pass
As the name would suggest this pass covers one country, which include the following countries:
This pass type also includes some regional passes, including:
– The Benelux Pass (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg).
– Greek Islands Pass (2 trips between Italy and Greece, 4 trips throughout the Greek Islands, and train and bus service between Patras and Pireaus).
– Scandinavia Pass (Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland).
Is it worth getting a Eurail Pass?
This is the most common question when it comes to considering a pass. There is no simple answer is it depends on where you are going and how much travel you plan to do. There are many variables, but in summary:
You should get a Eurail Pass if:
– You are planning to see many cities.
– You are visiting mostly Western European countries.
You should not get a Eurail pass if:
– You only plan on visiting a few cities.
– You only plan to visit Eastern Europe/The Balkans.
If you are visiting less than 5 cities then you would be better off buying individual tickets.
The Eurail Pass has been devalued somewhat over recent years with the expansion of the pass into Eastern Europe. Train travel is still relatively cheap in Eastern Europe, and there is not a great choice of destinations in the Balkans. If you were to get side-tracked spending weeks riding the rails in eastern Europe or the Balkans then you would not be making the most of your pass.
If you are spending most of your time in Western Europe (especially Scandinavia, Benelux, France, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland) you will easily make up the value of your ticket.
Which pass is the best option?
These are the best rail passes, depending on your travels.
The “don’t buy a Eurail pass” option: Instead buy individual “point-to-point” train tickets
If you are only planning on visiting a few cities then a pass won’t save you money. In this case just buy individual tickets for your travel needs. You can buy tickets on the day at the train station, though for longer trips there should be discounts if you book in advance.
Discount tickets will lock you into a time and date, but if that is no problem then buy tickets online at Voyages-SNCF. This is the French railway website which is surprisingly English user-friendly for a French site, and you can book tickets across Europe on this site.
Eurail Flexi Pass – For the D.I.Y “Grand Tour of Europe”
A Flexi Pass is ideal if you are planning to visit 5-10 cities, especially if they are spread out across the continent. This pass is like a Do-It-Yourself Grand Tour of Europe. The 10 days within 2 months pass would enable you to see the most famous cities in Europe, giving you enough time to enjoy each city between travel days.
[Visit All European Highlights with Eurail.]
Mix and match with the Flexi Pass and individual tickets/flights
With the Flexi Pass you could use that to cover long distances by train, and then take a mix and match approach for the rest of your travels. For example once you are at a chosen destination you could take a short day trip from this city base. Paying for an individual ticket for small trips would be cheaper than using one of your travel days.
You could also fill in a couple of legs with low cost airlines. If you get caught short by a day or are at the wrong end of the map, do a flight search to consider your options. With Skyscanner you can type destination “Anywhere” and that will find the cheapest flight out of your destination. You could then restart your rail journey from there.
Eurail Global Pass – For the ultimate European travel adventure
[Gare du Nord in Paris. You’ll probably pass through here at some point.]
The Global Pass is a continuous pass ranging from 15 days to 3 months. This pass offers unlimited travel within the tickets time frame on trains that don’t require reservations. This is the best rail pass if you are planning an all-out European travel adventure, where you are roaming from one city to the next nearly every day.
The dream trip is spending a summer roaming around Europe on a 3 month Global Pass. For many people this is the trip of a lifetime that will be talked about for years to come. You will be on the rails nearly every day, discovering charming secondary cities and medieval towns. This is the Golden Ticket of rail travel.
The 3 month Global Pass also works out to be the best value Eurail Pass. If you consider that you get 92 days in a 3 month pass, then that works out at €14.22 per day for the youth pass and €17.75 per day for the adult pass.
Where to buy a Eurail Pass
The easiest way to buy a Eurail Pass is to order it online at Eurail. They ship worldwide, and for US customers there is the option of free economy shipping.
Standard and Premium shipping is available which allows you to follow the status of your order online. This option is by registered mail, so someone has to sign for the package.
Can I buy a Eurail Pass if I’m already in Europe?
If you have left your planning for the last minute and are already in Europe, you can have your pass delivered to hotels and hostels (just let them know to expect a letter). I have twice had passes sent to hotels I was staying at.
Can I buy a Eurail Pass at train stations in Europe?
[Paris-Gare de Lyon: lots of trains, no Eurail Passes.]
One place you can’t buy the pass is at train stations, and you can’t have passes delivered to a station either. One of the benefits of having a pass is never having to queue for a ticket.
The Eurail Pass is known for the freedom of being able to jump on a train whenever you want to travel across Europe, but you will get far more out of your pass if you do some planning. From what I have read on forums, most people who were disappointed in the pass didn’t really understand what they were doing with it.
Here are some tips to prepare before you travel.
Get a Europe guidebook
Before I had ever set foot in Europe I had not even heard of half of the places I ended up visiting. There are hundreds of amazing secondary cities that you never hear about if you don’t live in Europe. Before embarking on my European travels I got the classic Lonely Planet Europe and studied up on all those places in between the famous cities. I know it is cool to be spontaneous, but it’s also helpful to know what cities are of interest and what cities are grim industrial towns.
Use the Eurail map
You can use the pass up to 11 months from the date of purchase, which gives you plenty of time to prepare. One of the benefits of booking in advance is that you will get your ticket sent to you along with the Eurail travel map. This beautiful map shows everywhere that the train goes within the Eurail countries. It’s a great visual aid to work out a grand master plan. You can download the exact same map as a PDF from the Eurail site, but there is nothing like having a large paper map laid out in front of you to get you excited about travel.
Download the Eurail App
Download the Rail Planner Eurail/Interrail app for Apple or Android before you travel. This is one of the most useful travel apps I’ve ever used, and worthwhile getting if you are a frequent rail user in Europe.
The app has a database of virtually every train service in Europe and you can use it offline. This app is useful for planning your itinerary to get to know travel times and departure frequencies. When making my initial plans I was drawing lines all over the map. I inputted potential routes to work out how long each leg would take, and what frequencies are available.
With the aid of the map, a guide book, and the app, you can now start making a list of places you would like to visit.
One suggestion for the map is to make a “Europe dream board.” Put the map on a cork board and put a pin in your “must see” destinations. Or you could put a pin in every place you want to see, and use a different colour for the “must see” destinations, and another colour for the rest. If you have too many pins you can then try and whittle the list down to an itinerary that you can work with.
If you prefer online pinning then make a Europe board on Pinterest to collect destination ideas.
Flights to Europe: Plan your start and end points
[Amsterdam – A great place to start Eurailing.]
Another reason to plan ahead is to work out your start and end points. You don’t want to find yourself at the other end of Europe to where your flight home is when the ticket ends. There is no point spending any more money than you need to.
If you are buying a return ticket (for example you are flying in and out of Amsterdam) then you need to plan your trip so that you are doing a loop. Or you may prefer to fly into one city and out of the other.
A good way to determine which cities to start and end from is to list which cities you would like to spend the most time in. While there are many cities you’ll be satisfied to wander around for half a day, there are some cities you may never want to leave. If you are using a continuous pass where every day counts, then you don’t want to be spending too many days not travelling.
For example maybe the two cities you desire to spend the most time in is Paris and Budapest. Arrange your travels so you arrive in Paris well in advance before your tickets starts, and book your return trip from Budapest for however many days after your pass expires.
Eurail itinerary examples
There are over 10,000 railway stations in covered in the Eurail network, which means there is a countless amount of itinerary options. Eurail provide a sample of popular options to give you an idea to start with.
Here is how I visited 57 cities in 31 days with a 1 month Eurail Global Pass.
Can I visit every country on the Eurail Pass?
When surveying the Eurail map I think everyone must have thought at one point, “I wonder if I can visit every country on the Eurail Pass?” It would be an extreme challenge to do so but it’s possible. I have worked out an itinerary of how to visit every country with a Eurail Pass. You would need the 3 month continuous pass to do this, otherwise you would just be spending all your time on trains without enjoying the cities on the way.
If you have done this let me know!
Do I need a visa to travel in Europe?
Keep in mind that if you are planning extended travels in Europe that you will have to observe the Schengen Visa laws. There are 26 countries covered by Schengen, and you can spend 90 days in any 180 days period in this area. Different visa rules apply for every nationality so research before you go.
Get travel insurance
How to travel with a Eurail Pass
The day has arrived and you are ready to begin your rail travel adventure. Here are some basic tips for Eurail travel.
Validate your Eurail pass
Before you travel you need to validate your pass, which can now be done online when you buy your pass.
If your pass is not validated you can go to the ticket office of the train station on your first day of departure. At big stations they may have a dedicated Eurail window, otherwise just go to a ticket agent and ask to have your pass validated. make sure you go a bit earlier on the first day, just incase there is a queue.
Fill out your pass as you travel
Another important bit of paperwork is to fill out your journey details as soon as you start your journey. Don’t fill this out until you are actually on the train, just incase your scheduled train didn’t arrive and you take another option. This is stapled to your pass and it has a table where you can fill out each leg.
I found that most of the time the ticket inspectors didn’t look at the details, but the one time I hadn’t filled out the form they asked for it. I had just sat down on and a ticket inspector came up to me before I had even opened my bag. Filling out the form is usually the first thing I do so I don’t forget. They were a bit grumpy but I filled it out on the spot.
Make the most of stopovers and junction towns
One of the benefits of using Eurail is not being locked into a train time. You can get off and see other cities on the way to your next destination.
While travelling through Germany I had to change trains in Hanover. I wouldn’t have though to visit here otherwise, but for an hour and fifteen minutes it was great to wander in the town and see some of the sites.
On a trip from Strasbourg to Nuremberg I had about ninety minutes between connecting trains in Offenburg. This is a small city which I knew nothing about, but as the station was close to town I figured going for a walk was better than standing on the platform for over an hour. In that time I found these delightful man-birds on the street which made the detour worth it.
Going back to my guidebook recommendation, have a look for interesting towns to visit on the way between big cities. There are so many small towns that you can wander around in for an hour in between trains. Also look for places that you could take a detour instead of a direct train.
Note that if you have a reserved seat then you have to stay on that train, which is another reason I prefer not to use trains that require reservations.
Even though the Eurail Pass is a ticket to free travel around Europe, in some cases you need to make an extra paid reservation for certain train types. The reservation is for special intercity, high speed, and overnight trains. These reservations are required because the trains often are booked out and seats are assigned. For these trains is makes sense to assign seats when a train is 16 carriages long, otherwise everyone would be stampeding to the first available carriage.
How to avoid paying for reservations
I personally find it annoying that there is an extra fee for some trains, as it kills the magic of being able to hop on any train, any time. Having said that it is quite easy to avoid paying the fee with some planning.
You can still travel around most of Europe without a fee, and the trains are easy to find when using the Eurail app.
France is probably the hardest place to travel without a reservation fee as they have so many TGV (high-speed) trains for intercity services. The good thing about this is that it made me consider other trains, and in the process I saw some wonderful cities I would have otherwise missed.
[A comfortable InterCity train in France – no need to take the TGV.]
Paris to Brussels is a classic example. The THALYS high-speed train has a hefty reservation fee, so I took local trains to travel between the two cities. By doing this I got to visit the charming little cities of Amiens and Lille on the way.
[Lille – France]
When making a reservation makes more sense
I made it a point in my travels to avoid paying for a reservation. Sometimes though you will find your itinerary is so tight that it will make more sense to make a reservation. I paid a €6.75 reservation fee for a 3-hour train ride in Spain, instead of spending a full day on local trains.
Also make use of the night trains if they are available and make economic sense. The Lisbon to Madrid is an overnight service and you can reserve a bed in a 4-bed sleeper (2nd class) for €29. In this case you are paying a reservation fee instead of a night in a hostel or hotel.
A suggestion for considering reservations would be to give yourself a budget. If you set a budget of, for example, €50 then consider that whenever you are planning a route.
Each country operates their own trains, so services on trains in Europe vary according to the class type and country.
Onboard internet has been rolling out across different train services across Europe, though it’s not a common service yet. The times I have used it I have found the service to be patchy, so I’ve only used it for light duties like getting booking details from my email and reading the news. It’s a bonus if you have it, but come prepared to not have it.
Power outlets are available on some services – mainly on newer trains and in first class.
If you have numerous devices a powerstrip is a useful device. It is best to come prepared though and have everything charged the night before.
Food and Drink
Food and drink is available on long distance trains, but I wouldn’t rely on it for sustenance. Snacks are usually junk food, and the meals in the dining carriages can be costly.
My travel system is to have breakfast before getting the train, and to prepare the day before with some snacks from a supermarket.
Sometimes I didn’t have breakfast so I had the onboard options. As much I loved these chocolate croissants, I wouldn’t want to be eating them every day.
If you do get caught unprepared most long distance trains have a dining cart.
In first class on Austrian trains you can get real coffee served in a real cup.
In addition to arriving at the station a bit earlier to have breakfast, I found myself trying out all the coffee vending machines in every country. Some of the coffee was good (and all of them better than any US brewed coffee).
[An unusually big coffee in the Czech Republic.]
One of the many reasons that trains are better than buses is having access to a toilet. While some buses have toilet, they get scary real quick.
Some of the older trains still have an open hole which flushes onto the tracks, while the newest trains have vacuum flushes similar to an aircraft toilet.
One thing you will soon discover about Europe is that most public toilets have an entrance fee. In a continent where human rights are so valued, it seems that going to the toilet isn’t a basic human right. The average toilet charge in Western Europe is 50 cents, so going to the pay toilet over a month can soon add up.
If you are having a stopover or think you will be a while before you reach your hotel, then pay attention to when your final stop is and go to the toilet on the train before you get off.
As you will be spending so much time on trains you will need to know how to read a time table.
Train station timetables
Every train station has departure and arrival times printed out and posted to a wall. The standard convention is the yellow paper is the departure information and the white paper is for arrivals.
The timetable will list all the trains stopping at the station throughout the day, listed in time order. The Netherlands is an exception in that they show arrivals and departures grouped by destination.
Plan with the Eurail App
I mentioned in the pre-planning section that you should download the app before you go. If you haven’t already done so then go ahead and do it now. This app will save you so much time and frustration when trying to work out rail itineraries.
The app works offline, so no need to be on wifi to use it. Enter your start and end stations and the app will work out the rest. I had many travel days that involved complex connections, and this app will give you the best option. Most crucially you can filter out trains that require a reservation if you are trying to avoid extra fees.
As an example here is my suggested itinerary to get from Ceske Budejovice to Hallstatt. These two small destinations have no direct service and trying to work it out from the timetable book would have been a hassle.
The app also shows you where you are in the journey, or at least where you should be if everything is running on time. As it is offline it doesn’t have real-time tracking. If your train is late and you miss a connection then input your new times and places to find the best route.
The Eurail package that you receive in the mail includes a timetable booklet with the most popular cities listed. This doesn’t list every place so the app is the best way to plan.
I was in a hostel and I found an old Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable book. This used to be the rail travel bible when it came to planning European train travel. Before the age of mobile phones this was the guide that was most useful.
When waiting for the train it’s important to take note of the carriage composition. InterCity trains can be 12 to 16 carriages long. Even if you don’t need a reservation it is still advisable to check where the 1st and 2nd class carriages will be located so you don’t have to wait.
For regional trains, some are only two carriages long so make sure to stand at the right end of the platform to avoid have to rush down the other end.
Some countries will have a poster on the platform with the train composition mapped out for each train.
Another place to check carriage information is on the departure board on the platform.
Types of trains
Regional trains usually stop at every station in between big cities.
Some regionals have 1st and 2nd class, though it’s common for them to have just a 2nd class. There are no drink carts either so come prepared.
The most ridiculous regional train I took was from Wroclaw (Poland) to Usti Nad Orlici (Czech Republic). This trip took over 4 hours and stopped 36 times, and some of the stations were nothing more than a platform in a forest. There was no other option to get where I needed to go, so I brought food and made sure my devices were charged. It was a pleasant morning of travel.
As the name would suggest the InterCity services travel between the big cities and don’t stop at smaller stations.
These are my favourite trains as you can travel great distances in comfort without having to make a reservation.
High speed trains travel between the big cities, with stops at a fewer cities along the way. These trains require a reservation on top of your rail pass in order to secure a seat.
Read up on any extras that your pass offers in case you can use them on your trip. Some cities have lounges that are similar to an airport lounge, and these are available for 1st class pass holders.
There are discounts available for ferry travel which might help in your itinerary, and also look out for city metro use.
Another big consideration of your trip is planning accommodation. Gone are the days where you could just turn up to a hostel and get a bed. If you are travelling in the summer then you should plan ahead as much as possible.
These are my best tips for planning accommodation:
– Book in advance but use the “pay later” or free cancellation option.
– Consider Couchsurfing. I’ve stayed at few places where hostels were booked out so Couchsurfing is a good backup option. It also fits in well with the spirit of the pass and “meeting the locals”. After being unable to find a hostel bed in Groningen I found a proverbial couch and had a great night in the process.
– Be mindful of where your accommodation is located in relation to the train station. This doesn’t apply so much if you are staying in a big city for a few days. If you are staying in a mid-size city and are only there for half a day, it is better to find something that is near the station. This way you can easily walk to the hostel, dump your bag, and begin exploring straight away. In the morning you can get up and be at the station without having to rely on public transport or taxis.
One that springs to mind is the Generator Hostel in Hamburg which is opposite the entrance of the main train station. Saving 30 minutes of travel in the morning is worth it when you are getting early trains.
[Generator Hostel in Hamburg.]
This guide is compiled from the experiences of my two previous Eurail experiences, and I am also planning to do the 3 month continuous pass at some point.
If you have any questions let me know in the comments, and if it’s relevant I will add answers to this guide. If you have completed a Eurail trip and would like to share your itinerary, that can be published at Eurail Travels.