For once, Rick Steves has steered me wrong.
The Eurail Pass is something every travel agent recommends for backpackers, travellers, anyone going to Europe for longer than a couple weeks. I wasn’t going to do it, but ended up buying a 5 country specific youth pass for seven days over two months (for a limited time only, I got an extra day for free!) once I activated it. I chose what I figured to be the five countries I’d see the most of that all connected: Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Croatia/Slovenia.
A lot of my problems with the pass can be written down to my own naivete, but I have to place some blame with the lack of help or misinformation in the Eurail packets and with the Eurail whore I spoke with.
Problem 1: Unless you have a very strict itinerary, you really don’t know what countries you are going to see, or want to see the most of, or have time to travel around in, to necessitate a Eurail pass. I assumed I would do London, Ireland and Scotland, and then go to Europe. Instead I spent 40 days in the UK and Ireland, proving that a BritRail pass may have come in more handy than a Eurail pass (the UK is not apart of the Eurail). I won’t even get to Croatia on this adventure, making it a poor ass choice. I will have no problem using my seven days of travel, but due to my choices, many of the trips that would be beneficial to use, like say Rome to Munich, go through Austria, which isn’t covered, so I have to buy a separate ticket for that leg of the journey. Don’t ask me how that works, but I’ll likely find out soon.
Solution: A global pass at a boost in price, so you can go everywhere you want. Or not buying one, so you have more money up front and complete freedom in where you go. There are likely savings with the pass by already having the ticket booked, even with this trouble, however.
Problem 2: In most countries, having a Eurail price only pays for your ticket, but NOT your seat. You can’t just walk on a train and flash your pass and sit where you want (when you order you order a first or second class pass, as well). That’d be too convenient. The 3-15 euro additional charge sucks, because you know, you already paid 300 euro for your pass, but it’s not the biggest headache. To my intense frustration, you can only purchase these seat reservations AT the train station (not online, on the phone, etc.), and of course, it’d have to be in the specific country of departure, so you really can’t plan ahead. I’ve already had to push back dates twice and alter my plans because trains are completely booked (“…but you can purchase a first class ticket…”).
Solution: Don’t get a Eurail pass, or once you arrive in a country where you will have a few train trips, try and reserve all your seats at once. I don’t even know if you can book a train ticket in a different station than the one you’re leaving (if they are the same company/country’s rail system obviously), but once you arrive in say, Spain, before you leave the train station, purchase your seat out and the connecting cities then and there if at all possible.
I think the pass will allow me to at least break even, and maybe even save money in the long run, but it doesn’t really feel beneficial or as convenient as it’s marketed to be, and I’m not going to calculate to figure it out (it’s too late to second guess, even though that’s what I’m doing). Also, while trains are faster and you can travel at night and save a day of travel if you’re comfortable with that, buses are cheaper and sometimes almost as efficient as train travel (okay, rarely is that the case; buses are an option only if you aren’t in a hurry). On Megabus (just the UK and actually the U.S. and Canada) you can get bus tickets for like 2-10 euro between some cities. And Eurolines isn’t as cheap, but covers the entire continent and most destinations. The comfort factor is overrated: most trains and buses I’ve been on have the same level (read: lack) of comfort.
But, the train is the best way to travel, irregardless of expense. Airplanes are boring, even if they are cheap and much faster (though with a bag to check due to weight prices go from 17 euro tickets to about 80), but trains give great views of the countryside, the water, small villages in the middle of nowhere. It’s all there if you don’t nap through it (guilty). If the windows weren’t so grimy and the trains weren’t so fast it’d be a photo bonanza, but that’s what Europe is anyways.
Note: After I wrote this, I was told how expensive trains are in Spain and France and it made me appreciate my Eurail pass a bit more (it was about 170 euros to traverse the country; my pass was 299 euros. So feel free to ignore this post). I also met a guy that had a global pass with UNLIMITED use, and while it cost him 1200 euro, he adores it. So as always, this is just my opinion, more a rant than anything useful, and more a testament to my noob-ness at backpacking than solid travel advice. One thing is clear: Rick Steves has more practice at going through the backdoor (anal).