Eurail pass tips, info and personal experiences
First off, I get a lot of questions as to whether or not it is worth buying the Eurail pass. This entirely depends on what kind of travelling you will be doing. If you will be moving around lots from city to city and country to country, it will be probably be worth it (see my comment on being 26 or older and the first class pass below). However, its not entirely worth it if you will be staying in 1 or 2 countries and not moving around between the cities that much. The rail pass does not work on city buses or inner-city metros (basically inner city transportation). The rail pass has its greatest value when you will be moving around a lot and when distances are fairly great.
Train travel is quite expensive in some countries and quite cheap in others. In Switzerland for example, it is quite costly to get around as it is in the scandanavian countries. However, eastern European countries are quite a bit cheaper. So if you will be spending your time in the Eastern European countries, it may not be worth getting a pass (lots of eastern european countries aren't even covered by the pass, probably because it is so damn cheap to travel through them). I unfortunately don't know of a good site that will price out train connections for point to point tickets, if anyone knows of one, let us know.
If you are on or over the age of 26 years old, you are now forced to buy a 1st class pass which adds considerable cost. This is quite unfortunate, and could be a deal breaker as to whether or not its worth it. I'm 26, so was forced to get the first class pass, and if I remember correctly for a 1 month pass it would have cost me close to 950 US dollars and for a 3 month pass around 1700 US dollars (averages out to about 560 US dollars per month). So its almost a huge rip off if you are only travelling for one month (or at least you have to use it quite a bit to get your money's worth from it). I'm not entire convinced it would have been worth it for me to buy a 1 month pass at the first class rate, again it really depends on how much you will be moving around. It definitely "pays off" (value-wise) to stay longer and and buy the longer rail pass.
One huge benefit that I think everyone else will agree with me on is that it allows incredible amount of flexibility. We changed our travel plans several times and didn't have to worry about scheduling flights or loosing money on them. Granted if you are buying point to point train tickets, its almost as easy as having a rail pass.
Its also great to buy the railpass and then you can more or less forget about having to buy tickets and waiting in lines. I think I would hate sitting there seeing how much I am spending on each individual ticket and thinking about all the money that I am spending to get to these places vs having the railpass and feeling limitless and going where ever I want. You are much more likely to travel more and see more places if you don't have to think about how costly it will be to get you there. Once I bought the rail pass, it kind of felt like all trains were free to me and that there was no cost associated with it, basically made the trip feel less stressed about money.
Discounts: With the railpass you can get discounts on some buses and ferries. Overnight train travel is quite a bit cheaper with the railpass. When taking overnight trains, I paid about 25 Euros for a bed in a 6 bed bunk, and I think it costs closer to 100 Euros without the rail pass. Overnight trains still cost money (even for seats) but its alot cheaper with the rail pass. The discounts on ferries (between the scandanavian countries or between italy and greece as well as other ferries) aren't always worth it and its almost the same cost if you didn't have a rail pass. However, with the railpass you can be upgraded to a cabin (beds and stuff) for free if they are available, but you have to ask for it (never tried it, learned about it afterwards). I can't remember if that is for 1st and 2nd class rail passes, doesn't hurt to ask.
Extra fees: One important note is that a rail pass does not mean that all trains are free. Some trains require a reservation (cost will vary on which country you are in, varying from 5 to 15 Euros). Also faster trains (some of these trains are quite faster and others just make less frequent stops) they also charge a surcharge for. You can spot these trains that cost extra money by certain key words such as "EuroCity" and "Fast" vs the typical InterCity (IC trains). I have never had to pay extra for an InterCity train. If you goto the counter and ask for a train connection, they will usually give you the schedule for the extra-cost-train first (I guess they assume you will just want the faster one) if it exists. Keep in mind that you can always catch IC trains to the same destination, you may just have to change a few times and it will take longer, but you can avoid the extra costs this way. If you buy the Eurail pass, they give you this handy little booklet that has all the major train connections and times in it and it has a tiny little "R" in a box next to your train if you need a reservation. If you get on one of these trains without paying, someone may kick you out of the seat (because they have it reserved) and or the conductor will make you pay the standard fee plus an extra surcharge for buying it on the train (not sure if this is always an option).
The Railpass connections booklet: If you buy the Eurail pass, they give you this booklet that has all the major train connections in it, it is extremely handy, definitely bring it along. You can get all the train connections on the web as well(I used www.sbb.ch, which is the swiss transit system, but it has all the other connections as well, it has an english translation option as well, I highly recommend this site). Keep in mind that this booklet does have a few errors as far as times go, so this could bite you from time to time. It doesn't have all the trains and connections in there as well. And sometimes they only have the trains in there that have the surcharges.
Train Connections: First off trains are late and you will miss connections. Perhaps the only train connection thing to be careful of is that cities (mainly the large ones, Paris and Barcelona for example) have several train stations and the station that you came into isn't necessarily the station you will be leaving from. So if you are connecting to another train in a city, you may have to goto another station to catch your out going train. Make sure you account for this and make sure you are in the right stations. Sometimes we didn't look close enough and we ended up missing a train.
Protect your railpass: Spend the extra 12 dollars (I think thats what it cost) to get the security on your rail pass. Things get stolen and damaged its totally worth the extra 12 dollars to make sure your railpass doesn't totally bite the dust. On that note, gaurd your rail pass like your passport, if you loose it or it gets stolen, you can't buy another one in Europe and you will have to buy point to point tickets. If you get the insurance, at least you will get money back. You could potentially buy another one on the internet and have it overnighted to you, but you will most likely be buying one that is of a shorter time frame and it will be quite costly.
Useless countries: Your rail pass only works in about 18 countries and even in some of those countries its completely useless. So first off make sure you can use the pass in the country you want to goto (duh), otherwise you will have to buy the extra portion (train connections in the Eurail booklet cover connections and trains that aren't covered by your rail pass, be careful about this). Also I have found that in the following countries the rail pass is useless due to the following reasons (please add to my list):
1) Greece: The rail pass offers no discount for the ferries between islands, and although trains are used here (only on the mainland), you will most likely be using buses since 1) thats what everyone else uses 2) there have better and more frequent bus connections 3) and they are faster. I maybe a bit biased here however since I spent pretty much all of my time on the islands and on the islands they don't have train transportation, so the rail pass doesn't have much to offer in Greece except maybe on the mainland (we used a bus to get between Patras and Athens). On the mainland it may still be worth a damn (I will leave someone else to comment on this).
2) Spain: Trains are only good to get between the major cities. Now I haven't spent much time in Spain so take this with a grain of salt. Everyone uses buses in Spain, they are faster, more reliable (thats what I have heard) and they don't have stupid connections. To get between cities and certain places you sometimes have to go way out of your way and make stupid connections (taking a considerable amount more time), where buses offer a more direct route at a greater frequency. To give an example, I went to the train station in San Sabastian to ask for a train to Barcelona, the attendent looked at me puzzled as asked why I wouldn't take a bus (odd huh?).
You are supposed to have your passport on you at all times, but they usually don't check. In fact I think I have only been ask 3 times for my passport over the entire 3 months and twice it was in France (I think they saw that I was from the US and wanted to hassle me).
The passes are made of paper and they aren't extremely durable. I actually laughed at it when I first got it, I thought there was no way in hell that this piece of paper was going to survive 3 months of travelling. I had to use some tape to hold it together a bit. I also kept it in this small water seal bag (after the 1st month) and it did a great job of protecting it from further wear. On that note, I don't thing they are water-proof at all.
Sorry for the long post, I had lots of questions before I left on the passes and I couldn't find much info on them and figured it would be good to post some stuff on it. Hopefully people can add more to this post and add additional useful info. Also feel free to correct me on something that may not have been true.
Buses will be cheaper in any country - it's a general rule of thumb that is probably universal the world over. What you'll probably find in Spain, though, is that the difference between a bus ticket and a train ticket isn't that great. Spain has one of the cheapest train networks in Europe, and it's a cheap and efficient way to do many routes (if, for example, the OP wanted to go from San Sebastian to Salamanca, not Barcelona). At times, though, taking the train between cities might require a connection at some out-of-the-way hub - which is when the bus would be more practical.
As far as the OP's comment about rail passes paying off for longer trips: while that's long been the conventional wisdom, I think the emergence of low-cost carriers like Ryan Air and EasyJet has changed the dynamic there. If you can do those long, 12-hour hauls for 20 euros on EasyJet - combined with buses or cheap local trains in Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe - you might find that the rail pass isn't worth all the extra money. It will largely depend on your particular route.
Ryanair and Easyjet will definitely help the budget if you don't mind having to make your way to and wait in an airport. I needed to get from The Hague to Salzburg last minute. My options were to take a train for about E200 and get there maybe early the next morning, or catch a flight for US$500 with a 7-hour layover in London. I ended up buying an IC ticket to Brussels for E40, catching a bus to Charleroi for E10 and hopping on a Ryanair flight for E20. Sure, I took practically every possible basic mode of transportation, but I only spent about E70 total versus my other options that took the same amount of time if not way longer. I think you can book Ryanair and Easyjet tickets and get those cheap fares online even up to 24 hours before you need to leave. Just be cautious though...I had to take the Ryanair flight from Brussels because they're pretty selective about which cities they leave from and fly to.
As anything, it all just depends on your travel plans.
3 friends and I are going to Western Europe for the end of May and the Beginning of June. We were planning on buying a 8 day month long eurail pass, but after reading all the discussions, I have become unsure.
We are really hitting all the major cities, and I will provide a list now.
We are flying from Barcelona to Rome on Ryan air and then taking the train from:
Rome - Venice - Vienna - Munich - Berlin - Amsterdam - Paris
Then we are flying from Paris back to Barcelona for the last few days.
Any advice would be very appreciated.
First, I combined two different Select Passes, chosing something like an 8 and a 5 day pass for different combinations of countries because I knew I'd be studying in Italy and would plan on visiting the surrounding countries. It saved me a lot of money to do it that way compared with buying the full 18 country pass.
Second, I only felt it was really worth the expense for international trips. So for the type of schedule Lorenzo is looking at, I would definatley do Eurail again. I did overnight trains from Rome to Vienna, Munich and Zurich and then Zurich to Paris paying just an extra 20 or such Euro (what I would spend on a hostel anyway) for a couchette. I would have easily spent more than the cost of my Eurail pass on point to point tickets.
For a comparison, it cost my friends traveling with me about 220E to go from Rome to Munich round trip, so I saved 180E on that journey alone.
Traveling just within Italy, however, I found it almost useless. If you know you can use the regional trains a lot, it may be worth it but because I was with a group for my in-country travel I ended up paying supplements to use the faster trains. But if your schedule is pretty open for taking slower trains and enjoying the journey, the convenience is great. I didn't care for Zurich as much as I hoped, so I was able to get on a train for a day trip to Luzern without ever looking at the ticket window.
If you are taking a lot of trips within a country, look into what passes that country's rail service offers. I'm a student in France now and they have a 12-25 youth card that gets an extra discount (there is an automatic discount on many trains) valid for 1 year for just 50 Euro. Two trips from Le Mans to Paris saved me the cost of the card. There are similar cards for senior citizens, though the 26-64 age range may lose out.
If you use your Eurail, never be without your passport. Any time I took an overnight train and on every train I used my pass on in Italy I was asked for my passport. I have also never taken a train in France and not been asked for my passport when using my Youth discount card.
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