Eurotrains When Backpacking Has Passed You By

In 2009, my husband and I embarked on a trip around the world. Our goal for the European leg was to travel from Ireland to Istanbul solely over land and sea. No airplanes. Because we had backpacked before, we knew to turn to Eurail for some train passes, which would also cover some ferry travel.

Unlike the last time we backpacked around Europe 15 years ago, we were no longer under the age of 26. Thus, the 15-day flexi-passes cost about $1000 each. <<Gulp.>> It should be noted that the higher priced passes for those of us in advanced age (a.k.a. anyone over the age of 26) are for first class, rather than second class. Though this may sound like good news, my husband and I became mildly concerned that we would we be too grubby for the high class trains we’d be taking.

Our concerns were for nought. We didn’t look any grubbier than other first class passengers, and even if we did, we didn’t care. We were too busy enjoying all the first class amenities. In France, we were served an excellent meal with fine wine on one beautiful train trip through the Alps. All over Germany, we were constantly given free snacks and drinks and English language newspapers. In Italy, we luxuriated in the only car where people weren’t illicitly smoking. In Greece, we rode in the only car that didn’t smell like a very old, dying goat. In short, it was a stupendous experience, though now my only fear is that I will never be able to afford first class rail travel again.  

If you’re thinking about training around Europe, even if you’re visiting only two countries or a single country, visit 
Eurail has passes that offer substantial savings to people of all ages for a variety of European destinations. Passholders are eligible for discounts on local attractions, lodging, and other transport. For example, even though the UK isn’t covered by your Eurail pass, you can get a 30% discount on a ferry from Belfast to Scotland.

If you’d like to stop and visit a few of the places you’re training through, but don’t want to live on trains for a month or more, the Global Flexipass may offer you the best value. With a Flexipass, you get 10 or 15 days of rail travel which you can take at your leisure over 2 months in nearly all the Eurail countries.

After getting from Ireland to Istanbul over land and sea in just under 2 months, here are some general lessons learned during our European train adventure:

1. Buy a ticket and a seat. This is something that’s hard for Americans to understand, but in European countries, you have to buy a ticket and a seat reservation if you want to secure a specific place to rest your posterior. Because I didn’t understand this distinction, during one very hot summer, I once had to ride eight hours on a hard plastic pull-down seat in the stifling space between train cars from Paris to Marseilles.

Some fancy high speed trains, like many TGV routes in France, require reservations. Although some trains don’t, if you know you’ll want to sit down, make sure you’re buying a seat with your ticket.  Even if you have a Eurail pass (which is a ticket), you will still need to make reservations for certain trains and/or specific seats. The Eurail staff at most major train stations are very helpful with this.

2. Make triple-sure you understand what your tickets say. When you keep moving around a lot, it’s hard to keep track of every country’s train ticket and what everything means. 

In looking at the wrong box on my Italian train ticket, I read the carriage number for the time of departure. (I can neither confirm nor deny that there was a small amount of wine involved in this mishap.) Needless to say, we missed our train from Naples and didn’t get to Bari until much later in the evening than we had planned. 

3. Remember that, in Europe, how dates and times are displayed differs from the U.S. For example, “April 1, 2011,” is written as 4/1/11 in the U.S. In Europe, the same date is written 1/4/11. Clearly, this reversal of months and days could have serious ramifications for a train reservation.

Train times in Europe are also displayed differently, with less reliance on A.M. and P.M. to indicate morning or evening. Train times are shown on the 24-hour clock, so that 1:15 p.m. is displayed as 13:15 in Europe. (Subtract 12 to get the time.) In Europe, if a train table says 1:15, you’d probably prefer being in a bar or in bed.

Of course, there are a few location-specific lessons that may be of use to you if you’re planning on riding the rails around Europe. Some, we learned the hard way. Hopefully you won’t have to:

Author: Kristin

A peripatetic picoleur who knows that getting there is half the fun, and that a good cocktail on arrival is the other half

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