I have a confession to make: I had a tawdry affair in Europe. It started out innocently, but before long it escalated into a full-blown relationship. I spent the better portion of a year getting to know her. I returned to Europe several summers in a row and continued the relationship, often exploiting it to my advantage. After a while, we lost touch when I stopped traveling. But last year, I returned and was reunited with my true love: the European rail system.
Granted, it was a relationship that was temporary at best. She would never move back to the States with me; she was already seeing thousands of other people; and I was scared to think of what our kids would look like. (Besides, I don’t even know if she really was a “she.” Yikes! It’s like The Crying Game of transportation.)
But I fell in love just the same. Compared to the US, train travel in Europe was more affordable and accessible. Of course, Europe is just plain smaller than the US. (In other words, size does matter.) And here in the US, a train ticket can cost as much as a plane ticket and the ride can take days. (And don’t try to defend US trains by saying they have a nice personality. I don’t buy it.)
I started out buying individual tickets, but I was quick to learn about the traveler’s best friend, the Eurail Pass. I coveted one but was rewarded with something better: the Interail Pass. Not only was it cheaper than Eurail, but it covered more territory. Since it was available only to those who lived in Europe for six months or longer, I was able to obtain one halfway through my study-abroad stint.
With this pass came ultimate flexibility. I could jump on trains 30 seconds before they left the station. Plans could change at a moment’s notice. If I stayed in a place longer than originally planned, I didn’t have to change reservations, exchange tickets, or pay a supplement. And while I was never guaranteed a seat on any given train (unless I made a reservation for a nominal fee), I was always allowed on board. Of course, the Eurail Pass would provide me with the same luxuries on subsequent visits to the Continent.
Once while passing through Austria, I had agreed to meet friends in Athens. I was told the trip took 18 hours by train from Vienna. A long route indeed, but I was willing to make the journey. But when I arrived at the station, I learned that the calculation had been wrong. Instead, the journey took a day and 18 hours. Reluctant to spend nearly two days on that route, I asked to be put on a train to Italy. Twenty minutes later, I was en route to Rome and arrived the next morning.
On more than one occasion, I used trains as a poor man’s hotel. The station in Stuttgart, Germany, is far from the most comfortable place to sleep, but there are several cities a night-train ride away. When I arrived there unannounced and couldn’t reach anyone to stay with, I was forced to either find lodging I couldn’t afford or hop a train. By midnight, my unanswered calls led to an overnight trip to Budapest and, more urgently, a place to sleep.
Of course, I didn’t need to live like a vagabond to enjoy the train. Short trips were just as gratifying for the traveler’s spirit. The speed and precision of the French TGV and German ICE trains provided me with great scenery while getting me across large distances with nigh-disturbing punctuality. And twice during planned trips, I had rail passes with one day left to use. Rather than waste them, I used one for a day trip to Zurich for lunch, the other for a day trip to Luxembourg for dinner. Barely a taste of the cuisine and culture of each country, but enough to whet my appetite for the next time around.
Sure, I try to see others. I’ve spent time driving my car great distances. But she’s high-maintenance, expensive and bad for the environment. I’ve have a few dates with Greyhound, but they leave me unfulfilled. So until my next big trip, I’ll carry a torch for European train travel and dream of the day we meet again. And when I do, I’ll see if she has a friend for you.
If you’re wanting some European cities to visit, these make a great starting place.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Love rail like Dave? Why don’t you add something to the new site Eurail Stories; it’s sparkling new and dedicated to Eurail travel.