If you’re a non-European travelling in Europe, a Eurail pass could be a great option for getting around, especially if you’re looking for flexibility. And these passes are pretty easy to use — although there are some traps for first-time (and veteran) users.
Eurail passes come in many denominations depending on where you want to travel, for how long, and with what level of flexibility. Depending on which option you choose, you’ll have to treat your pass in a slightly different way.
Flexi or Continuous
Passes come in two sorts, “flexi” or “continuous”. If you’ve chosen to travel in just one to five countries (using a One Country, Regional, or Select pass), you’ll have a flexi pass. However, if you’ve chosen a Global pass, which allows you to travel in 23 countries, you’ll have a choice between the two sorts.
A continuous pass is valid continuously (surprise, surprise) from the moment you validate it, until the end of the time period you’ve purchased — which could be 15 or 21 days; or one, two, or three months.
The flexi pass, however, is a little more complicated. Your pass is valid for two months, and within that time you’ll have a certain number of travel days. On the days you’d like to use the pass, you’ll have to write the dates in the travel calendar on the pass itself.
Whichever type of pass you choose, you’ll need to activate it. This needs to be done within six months of purchasing the pass, and your travel agent or ticket issuer can do it for you if you have a flexi pass and plan to use the pass soon. If you have a continuous pass or you’re not sure exactly when you want to start travelling, you can activate your pass any time within six months of purchase at a ticket window in any European train station.
The person who activates the pass will stamp the activation box and fill in the first and last allowed days of travel, if this is not already completed. If you have a continuous pass, you’re now good to go.
However, if you have a flexi pass, you’ll have to enter the date on the pass before you board the first train on each day of travel — write the day on the top line and the month below. This needs to be done in blue or black ink, and be very careful when writing, because a mistake could lose you a travel day — any corrections could be interpreted as an attempt at fraud.
A new development in Eurail passes is the Travel Report. Before you board each train, regardless of the type of pass you have, you have to write the journey details on the form attached to your Eurail Cover. It’s annoying but necessary, and Craig and I usually complete this section while waiting for the train to pull in, or as soon as we sit down — the ticket collector rarely checks this section and you usually have several minutes before your tickets are checked anyway. It’s important to fill in the calendar section before you get on the first train of the day, though — if ticket collectors see you filling in this section as they come around to collect the tickets, they’ll think you’re trying to cheat the system.
The beauty of a Eurail pass is its flexibility: if you miss one train you can jump on the next, if you love a place you can stay a few days longer without losing your pre-booked tickets. However, not all trains are equal, and some require seat reservations — which cost extra. The best way around this is to look for trains that don’t require a reservation.
You can find out which trains require a reservation by checking the train timetable brochure that you’ll be sent with your Eurail pass, or by doing a search on bahn.de for the journey you’d like to take. Routes marked with an R require a reservation. You can buy a reservation ticket at the ticket counter or online at acprail.com. If you buy online, you’ll receive your ticket by post.
Problems with train searches
We use bahn.de because it’s one of the best options for international train searches (oebb.at is also good) but for some reason it doesn’t list all connection options. We wanted to travel from Düsseldorf to Berlin, and were given just three options — two direct trains and one with a change. Since the first direct option left too early and the other would get us to Berlin too late, we chose the one with a change. However, when reviewing the travel information we’d been sent with our pass, I discovered that there was a direct connection every hour, which we then confirmed at the ticket office on arrival in Berlin. Apparently there are tricks you can use to get these websites to show all connections, but I haven’t learned them yet. And of course, the timetable brochure you get with your pass can’t list all connections — it’d be enormous if it did.
The best solution I’ve found is to compare the Eurail brochure with the bahn.de search results when planning. Also, departure times are listed at each station; if you plan to leave again from the same station, you can always check departure times when you arrive.
It’s pretty easy to use a Eurail pass once you get into the swing of it — have a great trip!
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: On the Eurail schedule for many cities times during the day when trains leave “every hour”. Are reservations required during this time of day or only at peak times?
A: Yes, if there’s a grey box that shows “Every hour” and the other trains in the listing all have compulsory reservations, then the ones that run every hour will also need reservations.
Q: How far in advance do I need to book reservations? I assumed that Eurail seats filled up quickly – or that’s what I’ve ben lead to believe based on what I’ve read.
A: We’ve done several Eurail Pass and other European Rail Pass trips, and seldom book more than a few days in advance. We normally made reservations for the next leg of the trip as we arrived the city. I think we’ve never missed a train yet because there were no reservations available. If you have less flexibility in your timetable, or are travelling in highest of high season (conventions, festivals and shows can also have an effect) you might want to book more than a week or so in advance. In that case, you can use ACPRail in North America or a local vendor elsewhere.