Traveling Europe Without A Rail Pass


In our not too distant past, European rail defined “freedom” for many travelers. From Americans, to Asians to Africans to Europeans, most anyone could jump on with ease, not only seeing the countryside, but becoming a part of it. Today, however, that freedom does not exist for the majority of us. For foreigners, the rails have been reduced to a commercialized homage of good times rolled. A few months ago, as my wife and I planned a month long European adventure, we were ignorant of this shift. Like most, we had been seduced by the story. We thought travel through Europe? Let’s ride the rails. We read blogs, watched videos, and checked websites. Convinced by compelling online rhetoric, we bought in, selecting Eurail as the most convenient company for our cause.

Well over a grand later — that’s over $1,000 for 10 days of transit throughout four countries within a two month window — our Eurail passes arrived. It stifled our budget, but promised benefits: we’d be organized before summer, we’d beat the crowds, we’d have it all paid for. We giggled like two little yellow minions: Europe was ripe for an old-fashioned storming!

Little known fact: storming European fronts isn’t much of a thing this century (who’s gonna Tweet Putin?). Even lesser known fact: planned travel isn’t much of a thing either when it comes to Eurail- unless, of course, you make money to burn. If that’s the case, then stop reading this, buy your pass and start the blazes. If you aren’t much of a pyro, read on.

In today’s market, most bookings are made with ease. All you’ve got to do is click an app or website button and boom, you’re done, confirmation sent to your email. Eurail has a different policy: devolve choice, abandon practicality. Here’s how they put it, “We know reservations can be a hassle, so let us help you with them. Our team will do their best to get you on the train of your choice. Our reservation system allows us to reserve 95% of European trains.” Wait, I thought we’d just been over this: making a reservation is easy like 99% of the time. Eurail, however, is the 1%.

So, how much does it cost to get their team on the case?

“The Reservation Service costs 8 euros per train regardless of how many people you are booking for. In addition to this, you pay a fixed reservation fee per person, per train.”

Great, so we’ve paid over $1,000 and now it wants more. And if I do pay for all these additional services, will I finally be able to use the Eurail app for something useful, say accessing them? “We’ll mail your reservations to you free of charge using registered delivery.” Snail mail? Really? I’m traveling and don’t have an address to give, but even if I did: Eurail has an app, a highly approachable website, Youtube, etc., but is so user-unfriendly that it still uses pre-Internet era methods to send its passes.

All these doubts rushed at me. My wife stepped in to calm my nerves. Maybe bookings aren’t much of a thing on European trains, she suggested. Yeah. That made sense. Maybe they aren’t. Maybe we just hop on and off trains like bunnies in heat.

That joyful image frolicked in our minds for about seven seconds. Then we found the section titled, “Types of Trains that Need to be Reserved”. Spoiler alert: pretty much every train we wanted to travel on either required a reservation or recommended one (i.e. high speed trains, overnight trains, most French trains, scenic trains, etc).

So let’s take Italy, where my wife and I have been traveling for the past two weeks, as an example. If we had been using the Eurail pass according to our bookings, we would have paid between three euros (for recommended bookings) to 11 euros (for required bookings) on top of the 50 euros each travel day averaged out to cost, plus the 8 euro booking fee. So that’s between 53 and 61 euros (plus those eight euros) per person per day to travel stress free. The reality of Italy, where the government actually subsidizes rail travel, is this: The most we have paid here, hopping from city to city like our rabbit friends, has been nine euros per person.

And it gets worse. It’s not just the money that’s condemning, it’s the order of the beast. Take the night trains, for example (reservation required): unless that train fits into Eurail’s rubric of a post-7 PM departure and a post-4 AM arrival — which many rail companies do not offer–then Eurail charges two precious travel days instead of one. That turns your 50 plus euro ticket into a cool 100 plus.

Then, there’s the country rule. We had bought our pass for four countries, not realizing that crossing a border of another country without actually stopping in it, was forbidden. For us, that meant getting from Milan to Berlin (without a little help from Austria) was implausible. So much for freedom.

I could go on and on debunking Eurail’s credibility, but I won”t. I’m writing this tidbit of information for two reasons: 1. because I haven’t read it anywhere else and 2. because I promised Eurail I would. When my wife and I researched, I read nothing that discouraged the use of companies such as Eurail. In fact, everything read seemed contrary to this article.

In the end, my wife and I did get our finances and free will back from the heathen. Within two days of receiving our passes I had requested a full refund. They denied. After three weeks, 85% of our investment was returned to our bank account. With that money my wife and I bought our planes, trains, and buses to and from five countries and still had about 100 euro left over. Bank accounts and egos only slightly bruised, we currently explore Europe like any two romantics should: with love, admiration and freedom.