It’s no secret that the Eurail is a great and easy way to travel within Europe, but when you’re not used to navigating the mix of high-speed, regional and local trains within individual countries, it can quickly become a daunting experience.
My last trip to Europe had been to Ireland where we rented a car and road-tripped around the Southern half of the country, but previous to that it had been four years since I navigated the Eurail system. Though the details had escaped my memory, I knew that booking tickets wasn’t the simple click of a ‘buy now’ button. There were details to be worked out, and after two weeks of painstaking research and memory recall, I finally had it figured out.
It was neither easy nor intuitive, and when I Googled for help to see if anyone had written anything thorough I came up empty. It’s my hope that this post will help anyone else who is heading online to book their first Eurail trip, or who needs a refresher like I did.
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU BOOK
Your Eurail pass is not the only cost you’ll have.
I want to be completely transparent when I say that your Eurail pass is likely not the only cost you’ll have, however it will be the most expensive part of your traveling by train.
In addition to the cost of your Eurail pass, you may have to take a train to get where you need to go that requires or suggests a reservation.
Don’t be alarmed. This isn’t United tell you that for the low cost of $297 you can upgrade from Coach to Economy. Instead we’re talking anywhere from $6 – $25. I believe that the most expensive reservation I had to make was 16 Euro/seat.
First class vs. Second class.
Before you buy your Eurail passes you’ll have to decide if you’re going to book first or second class passes. You literally cannot make your purchase without knowing which you want, so let’s talk about the differences.
First class tickets allow you sit in the first-class cabin when traveling. As a whole, the seats are generally bigger and give you more space, however some trains offer additional perks. For example, one train we took had a gentleman that would bring you drinks and snacks if you wanted to order instead of you having to go back to dining car.
Second class tickets require you to sit in the second-class cabin and can be small and cramped. You’re still welcome to the dining car, but you simply cannot sit in the first-class car.
My take? I booked the first-class passes and wouldn’t do it any differently.
Booking a first-class Eurail ticket is not the same thing as booking a first-class plane ticket. The cost difference isn’t that much to upgrade, and if you have a longer trip you will be so thankful to have the extra room. Of course, you have to consider your financial situation, how long your train rides are, and other factors that may be important to you.
How many days will you be traveling by train and how many countries are you going to?
There are a number of Eurail passes available for purchases, so you’ll need to decide which one is best for you by figuring out how many days you’re traveling, and how many countries you’re going to.
For example, when looking at our itinerary we knew the following:
- Travel days: 3
- October 7 – Traveling from Germany to Switzerland
- October 9 – Traveling from Switzerland to France
- October 11 – Traveling from Southern to Northern France
- Countries: 3
We knew that the three-day, three-country pass was what we needed, which saved us a lot of money from purchasing another level that we didn’t need.
Additionally, you don’t need to worry about if during one of your train rides you end up crossing into an unplanned country. For example, on our second train from Munich to Zermatt the route took us into Italy for a few minutes. We did not have to worry about knowing that or counting Italy as a country, and neither do you.
Eurail passes and required train tickets are two different things.
Wait, what? Remember when I mentioned that your Eurail pass isn’t likely to be your only cost? This is what I’m referring to.
Your Eurail pass allows you to travel on any train within the parameters you’ve set (i.e. the days you’re traveling and the number of countries you’ve designated – in other words if you purchased a three-day/three-country pass and try to travel on a fourth day to a fourth country, your pass is not valid).
However, you may have to train that requires reservations, and that train requires a separate booking. We’ll talk more about that below.
Booking train tickets is not like booking plane tickets.
When you go to look up plane tickets you put in your starting destination, your final destination, your date, maybe a few other filters that suit your preferences, and boom: You receive an output that shows you every plane you have to take and any layover you may have. You purchase your ticket, and everything is taken care of from start to finish.
Train tickets are different. When you enter your starting and final destinations, you’ll be presented with a variety of itineraries for that day that will get you where you want to be, however you’ll need to look, and potentially book each train individually.
For example, if you find a route you like and it requires you to travel on three different trains, you’ll have to book each train separately, if the train requires reservations.
BUYING YOUR EURAIL PASS
Once you’ve decided what pass you need and if you’ll be traveling first or second class, it’s time to buy your ticket.
Don’t delay. I suggest purchasing your Eurail passes no later than a month ahead of your trip.
Though they’re likely arrive within a week, your Eurail are mailed to you and you do need to fill them out before using them. Give yourself time to contact the company that prints and mails them on the off chance that you don’t receive yours, as they’re not something that can be sent digitally to you.
Also, keep in mind that buying your pass doesn’t require you to commit to a specific train. It only requires that you stay within the parameters of what you booked, so if when we purchased the three-day/three-country passes we were free to travel on any three days and to any three countries in the EU that we wanted, and that information is something you likely already have figured out.
TO BOOK YOUR EURAIL PASS
Begin by entering the basic information of where you’re going to be traveling to and for how many days.
You’ll be shown the best pass for you…
…but you don’t have to pick that pass. You’ll be shown all your options.
Pick your pass, purchase it, and wait for it to be mailed to you!
HOW TO BOOK YOUR TRIP FROM POINT A > POINT B
Now that you’ve booked your Eurail passes it’s time to figure out what trains you’re taking and if you need seat reservations.
You cannot book your seat reservations until your Eurail passes arrive. You need to input a number that is on the pass(es). Another reason to order early!
Remember when I said above that booking train tickets is not like booking plane tickets? You must book each leg of your trip in sections, so let’s use a real-life example of traveling from Munich (starting destination) to Zermatt (final destination) to show you what I mean:
Look up possible itineraries.You’ll look these up on Eurail.com, and this will give you an idea of an itinerary.
Here’s the thing: You can go to the book reservations section of Eurail.com, but you will be taken to another Eurail page – reservations.eurail.com, so I recommend you just go there to begin with.
To begin a new trip you’ll need to fill out some key information for your travelers and such. Go through the prompts and then head to ‘My Itinerary > New Trip’.
Fill out your starting destination and final destination, the date, and the time. If you put in a train time in the morning you’ll be able to see all the itineraries available throughout the day. In our case we liked the 9:03am train leaving Munich, so you can put in 09:00 for the time if you’d like.
You’ll see the list of itineraries available. Choose the one you like, in our case we want that route that leaves at 9:03am that we found earlier, and you’ll see the three trains that are suggested.
Select the itinerary you want and add it to your itinerary list.
Continue doing this for every section of your trip until you’ve added every leg of your trip. You will book your seats next.
Now that you’ve added all the trains you need it’s time to book seats. Go into ‘My Itinerary’ and you’ll see an ‘Add to Cart’ option next to all of the trains that reservations are required or suggested.
Another reason to order early!
REQUIRING VERSUS SUGGESTING SEAT RESERVATIONS
Reservations are typically suggested for trains that can be busy. There are peak seasons when everyone wants to travel, and if you’d like to ensure that you have a seat you may want to reserve one. As you can imagine this can go one of two ways – you get on the train, take an empty seat and make it to your destination without any issues. Easy peasy!
Or, you get on a train, take an empty seat, and someone comes along and says, ‘excuse me, I’ve reserved that seat’ and you have to move.
Think of it like making reservations at a restaurant. If you want to try that happening new restaurant on a Monday night you may be in luck – Monday’s aren’t usually a busy day of the week, there likely will be space, and the chances of you getting a table by simply walking in are much higher than if you try and walk in without a reservation on a Friday night.
Know when you’re traveling, if it’s a peak time of year, and decide if you want to have the comfort of knowing that you have a seat.
I will tell you that we reserved seats on all the trains we could because it wasn’t expensive. For example, one train where it was suggested we went ahead and reserved seats for $6.42 to have the peace of mind that we had a place if the train got busy.
Required reservations means that you need to reserve your seat. You will receive separate tickets that are either emailed or physically mailed to you (this can vary depending on what countries trains you’re booking on, as their processes can be different). Bring those tickets with you and the train worker will check them when they check your Eurail pass.
RESERVATIONS AREN’T REQUIRED, WHAT DO I DO?
Nothing – you’re good! If your train neither suggests nor requires reservations than there is nothing you have to do.
When the train arrives simply get on one of the first- or second-class cars, depending on what you booked, sit down and relax. Though a train worker may come through to check your Eurail pass ensuring that you’re within the parameters of your pass and in the right class, no one can take your seat and you’re good to go until you reach your destination.
I DON’T LIKE THE LAYOVER TIME FOR A TRAIN ON A CERTAIN ITINERARY
Good news – you’re not required to take every time on a suggested itinerary.
Let’s say you decide that you’re unsure that five minutes is enough time to make the train in Zurich to Visp.
You can look up the next train to Visp from Zurich. When I do that I see that if we don’t take the 1:02 train, than the next train is at 2:02. Now of course you have to remember that if you take the 2:02 to Visp than you’ll need to make sure to adjust your next train time forward as well.
WHAT ARE THE TRAINS LIKE?
Truthfully, the trains vary quite a bit. I’ve ridden in a very spacious, clean and comfortable high speed train with abundant luggage racks, and I’ve ridden in cramped trains where you’re stepping on your luggage because you have nowhere to put it. And that’s in first class.
Each country runs their own train system, so from the high speed to the regional to the local, trains will vary.
WHAT IF I MISS MY TRAIN OR DECIDE TO GO SOMEWHERE ELSE OUTSIDE THE PARAMETERS OF MY PASS?
I WANT TO ADVENTURE OUTSIDE OF WHERE I SAID I WAS GOING
Here’s an important thing to remember – you can buy a train ticket at any train station. Think about it – people live in the towns that the trains stop at. They’re not trapped there! They have the buy tickets to get on the train, and so can you.
Let’s say you’re in Paris and decide that you’d like to check out Brussels. It’s a quick 90-minute train ride and would make a great day trip. But you didn’t account for Belgium when you bought your Eurail pass, and now you’ll be outside of the number of countries designated on your Eurail pass.
No problem! Simply go to either a Kiosk or a ticket window at the train station, follow the prompts or talk to the person, and you’ll be able to get an individual train ticket, round trip if you need, to where you’d like to go.
I MISSED MY CONNECTING TRAIN
As you saw above connections can be tight between trains. Let’s say your train into Zurich arrived a few minutes late. That’s precious time when you only have 5 minutes!
Simply go to your Eurail app (more on that below!) and find out when the next train comes in and take that one. Just remember to adjust the time on your travel log in your Eurail pass.
OTHER IMPORTANT TRAIN INFO
There are a number of other useful bits of information that you’ll want to be aware of before departing on your journey. Things that I wish I would have known prior to my first Eurail experience, and I hope you find useful.
DOWNLOAD THE EURAIL APP
This app will serve you well. You can add your final itinerary to it and it will give you important details on your train.
FILL OUT YOUR EURAIL PASS BEFORE YOU LEAVE
This is required. When the train worker comes around to check your passes they’ll want to see that train, as well as at least the rest of your travel days, accounted for. This helps them know that you’re not abusing the system, and trust me when I tell you that they aren’t happy when you don’t have it filled out.
WHEN LOOKING FOR YOUR TRAIN, LOOK FOR THE FINAL DESTINATION
Let’s say you’re standing at the train station in Zurich, Switzerland trying to find what platform you need to be at for your next train to Visp, Switzerland. You’re looking at the departure board and nowhere do you see a train going to Visp, Switzerland – what do you do?
You need to look for the final destination of the train. In this case, it would be Brig, Switzerland. You’re simply getting off that train earlier, at Visp, to switch to your next train.
So how do you know what the final destination of the train is? I highly recommend downloading the Eurail app and saving your itinerary. This will tell you exactly what you need to know:
- The time your train leaves
- The final destination of the train
- What stop you get off on (and you can track how many stops it takes to get there)
IF YOU BOOKED SECOND CLASS TICKETS, DO NOT SIT IN FIRST CLASS
This may seem obvious, but the employees will check your passes on the train, and you will be asked to move to back to second class if you haven’t booked first class tickets. Of all of the trains we took, I believe on two of the eight they didn’t check our passes, and my guess was that was because they were tiny, short trains.
BRING WATER AND SNACKS
Not every train sells food or snacks. Your larger, longer trains will, but when you get onto those smaller trains you’ll be out of luck. I recommend having a bottle of water and any snacks you’d like to take the edge off of any cravings.
THE EURAIL WEBSITE
It kind of sucks. It works half the time. You may have to refresh – a lot. Just be patient. If one moment it has your reservations and the next it doesn’t show them don’t worry. You have the tickets and you’re booked. This is where I recommend looking for your specific train(s) you’re taking and building your itinerary in the app. It’s much more reliable and consistent.
Always remember to start early and be patient. It takes time and you likely won’t be able to do it all in one sitting. Be careful, plan, look at train times, and be thorough. Look at all your layover times, understand how far your hotel is from the train station at your starting and final destinations, and account for time to get there.
And finally, you can always email Eurail customer service. It may take a few days to receive a response, but they will respond to you.