Eurailing: A Great American Tradition

Eurail History — The People
  |  Gorp.com

Untold thousands have hit the trains since Eurails were placed on the market. Who are these people? Well, we wondered the same thing, and here's what we found: The profile has certainly changed over the last 40 50 years, but the guiding spirit remains the same.

The Eurail tradition started in the late 1950s with the introduction of the Eurailpass. College graduates — especially the younger brothers of World War Two and Korean War vets — immediately caught on, their interests having been piqued by their siblings. They wanted to see the Europe that had been defended and experienced by United States GIs. The United States was prosperous and air travel had become more common. It didn't take long for a fairly steady stream of college students to explore France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and England.

By the time the 1970s rolled around, and with it some wild times, college grads were pondering time off before joining the work force. A new breed of budget travelers was born, many of whom slept in big groups of people on the trains (but not in reserved berths) and in the train stations. By then, a variety of new Eurail products were on offer, including the first of a series of reduced-price, second-class passes for people under the age of 26. Amsterdam, Brussels, and Luxembourg were added to the list of must-see stops for the backpacking set.

According to anecdotal information, the late 1970s and early 1980s saw a slight drop-off in American rail travel in Europe. Many of that generation apparently chose to stay home and focus on getting jobs right out of school. Unemployment was very high and there was heavy competition for the few slots open in management training programs and entry-level jobs with corporations. The kids vying for these positions took their trips to Europe later, in the early 1990s, but didn't necessarily backpack their way through. They toured the countryside by rental car and stayed in small, family-run hotels.

There were, however, also many others of this same generation either less interested in the mainstream pursuit of a steady salary or suddenly left without an obvious path into the future. These young people did decide to go to Europe. Their more limited material means meant a more modest approach to a sometimes costly European market and a continuation of the approach adopted in the 1970s: hitchhiking and hosteling, for example.

The early 1990s was a time when many Americans chose to stay home for other reasons: Political instability and highly publicized fighting in Eastern Europe were enough to convince many people that Europe (even Western Europe) should be left to its own crumbling wiles.

The economic optimism of the mid to late 1990s prompted a resurgence of travel to Europe, and backpacking across the continent began to appeal to a wider audience. In addition, many people began indulging in organized"adventure travel" alternatives, like biking across Europe. These explorers cleaned up their acts a bit from those of the 1960s travelers. Travel was less about drugs and more about experiencing what had been studied in school. Trips to urban centers usually included museums, and cultural centers.

The 1980s and 1990s also saw increased travel by much younger (high school age) Americans on exchange programs, educational tours, and social involvement workshops. These kids helped to build a new generation of savvy Euro-ready travelers, eager to return to old haunts, but this time without the heavy hand of a chaperone.

Now, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, European trips are as common as they have ever been. Late Gen X/early Gen Y travelers, prepared by their baby-boomer parents, go to Europe with a ready knowledge of what is out there. Europe is less about going to Amsterdam to get stoned (although that's certainly still part of the plan) and more about experiencing different cultures, meeting cyber friends, and giving a human face to what had been a purely academic pursuit.


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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