The Romance of the (European) Rails

What You Need (Besides Your Railpass) to Actually Ride a Train
By Nicolas Clifford
  |  Gorp.com

All prices mentioned below are approximate and assume a $US/Euro parity of 1:1.

The first thing you should understand about your railpass is that it is probably not enough to get you on a train!

More often than not you must also pay for a reserved seat. If you are traveling overnight, you may prefer to reserve a bed. This is contrary to information handed out by guidebooks, sales agents, and the European railroads themselves, but trust me: It is regrettably true, and is becoming more and more so.

Reserving a Seat

A railpass buys travel from A to B. However, it does not give you access to a particular train or to a seat. Those guarantees are provided by reserving a seat (or a bed). In fact, many of the trains that you will want to ride require that you reserve a seat in order to board.

Sometimes reserving a seat with a railpass is easier said than done. For example, the French TGV (train ` grande vitesse — high-speed train) and the"Thalys" from Paris north to Belgium, Holland, and northern Germany, severely restrict the number of seats available to railpass holders during peak travel times (Friday and Sunday afternoons, holiday weekends . . .), making their use difficult or impossible on short notice.

Most of the other trains you will want to ride offer the option of reserving a seat but do not require that you do so. If you choose not to reserve a seat, you simply board, and then occupy any unreserved seat on a first-come first-served basis. You may board these trains even if all seats are reserved, but if the train is full, you will have to sit on your luggage. (Short-distance and slow local trains do not generally offer reserved seating.)

I recommend that you always reserve a space (seat or bed) on overnight trains, even when it is not required, since the modest cost of doing so is well worth avoiding the risk of standing in the corridor on a long overnight journey. You may also prefer to reserve seats for long or scenic trips, where a window is important to your enjoyment of the ride. Reservations on trains that do not require them close the day before the train's departure; overnight trains disallow reservations at noon or 5:00 p.m. on the day of departure.

With your pass, you will have received a "Eurail/Europass Timetable." Trains that require a reserved seat (or a bed) are indicated in this timetable by the letter "R" inside a box. When you reserve a seat, you may select window or aisle, and smoking or nonsmoking. Reservations for these trains can be made until minutes before departure if space is available. Common trains on which you must make a reservation include:

  • all French TGVs
  • "Eurostars" to and from London
  • "Thalys" trains connecting Paris, Belgium, Holland, and Germany
  • X2000 trains in Sweden
  • Italian"Eurostar Italia" trains on Fridays and Sundays, and at all times on the main Rome-Milan/Venice route
  • certain overnight services that have only beds and no seats
  • all Spanish, Portuguese, Norwegian, and Greek express trains

How Much Do Seat Reservations Cost?

The cost of seat reservations is not uniform. More often than not, it is modest — the equivalent of $3 or $4 in the local currency (reservations made in North America cost $11). If you must take several trains to reach your destination, each requires a separate reservation, except in Germany, where connecting reservations are generally free.

There are a few notable exceptions to these prices: Reservation charges range from $15 to $30 on the Spanish"AVE"; Italian "Eurostar Italia"; "Thalys" trains connecting Paris, Belgium, Holland, and Germany; "City Night Line" trains between Hamburg or Berlin and Munich or Switzerland; "Cisalpino" trains from Switzerland to Italy; and on "Hotel Trains" from Spain to all other countries. Alternate trains without the expensive reservation charges are generally available, but they may be slower and less comfortable, and often involve connections.

Reserving a Bed

There are two types of "bed coach" on European overnight trains: couchettes and "sleeping cars." Both are available on most trains, but you should always check to be sure. On some particularly fast or comfortable "hotel trains," only the more expensive "sleeping cars" are offered.

  • A couchette (litera in Spanish, liegeplatz in German, cuccetta in Italian) is a sort of dormitory bed, in a mixed-gender, four-, five-, or six-person cabin (single-gender cabins are available in Spain). The principal advantage is economy: Couchettes cost a roughly standard $18 ($28 if booked in the United States before you go). In addition to your vinyl shelf, you receive a pocket sheet (or sheet sleepsack), a pillow, and a blanket, and you may stretch out full length. So, though couchettes may seem claustrophobic, they are a notch up on commercial aviation. Think of your overnight trip on the plane to get to Europe . . .
  • Sleeping cars offer more comfortable beds (with real mattresses, sheets, and blankets). Individual beds are bookable in single-sex compartments, or entire compartments may be rented by couples or groups. The compartments include wash facilities (and, more and more often, full showers). Berths in three- or four-person compartments cost about $45; berths in double cabins, about $75; and private cabins in two different sizes are available for about $120 or $150. You must hold a first-class railpass in order to book a private cabin. Bed charges are slightly lower within Spain, Portugal, Italy, and, curiously, in Scandinavia.

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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