The Romance of the (European) Rails

"Dos" and "Don'ts" of Using Your Railpass
By Nicolas Clifford
  |  Gorp.com

So, you have your railpass, and you understand the reservation business. Here are some "dos" and "don'ts" about using a railpass, as well as a few tricks.

"Dos"

  • Get your railpass"validated" at the station, before you board your first train.
    This means getting a station agent to stamp your pass so that its validity period starts "ticking."
  • Write in each date of travel on any Europass, Eurail Flexipass, or national pass.
    This is your responsibility, and it must be done before the ticket is checked by the conductor. You can be heavily fined, have an extra day marked off the pass, or even have your pass confiscated for failure to do so. And guess what? The conductor has seen the"dumb American" routine before.
  • Check schedule information before you go to your train.
    Of course, stations can give this information, but if you have access to the Internet before you begin your travels, you can check national railway Web sites offering schedules in English. The Swiss site, http://www.sbb.ch, is the best, reflecting the higher quality of the railroad. If you are doing a lot of travel, invest in the Thomas Cook European Timetable, a red book of all major train schedules across Europe.
  • Make reservations in advance on the French TGV and"Thalys" trains. Capacity controls in busy travel periods mean that few seats are available to railpass holders on these trains.
  • Give at least a day to train-hopping in the Swiss and/or Austrian Alps.
    Take little lines that climb around in the mountains. You will never forget it.
  • Lock your sleeping cabin doors on overnight trains when you bed down.
    Security problems on overnight trains are minimal and vastly overreported. But some common sense is in order. Also, carry cash, passport, and tickets in a money belt.
  • Make sure that the seat you settle into is going where you are!
    Many European trains split in two during their trips. Be sure that the car you sit in is traveling to the destination you want, or you could wind up in the wrong country! If you have a reserved seat, and find it, then you are safe, since your seat will automatically be reserved in a car going where you want to go.

"Don'ts"

  • Don't waste pass days traveling in Spain — and DON'T buy the Spanish Railpass.
    The otherwise excellent Spanish railways have identified North Americans as a way of subsidizing local users. Their railpass is such a rip-off that paying full fare to cross the country three times is generally cheaper than using a three-day railpass for the same trips (and no less convenient, since in both cases you must reserve space on all trains). South of Madrid and Barcelona (though not between the two), some trains charge passholder"reservation" fees so high that the least expensive ticket on the route (including reservation) may cost less than just the reservation fee for a passholder! And buying the ticket will save you from using up a pass day if you are using a Europass, Eurail Flexipass, or national pass! Always ask the price of the cheapest ticket on any train you wish to ride in southern Spain. Then compare it to the cost of a day on your railpass plus the "reservation" charge on the same train. You may be in for a surprise. Travel on overnight trains in the south, or save your railpass for more tourist-friendly systems.

If you do travel to or within Spain, see our tricks.

  • Don't ride the"Thalys."
    Thalys is the brand name for the fast trains from Paris to Brussels, Amsterdam, and northern Germany. These trains charge railpass holders excessive reservation fees, and even at that, severely limit the number of seats available to you. Plus, they are decorated in a garish "bordello red" that will leave you nervous and high-strung.
  • From Paris, traveling on normal trains via Lille (in northern France) and Gent (in Belgium) adds an hour to your trip but saves $20. Or take a regular TGV (not the Thalys) from Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport to Brussels, and connect there. Your pass is also good on the Paris commuter train out to the airport. Overnight trains also avoid the usurious fees.
  • For travel within Belgium, Holland, and Germany, other trains run on "Thalys" routes just as fast as the Thalys and using more comfortable equipment.
  • Basically, with the introduction of Thalys, the European railways have succeeded at something they have been trying to achieve for years: They have made taking a train as complicated and stupidly irritating as taking a plane.
  • Don't dispute a fine, especially if you are in the wrong.
    The conductor on a train is like the captain on a ship: He has enormous power. He may confiscate your ticket, throw you off the train, even have you arrested. And he is not used to having his authority challenged by people who can't even speak to him in his native language. If you get in trouble, politely try to understand why, and get the problem undone at a customer service office once you get off the train. Keep all documentation: copies of tickets, reservations, fines . . . And, if you were in the wrong (you"forgot" to mark your travel day on your pass, for instance), suck it up. No one likes a whiney loser.
  • Don't lose your pass or get it stolen.
    The pass is like cash: not replaceable if lost or stolen. The"Pass Protection" insurance, offered for $10 when you buy the pass, is a ridiculous nightmare. By the time you jump through the administrative hoops necessary to get reimbursed, you will wish you had simply shot yourself instead.

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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