The Romance of the (European) Rails

Tricks to Get the Most out of Your Railpass
By Nicolas Clifford

Planning your trip
Travel in countries where the railpass works the best. This means saving Spain and the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg) for the next trip, or at least not counting your travel there in your pass days. Buy individual tickets for trips you do make within Spain or north from Paris. Or you could include the Benelux countries on a trip involving northern Europe, which permits you to avoid the"Thalys" nightmare (see "Don'ts").

Finding empty seats
When you board a train without a reservation, be sure to sit in a seat that no one else has reserved. How can you tell if a seat is reserved? Look for the seat reservation slot, either on the seat back, above the seat on the wall of the car, or on the compartment door. If there is a little paper tag in the slot (or an electronic display) with two cities mentioned and the date on which you are riding the train, then the seat is reserved between those two cities, and the passenger who reserved it may ask you to move if you are found sitting there.

Trains that require reservations do not identify which seats are reserved, since it is presumed that everyone aboard already has a specific seat.

Getting on sold-out trains in France, Spain, Italy, and Portugal
If the train you want is sold-out, there are a couple of things you can try. Consider first class. You may travel in first class on a second-class railpass by paying the difference between the ticket prices in the two classes. This sounds expensive, but in fact the difference may be small, especially in Spain, where the difference in comfort is also small.

You may also find that space is available in second class over most of the route you are traveling, and you only need to pay for the upgrade over a short portion of the trip. For instance, a Biarritz-Paris TGV may be sold-out only from Tours to Paris, the last hour of its five-hour run. Sit in second class until Tours and then upgrade to first (about $15 more) for the last little section.

On the French TGV you have another option: Boarding without a reservation is allowed but punishable by a $25 fine. If you go to the conductor and tell him you lost your reservation (rather than he coming to you and discovering that you have no reservation), then the fine is reduced to $15. Paying this fine may be preferable to losing a day waiting for a train with an open seat. Of course, finding an empty seat on board the sold-out train may be impossible, but there's always the bar car.

Do not try this trick on the"Thalys" (see "Don'ts"), whose "customer service managers" are trained by storm troopers. They guard the train doors, and make you buy an entirely new, full-fare ticket if you manage to slip through their lines. They can be nasty in four languages.

Traveling overnight in comfort
Consider the sleeping cars. The triple (called"T-3") and quad ("T-4") cabins are really not that expensive, and there is a real improvement in comfort over couchettes or seats, especially for women traveling alone.

Also, in general, always carry a bottle of water with you on overnight trains. The water in the rest rooms is not suitable for drinking. If you are on an overnight train and want a drink or a snack you do not have, the sleeping car porter has a small stash for sale and may be willing to sell you that bottle of water you are thirsting for.

Locating the seat you reserved
If you have reserved your seat, there is no point in getting to the station early. There are no check-in procedures and the seat is officially yours until the train is half an hour out of the station (after that you can no longer claim it). Your reservation coupon will have a train number, car number, and seat number on it. Use these details to find your spot. One comment: The car number will be a"changeable" number, never more than three figures, generally one or two. It is an electronic display, or printed on paper, cardboard, or a movable metal plate. It is located near the car door. It is not the unchangeable number painted on the car, which is only of interest to the mechanical operation of the railroad.

Refunding or exchanging unused reservations
Reservations are not generally refundable. So, if you make a reservation and then change your plans, you lose your reservation money, right? Not necessarily. As long as the train for which you have reserved a seat has not yet left, you may exchange your reservation for another one — one that you know you need, or a fictitious one. Later, you can exchange the fictitious reservation when you know your specific travel plans. Exchanges are generally free, thus saving you the value you have invested in your reservation.

Getting the most out of your pass day
If you have a pass that requires you to mark off days as you use them — Europass, Eurail Flexipass, and national passes — and you ride an overnight train departing after 7:00 p.m., you need only enter the train's arrival date. For example, on a train traveling overnight from August 4 to August 5, you would enter only August 5 on your pass. You may then use the pass for a day trip when you arrive where you are going. For instance, take an overnight train from Paris to Florence, find a hostel, dump your bags, and take the train to Siena for the afternoon, returning to Florence in the evening. It's all covered on one pass day.

Traveling to and from Spain via overnight train
The"hotel trains" on these routes are unusually luxurious — and expensive. Most offer only sleeping cars — no couchettes or seats. The bed cost for sleeping cars is high: around $50.

Going to Spain, if you don't want to pay these fees, take a French overnight train to the border stations of Irun (for Madrid) or Port-Bou (for Barcelona), and use a daylight connection onward to your destination. Either combination counts for only one pass day, and the French trains that run to the border stations offer couchettes and coach seats.

In the opposite direction, things are a bit more complex. From Barcelona, buy the little $10 ticket to the border station (Cerbhre, in this direction), and take the overnight train from there. This avoids using the two pass days that would otherwise be necessary for this trip. From Madrid, take the overnight train to the border station (Hendaye, in this direction). Connect there to the TGV to Paris, or to regular trains east to Italy or Switzerland. The entire trip to Paris, Geneva, or the Italian Riviera can be made on one pass day. Daylight trains are also available on all routes, though they are long rides that use up a lot of time.

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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