If it isn’t the rhythmic clacking and gentle rocking of a train against its tracks, then it’s the remarkable landscape that changes and inspires just outside its window. Perhaps it’s the dozens of people I’ve met and the stories we shared, even when no one spoke the same language. Train travel in Europe, and all that comes with it, is at the heart of many of my most romantic travel memories.
It’s been 25 years since my first rendezvous with the rails across Europe, when I carried a backpack with hand-sewn patches of visited countries. Back then, along with countless other rucksackers, I got a Eurail Pass to see as much of Europe as I could, as flexibly as possible.
A quarter-century later, the Eurail Pass (now called the Eurail Global Pass) hasn’t gone out of style. So when I set out to plan another recently, I picked up a Global Pass from Rail Europe (which provided two: one for me and one for my travel companion). Little had changed: The pass I got was good for travel in 33 countries, even though I never expected to go to more than the four countries I ended up visiting: Belgium, France, Spain, and Portugal.
Here are the basics, plus 10 things to know before using a Eurail Global Pass yourself:
What is a Global Pass?
The Eurail Global Pass allows for flexible, often unlimited travel within a collection of countries during a fixed set of dates. It comes in a number of iterations, each bookable for a different single price. For example, one option allows for travel anytime during one month while another allows unlimited travel on specific days during a specific timeframe (like 15 days of unlimited travel during a two-month timeframe). The 33 countries included:
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Czech Republic
- Great Britain
My most recent Global Pass allowed me 15 days of unlimited train travel within two months ($555 for second class; $740 for first class). In short, a Global Pass is great for a traveler interested in a flexible experience.
Find the right Global Pass: This tool helps you find the right option for you.
Before you use (and buy) a pass (or download the Rail Planner app), though, you should know how it works. Here are my 10 things to know before using a Eurail Global Pass:
1. You have to buy a Global Pass in the U.S.
Somewhat counterintuitively, you can only purchase a Global Pass, or any Rail Europe pass, within the U.S., online. While technology has advanced a lot since the early days, so far there isn’t a way for Americans to buy a Eurail pass on the European continent.
2. Most trains are free, but you should still expect to pay something and make reservations
I know, I know: Isn’t the pass supposed to cover everything? Most of the additional charges I saw, and was warned of in advance, had to do with riding on high-speed trains, which are typically twice as fast, have far fewer stops, and are more desired by other travelers than other trains. High-speed fees tend to be around $20 per person on top of what you’ve already paid—or for first class tickets, a reservation fee of a few dollars, which require assigned seats.
Local (commuter) trains, however, still offer unfettered freewheeling. So hop on and off whenever and wherever. While you don’t always need a reservation to do that, note that some trains do book out in advance and seats are limited between more popular destinations. For that reason, I recommend reserving seats at least a full day before traveling.
3. You have to book specific trips in person at the train station
The convenience of booking train travel online isn’t yet available for anyone using a Global Pass. Yes, there appears to be something on the website alluding to online bookings for pass holders, but many failed attempts and online customer service reps eventually pointed me back to in-person booking.
4. You must activate your pass before boarding a train (and you should fill in dates after)
Rail passes have space allotted in which to keep track of travel days and destinations traveled. To activate your Global Pass, you must take it to ticket office at a train station in Europe—before your first ride. A representative will write in the dates, and you’ll sign it. After, you should keep your train travel logged and dated. Up-to-date information is a requirement to travel with a Global Pass. If this information is not filled in when tickets are inspected, it’s up to the train staff to determine how to handle things. When I made the mistake, the conductor filled in the information for me. In this situation the employee can legally confiscate a pass, though this is only likely to happen when a traveler is trying to pull a fast one and get free train rides.
5. Showing up on time is important
One of the most refreshing parts of train travel is its punctuality. A major downside is also its punctuality. However, most travelers who miss trains will be happy to discover a vast network of regular departure times throughout any given day. This is particularly true of local commuter trains.
6. Spontaneity is encouraged
The joy of the Global Pass is the ability it gives you to just jump on a train and go. Sure, it’s important to plan out Paris-to-Barcelona, but once you’re in Barcelona, make sure to save a day or two to explore the region. Personally, I had 15 train days to work with, and I had only eight planned before I left the States. I used the rest of my travel days to take local trains to places I read about the night before.
And if you’re using a version of the Global Pass that offers a specific number of travel days within a specific timeframe, you should try to visit multiple destinations between 12:00am and 11:59pm on a single day. It’s great for traveling to places that are not an entire day’s worth of travel but instead just a part of one.
7. You can’t lose it!
The Global Pass is a good value, but it’s still a paper ticket. If it gets lost or misplaced, you’ll have little recourse in getting it back.
8. You can use your pass to get to and from airports
I used my Global Pass on the shuttle train after landing at Charles De Gaulle to head to the center of Paris. This ride normally costs around 20 euros. Look at your options before traveling to/from an airport. Note, however, that you can’t use the pass on subways and metros.
9. Some train stations use automated entry
Many train stations now have automated entry and exit, which will not jive with the Global Pass. However, it’s easy get tickets for the local trains from the train’s office ahead of departure. Just present your pass to the ticket office. Often, security will let you on the train without a ticket. When this happens you may have to flag a train official down to exit the train boarding area.
10. The first class experience varies by country
Thinking about first class travel with Rail Europe? While there’s a marked difference between first and second class travel on trains across Europe, first class travel differs from country to country and rail line to rail line. At minimum, train hoppers can expect wider and more comfortable seating and a much quieter experience in first class. At its best, first class means excellent meals, high-speed internet access, and beer and wine options.
One final note…
A final note about the Global Pass, which covers train travel in Europe in 33 countries: I found that using a Eurail Global Pass as I did—to visit only four countries—was a little bit overkill. Many future train travelers will find plenty of focused regional options like the Scandinavia Pass, which includes Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark for little more than the price of a pass covering only one of those countries. When traveling by train in Europe, the options are worth exploring. Find out more using the Rail Europe Pass Finder here.