As an American who did my first Eurotrip after graduating college AND now a European resident, I’ve learned a lot lessons about train travel in Europe. These are tips for traveling around Europe by train for first-timers considering buying the Eurail pass, which is available to non-European citizens. Non-European citizens living in Europe can also buy the Eurail pass, but you cannot use it in your country of residence. (Interrail is only for EU Citizens, so interrailing does differ in some ways. However many of these tips for European train travel might still be useful!)
1. Is Eurorail Worth it? / Should you buy a Eurail Pass?
Doing a Eurotrip by train is NOT the cheapest way to get around nor is it the fastest, however it is beautiful and easy. Eurorail passes are worth it IF you plan on taking a lot of high speed trains and you want to have more flexibility in your schedule. Also, if you want to visit European cities (especially capitals), rather than smaller cities, national parks, or islands, the Eurail is worth it. The Eurail pass is most valuable for the high speed international trains that go longer distances between countries (e.g. Milan to Barcelona), however these routes can be more quickly covered by planes.
However, if your goal is to travel as cheaply as possible, the eurail global pass is not the way to go it. It's often cheaper just to purchase a slower regional ticket (often 1/3 the price!) once you arrive in the country or taking a long bus trip on a local bus carrier (depending on country) or Flixbus.
2. You might need a visa depending on your nationality.
Europe has many countries although not ALL are part of the Schengen Zone. If you're American or Canadian, you don't need a visa for the Schengen Zone, but depending on your nationality, you might need to apply for a visa ahead. Contact an embassy of a country that you'll be visiting.
If you're wondering which countries are in the Schengen Zone... the Schengen Zone is comprised of 26 countries that have no borders within them. These countries include Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
NOT Schengen countries with their own laws regulating immigration: United Kingdom, Romania, Ireland, Serbia, Kosovo, Turkey (Not EU as well!), Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Albania Croatia, Bulgaria and Cyprus.
3. You have 90 days IN the Schengen zone every 6 months as a tourist (no working!). Choose your countries wisely.
If it’s not one of the Schengen, you are subject to immigration laws from that country. It depends on your country of origin, but Americans are allowed to travel the following countries as tourists for a maximum of this time: 6 months in the UK as a tourist, 1 year in Bosnia, 3 months in Romania… This is in addition to the 90 days in the Schengen zone, which means that you can travel in Europe longer than 3 months!
If you’re hopping in and out of the Schengen zone, your clock is NOT reset, but it is paused. It is 90 days PER six months. So if you wanted to spend 1 month in the UK after spending 2 months in Schengen, you can go back to Schengen for an additional 30 days to finish your time. If you're unsure where you stand, there's a handy calculator online: http://www.schengen-calculator.com/
4. Book your flight out of Schengen ahead.
Unless you're unsure where your travels will take you, your flight will probably NOT get cheaper if you wait until the week before to book or you're simply heading to the UK (or another non-Schengen country nearby). If you're not careful, you'll end up in the middle of the Schengen zone with your 90 days up scrambling to get to the nearest non-Schengen country. Some countries (non-Schengen) may want to see proof of onward travel, so a plane ticket home is typically the best way to save on costs.
5. Don't buy the global pass by default; Figure out how many countries you want to visit ahead.
The global Eurail pass is expensive and if you're planning on visiting less than 4 countries that are close to each other, you're better off getting a Eurail select pass (which allows you to select which countries you visit. Even cheaper: possibly getting budget flights and taking the train only within each country rather than between them. I did 10 countries during my trip, which made it worthwhile.
A lot of people feel pressured to visit more than 4 countries. There's nothing wrong with spending 3 months in Italy visiting small towns/vineyards, strolling around around medieval cities, and seeing epic landscapes (the Dolomites!). Many European countries have so much to offer beyond their capitals if you're willing to explore off the beaten path places, and for introverts, the backpacker route can be quite stressful as you're constantly moving between places with little time/little privacy to relax if you're going with friends or staying at hostels.
6. The cost is NOT just the pass. You also need to factor in seat reservations & public transit.
Just because you paid for the global Eurorail pass, you need to reserve your seat on the train. This is not free. This can be done ahead (best for popular routes in summer) or at the train station about 1-2 days prior to your departure. For popular routes (e.g. overnight trains between destinations) in summer, you'll want to book as far ahead as possible. The other trains will be easier--but make sure you make your long routes! Also, public transit in most cities is not included with your pass, so you still need to pay for public transit once you arrive to Paris or Amsterdam. (You can check the cost of train journeys on seat61.)
7. Don’t lose your Eurorail ticket & Remember to activate your Eurail pass once you get to Europe!
You have no idea how many people I've seen crying in a hostel over Eurail passes gone wrong.
8. Don't overdo your itinerary. 24 hours in Paris is NOT enough.
Give yourself proper time to see what you want to see. Being on a schedule is exhausting when you'll miss seeing what you want to see--unless everything goes to plane. Then, you can't stop for those magical moment that make travel special. Also, if you meet someone really awesome, your schedule will make it hard to reschedule your trip.
Only 24 hours in Paris? If this is the only way and it's a must, why not? However, some cities need TIME. Paris needs around 5 days and sometimes it’s worth skipping a city if you’ll be rushing your way through it unable to enjoy it properly. Amsterdam needs about 3 days, however I could have done 2 days in Venice and been happy with it. This depends on the person, but 24 hours is not enough in most major cities.
9. Pick two: Cost, flexibility, and time.
Things that are fast, great, and cheap don't exist when it comes to budget travel AND eurorailing.
That cheap 6am train direct to your next city? Imagine booking it to the train station after staying out until 4am. Trust me, you’ll wish you picked the 9am train. You'll be dead by the time you get there.
Also that 15 hour train ride that would be a 1 hour plane ride? Just take the budget flight. By the 2nd transfer with 10 minutes to find the next track, you'll be over that scenic train ride and want to be there already.
10. Don't overpack
You'll be surprised how little you'll actually wear. (You don't need that dress just in case you get invited to a royal brunch.) One of the best ways to pack is to think of your clothes as a capsule collection and ask yourself: does X going with everything else? Can I make 3 outfits from it? If not, you're going to find that you won't use it. However, it is is still a good idea to have one item of clothing (whether it is a dress or a shirt) that dresses up your entire outfit. Similarly, you'll want 2 pairs of shoes: a normal casual pair of shoes (sandals/chic flats) and a pair of sneakers for those long walking days/hiking. I often try to leave 30% of my bag empty, so I can bring home souvenirs!
11. Don't bring a rolling suitcase.
Rolling your suitcase on cobblestones is a recipe for disaster and your suitcase's wheels will die. Replacing them is sometimes impossible/expensive, so you're going to end up spending more than you intended on a new suitcase. After spending almost a month "backpacking" around small Italian villages with a rolling suitcase, I swore them off.
As someone who has visited 18 countries (including most of Europe) in the past 2 years, I only use backpacks (Quechua 50L) and/or cabin-only bags. (Bags that aren't typical backpackers bags, e.g. day-bags or smart-looking backpacks, are great for blending in.) RIP little weekend carry-on bag. My latest European travel bag has been the CabinZero cabin-only bag. Despite an awful experience missing a flight and being forced to take two budget flights (where you're charged for a normal carry-on luggage bag). This means that you won't need to pay baggage fees on budget airlines and there will always be space for your bag at the hostel. (You can read my full review of the CabinZero bag here!)
12. Eastern Europe is not as train friendly as you would expect.
Eastern Europe is decent for trains, but often buses are cheaper and run more often. Many countries in the Balkans are not part of Schengen, so if you’re running out of days in Schengen, save money and live it up on a budget by taking a bus into Kosovo—or Albania.
I tried for the longest time to travel from Hungary to Slovenia via Croatia...and back. This would have been over 12 hours in transit each way with going through 3 different countries en route from Croatia (including Dubrovnik) to Budapest.... I realized I'd have more time and it would be as just as cheap to take a Ryanair flight to Italy and back.
13. If you want to visit smaller (and/or off the beaten path) cities or national parks, trains are not always the best way of getting around and you should plan for spending more money on other forms of transit.
I thought I'd be taken with capitals, but as soon as I got to Italy & Portugal, I ended up spending my time in small towns that were not fully accessible by trains. Only with a lot of planning, 1 train, many regional buses, and sheer determination, it was possible to get to some of the towns in Italy that I visited that many people only visit by car. Buses were simply easier, cheaper, faster, and better for getting around Portugal. Similarly, a lot of national parks tend to be more accessible by regional bus.
14. Don't bother buying a bunk on an overnight train
You will NOT sleep well on an overnight train, so if you think you're saving on having a hostel, splurging for a bed will not make a difference. Just save the money and get a chair since you won’t sleep anyways.
15. Reserve your seat ahead for non-regional trains! Plan your route ahead; there's no fault in flying
Part of Eurorailing is reserving your seat on the train IF you plan on taking non-regional trains (like you probably will). This is especially important for overnight trains. The cool thing about a Eurorail pass is that it's flexible, but the downside is that if you impromptly decide to go to Berlin from Italy or miss your train, you'll need to make a new reservation and reserve seats. This might mean that you need to wait another two days for a long distance train (although spending two more days in Italy is not so bad!). Alternatively, you can usually take a few regional trains to save on reservation costs, but this will take longer and require more transfers.
The cost of an overnight train is often twice as much as a flight going the same length. There is something magical about seeing the mountains around dawn (when you can't sleep), but it's usually worth seeing if there's a budget flight going the same route, so you can arrive the same evening. I somehow thought that I was cheating if I took more than 1 flight. I simply took more time to get in between cities. A good excel with a rough itinerary is a good start. I ended up taking a plane from Porto to Paris after I realized how long and indirect the train would be. Instead, I paid 30 euros for a 1.5 hour flight on Ryanair.
16. Don't cut it too close & always check the station the day BEFORE.
Don’t cut it too close. You NEVER know when your train is on the furthest track on the other side of the train station and you’ll be running for the train. There might not be security, but in a large train station like Berlin, you might need to sprint across 20 tracks to get to yours.
Always check the station before you go. I had just seen the words Budapest, so I went to the main station. It turned out that the train was from another train station across Budapest.
17. Stay close to the train station (sometimes). Read about the area ahead.
If you're staying at hostels or hotels along the way, sometimes it's really nice being close to the train station (e.g. Amsterdam) since it makes public transit easier. Other times, the train station area is legitimately a bad area--and you'll not want to go outside at night as a result of not feeling safe. Carefully read the reviews of the hostels/hotels and think about public transit, so you're not forced to take cabs/expensive trains around.
18. Don't be afraid to talk to people, especially locals on the train
As a New Yorker, I tend to be skeptical of people, especially strangers. When you're on the train, you're going to be sitting across from strangers who often live in the exact place you're visiting. There's nothing wrong with using some awkwardness to ask where they're headed. Sometimes, you'll end up with a killer local tip or even a FREE dinner. (I was lucky enough to sit next to an Italian grandmother who was happy to tell me in Italian about her daughter as well as the story of her life (luckily very interesting!) after inquiring about my visit to Rome. After a long train ride, she invited me to her favorite restaurant in Rome: an authentic Pakistani meal where she refused to let me pay.
19. There's nothing wrong with slower regional trains.
I avoided them like the plague on my first backpacking trip. You can simply book most regional European trains directly at the station a few days ahead without any issues (barring a major holiday). It's often cheaper (although sometimes slower) to take regional trains, but you might discover some beautiful train routes.
20. Don't be afraid to skip cities/attractions that you don't want to go to & do the things YOU want to do.
A lot of people on their first trip around Europe by train feel obligated to check off a certain number of countries and/or see certain attractions. The reality is that every attraction is not everyone's cup of tea (cough: Heineken experience), however never be afraid to seek out the kind of experiences you want. I'm a huge literature geek, so when I visited Venice, I had to visit the beautiful Acqua Alta bookstore. Everyone has their own thing that they love to do on vacation whether it's seeing beer manufactured, national parks, foodie experiences, or simply getting to the beach. Just do you and don't let others' expectations dictate what your Eurorail trip is like!
What's your experience with Eurorail? Any tips for first time train travelers in Europe that I missed that you wish that you had known before? Any questions about Eurail that you'd like to see answered?
That said, if you're visiting Europe using Eurail, I live in Amsterdam. Click here for local only tips for Amsterdam and15 do's & don'ts for Amsterdam.
Karen & Jacob. American expats and cat lovers from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... Then, Paris. (Confusing, we know!) Now, we're living in The Hague, the Netherlands.
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