I am a huge Rick Steves fan and have, for many years, watched him traveling around Europe by train. I assumed that with a Eurail Pass that one could just hop on and off the train at will, not worrying about silly details like reservations. After all, if you have a pass, aren’t you guaranteed a spot?
It turns out the answer is…sort of. You can indeed get on the train, but if you actually want to sit down, you need to have a train reservation in addition to your pass. Many trains require seat reservations and if you plan any overnight segments, you will definitely need to reserve in advance.
There are different types of Eurail passes available. A “Select Pass” allows travel only within 1-4 countries. A “Global Pass” can be either continuous (any amount of travel within x number of days) or a flex-pass that gives you x number of trips within y number of days. For example, 10 travel days within a 2-month period. And, you can also choose between 1st or 2nd class travel. Additionally, there are “Saver” passes that provide a discount if you are traveling in a group. We are a group of 2 and so were able to save a little bit of money (15%) because we will always be traveling together. Eurail has a webpage that helps you select the pass that will work best for you: https://www.eurail.com/en/eurail-passes/find-the-best-pass. We opted for a 2-month continuous Global Pass in order to have maximum flexibility.
Next, we decided on our itinerary. https://interrailplanner.com/ was an invaluable help in this. We started with a particular itinerary in mind and then made changes based on how complicated it was to get from one place to the next. We ended up eliminating Romania completely given how long it took to reach and how difficult it was in terms of connections. After we had determined our final itinerary we used Booking.com and Expedia to make hotel reservations. Our criteria involved finding hotels convenient to the train station that served breakfast. Of course, good reviews and reasonable prices were critical as well. For the most part we were able to find places that fit all of our criteria but there were a few that either didn’t have breakfast or were a few miles from the train station. In those cases we used Google Maps and Google Earth to determine whether or not there were places to eat within walking distance and researched how much we could expect to pay to get a cab to the hotel. We also downloaded apps that would help with ordering and paying for taxis. You don’t always get English-speaking cabbies and so being able to use an app to tell where we need to go and be able to pay with a credit card seems like a good idea. Hopefully, it will work out that way!
By now, we figured that we were pretty much done with the “bones” of our planning. But, we were most definitely incorrect. We still needed to get our seat reservations. I had read several blogs that said how difficult (and expensive) a process this can be – that you have to go through many different train companies, and pay exorbitant fees to have your tickets mailed to you. At first glance, the Eurail site seemed to make this unnecessary. You could request seat reservations for all legs of your itinerary and pay a processing fee; your paper tickets would be delivered at no additional cost.
Seats could be reserved a maximum of 90 days ahead of time and the Eurail website stated that they prefer you wait to request all of your reservations at the same time. This really wouldn’t work for us since our last reservations were nearly 60 days past our first. There are a limited number of seats available for Eurail pass holders; our concern was that if we waited until the last minute, the trains we needed to reserve would be filled and we would be out of luck.
We submitted our first batch of reservations in May. Within a couple of days we received an email stating that we should log in to check the progress of our reservations. It turns out that some of our segments were un-reservable in advance (no problem since trains ran hourly), some were not reservable until 30 or 60 days out, some were impossible (supposedly sold out already); only one was ticketed. Yikes! And, we had no idea for the next set we planned to submit what issues would pop up.
On to Plan B! We found that DB Trains (German-run) will reserve further in advance than Eurail and rather than shipping tickets will allow you to print your confirmations. So, we reserved as many segments as possible through them. We researched different ways to get from place to place for the segments that came back as impossible and booked them through DB as well. We found that PolRail (Poland) would reserve seats for us in advance of the 30-day limit Eurail had set. Unlike the other websites we worked with, we had to send an email requesting seats. On the upside, we received a response within a day (the fastest we heard back from Eurail was two days; the longest was two weeks). PolRail said that they could reserve seats for us on the trains we wanted and we could either pay around $40 (in addition to the cost of the seat reservation) to have the tickets shipped to us or they would ship them to our hotel in Warsaw. We opted for having them sent to our hotel. If there is any issue, we will have 3 or 4 days in Warsaw to figure it out before we need the tickets so didn’t think it was worth the cost to have them sent to our home.
We still had a few reservations left to make at this point so returned to the Eurail website. We were able to make the remaining reservations without issue and thought we were all set to go.
A couple of weeks ago, we received an email from PolRail stating that one of the reservations they had promised us wasn’t going to work; the train was booked up completely (at least in first class). They asked us if we wanted to be moved to second class. We did a little further investigation and found that there are several trains daily for that segment of the journey, so asked if we could be booked on a later train. Fortunately, there were seats on a train leaving only an hour later than the one we had originally requested. Thanks to their prompt responses by email we were able to solve the problem within a day. I should also mention that www.rome2rio.com was an invaluable supplemental resource for researching train routes and timetables.
So, what did we learn? Although it first appeared that we would be able to do everything through Eurail, that did not turn out to be the case. DB Train (https://www.bahn.com/i/view/index.shtml) worked great but doesn’t cover every train line you may need. Again, www.rome2rio.com is a wonderful planning tool. And, if all else fails, do a web search for each country’s rail service (for example, PolRail for Poland). Be ready to pay extra for seat reservations; many train companies require them. And lastly, a reminder to pack light – you will be hauling those suitcases on and off of trains repeatedly.