Railpass Q&A

By Jay Brunhouse
This item appears on page 68 of the December 2008 issue.

Hi, Jay! We are planning a 30-day trip to Europe and plan to use a Eurail pass. We have a few questions.

If we use the Global Pass, is the train service good enough that we could tour a lot of things every day like we did in the 1980s with the BritRail Pass or would we end up with a problem like we had in Paris, where it would be difficult to see only one attraction in a day and be able to return to the central location to spend the night? Which countries or regions would be good to see using the Global Pass? Which countries or regions would be best to avoid?

The Bavarian Zugspitz Railroad lifts visitors from Garmisch-Partenkirchen to the summit of Germany’s highest Alp using Riggenbach-system cogwheels. Sorry, no railpasses accepted! Photos: Brunhouse

If we use the Select Pass or Regional Pass, would there be enough cities large enough to keep us busy for several days until we transferred to the next city? In Paris, we averaged seeing 10 to 12 attractions a day. Which countries, regions and cities would work best for the Select or Regional passes? Which countries, regions and cities would be best to avoid?

At the website for the Select Pass 3 Countries, it says, “You get unlimited first class rail travel in three bordering countries.” If you got a pass allowing 10 days of travel in two months, would this mean that you would get unlimited rail travel for the whole two months or is it just unlimited train travel during any 10 days?

That is, if you got the “10 days in two months” pass, do you have to do the 10 days consecutively or can you do them when you please? Like could we rail one day, then tour for several days, then do another rail day, then tour a few more days and then perhaps do two consecutive rail days? Could we do a day now and then whenever we wished as long as we stayed within the 2-month time period?

In your April 2008 article in ITN, you listed three websites at which to obtain Eurail pass information and tickets. Do all these sites contain the same information? Are the prices for the various Eurail passes the same no matter which website you use to purchase the tickets? If not, which site contains the best prices?

Are the railpasses good on all the trains? Are there some train lines that don’t participate? If so, which train lines don’t participate? How would we know or find out? In this regard, which countries would be best to avoid? We don’t want to end up in countries where there is very little rail service available for pass holders.

We are considering going to Ireland. Are ferries included in the railpasses? If not, are they partially covered by the railpasses? Where would we catch the ferry and about how long is the ride? Are there enough trains going to enough cities to make going to Ireland worthwhile? Is Northern Ireland included or is that part of the BritRail Pass?

Are there extra costs that we would have to pay to use some trains? If so, what are they or how do we find out? And about how much are the costs?

It sounds like people with Eurail passes are entitled to discounts for various things plus extra pass benefits that have reductions (we presume this means price reductions). What type of things would be discounted? What would usually be the percentage discount?

In the Conditions of Use, it says, “If you use a free bonus on a certain day, you will have to fill in a travel day on your Pass.” What are the free bonuses? And what does this mean? Wouldn’t the value of using the rail be worth more than whatever the free bonus is? Would the free bonus cost you a rail day even if you had a Eurail Global Pass?

We’ve read that there are second-class trains available. Is this just for youth under 26 or can everybody get second-class railpasses? We are not youth, but we would prefer the second-class railpasses and the lower cost. How do we get second-class Eurail passes?

Gary and Lajetta Atwood, Burien, WA


Glad you asked

Dear Gary and Lajetta, thank you for your e-mail. First, I point out that you have six months after purchase to validate your railpass. When you buy your railpass at the end of 2008, before prices are likely to go up on January 1, you have time to begin using it well into 2009.

Eurail passes cover free transportation on the national railroads of the countries involved. Not all private lines are included. Among the private lines not included, ones that come to mind are those in the high Bernese Oberland (a Swiss Pass is better in Switzerland), the Harz Mountains and the Chiemsee and aboard FEVE, the narrow-gauge railroad through northern Spain. If a line is not mentioned in the information supplied with the pass, it is not covered. You can check country by country on www.raileurope.com.

The 1.6-mile narrow-gauge Chiemsee Railroad carrying visitors to King Ludwig II’s Herrenchiemsee castle is not covered by railpasses.

Whether you choose a Eurail Global Pass or a Eurail Select or Regional pass depends on the number of train travel days you plan to use (keeping in mind that it is cheaper to buy point-to-point tickets on the less expensive trips than to use a day box on a flexible select or regional pass) and the countries you plan to visit.

The “European Rail Timetable,” published by Thomas Cook, which is in my public library and possibly yours, includes nearly all European trains. I find it indispensable for arranging a trip such as the one you plan. While you’re at it, you can order a copy of my train travel book from www.amazon.com.

Cities that make possible multiple day trips by train to attractions in the area include Paris, Munich, Amsterdam, Madrid, Bern, Lucerne and Zürich.

Eurail Select Passes provide for a specified number of days of travel within two months. They are flexible passes with day boxes that you must date just before you commence each day’s travel. That is, you choose those days you want to travel up to the pass’ limit, and you must use them, and not more, within two months of the date you validate your pass.

The days do not have to be consecutive and, thus, you have the chance to book point-to-point tickets to cheaper destinations without using a day box. You could even go to Britain during the 2-month limit and get a discount on a BritRail Pass.

Prices for Eurail products are set by the Eurail Group in Utrecht. All mentioned websites have the same prices and information, although some are easier to navigate than others.

Eurail bonuses

Many shipping lines offer discounted ferry-service fares to Eurail product holders, and these are considered bonuses. A day sailing will be covered by the day box you already will have dated to reach the pier. You can sail Wales-Ireland or overnight between France and the Republic of Ireland with a 30% discount.

Northern Ireland (which has a very limited train network) is not covered by either a Eurail product or regular BritRail Pass. The network in the Republic of Ireland connects major cities, but in Ireland I prefer to drive. Again, check the “Thomas Cook Timetable.”

With a Eurail Global Pass, one need not worry about losing travel days or using bonuses. The bonuses are free or reduced-rate transportation on some private railroad companies, some national and international ferry crossings and some buses. They include discounts on the rates of some hotels and museum admission prices. If a benefit consists of only a discount, Select or Regional pass holders do not need to use a day box.

Popular bonuses include discounts on the Romantic Highway Bus from Munich, cruises on the Rhine and Mosel rivers, discounts on Eurostar travel between England and France or Belgium, Baltic Sea ferries and crossings between Italy and Greece.

Eurail Global and Eurail Select passes do not have fares for adult second-class travel, although certain national passes do. All trains have second-class seats or couchettes. Not all trains have first-class seats. Check the Thomas Cook timetable.

In France, Italy and Spain, all high-speed trains must be reserved in advance, and the cost ($5-$10) of the reservation is not included in the pass. Several scenic trains in Switzerland require payment of supplements. It is cheaper to make reservations at any train station in Europe than in the US. Again, Thomas Cook notes which trains must be reserved. The reservation fee for Thalys trains between Paris and Benelux or Germany is higher on weekdays than on the weekend because passengers are served a meal during weekdays.

Have a nice trip!

Editor’s note: Jay Brunhouse’s remarks outlining railfan interest in Switzerland has been posted at www.myswitzerland.com/steam. His book “Traveling the Eurail Express” is available at Amazon.com.