Hi Frugalistas! You’ve got yourself organised, taken the plunge and bought your Eurail pass. So, now what? Well, this is where it really gets interesting:
When you get your pass you should also get a map, and a timetable book. The timetable book is not exhaustive, but does list the main routes between major cities and provincial and/or popular destinations. Hopefully, you’ve also got a basic itinerary for your trip – if you haven’t now is the time to start doing it.
Using either the timetable book or the www.bahn.de website (English translation available) check whether any of your routes have compulsory reservations (marked with an R inside a box next to the departure). If you are traveling in peak season you may consider making these reservations early. Only a limited number of Railpass bookings are normally accepted on each departure, so my advice is not to risk it. If you do this before your departure you will be sent a separate reservation slip for each reservation you make. Make sure you take this with you. The price for a seat reservation varies, but expect to pay at least EUR9.00 per seat.
Also spend sometime either checking in your guidebook or reading in the Railpass literature where else you can use your pass. Then, most importantly, check out whether it is worth your while to do that! For example, you can use your Railpass on both the French RER and German S-Bahn suburban/regional trains. But given the Metro and the U-Bahn are so cheap and convenient, and you use a precious day of your pass it probably only makes sense to use your pass on those days when you are going to be using it for long distance travel anyway. Some ferries (including tourist ones on lakes) will also accept your Railpass, either for free or will at least give you a discount, but again, it counts as a day on your usage – so use it wisely!
Once you get to Europe there’s more work to do! Before you can use your pass at all you must activate it. To do this, take it and your passport along to a big railway station, and queue up as if you are going to buy a ticket. The ticket clerk will take your Railpass and passport, enter your passport number into your pass and give it all a big official stamp!
You’re now good to go. If you need to reserve a seat, nows a good time to do that while you are still in the station at the booking office. It will still cost you at least EUR9.00 – there is no discount or penalty for waiting till now, but you may miss out on the Railpass seating and need to pay a levee on your ticket to “upgrade”.
Each day you want to use your pass you will need to fill in the date you are using it on the pass. Make sure you do this before you board the train (or at least before the train departs) as there are big fines for not doing this.
Finally, you’re ready to board the train. In some countries, such as France and Italy, you will need to validate your ticket each time you board a train (in France this is known as the rather quaint term to “compost” your ticket). Little green ticket validating machines are dotted around stations and their platforms. If you aren’t sure, just follow the locals, who, in my experience are only too happy to assist with hapless tourists. If you have a seat reservation ticket, validate that, otherwise just validate your Railpass. You will need to do this each time you change trains each day.
During your journey expect the conductor to come around and check your ticket. Show him or her your Railpass, passport and reservation ticket when they get to you. Sometimes they will clip your ticket or Railpass, and sometimes they won’t check your passport – it all seems to be a bit random, so I just show them everything, everytime and avoid any hassles.
I also have two general tips for using the train in Europe: bring food and drink with you on the train as both are dreadfully expensive onboard. The first class Thalys service from Paris to Brussels and Amsterdam includes food and tea/coffee. Seat service in first class on the German ICE trains is very expensive, but if you treat it as a splurge can be good fun (an afternoon caffe und kuchen served in your seat is definitely a pleasant way to pass an afternoon!) Secondly, pack light, pack light, pack light……heavy bags make using the train a nightmare, and on busy trains there is not always a lot of luggage space.