Like many baby boomers, when I was in my 20s I spent a lot of time — sometimes months at a time — riding European trains.
On shorter trips, when I would purchase separate tickets from one point to the next, I would always travel second class, and had some memorable experiences meeting the locals — and, from time to time, having to sleep in the corridors because the trains were so packed.
Once, riding the Spanish trains between Malaga and Barcelona, I spent 24 hours without a seat, standing up, lying down when possible, but having a blast sharing food and drink with my fellow seatless passengers, trying as best we could to understand each other in our respective broken Spanish and English. (Remember, I was in my 20s.)
But on my longer trips around Europe, I would buy first-class Eurailpasses, which were like an “open sesame” to seeing much of Western Europe from the windows of plush, comfortable seats that were almost always available, and relatively inexpensive to boot. (I say Western Europe because at that time no Eastern Europe countries were connected to Eurailpass.)
I could hop on or off most any train at any time, and often did, on impulse.
Once, when it was raining one afternoon in Milan, Italy, I decided to ride to Zurich, Switzerland, for dinner. I had 10 Swiss francs left over from my time spent there a few weeks back, and figured this would be a good chance to spend them. By the time I got to Zurich five hours or so later — via one of the most scenic routes in Europe — it was snowing, and I was wearing open-toed sandals that had been fine back in Italy but not suited for Swiss weather (I had left my baggage back in Milan).
I quickly spent my 10 francs at a restaurant near the train station — it turned out all I could buy with them was a tough horse meat stew — and caught the overnight train back to Milan. Yes, the whole thing was kind of dumb, but the point was — I could go to another country on a whim, for no extra transportation cost whatsoever. And so I did.
Because I was on a strict budget of, yes, $5 or less a day, I often slept on overnight trains to save money on lodging. The first class seats would frequently fold down to form makeshift beds, which worked pretty well if you had no one sitting across from you, and once I spent an entire week shuttling back and forth between Amsterdam and Copenhagen. I would spend the day in Amsterdam, take the overnight train to Copenhagen, spend the day in Copenhagen, take the overnight train back to Amsterdam, and so on until the conductors started getting suspicious and — with little chance to take a shower during that week — my fellow passengers started sitting as far away from me as possible.
All this is to say is that I have lots of nostalgia for European trains and Eurailpasses. Yes, gone are the days when the passes were dirt cheap — a few hundred dollars for months of unlimited travel — and many trains now require reservations (with additional fees) for first-class travel.
It may well be that, depending on your itinerary and how often you need to ride trains to get where you’re going, buying separate tickets from point A to B will save you money (and second class is perfectly fine for lots of trips). And you have to live outside of Europe to be eligible to buy Eurailpasses.
But I still love Eurailpass, and now it covers many more countries than I had access to back in my 20s. Over the past 25 years, much of Eastern Europe has joined on to the Eurail Global Pass, which allows travel to 24 countries including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey.
There are also “Select Passes” which (starting April 1, 2014) will allow you to choose among any four countries as long as they are directly connected by a Eurail railway or shipping line (yes, some boat travel is also included in Eurailpass).
Until March 31 — the end of this month — though, you can still buy Eurail Select passes that allow you to choose any three, four, or five connected countries. For example, you could choose Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Germany; or Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg; Italy, Greece and Bulgaria; or (a particularly good deal) Hungary, Austria, Montenegro/Serbia, Croatia/Slovenia, and Romania. (France, by the way, is rejoining Eurail Select after a one-year absence as of April 1, the same day the revamped four-country Select program goes into effect.)
Here’s another reason to act fast: Eurailpass is offering “early bird” rates if you buy Eurail Global Passes by March 31. You can choose among 15 day, 21 day or one month validities, but the special offer comes with extra days: three for the 15-day passes, four for the 21-day passes and five for the one month passes.
There are also other Eurail options: “Regional” passes that cover 25 combinations of two countries and 19 “One Country” passes as well (tip: consider buying one of those for the small Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg), which are counted as one country.
Pricing is complex and depends on which of the many possible combinations works best for you, so for more details you should visit the Eurail website or the website of Rail Europe, which is one of Eurail’s authorized sales agents in North America — and which offers additional train pass options and lots of information as well.
I’ll have more on both Eurail and Rail Europe — their names and roles are easily confused — in subsequent posts, as well as more on what you can expect to find when riding European trains. They’re a great option for baby boomers who have a few weeks to explore Europe in depth — and in comfort — without having to drive.
And believe me, if you haven’t driven in Europe for a while, that can get really pricey, between high tolls on highways and filling up the gas tank. Train passes are still a great bargain compared to that — and you don’t have to worry about foreign language road signs, stick-shift cars, narrow one-way streets, or which side of the road you’re supposed to drive on.
Meanwhile, be sure to download my free report, “How to Ride the Coming Wave of Boomers.” It’s all about the best ways to market travel to baby boomers — the biggest-spending group of travelers the world has ever seen. It’s also the easiest way to subscribe to my blog, so you won’t miss a posting. Thanks!