I started my first ever backpacking trip to Europe over 4 months ago in Bulgaria and Romania. Since then I’ve,
- Looped and zigzagged around Europe, travelling over 11,000 km by rail (see my route below)
- Visited 17 countries, 28 cities/towns, from Varna, Bulgaria on the Black Sea on the east, to Barcelona on the west, Copenhagen on the north and Rome, Italy on the south.
- Used 20+ travel days on two Global Eurail passes, each with 15 days of travel within two months.
In this post, I’d like to share:
- A free essential tool I swear by, to plan rail routes
- How to know if a reservation is required
- Easiest countries to travel by rail
- Info on border crossing, luggage storage and accessing cash
My rail route through Europe
Here are the major legs of my rail journeys. Next to each trip, I’ve listed whether a reservation was required (I’ll talk more about this below).
|Sighisoara to Budapest (Romania to Hungary)||Yes|
|Budapest to Vienna (Hungary to Austria)||No|
|Vienna to Prague (Austria to Czech Republic)||No|
|Prague to Berlin (Czech Republic to Germany)||No|
|Berlin to Copenhagen (Germany to Denmark)||No|
|Within Germany, e.g. Berlin-Hamburg, Berlin-Munich||No|
|Munich to Venice (Germany to north Italy)||No|
|Within Italy, e.g. Venice to Rome, Rome to Florence, Florence to Venice||Yes|
|Venice to Salzburg (north Italy to Austria)||No|
|Salzburg to Ljubljana (Austria to Slovenia)||No|
|Ljubljana to Zagreb (Slovenia to Croatia)||No|
|Zagreb to Belgrade (Croatia to Serbia)||Yes (Serbia not covered by Global pass)|
|Novi Sad to Vienna (Serbia to Austria)||Yes for the Serbia portion (Serbia not covered by Global pass)|
|Within Austria, e.g. Vienna-Innsbruck, Innsbruck-Salzburg||No|
|Innsbruck to Interlaken (Austria to Switzerland)||No|
|Interlaken to Nice (Switzerland to France)||Yes|
|Nice to Barcelona (France to Spain)||Yes|
|Barcelona to Paris (Spain to France)||Yes|
|Paris to Brussels/Brugge (France to Belgium)||Yes|
|Brussels/Brugge to Amsterdam (Belgium to Netherlands)||No|
|Utrecht to Berlin (Netherlands to Germany)||No|
First, a Europe rail travel essential
What have been your best sources of information on how to best travel from place to place? (from Jason Tsang)
In addition to German train routes, it:
– Has schedules for all the trains in Europe
– Shows if a reservation is required
– Lets you search for routes with or without high speed/regional trains (helpful for avoiding reservations, if applicable)
– Lists intermediate stops, connections, border crossings
I can’t emphasize how useful this website and iPhone app has been for my rail travel planning!
It took me some time to understand reservation fees when I first got my Eurail passes, fortunately it’s become clearer in the last few months.
1. How do you know if the route requires a reservation?
Go to the bahn.de website, enter your start and end destinations. If part, or all of your trip, requires a reservation there will be white R on a grey background next to the route (see image below).
2. What trains don’t need reservations?
The high speed German (ICE) & Austria (RailJet) trains don’t require reservations and they also go to/through surrounding countries such as Switzerland, north Italy, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovenia and Croatia. The Dutch and Belgian trains also don’t require reservations.
As you can see from my trip above, I didn’t need reservations for the majority of my routes, only for France, Spain, some of Italy and eastern Europe.
3. How much are reservation fees? On average, daytime train reservation fees are 10 euros or less. See the Eurail.com site for domestic fees (train travel within a country), international trains (train crosses a border) and night train fees. All night trains have compulsory reservations.
4. How do I make a reservation?
I’ve only made reservations at the train station at a kiosk or with an attendant, on the same day or a few days before travel. For in-person reservations, sometimes you can’t make reservations for a train unless you are in the country. For example, for Barcelona to Brussels (via Paris), I could only reserve the Barcelona to Paris segment while in Barcelona, and would’ve had to make the reservation for Paris to Brussels from inside France.
You can also reserve online or via telephone. See how to make seat reservations on Eurail.com.
5. How do I minimize reservation fees?
To avoid reservation fees, you can:
– Take only daytime trains (all night trains have compulsory reservation)
– Take regional (slower) trains instead of high-speed trains, see is it possible to avoid reservations or extra charges? Regional trains don’t have reservation fees, but the duration of the trip might be double or longer.
– See how to avoid reservation fees for alternate routes for Paris-Amsterdam, Paris-Frankfurt, Paris-Zurich, Paris-Milan, Paris-Nice that don’t require a reservation.
Is there any immigration checking when you travel with rail from one to another country among Schengen area? (via Shuyi Lin on Facebook)
There is no passport control when travelling within the Schengen area.
If you’re travelling between non-Schengen & Schengen areas, you’ll get one exit stamp and then an entry stamp. Generally, you stay on the train for the border crossing.
Most countries in mainland Europe are in the Schengen area except the Balkans, Romania and Bulgaria. In general, Canadian, Americans & Australian have 90 days in the Schengen area per 6 months. See Wikipedia’s article on Schengen of countries.
Packing & luggage
We are traveling to Italy in October with a 6 yr old and 1 yr old. On the trains, is there a storage area for say a stroller or car seat and one large piece of luggage? (from Carla Gosline).
Yes, there plenty of racks and space for large items like luggage and strollers. There are also overhead shelves for smaller items like day packs. I’ve seen many families travel with children and did not seem to have problems with luggage space or with getting on and off the train. I’ve also seen railway employees on the platform and train attendants assisting passengers if needed.
How do you obtain your money? Are traveler’s checks a thing of the past? Is it only credit cards? Are you constantly going to banks to change money? or just when you get into the country the first time? (from Kim Simonds)
I use my debit card to withdraw money and use my credit card if it’s accepted. Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted (even non-chip credit cards), but American Express has been more accepted than I excepted, for example I’ve used my Amex shopping at H&M in Germany, the Vatican Museum and for accommodations in Switzerland.
If I’m only staying in a country for a day or two, for example on my 1 day stop in Switzerland which uses francs as the currency and not euros, I paid for as much as possible with my credit card and converted existing euros to francs so I wouldn’t have to withdraw francs from my debit card. I’ve never used travellers’ cheques.
In total, I have 4 debit and credit cards (main cards and back-up cards). To minimize risk, I keep them in different places: on-hand, in my day pack and my large backpack.
Favourite experiences so far
Best countries for rail travel. I find the German, Belgian and Dutch trains to be the easiest to travel on. You don’t need reservations, they are punctual and the least crowded. The German & Austrian trains also go to Switzerland, Copenhagen, north Italy (e.g. Venice, Verona), Slovenia, Hungary, Czech Republic and Croatia.
Most spontaneous trip. Deciding at 10am in Berlin to go to Copenhagen for three days, and jumping on the 1:12pm train, and getting to Copenhagen at 8:10pm with light still in the sky. This trip was also one of the most interesting train rides I’ve experienced, because our train boarded a ferry while crossing the Baltic Sea!
Most scenic train rides. I saw some of the most beautiful blue rivers, green hills and snow-capped mountains on my train rides From Salzburg to Innsbruck; and Innsbruck to Interlaken (Switzerland). From Munich to Venice I also spotted at least 10 small castles in the mountains when the train was passing through southern Germany.
My favourite trains. The German ICE trains! If Steve Jobs designed trains, they’d be German ICE trains. These are sleek, white, shiny and fast, just like MacBooks ;) I’ve been on ICE trains that clocked over 250 km/hr (that’s over 1/4 the speed of a Boeing 747!)
External sources on Europe rail travel and Eurail passes:
- Find the best Eurail pass
- Eurail map showing all train lines
- How rail passes work
- Plan your European rail trip
- The Man in Seat 61, the most comprehensive website I’ve found on train travel
- Lonely Planet Europe on a Shoestring – provides country travel budget guidelines and highlights
My Europe rail travel passes was sponsored by Eurail.com, but all trip plans and opinions are my own. If you have questions about Europe train travel or passes, ask on facebook.com/eurorail. I also recommend you follow them twitter.com/eurail for regular promotions and deals.