There’s no shortage of affordable options when traveling within Europe. From cheap flights from major airline carriers to miles of well-maintained roads ready for zippy little rental cars, this part of the world practically unfolds itself as a tourist’s playground. But the best way to see the gorgeous vistas and experience local food culture up close is by train. That’s why today I’m sharing all the tips you need to travel with Eurail and see Europe up close!
Tip #1: Learn What a Eurail Pass Can Do For You
Greetings from Zurich! Blogging has its perks, but this has to be the granddaddy of all of them. This week, I am traveling on behalf of @thedailymeal as a guest of @eurail and other hospitality partners to experience their new rail service between Switzerland and Italy. Thank you to everyone who made this possible, including my lobster and one-and-only, who is holding the fort down while I am gone. Thank you also to our neighborhood takeout places, who will undoubtedly be providing my family with much-needed sustenance while I am away. 😘
Eurail is a network of rail systems throughout Europe that allows travelers to ride trains between countries without having to purchase a separate ticket for every ride. Think of Eurail as a theme park operator. You buy a ticket for admission to the theme park (that would be, in this case, um, all of Europe), but then you don’t have to pay separately to ride each ride. That’s the basic principle of Eurail — the company doesn’t actually own any railroads or trains and instead works with the rail systems in each of its partner European countries to allow passengers the ability to ride between and within countries without having to worry about buying separate tickets for each train ride.
The best part about Eurail is that it’s fully customizable for the number of days you want to travel and the countries you want to travel in. For backpackers, Eurail offers a Global Pass which allows you to travel between 28 countries within a certain time period. For those with more limited time, you can choose a Eurail pass to travel within a single country or extend to two, three or four countries, and you can purchase up to nine days of travel in any given month.
Tip #2: Pick Where to Go
There are so many different combinations of country passes that it might be hard to figure out which Eurail pass you should choose. Last year, I traveled on the newly opened Italy-Switzerland route (see my previous blog posts here and here). With soaring views of snow-capped Alps and gorgeous, sparkling lakes, the journey through southern Switzerland, particularly Lugano, is a breathtaking ride.
Swiss cuisine in and around Lugano draws both from the mountainous topography and proximity to northern Italy, which results in unique fusion dishes, like handmade pasta dishes sprinkled with hard goat’s cheeses that are only made in southern Switzerland. A traditional Italian cacio e pepe, a grated Pecorino and pepper pasta, might get a Swiss spin with Swiss sheep’s milk made into Pecorino. As you venture south from Switzerland to Italy, you can watch the vistas change from the comfort of your seat. You might start your journey marveling at craggy Alpine mountains and soon become charmed by pastel-hued, sleepy Italian seaside towns. Milan is an easy 2.5 hour train ride from Lugano, so you can move from peaceful ocean views to a bustling, sophisticated city within the same day. Also, there is rich, resplendent pasta at every stop in between..
For a truly great deal in Eurail network, you can’t beat the Benelux Eurail pass, which my family and I recently used to travel from London to Belgium and the Netherlands. It’s a best-kept secret of the entire Eurail network. For the price of a one-country Eurail pass, you can travel between three countries: Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Our passes allowed us four travel days within a month between these three countries. For this Eurail pass, second class fares start at €268 for 2 adults and 2 children (under the age of 11) and first class passes start at €332. For an additional seat reservation fee, you can also take the Eurostar train from London to Brussels or Amsterdam to kick off your journey.
The best part of all is that children under the age of 11 travel on Eurail passes for FREE!
Tip #3: Don’t Forget to Activate Your Eurail Pass
In order to use your Eurail pass, you have to “activate” it by taking it to be signed by a ticket counter agent at your first point of departure. The “activation” process consists of a ticket agent stamping and signing your ticket with your date of travel, allowing future train agents to keep track of how many travel days you have left on your Eurail pass.
The activation process is important because Eurail passes are valid only for a certain number of “travel” days (for a single-country pass, you can buy up to nine travel days). A travel day only “counts” when you’re actually on a train in a 24-hour period. So let’s say you travel from London to Brussels and then onwards to Antwerp, a small city in northern Belgium, before cramming your face with waffles and passing out in your hotel in a powdered sugar-covered haze. The next day, you wake to a sugar low and you’re in no shape to go anywhere, so you hang out in Antwerp downing frothy Belgian beers and picking apart wobbly, fat mussels. That day, while it may be filled with regret over your gluttony and excess, mercifully doesn’t count as a travel day since you didn’t step foot on a train.
Tip #4: Keep Track of Where You’re Going
As you hop on and off trains with your Eurail pass, it’s important to write in the details for each train, including the date, time and route. Train conductors travel between train cars on the various journeys you’ll take, collecting tickets from regular fare-paying customers and checking Eurail passes. Your Eurail pass is only valid for the number of travel days and countries you’ve paid for, so entering the relevant information keeps everyone honest.
Tip #5: Enjoy the Ride!
To kick off our Benelux trip, we booked Eurostar tickets from London to Brussels before journeying onward to Antwerp the same day. The trip from London to Brussels is remarkably short, taking a mere 2.5 hours to get from central London’s St. Pancras station to Brussels-Midi station. With Eurail passes, you do have to pay extra for the seat reservation on the Eurostar, which starts at €30 per person. We left London on a Friday evening around 5:30 to start our travel with Eurail and Eurostar, and by 9:00 pm we were settling into our beds at the Hilton Old Town, a centrally located hotel with superior amenities, in Antwerp, Belgium.
For the Eurostar, we opted to pay €8 per person more for Standard Premier class seats, which offered a meal, bigger table seats and more legroom. The meal isn’t anything fancy (see my fairly basic quiche and herbed potato salad above), but there was something refreshing about being served food while hurtling through a dark, underground tunnel connecting England with France at a dizzying 186 miles per hour. Plus, from a logistical perspective, it was nice not to have to fight the crowds for a limp sandwich at the train station’s Marks & Spencer grocery store before boarding, since St. Pancras tends to get overwhelmingly busy, especially on long weekends.
The Chunnel under the English Channel is only 31.5 miles long, so most of the trip is actually above ground and quite scenic, especially once you cross over into France and head north towards Belgium. WiFi is supposedly available on the train, but service is spotty, even in Standard Premier class, so we ended up gazing lazily out of the large landscape windows, taking in the lush countryside and playing several rounds of “I Spy.” It was an ideal trip, really, when compared with the frantic chaos of road trips and navigating unfamiliar roads with quirky road signs.
So, what are you waiting for? Head over to Eurail to book a Eurail pass for an unforgettable European experience!
Looking for more information about Eurail? Check out my other posts below!
- Eurail from Switzerland to Italy, Part 1
- Eurail from Switzerland to Italy, Part 2
- Eat Your Way from Switzerland to Italy with Eurail (for The Daily Meal)
Note: Eurail provided my family and me with Eurail Benelux passes for this article. I was not otherwise paid or compensated.