Where I’m not averse to rental cars, I like to use public transportation when traveling in Europe. There are two big reasons for this. One, things in Europe are closer together than they are in America. You can get from place to place in a practical manner. Two, the train system goes almost everywhere. If you add a bus and a plane, here and there, you can get around pretty easy.
Types of Tail Passes.
You can buy your train tickets each time you want to travel or you can invest in a rail pass. Rail passes save you considerable money and effort, but they need to be purchased before you leave the USA to travel. This will require a little planning.
As far as type, there are a lot of them. There are single country passes, multiple country passes, and (basically) all of Europe passes. They also encompass all different number of day options. There are many forms, from two to three day continuous use tickets, to fifteen days or more scattered over a couple months. Once again choosing the right one will require a little preplanning.
All of that being said, there are really two different vendors to choose from for US based tourists. They are EURail, and Raile Europe. They both have pluses and minuses. They both can also help with planning and rail reservations.
I suggest you look at both. I have used both. As a rule, I use EURail. I like the service they provide, and have had good luck using them. Also, they have a great timetable app.
What You Get in Your Pass Package.
Your (multiple country) rail pass will come with three main items.
First, the ticket. It’s two piece and will need to be filled out as you go.
Second, you get a rail guide. The guide explains how to read the rail pass, and what different terms means. Importantly, it also tells you what rail companies in each country are included in your pass. Not all rail companies in an included country are always included. It will depend on the country you’re traveling in.
Third, you get a rail system map of Europe. It gives you basic touring information. At this point in technology, it’s really just an addition to the timetable app.
Rail passes used to come with a timetable booklet that allowed you to figure out if you could get from one destination to another. To be honest, the app is incredibly easier to use, and just better. It also updates with changes, where the printed book did not.
How to Use It.
The ticket will Need to be validated before you can take your first trip. You can have it validated when it is sent to you or you can just get it validation stamped at the train station you happen to be at, when you’re ready. The ticket needs to be validated for use within a certain amount of time after purchase. I believe it’s six months. You should check before you purchase your pass.
Now that you’re ready to go, the ticket has boxes for the first use day and for the last use day. Fill these out as appropriate. There are also boxes for each travel day (if it’s a five day ticket, then there will be five day of use boxes).
Attached to the ticket is trip worksheet to show each individual trip you take during a travel day. It’s important to remember that a day is 24 hours. Once you start a day, you can travel as many times as you want during that day. You just need to annotate each trip BEFORE you get on the train. The ticket voucher needs to be filled out to be valid.
A Thought About Reservations.
The major routes (busiest) and high speed rail systems (fastest lines) among others require an addition reservation from the train station before you travel. This is basically done to make sure they don’t oversell seats on the heavy routes.
Reservations require an addition charge on top of the rail pass. They should also be handled in advance of when you want to travel. Once all seats/sleeper sections are reserved, that’s it. Reservations on popular routes do and will run out. If you wait until when you want to travel to get your reservation, you may not be traveling that day. This has happened to me in more than one occasion. (When reservation start to go, they cascade from one time to the next, and soon there are none for a whole day. When you’re standing at the station with your bag and this happens, it sucks.)
The app will allow you to only see options that don’t require a reservation. This can be very helpful, if you’re a spontaneous person. Keep in mind that these options usually take longer to get where you want to go.
I hope that this may have helped to answer any questions kicking around. If you have a specific question, drop it in the comments and I’ll take a run at it. Some time on the internet will also help. The EURail.com website is super easy to navigate and understand.
Now, get out there and explore! Oh, and try and enjoy yourself while you do it. That really is the point of it all.