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January 29, 2014

How to plan your Eurail itinerary

by Stephen Bugno in Travel tips

Do you see yourself riding the rails around Europe in the near future? Train travel has its advantages, practical ease, and freedom, not to mention the romance of the most scenic landscapes from the window. With a Eurail pass, you can make rail travel in Europe more convenient, and even save yourself some money.

Keep in mind there are planners and non-planners among us, and others still who are somewhere in between. Luckily, with the Eurail pass, there is a place for us all. This guide is designed to help you prepare for your Eurail adventure, no matter what your style of travel.

Step 1: Decide when to go

Europe is actually an excellent destination at all times of the year, it just depends on your interests. The summer has the finest weather, but can be crowded in popular areas and you’ll have to make train reservations in advance on certain trains. The winter is cold in much of Europe, but offers the opportunity for winter sports or a warm weather getaway in the far south of the continent. The shoulder season is an excellent compromise, since the temperatures are mostly amiable and crowds have greatly dissipated. Money saving tip: There are often great offers on the Eurail pass during the low season. Read tips on when to go on a Eurail trip.

Step 2: Choose where to go

Use the Eurail map to decide where to go

Open up a map. One comes free with your pass. Or view the map in PDF format from here, complete with the rail lines of Europe. Ahhh, Europe. So many great places to visit! How do I decide?

First time European travelers might want to hit up the classic European highlights: Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Venice and Rome. These places, along with some others, make up a standard European whirlwind tour, and for good reason: these destinations are submerged in sights, culture, history, nightlife, and romance.

Lake Geneva
Ticino seen from train window
View of Stockholm

If you’ve been to Europe already, you might want to consider alternatives. Scandinavia has some beautifully scenic routes and seasonal specialties; Spain and Portugal have got a laid-back vibe and some wonderful food and wine; and the exciting and less-explored southeastern boundaries: Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey have much to offer. Or you could spend a week or two digging deeper into France or Italy, two countries that have long captivated foreigners.

I’m a small city guy and make an effort to visit as many of the extraordinary lesser-visited cities of Europe as I can: Padua in Italy Girona in Spain and Olomouc in Czech Republic, just to name a few of my favorites.

It can also be fun to create a trip based around an interest or theme like top art museums, favorite wine regionsnatural wonders, architecture, or castles. This blog is a great source for inspiration and travel ideas.

Step 3: How to go

Are you a planning type?

The key to a successful trip is often good planning. A well-planned trip to Europe will leave you with less uncertainties and more peace of mind. Train schedules are printed at least a year in advance. Reservations can be made up to three months in advance and depending on the trains you select, it may be possible to plan out and reserve your entire Eurail trip before you leave home.

Alternatively, go-with-the-flow travelers who are equipped with a Eurail pass have the type of freedom to make last minute decisions. You could be standing in Prague’s main station moments before a departing train to Berlin and another to Vienna and still not have made up your mind. This is an exciting way to travel, but certainly a more uncertain way: you may be limited to regional train lines if all reservations are booked. Riding the sometimes slower regional lines in not necessarily a bad thing, as it allows one to see different and smaller, less-touristy towns. You’ll also avoid trains that require a reservation.

More than likely, you’ll need to be a little bit flexible. You can make certain city-to-city reservations on high-speed trains, but other destinations on your itinerary may only include regional trains which do not take reservations. For these trains you can find the travel times in the Rail Planner app and just show up at the station in time to catch the train.

On other trains, reservations are recommended but not mandatory. If you need to catch a flight or want to be guaranteed seating by your travel buddies, this is a good opportunity to reserve.

Step 4: Research train times

After you’ve decided your itinerary, you can now research train times using the Eurail timetable. In addition to train times,  this gives you essential information like the train type, which will let you know whether or not you’ll need to make reservations. Other important information like train changes and transfers are precisely noted.

Step 5: Make reservations if necessary

Make sure you know if you need a reservation

As a general rule, high-speed trains and night trains require a reservation and associated fee. Regional trains usually do not. To know exactly which trains require reservations, consult the timetable, which after a search, will display whether the train needs to be booked ahead of time.
View route options that avoid trains with reservations.

There are three ways to make reservations: online through a railway website, at the train station in person, and by telephone. Reservations can be made up to three months in advance.
Read all about how to make reservations.

Step 6: Understand your Eurail pass

The more you read ahead of time, the more you’ll get out of your rail pass. For example, know that your pass is valid for train travel in 1st class. Understand that a travel day lasts 24 hours, from midnight to midnight, but there are special quirks like the 7p.m .rule, which are designed to help you get better value out of your pass. Also it’s useful to know that your pass is valid for use or discount aboard many ferry companies.

Step 7: Have the time of your life!