1st class vs. 2nd class Eurail Passes: The essential guide

1st class or 2nd class? It’s a common question for travelers, especially those about to head off on their first adventure to Europe. While your budget remains a top consideration, make sure to envision the kind of train experience you ideally want. Quiet vs. sociable? Full of business travelers or full of local families and backpackers? Would you prefer a quiet car where a steward serves wine at your seat, or a more informal scene where you’ll chat to other travelers over a beer? When are you traveling?

If you’re crossing the continent during the summer, trains will be more crowded than in the low season. Some people prefer 1st class simply because the cars tend to be less crowded. Finally, map out your journey. 21st century European trains vary quite a bit in amenities and comfort levels. This is not only between classes, but also between countries. Consider your route when making your decision. A 1st class Thalys train from Brussels to Amsterdam is different to a 1st class train from Budapest to Vienna.

1st class or 2nd class, what would you pick?

1st class or 2nd class, what would you pick?

Why go 1st class?

Rail travel has evolved since the first steam locomotive engine made it possible for the masses to travel by train. But 1st class remains the best way to travel in style. After all, James Bond always books 1st class. Check out the sexy dining car scene in Casino Royale. Bond and Vesper Lynd share dinner and a bottle of wine as the Czech Railways’ high-speed Pendolino hurtles through the countryside.

If you’re seeking comfort, serenity, and deluxe amenities — you’ll have to leave international spy intrigue to the cinema — then 1st class usually remains the best option. Depending on the route, you’ll find that the extra amenities may make 1st class worth the upgrade.

1st class or 2nd class | 1st class compartment on a train in Denmark

1st class or 2nd class? | 1st class compartment on a train in Denmark

Why go 2nd class?

Sure, 2nd class passes are more affordable. Yet lately even Agent 007 wouldn’t seem out of place in a 2nd class car. Rail travel has come a long way since the days it was associated with hot, crowded trains and rowdy backpackers smoking in the bar car. (To be fair, nobody’s allowed to smoke in the bar car these days — probably not even James Bond.)

Yet there’s a reason that college-age travelers often prefer 2nd class, and it’s not just because of their limited budgets. 2nd class offers more of a community travel experience. Locals and travelers might swap stories over the aisles or head to the bar car for an impromptu party. European trains are for the most part fairly clean and comfortable, regardless of class. Therefore, many travelers feel that the combination of budget plus sociability mean that 2nd class offers the most appealing option.

1st class or 2nd class | Scenic views from 2nd class

1st class or 2nd class? | Scenic views from 2nd class

Myths of 1st class or 2nd class

To further weigh the options beyond cost, here’s a checklist debunking — and sometimes confirming — a few myths that confront travelers faced with that age-old travel decision of 1st class or 2nd class.

1st class is serene, while 2nd class is loud and jammed with passengers.

The first part is true. If you’re seeking peace and quiet and want to guarantee a window seat — or a seat by yourself — 1st class remains a good bet.  A high population of business travelers means the focus is on quiet concentration more than sociability. Plus, I’ve never had to stand while traveling 1st class.

If you consider train travel to be an essentially social experience, keep in mind that 1st class can be bit lonely. Of course, that doesn’t mean that venturing into 2nd class means you’ll be caught up with a crowd of a beer-swilling fans coming back from a soccer match. When this does happen, you can always switch cars. However, don’t underestimate the conviviality of drinking with strangers willing to teach you to sing the national  team anthem.

Since the sheer volume of riders in this class is much higher, and the majority of locals in most countries travel 2nd class. Odds are likely you’ll end up sharing seat space. But it’s also more likely you’ll strike up an interesting conversation.

1st class seats are more spacious and comfortable.

This is true—but the degree of difference in comfort depends on the route. First Class seats are often marginally roomier, and tend to offer more luxurious upholstery. However, most Second Class seats are perfectly comfortable and well-maintained.

On 1st class, you’ll be wined and dined. On 2nd class, it’s bring-your-own.

This used to be true — but not anymore. Thankfully, use of the dining cars is separate from the class of your rail pass. Anyone is welcome to purchase food in the dining car or drinks in the bar car. Just make sure to check if your train features these amenities, which can vary seasonally on some routes, such as several scenic routes in Switzerland.

Feel free to bring your own feast, accompanied by a bottle of local wine, regardless of class. You can’t bring your own to the dining car, of course, but you’re free to eat at your seat. This is a common area of misunderstanding among travelers, who often mistakenly assume that bringing drinks and snacks aboard is verboten.

1st class or 2nd class | Sleeper accommodation on a night train

1st class or 2nd class? | Example of sleeper accommodation on a night train

On night trains, 1st class is like a hotel, and 2nd class is like a hostel.

This is true, yet with the caveat that plenty of excellent European hostels exist where one is able to get a perfectly good night’s sleep. The first time my sister and I took 2nd class couchettes on a night train from Granada to Barcelona, I feared that the couchette would be supremely uncomfortable. We were pleasantly surprised at how well we slept on the simple mattresses, aided by a couple of chilled glasses of Vinho Verde in the bar car.

On City Night Line trains, there’s no difference in 1st class and 2nd class supplements for sleeper car reservations. The price difference lies in the class of pass you originally purchase. Either way, you can enjoy breakfast in bed.

On high-speed trains, there’s not much difference between classes — all of the compartments are state-of-the-art.

It’s true that high-speed trains feature sleek, modern, and comfortable compartments with guaranteed seat reservations, regardless of class. You’ll never have to stand on a crowded train. But frequent business travelers on these lines might remind you that some amenities such as free high-speed Wi-Fi and meals served at your seat — tend to come far more often with 1st class. The TGV is a notable exception to this: Wi-Fi is scarce, and in either class you’ll end up heading to the bar car when hunger strikes.

When I recently took the high-speed Lyria line from Switzerland to France, I was served olives, cheeses, breadsticks and pâté at my 1st class seat.  Yet at cocktail hour — in a car stuffed with Swiss bankers who looked like they would have killed for a martini — we were offered only water.

Conversely, on the high-speed Railjet from Munich to Budapest, Czech Budweiser is poured in proper glasses at your seat — although it’s not included in your pass. Among high-speed trains, some of the better dining is found on the Thalys train network, which runs loosely from Paris to Amsterdam with stops in Belgium.

While the Thalys supplement is pricey (a mandatory reservation fee of 55 euros in 1st class, or 39 euros in 2nd class from Amsterdam to Brussels, not including booking fees), the 1st class amenities include free Wi-Fi, a refreshing towel service, and a light meal served with wine or the beverage of your choice at your seat. While 2nd class Thalys seats are nearly as nice, you’ll have to hit the bar car for a coffee.

1st class or 2nd class | Breakfast on train

1st class or 2nd class? | Breakfast on the train with a 1st class pass

1st class is safer than 2nd class

There’s simply not much truth to this – both classes tend to be safe. Conductors report that most theft derives from people entering the train at station stops, rather than from fellow passengers. Just take a few simple precautions by always keeping your passport, wallet, and smart phone or laptop with you – rather than on the luggage racks – at all times.

Check out our range of Eurail Passes and decide for yourself!

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