Planning Your Eurail Trip: Things You Should Tick Off
Are you planning your Eurail trip? Everyone gears up for it differently. Some spend weeks, months, or years planning it meticulously; others do it on the fly the week before. There’s no right or wrong way to get yourself ready for a big Eurail journey, but here are some pointers that may make it go as smoothly as possible.
Planning your Eurail trip
Most of my trips are the result of months of talking and dreaming, and just a few days of planning. Which is great for spontaneity and living in the moment, not so great if you want to tick all the boxes. This is particularly true if you aren’t lucky enough to come from a country where you don’t need to apply for a visa to enter the Schengen zone.
Some nationalities have it easier than others, but citizens of other countries may need to jump through several hoops in order to get access to the continent. Each country has its own visa requirements, so this should be the first thing you research – don’t leave this until the last week. The process can take weeks or even months, and can be rejected on a whim, so tick this one off first.
The good news is that even if you need to get a Schengen visa before you arrive, that’s the last of the diplomatic paperwork you’ll have to face until your next trip. The little addition to your passport grants you access to most countries in mainland Europe, and even a few of the Balkan States not yet part of the Schengen zone.
There are several types of insurance that you should consider when planning your Eurail trip. Most Schengen visa applications will require you to have comprehensive medical insurance in the event of a disaster. This is a good idea for your own peace of mind as well. You may be able to handle the expenses of a minor ailment, but a serious accident could end up costing millions.
If you’re hopping in and out of trains and walking crowded streets dotted with pickpockets, you’ll also want to make sure you have some form of insurance for your personal possessions. Some local insurance companies will cover your goods wherever you are in the world, but if not, travel insurance companies may bundle this in with their product offerings as well.
Travel insurance can be painfully expensive and frustratingly exclusionary, so read the fine print carefully before you sign up. Many entry-level travel insurance packages are too thin to cover you adequately in the event of serious loss, and the comprehensive packages are prohibitively costly.
Insider tip: Chances are, if you have good medical and personal item insurance, travel insurance isn’t essential. It’ll only cover you for lengthy delays, canceled trips and a fresh t-shirt or two if your bags go missing. Work out the costs of what they’re offering versus the cost of what you’re paying.
You may intend to roam aimlessly throughout Europe. But if you forget to set your cell phone on roaming before you leave, chances are your bill will hit the stratosphere. Most companies require you to do this a few moments before you depart. Double check your own provider’s rules and regulations in the week before your journey. Unless you have an international data package, deactivate all data on your phone before you leave.
Don’t worry about feeling disconnected – WiFi is practically everywhere in Europe these days.
Insider tip: Purchase a local SIM card from an EU country and use this as much as possible on your rail trip across Europe. As of June 17, 2017, if you travel with an EU number to any other EU member states, you won’t be hit with any roaming charges for phone calls, text messages, or data usage.
Mapping out routes
While planning your Eurail trip, you may like to map out your routes before departure. If you’re traveling with a friend, plan to meet up before you leave and bring your free Eurail maps. While you don’t need to stick to the route exactly, it can be useful – and pretty exciting – to outline a basic itinerary for the time abroad.
You may want to follow a linear route from West to East or East to West. Or maybe you want to do a circular route to coincide with your return air tickets. I’ve always found that the best way to plan your route is to identify 4 or 5 key cities that that you really want to visit, and then include some buffer days in between for flexibility and spontaneity.
Insider tip: Although your trip will be predominantly rail-based, don’t rule out the prospect of the occasional low-cost flight. It could help if you end up following a linear route. Some carriers will fly you across the continent for the cost of a beer in Switzerland.
What to book
Unless you really like to live in the moment, you probably should’ve already booked your flight in the months (or weeks) leading up to the trip. But there are some reservations that you may have left until the last minute:
Planning your Eurail trip doesn’t mean you need to book your accommodation for the entire duration of your journey. Particularly if you’re going all-in on a three-month trip or traveling in the off-season. But consider booking at least your first week in advance, so you know where you’ll head straight from the airport.
Insider tip: If you’re traveling in peak seasons or over major festivals, the good and cheap accommodation will go fast. Where possible book this ahead. If you have a real fear of commitment, many booking websites allow free or cheap cancelations within certain time periods. This can be a lifesaver for further down the road.
Some trains, particularly high-speed trains in France, Spain, and Italy, require advance seat reservations even if you have a Eurail Pass. The good news? These are not usually significantly expensive, and you can actually book most of these online before you depart. The websites www.sncf.com and www.bahn.de are great because they allow you to book some seats ahead of time. Don’t get too concerned about this unless you’re looking at an exceedingly popular route or a rare night train. There are so many rail options throughout the continent that it’s unlikely you’ll be stranded.
The general rule of thumb is that if train reservations aren’t mandatory, you’ll be able to get a seat. The beauty of a Eurail Pass is that most rail companies that require reservations have a fixed, low reservation fee, regardless of the price of the ticket. So in many situations you can be spontaneous and pay a €5 reservation fee for that €200 train ride at the station the day before.
Insider tip: Some rail companies, such as France’s TGV, operate tickets and reservations on a sliding scale. So the sooner you book, the cheaper they’ll be.
If you want to take planning your Eurail trip to a higher level, then it pays to check out the websites of the attractions you’d like to visit and book your tickets the week before you leave — especially if you’re heading to a notoriously popular attraction such as Granada’s Alhambra. Of course, this is only useful if you’ve locked down your entire itinerary. Hundreds of tourists get to their ultimate bucket list attraction, only to find out tickets were sold out for weeks.
Insider tip: If the worst happens and tickets sell out when you’re in town, don’t give up hope. Some attractions, such as the Alhambra, release batches of tickets online at the last minute, or still accept limited walk-ins bright and early on the morning.
Time to get excited
The last week before your Eurail journey is always the most chaotic and most exciting. Spend a few moments soaking up the excitement and anticipation with friends and family. If you’re the social media type, get your accounts ready and think about starting a blog. Even if it’s only to let the parents know that you’re safe and sound and living the dream.
This part of the journey is also the most stressful, so allow yourself some down time. And remember that in less than 7 days, all of your day-to-day concerns will be a thing of the past. The only issue on your mind will be where to next?
Need more useful information on planning your Eurail Trip?
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