In These Times of Change, Let’s Celebrate the Trusty Rail Pass

In 2019, European rail passes are undergoing the most sweeping changes in a generation. Gone are “Select” passes, where you can mix and match countries as you like to suit your itinerary. Now, it’s all of Europe, or just one country.

This time of change has me nostalgic for the glory days of rail passes. In my backpacker days, there were just two choices of Eurailpass: one month or two months, covering most of Western Europe, with a second-class option available only to people under 26.

Over the years, as rail passes became a must-have accessory for any trip, customization was in. The flexipass — valid only a certain number of days in a one- or two-month period — revolutionized the rail pass game. The Europass included just five core countries, rather than automatically including all of Europe; later, the Eurail Select pass let you choose exactly which countries you wanted. So, instead of paying for 30 straight days in 17 countries, you could save money by buying a pass for only five days (within a two-month period) in just France, Benelux, Germany, and Denmark. Gradually, even more spin-offs arrived: two- and three-country passes that seemed designed to suit any conceivable trip (and, frankly, some that were pretty inconceivable).

During their heyday, rail passes were a way of life for travelers in Europe. Savvy backpackers were rail policy wonks, and knew every trick in the book for stretching a pass. They knew that if you took a night train, it’d count only one flexi-day — the day of arrival — allowing you to sneak in some “free” onward travel the next day. (Now this has been flipped, counting the day of departure.) They knew that if you were going from Munich on a Germany rail pass, it’d take you as far as Salzburg — the first station over the Austrian border — but no farther. But if you were going from Munich to Venice on a pass that included only Germany and Italy, but not Austria, you’d have to pay separately for that Austrian segment. And yet somehow, it all worked — and provided travelers with fond memories of mastering the system.

Around this time, selling rail passes was a big part of my company’s mission. Travelers who did their homework could save plenty — but there were so many options, it was hard to know where to begin. We published an annual 64-page guide to European rail passes, along with an extensive rail website. We even produced a VHS tape about how to choose your rail pass, which we’d snail-mail to potential customers. And several experts on my staff — including our Rail Department Manager and train guru, Laura Terrenzio — advised travelers on their rail pass choices full-time.

With the arrival of budget airlines, things began to change. Premium, high-speed trains (like AVE in Spain and TGV in France) started requiring travelers to book ahead and pay a supplement. The loss of the ability to hop on pretty much any train, anytime, no questions asked, made the arithmetic required to choose the right rail pass even more complex. For the right traveler (and the right trip), a rail pass could still be a good choice…but it wasn’t an easy choice.

As of last week, Eurail has gone back to basics. Gone are the unwieldy combination tickets and the staggering array of à la carte passes. Now you can either get a single-country pass, or a Global Pass covering 31 countries. (I don’t think Europe even had 31 countries back when I bought my first rail pass.) While there’s been some loss of customization, I appreciate how the new approach is simplifying what had become a confusing selection process.

There are other changes, too. But a few things haven’t changed. There’s still a special magic to taking trains around Europe. We’re still selling rail passes, and helping travelers figure out which pass is best for their trip. And Laura Terrenzio is still the most knowledgeable person I know (and probably in the whole country) when it comes to rail passes. Anytime you visit the Rail section of our website, you can be confident Laura has everything up-to-date, like always.

What are your favorite memories of traveling with a rail pass?

 

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