This past December I went on a backpacking trip around Western Europe. I spent Christmas and New Year's abroad, hoping to see how they celebrate across the pond. It was a great trip, but I learned a lot about planning and the holiday season... a LOT. One of the things I learned was if something seems like it's too good to be true, sometimes it is, and that's how I feel about the Eurail pass.
The Eurail train pass is a train pass you can buy for unlimited travel in one country, a region, or in specific countries over a certain amount of time. For my backpacking trip, I decided to buy a Select pass for 5 countries for 15 days. That pass cost me about $600, which is not too shabby for unlimited travel. Not to mention, I could use the pass any 15 days in a 2 month period. But there were many mistakes this inexperienced backpacker made, and I will share them with in the hopes that you will make smarter choices than I did.
Mistake #1: Winter
Don't backpack during the winter unless you have a couple extra bucks to spend and don't mind the cold. Oh, and unless you've done this before. For a backpacking novice like me, winter was the worst time I could possibly travel. With train delays and plummeting temps, I was pretty miserable about 65% of the time. European heating is not what it is in the United States, so the other 35% of the time I was happy to be in 40 degree weather instead of below freezing. As a Miamian, this was a harsh blow to my body, who is normally in a comfortably cooled 75 degree indoor environment or the hot and humid outdoors. Granted, I lived in Chicago for many years, but I had more than one space heater and I was outside in the cold as little as possible. I didn't trudge through snow with a huge backpack for 2 hours at a time. I didn't sleep in train stations that only had 3 walls, leaving you exposed to the winter winds. No, I didn't do that in Chicago so my body was wondering why the hell I was doing that now. Silly me...
Mistake #2: Holiday season
Something I didn't know when I got the Eurail pass is that trains have tickets blocked off exclusively for Eurail and Interail (the EU citizens' equivalent) passes. That means, if a lot of Eurailers and Interailers are traveling, you could be SOL and not get a seat. Or you could have to buy a ticket. And if you don't want to spend 7 hours on an uncomfortable seat next to a fat man sleeping against the window, you also have to pay extra. That means when I tried to get to France from Spain (what I thought would be easy since they border each other), I was met with a lot of Spanish ticket salespeople shaking their heads when asked if there were seats on the train. Dios mio... it took me 3 days to get from Madrid to Paris, something that should have taken me only a few hours. This continued during the whole trip, and finding hotels and hostels was another feat every time I arrived at a new destination. The moral of this story? Never travel on a budget during holiday season unless you plan it meticulously. It's just not possible.
Mistake #3: Relying on train stations and airport for sleep
The only train stations I'd slept at in the past were during the fall, when it was a comfortable 55 degrees. With a sleeping bag, it's a piece of cake. I had slept in the Rome airport once, which is very overnight friendly, and just sort of assumed I could figure it out like I had that one night in Rome. WRONG. I slept in many train stations this time around, and I use the word 'slept' loosely, as it is near impossible to sleep on a ground that feels like a block of ice. Also, the train station in Geneva closes and the shopping mall below it is scary -- don't sleep there.
All in all, I wouldn't trade my experience for the world. It was an amazing time and I'm glad I did it. However, the next time I backpack, I will make a lot of different decisions... and this time, I'll make sure I travel during Eurail-friendly season.
For more articles on budget travel, click here.
To visit the Eurail website, click here.