Europe by Rail

Written by  Phyllis Cocroft

I like seeing Europe by train. With an eight-day, two-country Eurail Selectpass Flexi, I traveled through Germany and Switzerland. In Germany, I watched golden fields of rape, from which canola oil comes, sweep by; sprawling farm houses with helmet-like roofs, and castles perched above towns and villages

In Switzerland the vineyards tumble down hills near Lausanne. Outside Montreux, I passed the chateau-prison about which the English poet, Byron, wrote The Prisoner of Chillon. It sits atop a rock in the sparkling Lake of Geneva.
 With my rail pass, I went seamlessly from Berlin, where my flight from Boston took me, to Erfurt in Germany, and from Erfurt to St. Gallen and Geneva in Switzerland; then from Geneva back to Berlin for my flight home. Swiss friends advised me to fly from Switzerland to Berlin. “It takes only an hour from Zurich to Berlin,” they said. “Why waste 10 hours on a train?” “Because I like rail travel,” I replied. And now that I have returned to the United States, and it has taken five days for my luggage to follow me by air, I will add that, on a train, my luggage stays right with me.
Some years ago, I lived in Switzerland where, legend has it that, in making Europe, God forgot about creating Switzerland. When he remembered, almost all of the land was gone. God apologetically explained to the Swiss that what remained was mountainous and small, but it was surely the most beautiful land in Europe. And so it is, the rail traveler passing comfortably through it, soon discovers. Depending on one’s itinerary, there are soaring, snowy mountains; hillsides of grazing cows (said to have legs longer on one side than the other to keep them from tumbling down Swiss hillsides). There are forests of Norway spruce and fir, the vineyards, and deep green lakes.
The second-class Eurailpass that I purchased cost me 441 Euros (or $521 at today’s exchange rate). I thought that was expensive, but I opted to do it for convenience sake. And it was, indeed, convenient. Before taking my first rail trip, I had to validate my ticket at a Rail Information Office. After that, with my Eurailpass, I could board virtually any train I wanted in Germany or Switzerland in second class; write in the date of my travel and simply present the pass to the train’s conductor. Sometimes I was asked for my passport, too, but not too often.  I had no need to stand in line again in a busy station to buy a ticket.
As for the cost, it would have been much lower had I realized I would only be doing four days of travel. For that I could have purchased a four-day, non-consecutive Eurail Selectpass for adjoining Germany and Switzerland. That would have cost about $200 less. I would have found out about that four-day pass with a call for advice to a Rail Europe travel consultant at 800-438-7245.

Finding the Right Ticket
Rail Europe is the largest North American distributor of Eurailpasses and other non-Eurail products, such as tickets on many of Europe’s high-speed trains. It is also best source of information about buying Eurail tickets. Information is also available at or, for travel agents, at
But, I am just a traveler and not an agent. I would urge all travel agents to let their clients know how much easier it is to use an agent for their Eurailpass bookings than going it alone, as I did.
Although I would have done better with a Eurail Selectpass since my visit abroad was so short, I still saved money by not buying ticket counter tickets for each leg of my trip. As in the United States, ticket prices in Europe vary depending on the day of travel, time of travel and how far in advance a ticket is purchased. When I totaled up what I would have spent on last-minute ticket purchases for each leg of my journey, I was still ahead with my Eurailpass. Because I used so little of it, however, I hoped I might get a refund for the four days of travel which I did not use. I thought, perhaps, if I had purchased a Rail Protection Plan I might have gotten money back. But that insurance only helps in the case of the loss or theft of a ticket, when he traveler has to buy replacement tickets.
Although Rail Europe agents suggest reserving train seats at the same time one buys a pass, my itinerary was too uncertain to allow me to do that. Since my journey to Berlin from Geneva and my flight home were on a Sunday, I thought it wise to get a reservation. To my dismay, there were none left in second class the day before my journey, but the ticket seller at Cornavin Station in Geneva told me, for five Swiss Francs (about $5) he could sell me a reservation in first class. I protested that I wasn’t eligible . My ticket was for only second-class travel. But I shouldn’t worry, under the circumstances, the ticket seller said, consulting my Eurailpass. And so it was that I enjoyed the trip from Basel, Switzerland to Berlin in a first-class reserved compartment. There was food service at my seat, though I paid for it, and pleasant company. And all for just five francs! There’s a complicated reason why this was allowed with just a second-class Eurailpass, and it may not always happen. Two Rail Europe agents with whom I spoke said it was just that I had had good luck. Clearly, purchasing well-in-advance ticket reservations is the sensible way to go - particularly at peak travel times.
It was in 1959, two years after my first European rail journey, that Eurailpasses were inaugurated. There were then only 13 European countries in which they were valid. Today, there are 28 that are part of the Eurail Pass Global Plan for simplified travel. They are France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Ireland and Montenegro.
Though I could have done better on the rail pass purchase that I made this year, next spring when white asparagus - spargel - is the star attraction on the menus in Germany’s Black Forest, I expect I will want to return again. By then, there will be a new rail attraction in Germany, too. A high-speed train has begun whisking passengers between Berlin and the Bavarian capital of Munich in four rather than six hours. Most of its travelers, I suppose, will be Munich-bound - and surely later in the year at the time of Oktoberfest. But among the train stops will be Nuremberg. I have only seen it in a picture book of my childhood. In it, the toys that were made there then - waxen dolls and rocking horses, jumping jacks and wooden soldiers among them - left their store shelves one night and marched through the city’s streets. I don’t expect them to do that for me, but I’d like to see the city’s medieval walls and turreted houses (albeit restored after World War II), and the home of the Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer; And, of course, I’d like to admire the vistas en route from a plush seat on a speedy, new German train.

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