For many privileged South Africans, the words “Eurail Pass” bring back memories of epic backpack journeys through Europe during university years abroad.
The famed “youth” Eurail passes are still one of the Netherlands-based Eurail Group’s landmark products, but this company that works with some 30 European railways and shipping lines sells nearly 850 different types of passes, covering 25 European countries and offering passes that work for a wide range of time periods. Using one of these passes is arguably the most flexible and economical ways to get around Europe, even if you’re just visiting one or a few countries. And for gay travelers, it’s worth noting that these passes are perfect for planning a trip to two or more of Europe’s main GLBT capitals – Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, and Prague among them.
Eurail passes, which have been around since 1959, are available to non-Europeans, including residents of the U.S., Canada, Australia, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, China, Japan, South Africa, New Zealand, India, and so on.
There are four basic types of pass: Global (covers 21 countries, from 10 days to 3 months), Select (covers a set of three to five adjoining countries, from 5 to 10 days over 2 months), Regional (covers a variety of related regions, such as Benelux-France or Croatia/Slovenia-Hungary, from 3 to 10 days in 2 months), and One Country (you pick the country, the passes are available from 3 to 10 days in 2 months).
Prices for passes vary according to which type and duration of pass you choose. Additionally, the Youth passes (for travelers age 25 and under, for second-class travel) are least expensive. Adult passes (good for first-class travel) cost the most, but groups of two or more can save money with Save passes (also food for first-class travel). Here’s a helpful overview of the types and prices of passes.
Basically, if you’re planning to use a train more than a few times in any of the countries covered by Eurail (the notable exception is the United Kingdom), some type of Eurail pass makes very good sense. The more ground you’re attempting to cover by train, the more effective the pass is. One advantage to train travel over plane travel in Europe is that stations are very often located in the centers of major cities, within walking distance (or short cab or metro rides) to hotels, attractions, and – in many cases – gay-popular neighborhoods. Also, many rail systems covered by Eurail passes have direct train service from major airports into city centers, so if you’re flying to and from Europe, you can use your pass immediately to get to where you’re going from the airport.
As a practical example, if you’re planning a trip that covers a few key cities in contiguous countries – for example, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels, Cologne, Hamburg, Munich, and Berlin – you might purchase a regional Benelux-Germany pass, good for any 10 days of travel in 2 months (as off 2011, the price is $635 for first-class, $479 for second-class, $385 youth). Keep in mind that reservations are required for some types of train service (notable high-speed and overnight trains), and supplemental fees are sometimes charged for these trips.
If you’re planning to visit more than a few countries over, for example, a month, you could – again using 2011 prices – buy a Global Pass for R8 000 adult (first class). These are good for unlimited train travel over that period, so the more you use it, the more you save. These global passes are available for as little as 15 days and as long as three months, but you can also buy “10 days within 2 months” and “15 days within 2 months” passes, which make more sense if you’re visiting fewer destinations over longer periods.
The variety of passes is really quite staggering, and you can purchase them online, using any major credit card. Passes can be delivered anywhere in the world, and are sent via registered mail.