Our intent in the spring of 2016 was to do most of our traveling in Europe by train so we purchased a Eurail pass before we left the States. There are several kinds of Eurail passes. The one we got allowed us to travel any five days within a two-month period in the four countries we selected: Italy, Austria, Germany and France. We could travel for 24 hours on those days if we wished, but unless we started after seven in the evening an overnight trip would count for two days. The first-class pass cost about $800.00 for the two of us. First class was the only pass the man we dealt with handled. Some of the trains we were on did not have first class compartments. In my experience the distinction between first and second classes on European trains is not as significant as between first class and coach on an airplane.
I don’t know if it would have been cheaper had we bought tickets as we went but it sure would have been more of a hassle. There were some additional costs as I describe below.
In theory all rail and most bus routes are covered but it did not work exactly that way for us. Our first train trip was from Sorrento to Florence via Naples. We arrived at the Sorrento train station around seven that morning and showed the station attendant the Eurail pass. He grumbled and shook his head. He placed two tickets on the counter and asked for 7.20 Euros. We paid, of course. On all other trains described below, the Eurail pass was accepted.
The train from Naples to Florence was very pleasant, roomy seats with a table between us. Drinks were served at our seats, toilets were clean and close, and a restaurant was only a few cars away. The tracks were smooth enough I could comfortably write at the table, the countryside always interesting. People in business suits got on and got off. Some took out their computers and worked as they traveled. This general scenario was true on all of the longer trains we took.
Our second travel day, a week later, took us from Florence through La Spezia to Vernazza in the Cinque Terra. A few days after that we took our longest train journey. We were going from Vernazza to Lofer, a small town in Austria an hour or so out of Salzburg. This involved five different trains followed by a bus ride. We went from Vernazza back to La Spezia. Then La Spezia to Parma. (Where we met a couple of kids from Austin who had just visited a Parmesan cheese factory.) Then from Parma to Bologna (Unfortunately, we met no one who claimed to have visited a bologna factory.) Then from Bologna to Innsbruck and from Innsbruck to Salzburg where we caught the last bus out of town that delivered us to Lofer late in the evening. The bus driver was enjoying his first day of work. He was a retired baker who had grown tired of baking and tired of being retired. He would not accept the Eurail pass but was happy to take our Euros.
A week after that we were on the bus back to Salzburg. From there we were scheduled to take the train to Munich and another from Munich to Leipzig. We had fifteen minutes to make the connection in Munich. Our train was delayed and arrived one minute after the train to Leipzig had left. We ended up on a different train that required a change in Fulda. The train to Fulda arrived late as well but the one to Leipzig waited as a large group of us ran down the platform dragging our luggage. Our conductor must have called ahead.
A few days later we had tickets from Leipzig to Berlin (we had purchased these tickets separately) but got on in Wittenburg, Martin Luther’s home town, and then changed in Berlin to a commuter train that took us to Eberswalde where Nina’s sister and her husband live.
Our last trip on the Eurail pass took us from Eberswalde to Paris via Berlin and Mannheim. The conductor on the commuter train from Eberswalde honored the Eurail pass. Except for the Sorrento commuter train the Eurail pass was accepted on all the trains, but you have to do it correctly. Everything for that day’s trip needs to be filled in before you get on the train, or the fine is 100 Euros. This was explained to me by a conductor who gave us a break when he noticed that we had forgotten to fill in one of the dates. (Gray hair can be helpful at times.)
The trains, of course, are very fast. On the one from Mannheim to Paris our travel speed was displayed on a monitor visible from our seats. The fastest speed we noticed was 317 km/h, or about two hundred miles per hour. Usually it was moving just under three hundred km/h.
The larger stations, especially in places like Munich, Leipzig and Berlin are amazing and intimidating if you don’t know what you are doing. The central station in Berlin seems to have four different levels with multiple tracks on each level. On some the tracks run east and west, on others north and south. The levels are connected by escalators and stairs. Arrival and departure screens found on each level, and others on each platform, are constantly updating. On at least two of the levels there are mall-like rows of stores with markets, restaurants, coffee shops, etc. I had bacon and eggs at the McDonald’s in Berlin on our way to Paris.
While standing in one spot in the Munich central station I saw the following signs advertising food: Rubenbauer, Brioche, Doree, Pizza, Panini, Sushiwrap, Sandwich, Fruit Bar, Starbucks, Dorner, McDonald’s and Burger King.
All of this would have been very complicated had we not met an angel in Frankfurt and had Nina not been her usual organized self and fluent in German. We flew from Arcata to San Francisco and from San Francisco to Frankfurt on a Monday. When we arrived in Frankfurt it was now mid-afternoon Tuesday. We were bleary-eyed and ready to crash but Nina said we had things to do. Our flights the next morning were on Lufthansa first to Munich and from there to Naples. We had reservations but no seat assignments. Nina found the Lufthansa service center, got our seat assignments and then took off for the rail station which is also located at the airport. We had to activate our Eurail pass, she said, and it would be much easier in a German speaking country than in Italy.
We got in a line at the customer service center and made our way to a young woman seated before a computer screen. She wore black-rimmed glasses and a Deutsche Bahn uniform and she smiled as if she had been waiting all day for us to show up. First, she activated our Eurail pass which established the two months during which we could use it. Then Nina described where we wanted to go and what days we wanted to travel. On her computer the woman checked all of the relevant train schedules in Italy, Austria, Germany and France. In a mixture of German and English we discussed options and alternatives and eventually she reserved passage for us on each of the trains with all of the connections I have described above. She generated printouts for each trip with travel dates, departure times, each train’s number and the track it was scheduled to leave on. It took her well over an hour to accomplish this task and she was never hurried, never flustered or frustrated. The total reservations cost us about sixty Euros and the tickets we purchased for the trip from Leipzig to Berlin were about the same.
We were so impressed we invited her to come along. “Come, take care of us,” we pleaded. She declined, saying her boss would not approve. It turned out she had been born in Offenbach not far from Frankfurt. She had never been to Italy, though she had been to Berlin once in her life, and once to Paris.