The Eurail Pass Ain’t What it Used to Be

After a summer of radio silence, including a trip to Spain and France, I’m back to the blog. Today’s is intended as advice to travelers in Europe.

Years ago, travelers bought a Eurail pass for a certain number of days and countries and then hopped on and off trains at will. I was in Japan two years ago, and Japan Rail Passes still work like that. You have a certificate that you show at the one manually controlled gate on every train platform and then take any seat available on your preferred train. It is also possible to reserve seats at Japan National Railway ticket offices, a privilege that is free.  The trains have enough empty seats at most times of the year that reservations generally aren’t necessary.

The new Eurail pass is much more strictly controlled and precisely defined, a reflection of both the contemporary economic and security contexts. Passes are defined as a certain number of days of travel in a certain set of countries over a given time period. The pass alone does not provide the right to travel; rather you must reserve a seat on a specific train and pay an additional fee. The additional fee for an 8 hour trip from Barcelona to Paris in first class is $80 US.

A rail pass is thus a kind of option. Once you purchase it, you then have the right to buy a certain number of trips at reduced prices. European trains operate much closer to capacity than Japanese trains, so reserving seats is an economic necessity. Thus a train from Malaga to Barcelona in late August was almost completely full with people returning from their beach holidays.

Rail terminal security in Europe is now comparable to airport security. To access a platform, you and your luggage must be x-rayed and your ticket checked. Platforms are accessible only before a train is scheduled to leave. When your train has arrived at its destination, you must leave the secure area; you cannot go directly to another platform without going through security once more. The necessity of leaving and re-entering the secure area makes transferring slower than in the past, when it was possible to go directly from one track to another. But, clearly, there is a good reason for these strictures.

My son and I had a great time traveling by train from Madrid to Cordobla, Granada, Barcelona, and Paris, as well as taking daytrips from Madrid to Toledo and El Escorial, and from Cordoba to Seville. But this was all done with a plan and with careful attention to the Eurail Pass rules. Bon voyage!

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