I would have liked to know what I was getting into beforehand. Before I was standing the entire time for a train ride, without any AC. There are definitely a couple of things to be aware of, well, to make it a pleasant journey.
This post originally appeared on Map Happy.
Riding with a Eurail pass is not just like riding on any train. I wish I had figured that out before I spent a solid three months running around Europe with it, though. Just make sure you're aware of these things when going along for the ride. (For a brief overview of the Eurail pass, check this post out.)
Reservations are especially important during the high season, which is from May to August, because trains fill up and there may not be a train without an open seat. During low season it's possible to get by without one. (It's also possible to reserve at the station right before boarding but those doing so run the risk of being turned away for a full train.)
Book that seat. Seriously. (Matteo Paciotti / Flickr)
There are often several ways to reserve a seat, though. The best way to do it is online or to pop into the train station a day ahead of time for the most part. For e-tickets, this can be done through Rail Europe or the country's own rail website. There's usually no need to print reservations out--despite what the website suggests--since I found pulling it up on my phone was often good enough to make it on (just make sure it has enough juice!)
Interestingly enough, reservations by phone for all countries are handled by Germany's Deutsche Bahn but they generally require time for shipping or will need to be picked up at a major train station. Eurail does also has its own reservation service that, with a complete itinerary, will book all your reservations at once. But the convenience isn't cheap. In addition to the seat fee, they tack on another €8 ($8.79 USD) per train ride. No thanks.
The Eurail app
Hi, bestie. (Placeit)
So if you haven't figured it out: All European trains are heated in the winter but not all have air conditioning. Most of the times opening a window is just fine. In that one instance, the windows were jammed. To avoid this hassle completely, just wait for the next train or switch up the route. (My trick was to try taking a train to a town nearby my destination and connecting from there.)
But OBVIOUSLY that's not an issue for trains that accept seat reservations. Just get one to guarantee that time will be spent more comfortably. See above.
Food on board
The majority of passengers bring food with them, so food is totally allowed. I always packed some snacks and water. Every train station I came across, with the exception of small towns, had food for purchase. Like with airports, it often cost more than it would to buy from a local shop but I found the variety to be surprisingly good. (This is Europe, after all.)
Overnighting on trains
Another option for spreading out more is finding an overnight train. A Eurail pass is good on these but they come with an added reservation cost. I'd say if the ride is going to take longer than seven hours, an overnight train is a good idea. Sure, it's more expensive but it also saves waking hours to visit a new city.
Generally, here are specific cities overnight trains run between and reservations are always required for any spot on these trains, whether it's a seat or cabin. Cabins are more expensive to reserve and vary from single occupancy up to six people. A train from Vienna to Hamburg, for instance, costs 9€ ($10 USD) to reserve a seat and 124€ ($139 USD) to reserve a single sleeper with a private bathroom. The cheaper accommodation usually books quickly.
Train crews will often collect Eurail pass, reservation and passport when boarding an overnighter. Don't freak out! I did at first but they need them for border crossings. (Also, don't switch around in these either because the train crew won't be able to find you and wake you up at the right stop.)
Greece takes some careful planning as well. The mainland trains have some disruptions, but at least there's the option to track popular routes online. Also consider geography: Popular islands like Santorini, Crete and Mykonos all require ferries which come discounted but aren't fully covered in the normal Greece pass. For total coverage on the ferries, a separate pass is needed. But the prolific history of Athens and Crete's natural beauty definitely made the full-price ferries I paid for worth it.
Leaving Greece on the ferry. (Laura Crowhurst / Flickr)
Eurail often warns travelers to plan ahead for train travel in France because it isn't always easy for Eurail pass holders to get reservations. The high-speed TGV trains require reservations. Intercité domestic trains highly recommend them, lest you get to exercise your legs standing the entire time. For trains with reserved seats, most only hold a certain number of seats for Eurail pass holders. It wasn't much of an issue for me because I was fine being flexible and was so when needed. The regional trains, called TER, are reservation-free and got me where I wanted to go (okay, a little more slowly) when the high-speed trains were booked up.
For train strikes, just suck it up. Everyone is dealing with the same issue and there's no way to anticipate this--unless you're reading the news--and even that wouldn't help much. It may interfere with travel plans but there are definitely worse places to be stuck.