If you don’t think you’ll ever need this advice, feel free to ignore this post. But after our terrible experience with Eurail, I feel like I should post this story online because it will probably be useful to somebody else.
Rob used a Eurail pass when he was studying abroad in Lyon, France a few years ago. We wanted to figure out how much it would cost to buy individual bus or train or plane tickets so that we could compare the costs, but we didn’t know exactly where we were going and also we rarely had the internet. We bought the passes because we didn’t have the means to do a lot of internet research and carefullly plan each trip. Rob’s experience was that most of the time, you could just go to the train station and get on any train. With certain trains he had to make a reservation, so he went to the station the day before he was traveling to make it.
There are a bunch of different passes you can get, but they are mostly the same concept. We bought 5-day France-Spain regional passes. That means that for five different days within a two month period, we could use the pass on any train in Spain or France.
The first minor obstacle we encountered was that you have to get the pass shipped by mail, which can take up to a week. And they ship it signature required, so you, or someone who can sign for you, need to actually be at the address you use. And, it you’re already in Europe, you’ll be hit with a heavy shipping charge – ours was 20 euros.
It mentions on the website that for certain trains, you have to make a reservation for a “nominal fee.” This didn’t seem like too big of a deal. The nominal fees, however, add up. Most international, overnight, and high-speed trains require reservations. And sometimes these trains are the only way to get from one place to another. To get from Granada to Toulon, we would have had to take at least four different trains, at least three of which required reservations. Each of these reservations costed at least six euros and sometimes more. Part of the reason that the Eurail pass seemed like a good bet was that I was planning to cross the border three times, and buses and trains that cross the border are significantly more expensive than those that don’t. I’m not sure how many reservations I would have had to make for those trips or how much they would have cost, but if I had had to make three reservations each time and each had cost six euros, I would have spent 54 euros just on reservation fees.
However, Eurail pass already in hand, I would have been willing to pay reservation fees – but making reservations, at least in Spain, is much, much harder than it should be. You cannot make reservations through Eurail. In most of Europe, you can make reservations at the train station. However, in Spain, you can only make reservations for trips that both start and end in Spain. The very reason we had to make reservations for one of those trains was that it crossed the border, but because it crossed the border, we couldn’t. This rule is mentioned on the Eurail website, but we hadn’t looked – I assumed that if you had to make reservations for a certain train, if it wasn’t easy, it would at least be possible.
The Eurail website recommends two other ways of making reservations – through a German call center and through an online travel agent. However, both of these options involve shipping you a ticket once you make the reservation before you can travel. (Remind me what century this is again?) Of course we didn’t have time to wait for a ticket to come in the mail. The whole point of a Eurail pass is that you can make your decisions on short notice. Oh yeah – and if you do have time, keep in mind that both the call center and the travel agents will charge a shipping fee, and the travel agents will charge a booking fee.
So, we found ourselves with few options. We could get on the train to Barcelona and then, once we got to the Barcelona station, hope for the best. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that we already had ferry tickets from Toulon, France to Corsica, and if we missed the ferry we’d have to buy a much more expensive replacement ticket. Or we could get an 85% refund on our rather pricy Eurail passes. Not including that 20 euro shipping fee, of course. Rob (who was an economics major) did some math on sunk costs and unsunk costs, and though it’s all approximate because we don’t know exactly what we’re doing next, we figured out that it wouldn’t be too much more expensive to forfeit that 15% and take a bus to France. And that’s what we did.
Lesson learned. Buses are usually cheaper anyway, and if you’re going far, sometimes there are miraculously cheap flights. The Eurail pass promises freedom to change your mind, but don’t believe it.