To Eurail through Europe or not … and why I’m so glad I did

Back when I was planning our trip to Europe this year, I was in two minds about how to do the German/Swiss side of the journey.

It was clear that a rental car for Iceland was pretty essential, but for the continental side I was tossing up renting a car or taking the train.

Both have pros and cons, and my husband was all for renting a car, because that’s what we did the last time we did the grand tour of all his relatives – but Mr5 was then MrFourMonths and taking a baby in a car is a lot easier than taking a five-year-old – as a baby, he slept most of the way. This time he was going to need entertaining (and I thought I would probably use up all my road trip resources and ideas in Iceland!). But of course, a car takes you exactly where you need to go and a train doesn’t. But I love trains. And so the squabble in my mind went on and on …

To Eurail through Europe or not ...

Eurail to the rescue

Fortunately fate intervened and Eurail offered us Eurail passes which would cover all the travel we needed to do in Germany and Switzerland (and up to two other countries, in fact). (So full disclosure, yes, we received complimentary Eurail passes, which was wonderful of course, but my thoughts on why taking the train totally ruled are all my own.)

Back when I was travelling a lot around Europe in my twenties, I never “did the Eurail through Europe thing” because I was usually travelling a bit at a time (often by train, admittedly) while I was based somewhere (in Slovakia or Germany) or I had my own car and was taking a road trip; on the longest backpacking stint it was all through the eastern bloc which at the time I’m pretty sure didn’t have any connection with Eurail. So it was kind of exciting to discover how it all works.

The ins and outs of Eurail passes

By this stage I already had a pretty good idea of our itinerary (which was set largely around which in-law lived where, plus stops in Berlin and Legoland and a departure from Zürich) so it was easy to figure out that a Select Pass was what I needed (valid for up to four bordering countries for a certain number of days’ travel within a certain time – in this case a month).

And then a few days later our physical Eurail passes arrived (which was kind of exciting, and I especially loved the big foldout map of the routes). They advised me to download the Eurail/Interrail Rail Planner app as well, which is mostly useful for looking up timetables and can be used offline as well, a feature which proved extremely handy.

From there, when we hit Berlin I had to activate the pass at a ticket office, and then go. On a travel day, I had to write in the date on a special spot in the pass, and on the train the conductor would put a stamp on it to show it had been used.

Eurail through Europe - Berlin Hauptbahnhof

On our Eurail through Europe journey – the magnificent Berlin Hauptbahnhof

Other important stuff I learnt on the go included the fact that you can use the pass for transport beyond the main trains but with various limitations at each destination. For example, in Berlin, the pass was valid on the S-Bahn but not on the U-Bahn. (Which was actually pretty annoying, since to get from Berlin Hauptbahnhof to our apartment was a journey of two stops on the S-Bahn then one stop on the U-Bahn.) The app explained most of these clearly in the extra pass info.

Our Eurail through Europe fun

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I absolutely loved travelling around Germany and Switzerland (and France, in fact!) by train. It’s fast, clean, convenient and much easier for entertaining a five-year-old than being on a road trip; and it was easy enough to make sure our accommodation was close to the train stations. Since I ended up replacing my lost backpack with another backpack rather than a suitcase, I felt twenty years old again, and loved it – it was the perfect way to travel in these circumstances. I thought I’d let you know some of our railway adventure highlights:

Day trip to Warnemünde

Warnemünde is a seaside village on the German coast north of Berlin, and it’s a place my husband used to go for holidays because his paternal grandmother lived there. That was back when it was East Germany and I’ve long heard tales of the rather interesting road trips his family took to get there from West Germany, such as the time his sister’s trashy novel was confiscated at the border under great stress and searching for worse.

We were able to use our Eurail pass to take a day trip to Warnemünde from Berlin, and although it was around a three-hour trip each way even my son managed to deal with the long day thanks to being on a comfy train. Nowadays Warnemünde is (if the numbers of people there on this day is anything to go by) a pretty popular seaside destination and although it felt kind of over-touristy, it was still sweet, and a fun place to go. As an Australian, and rather proud of our amazing beaches, I’m always overly critical of beaches elsewhere, but you couldn’t really complain. They also have a river and various cruises (the original was run by my husband’s family!) and lots of restaurants. Oh, and massive seagulls (compared to what we have here).

An ICE trip from Berlin to Heilbronn

The train trip my son still talks about the most was our day on the ICE (InterCity Express) from Berlin. It was the first high-speed train he’d ever been on and he was quite enamoured with it. I don’t blame him – it’s a really comfortable way to travel and I wish I could take a high-speed train from Australia to Europe instead of flying!

We spent five hours on the ICE before changing to a regional train for the last hour of the trip, but the time went so quickly. Obviously the presence of the on-board restaurant helps (my son recommends the pasta!) plus I did have a couple of leftover road trip activities to help pass time.

Eurail through Europe - my son draws the ICE train

One of numerous drawings of the high speed ICE train resulting from our German experience!

A stopover in Legoland near Günzburg

I have so much more to say about Legoland (coming soon) but hopping off the train at Günzburg in southern Germany so that we could spend a couple of days “playing” in Legoland Deutschland was, if I say so myself, a stroke of planning genius. Do it if you have a child under ten with you. No regrets, I promise!

Spending the day in France – an outing to Strasbourg

Before the trip I was contemplating where to head for a day trip from Basel. Since my in-laws had already figured out a day trip to Luzern, I decided that this one should head out of the country, just because we can (and because we can’t just go to another country for the day from Australia!). I’d been to Strasbourg for a long weekend a decade back and loved it, and everyone agreed it was a good choice – plus my son was super-excited to be able to say he’d been to France.

The train trip to Strasbourg was quick and painless – apart from the ticket-buying process for my poor in-laws. It was very curious at Basel station – there is a separate hall and platform area for the trains going to France and just one electronic ticket machine there – and if the three people ahead in the queue were any indication, it was an extremely complicated ticket machine. We made it in the end but I was glad for our Eurail pass again, so we didn’t have to deal with it ourselves!

And Strasbourg, of course, was utterly gorgeous. Its cathedral is magnificent and it was so fun to practice my very basic French for the day and teach my son a few new words.

My renewed love for European trains

I have to be honest – I can’t imagine hiring a car in mainland Europe again, now that I’ve had the chance to fall in love with the train system again. No sitting in traffic jams (oh, I did so much of that when I lived in Germany), no stressful navigating, and you end up right in the middle of a city, usually with a wide range of hotels a short walk away. What else can you want?

But what would you do? Do you prefer to use a rental car and have full control, or surrender some of that in exchange for the comfort of a train?

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