Features & Images » Travel

Rail Journeys

See Europe's nooks and crannies and majestic cities via Eurail pass

by and


Budapest just one of many places to visit by rail

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Okay, here's the first thing you should know about buying a Eurail Global Pass: even though it's good in 23 countries across Europe, the continent has more than 23 countries. If you foolishly plot a journey from point A to point B through one of these non-Eurail Pass lands, as happened to me, you'll pay extra for the portion of your journey that goes through it — Slovakia, for example. You may, however, decide it's worthwhile.

The Eurail Pass began in 1959 when a handful of European nations wanted to fill empty first-class seats during the slow summer months. Europe was still recovering from the Second World War, but North Americans had money, so it was pitched to them: buy one ticket, see everything.

Now there are four passes, covering travel in just one country or as many as 23, and for varying amounts of time. My Global Pass, for example, is good for any 10 days within two months of the first time I use it (prices from $765).

It's not quite a one-price-covers-all-costs ticket anymore, though. Besides the extra charge if your route crosses one of the few non-Eurail lands (the only big one is the United Kingdom), you also pay a premium to use any of the elite, high-speed European trains — France's TGV and Germany's Thalys, for example — for which reservations are required. Overnight trains with sleepers cost more, too.

Where you really get your money's worth with a Eurail Pass is on regional trains. No supplement is required and you can simply hop on and off at will. These slower services also let you see a lot more of the countryside.

Which is how it comes to pass that, at 3:45 in the morning, I'm looking out on the orange-sodium-lit rail yards in Bratislava, the Slovakian capital, where our overnight train from Prague to Budapest has paused to shunt cars. This activity has woken me from a sound sleep and for a moment I wonder if it would have been smarter to have taken a couple of day trains and gone via Vienna instead. I'd have slept in a hotel and saved the cost of the ticket supplement, since going from Prague to Budapest by way of Austria would have avoided Slovakia. But the supplement price wasn't great, this was the only night train, and I really wanted to take a night train through Eastern Europe.

The Bratislava rail yards at night, silent but for us, are oddly compelling: it's like waking up in a scene from a Cold War–era espionage film. I keep straining to see someone wearing a fedora and a trench coat, standing between the tracks, casting a long shadow under the eerie orange lights and waiting for...what? I don't, of course, but the entire experience — the dead-of-night rail yards and creaking, warm, well-worn train, its narrow corridors and cramped compartments filled by an exotic assortment of families, strangers and perhaps spies — is something I'm glad not to have missed, even if I've inadvertently strayed off the Eurail map.