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Slow Down to Make the Most of a Eurail Pass

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A slow train through the vineyards. Photo © hidden europe magazine
A slow train through the vineyards. Photo © hidden europe magazine

“I really had to cover a lot of miles to make sure I got good value from my Eurail pass.” We’ve heard comments like that often, and you surely have, too. It is a refrain uttered by folk as they return home from a manic dash around Europe, sometimes even covering seven capitals in as many days.

Slow down

Speed is not compulsory. Eurail is great for travelers keen to cover a lot of ground, but it may not always be the cheapest option. For example, if you book well in advance, stick to main routes and commit to a fixed itinerary, then the aggregate cost of a sequence of point-to-point tickets bought direct from the various European rail operators may, for many itineraries, undercut the cost of a rail pass.

Stopping off on a whim. Photo © hidden europe magazine

Dynamic pricing (often dubbed “market pricing”) means that for long hops between major cities in Europe there are nowadays some super deals available on point-to-point tickets. Shift to lesser routes, frequented by slower trains, and you may find little or nothing by way of discounts on international journeys.

Our view is that these slower trains are often a far better way of seeing Europe than the high-speed services. You’ll meet locals along the way, rather than just other tourists following similar itineraries to yourself.

Fast can be cheap

But expect to pay more for a journey with local trains than you might on the parallel high-speed services. Book in advance to ride a fast TGV from Paris to Marseille, and you can pick up a one-way ticket for less than €50 — if you are lucky and can travel off-peak perhaps even for just €20.

But if you take the slower TER trains from Paris to the Mediterranean, there is just the Tarif Normal. And that is more than €100 one-way. No discounts for pre-booking. No discounts…. full stop.

Best use of Eurail

Has slow travel thus become a privilege of the rich? Well, not quite, because a day on slower trains can be a very wise use of a Eurail or InterRail pass. And that applies equally to the global and flexi variants of both passes.

Budget-conscious holders of flexi-passes now appreciate that pass days are better reserved for journeys on slower trains where you want to preserve total flexibility. If you know you need to make a fast hop on a high-speed train (where you might in any case need to make a seat reservation and pay a supplement with a rail pass), then perhaps that’s the day to plan ahead and book a discounted point-to-point ticket on the Web site of the relevant rail operator.

So how slow is slow? Well, it’ll still be a lot faster than even the fast trains of yesteryear. European train services have so improved over the last 30 years that devotees of slower trains will still be making faster progress than those of our parents’ generation who clanked across Europe on what were, back in the 1970s and 1980s, acclaimed premium high-speed services.

Stop off and explore

The beauty of slow trains is that you don’t need to book. If a spot takes your fancy, just hop off and explore — then continue with the next train. On many routes, slow trains run hourly.

We have made long international journeys like this. True, it took us 12 hours to get from Switzerland to Spain. With premium fast trains we might have trimmed three or four hours off that. But we had that ineffable pleasure of trundling through vineyards, watching birds on lonely marshlands and stopping at little rural railway stations. The journey became an event in itself.

Eurail is a marvelous product, and that goes equally for its sister InterRail which is geared to European residents. Both families of rail passes can offer great value for money. But, contrary to what you might assume, it is the devotees of slower trains and more rural itineraries who get the most handsome return on their investment in a rail pass. If speed is more your style, and if all you aim to do is hit the big cities, then think carefully before buying a pass.

Taking slower trains which don’t require supplements or advance reservation is much more fun and preserves what is, after all, the prime benefit of a rail pass: its total flexibility.

You can read more about rail passes in two other articles published this week by the team from hidden europe. The full text of an article on InterRail, published on 16 July in hidden europe magazine, is available online. And another article on the hidden europe website, published on 17 July, questions some of the mythology that has developed around rail passes.

About the author

hiddeneurope

About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

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5 Responses to “Slow Down to Make the Most of a Eurail Pass”

Hi Nicky and Susanne,

Thanks for an excellent post about the benefits of opting for slower trains, in this case when using a Eurail pass. I’m sold!

A quick question on logistics and planning: How would one begin to research these slower routes?

If, for example, I wanted to get from Paris to Avignon, I know how to research the fast TGV trains (and book them) on the SNCF website (http://www.voyages-sncf.com/). However, I don’t see any slower train options here.

I checked out the Intercite trains (http://www.intercites.sncf.com), but I can’t quite figure out how to get between Paris and Avignon. I think I must have to break up the voyage into smaller journeys — but it’s not clear to me how to do this.

Do you have any suggestions for ways to research these slower trains? Can I do this in advance or do I just wait until I get to the train station?

Many thanks!
Tom

Great question. Printed train timetables still have a real role in facilitating slower travel around Europe. The great majority of online booking systems simply don’t list more than a tiny subset of European rail services. So it’s good to get hold of an up-to-date copy of the latest Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable before leaving home. (Even an out-of-date copy will show the basic pattern of service, even though details may have changed).

The online HAFAS timetable system is a good way of identifying slow trains. That’s the timetable database which underpins http://www.bahn.de. For western and central Europe it is pretty good, though even there you’ll stumble on routes that are entirely missing.

To use HAFAS to find slower train connections, go to the HAFAS query home page on http://reiseauskunft.bahn.de/bin/query.exe. Enter your ‘start’ and ‘ziel’ and – most important – do the following two things:

1. Under “Verkehrsmittel” click on the “Nur Nahverkehr” button.
2. Untick the box that says “schnelle Verbindungen bevorzugen”.

The connections that then come up will be the slower non-premium trains – viz. the ones that we think are ideal for pass holders keen to really see more of rural Europe.

So, Tom, yes you can research these trains in advance. You cite a possible Paris to Avignon routing. You can do that very easily by slower trains, with just one change of train in Lyon. The journey south-east from Paris to Dijon, following the classic PLM line is very fine indeed. And then you trundle past vineyards aplenty. We describe the whole journey, Paris to Avignon, as Route One in our Europe by Rail book.

The beauty of such ‘slow’ itineraries is that they do not need to be booked in advance. No supplements, no reservations. So truly a chance to roam on a whim.
Hope this helps.
Nicky and Susanne
editors of hidden europe magazine
http://www.hiddeneurope.co.uk
editors of Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide
http://www.europebyrail.eu

Hi Nicky and Susanne,

Many thanks for your helpful response. I have just followed your directions and see the Paris – Lyon – Avignon trip. It sounds delightful, and a nice break from the speedy TGV route that I’m familiar with.

I’ll definitely be checking this out (and packing your book) before my next trip to France.

All the best,
Tom

g.ferguson says:

Yep, I can buy into this idea. Slow is definitely better. You see more and get away from the crowds. But booking systems push us all to the main routes. Looking at the Loco2 and RailDude booking masks, I think that less than one per cent of all European railway stations are even listed – and certainly way less than one train in a thousand features in their database. These systems are very, very selective. The big challenge is to persuade travelers that they really do not need to book everything in advance. That’s the beauty of the slow train approach described so well in this article by hidden europe.

Thomas Sch. says:

Hi Susanne and Nicky,

I just read your article and really like it.

It is finally always the human who decides. If a human is to lazy and only use (booking) machines, of course not always the best results appears like “g.ferguson” mentions above. A machine will never be able to replace a human thinking. That’s why traveling the slow way is so interesting, without Internet and all this modern stuff.

Projects made by real travelers (not machines or commercial marketing humans) are good to find slow ways to travel – but read them carefully, what maybe “g.ferguson” missed. At Raildude there are a lot of connections listed seems to be made by the travelers directly, not by machines. My preferred route is for example the one crossing the Alps the indirect (made by these Raildudes) way and not the direct way (given by booking machines). The indirect is extremely scenic and if traveling with an Eurail pass even free to use (compared to the direct one): http://www.raildude.com/en/train-connections-city/zurich-milan/switzerland-italy/524
Open you eyes. Don’t be lazy. And only use machines as final step. Then slow traveling will be a success.
Thomas

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