Putting the famous train ticket to the test, in four small countries.
The Eurail Pass has always seemed to me to be a convenient and economical way of travelling Europe by train. Available in first or second class, and for varying durations, I have purchased a number of them over the years and had some unforgettable trips. But are they really worth it? And would it be more, or less, expensive to buy “point-to-point” tickets? This northern summer I decided to put it to the test.
It being the year of the World Cup, I decided my annual European rail jaunt should have a footballing theme. It occurred to me that four of the smaller continental countries, namely Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, San Marino and Andorra also happened to be Europe’s worst-performing footballing nations. And I had not previously visited any of them. The perfect recipe then for a whistlestop tour.
So I purchased a five-day, first class pass for €468 ($730). A bargain it would seem, especially as I would be covering some considerable distances on my journey.
However, you quickly discover that the initial outlay for the pass is just the beginning. For the majority of long-distance rail journeys in Europe, especially travelling first class, seat reservations are mandatory. And they are not cheap. My seat on Eurostar from London to Paris, for example, cost an additional €38, while my Liechtenstein to San Marino leg set me back an extra €32.
Making the reservation is not as easy as it may appear either. My first attempt, through the Rail Europe agency, was comical. When the consultant asked me if Liechtenstein was in Germany, I knew we were not going to get very far.
In the end I referred to my “rail guru”, the brilliant Man in Seat 61, whose website recommended a UK agent. And a few emails later I had all my seat reservations and was ready to go. Mind you, it had set me back an additional €200!
There was one other potential problem to overcome. French rail workers are world champions when it comes to industrial action and, sure enough, the boys and girls of SNCF were involved in a pay dispute affecting “certain” services, which were not announced until the last minute. Ho hum.
I set off anyway and the first leg went like a dream. Eurostar to Paris, a connection to Metz-Ville and another straight through to Luxembourg. Beautiful fast trains, glorious scenery and not a striking French rail worker in sight.
Luxembourg is a beautiful country (population 590,000, football team poor). And Luxembourg City is a revelation. Much of the capital is located in a picturesque valley, surrounded by forests. The fortified medieval old town is perched on sheer cliffs, one of which houses the famous Casemates du Bock, an ancient system of caves and passageways. Despite the best attempts of various invading forces over the centuries, 17km of the tunnel complex remains intact and is fascinating to explore.
Next stop Liechtenstein, one of only two countries in the world that happen to be double landlocked (the other being Uzbekistan. Note that for your next quiz night). My journey took me back to Metz then on to Strasbourg and Zurich, before ending up in the Swiss border town of Sargans.
I decided to overnight in Sargans as there is no rail connection with Liechtenstein’s capital, Vaduz. It’s only a 30-minute bus journey though, and I spent the following day travelling through this tiny country of just 160sqkm (population 38,000, football team woeful).
There is not much to see in Vaduz, bar an impressive castle on a hill, a covered bridge not dissimilar to those found in Madison County, and a couple of tiny museums dedicated to postage stamps and skis. I had set my sights on the interesting-sounding Calculator and Typewriter Museum in the neighbouring village of Schaan. Lured by the prospect of seeing the “world’s smallest calculator” and a “genuine nazi WWII Enigma machine”, imagine my disappointment on finding the museum “Closed until further notice”, the curator having died a year ago.
Never mind, back to Sargans and another early start the following day for a sublime 10-hour journey across Austria to the Adriatic coastal town of Rimini. There was even time for lunch in Innsbruck — a junior oompah band serenading me as I devoured a huge bratwurst in an outdoor cafe.
Rimini was my base for exploring San Marino. Again no rail connection. But now we are talking seriously small. Among the world’s oldest republics, San Marino has a population of just 33,000 and a truly awful football team. The capital, also called San Marino, is a gem of a place; a medieval walled old town with narrow cobbled streets, sitting impressively atop Monte Titano. I joined the throng of tourists wandering between three old towers, each with spectacular views, before bussing it back to Rimini in time to watch England demolish Panama 6-1. San Marino might even have given the Panamanians a run for their money.
The next trip was the Big One. Thirteen hours covering 1300km across Italy and France to Barcelona. In fact, I had long since calculated I couldn’t actually do it from Rimini in one day, so I booked an Airbnb for a night in nearby Bologna and set off at 7am the next day. I was tense entering France again as there had been more warnings about strike action. In the event, all four trains ran perfectly to time and I was almost ecstatic as we pulled into Barcelona Sants station at just after 8pm.
It’s a three-hour bus journey from Barcelona to Andorra and I confess to sleeping most of the way. The tiny principality (population 79,000, football team rubbish) is a tax haven. In fact, despite its pretty setting in the Pyrenees, its capital, Andorra la Vella, seemed little more to me than one big duty-free store. No wonder the country ranks in the world’s Top 10 for alcohol consumption. I didn’t stay long. To be honest, an evening in Barcelona seemed a much better proposition.
And so my final day beckoned and I awoke in the Barcelona Sants Hotel feeling positively ecstatic. Ahead of me a marvellous 61/2 hour first class journey to Paris, then Eurostar back to London. What could go wrong now?
“Your train is cancelled, senor. The French are on strike. We can get you on the 4.20pm to Paris this afternoon, but not before.” The Spanish official was apologetic but not in the slightest bit surprised. “They do it every year, senor.”
And so it came to pass that I missed my Eurostar connection and, with not a single seat available the following day, I had no option but to head for Charles de Gaulle Airport — tail firmly between my legs — and sit through the night, waiting for the 7am Easyjet flight to Gatwick Airport. Hardly the conclusion I had expected or hoped for to an otherwise wonderful week of Eurail travel.
For the record, at the end of the journey I did the sums. Discounting the money lost on the (non-refundable) Eurail ticket and the airfare back to London, I spent €670 ( $1050) on my Eurail Pass and reservations. Had I bought all the tickets individually it would have cost me €1170 ( $1830). Quite a saving, though to be fair not many people would be mad enough to attempt such massive journeys.
Verdict: the Eurail Pass can be great value if you plan your trip well and intend making some long journeys. But do your homework first.
Compare individual ticket prices and also check on what the French rail workers are up to, especially in the summer months.
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It’s a gorgeous vision; one that is lodged in the memory and resurfaces from time to time, when I’m daydreaming about those heady, optimistic days of overseas travel.