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  • Karin Zeitvogel

Cheap and (relatively) easy, or how I visited two cities in France with a Eurail pass

I wanted to say au revoir to friends in France before leaving for a new job in the U.S. but only had a day to plan the trip.


Buying tickets directly from the SNCF, the acronym for the French railways, the trip would have cost me around 200 euros. But I found a way to travel the breadth and nearly the length of France for around half that, using a Eurail one-country pass.


The pass is available as a mobile pass, which means that, even with very last-minute decision-making like mine, it's an option. I got a two-day pass for France for 104 euros. Young people -- aged 12-27 -- could have had a two-day pass for 4 euros less, and people between 27 and 60 for 13 euros more -- still cheaper than buying directly from the SNCF.


You can get a paper pass, if you are one who can plan ahead, but it requires that you set a start date for travel when you buy the pass, and doesn't offer a replacement pass if you lose the pass. The utility of a paper pass must be in case your phone dies. Buy a portable battery.


Since that trip, I've also traveled with a Eurail global pass, which allows you to take trains to and through 33 countries in Europe. I went to the U.K., France, Germany, and Spain, passing through Belgium on my way to London on one trip. The pass includes Eurostar trains to and from London through the Chunnel. Be sure to reserve a seat ahead of time on Eurostar. many British trains are also available if you have a Global Pass, and will save you money -- U.K. trains are EXPENSIVE.



On a train heading to London using my Eurail Global Pass, I'm pretty I saw a submarine.

 

I could also have gone to Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Montenegro, the Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey. They'll have to wait until my next big Eurail trip.


Things to know about Eurail passes
  • It's only for people who live outside of Europe. If you live in Europe, you have to get an Interrail pass. They're basically the same thing -- even share the same website. At the time of writing in March 2023, Eurail was having a sale, so it was cheaper than Interrail, but I'm told the opposite is usually the case. If you live in Europe on a U.S. passport but it doesn't have a resident's permit in it for a European country (SOFA people, this is you), you should probably get the Eurail pass, not Interrail. Conductors check the front of your passport (one of them complimented me on my passport photo...), and don't ask for an electric bill or something to prove which continent you live on.

  • Check your device settings before you buy to make sure you can use the mobile pass. The mobile pass works on Apple devices running iOS 13.0 and later and Android devices running 6.0 and later. You can buy it once you're in Europe. Paper passes, on the other hand, need time to get to you.

  • Your pass does not include seat reservations and it's advisable to book seats well ahead of time -- especially if you're traveling during holiday season in Europe. Or strike season. On one of my trips, I had to deal with both: wanted to leave England for France on Jan. 2, but could not get a seat on the Eurostar because 1. the French were heading back home after the Christmas and New Year hols; 2. French trains were on strike until Jan. 1, and British trains were going on strike on the 3rd. I ended up getting the ferry from Dover to Calais but even then, I had to talk my way onto the boat because they board foot passengers 90 minutes ahead of sailing time and I arrived at the ticket office about an hour ahead*. They also only take foot passengers on a few sailings. Then, in Calais, I had to find a train to Paris with a seat. There is a regional train which doesn't require a reserved seat but I was able to get the last seat on one of the TGVs.

  • To find trains that don't require a reservation, click on "No seat reservations" at the top of the Planner on the Eurail app. Then, activate that filter at the bottom of the page. To deactivate, do the same procedure in reverse, if you see what I mean.

*There was one other person trying to get on the ferry as a foot passenger -- a basketball player who plays on a French team and was going to be fined if he got back late for training. The guy at the ticket booth insisted that the shuttle had left and we had missed the boat, as it were. The basketball player knew that the shuttle was basically a passenger vehicle because he'd taken it on the way over, so getting it to come back was not a big deal. Anyway -- I asked the ticket seller if he could just call and ask if the shuttle driver would come back and pick up two passengers, and in the end, he said he would try but kept warning us to not be too disappointed when the driver refused to come back and get us. Well, he said yes, so the basketball player and I paid our money to the ticket man, got in the shuttle, which held maybe four people, drove the 200 meters to the boat, and got on the boat. Moral of the story is: always ask and suggest lines of attack. And know that, if there are no seats on trains for whatever reason, the ferry is an option. Costs the same (once you're at the dock in Dover) as the Eurostar seat reservation. Get there at least 90 minutes ahead of sailing time...


How to use the mobile pass


Eurail explains how to use the pass here, but, basically, you have to:

  • Download their app. It looks like this:

  • You'll have five categories at the bottom of the page when you have logged into the app. In Planner (the category with the clock) you enter your departure point, your destination, the date of travel, and the app will give you the possibilities.

  • Select the trip(s) you want, or might want, and add to My Trip.

  • When you're ready to travel, go into My Trip and activate the trip you want. You'll get a message about starting a new travel day. If you're sure you want to and are going to travel, click yes and the trip will be added to the My Pass category. I usually check that it's there before I board the train.

  • When the conductor comes around, open the app, go to My Pass and show the QR code.

  • Seat reservations have to be purchased separately and, in France, have to be shown before you board. You will get warnings about having to print them out but I've shown QR codes that I've saved on my phone and been allowed on trains, no problem. You can also buy a seat reservation in train stations but will probably have to go and see a human being to do so, and to find out what your options are. I've been successful once getting a seat reservation from a machine for a Eurail ticket.

TIP: Trains have limited numbers of Eurail and Interrail seats, so, again, it's advisable to book early. The other option is to take a regional train but that takes a lot longer and may cost you another day on your pass, which makes it not worth it. That said, the regional train from Avignon in France to Port Bou in Spain is highly recommended. It goes along the coast and offers spectacular views. Its only drawback is that there's no WiFi -- there usually is on the TGV or other high-speed trains.

 

One of the picturesque towns we passed through on the regional train from Narbonne in France to Port Bou, Spain.

Port Bou station, where I caught the train to Barcelona, was pretty quiet in January.

 

TIP: If a trip includes several train changes, I usually only validate the leg of the trip I'm on. That way, if you miss a connection, you don't have to delete the leg of the trip that you've missed before you find and add another train that's going a bit later. I also usually add several trips to My Trip and validate as I go. Trips can be validated at the last minute -- as the train pulls into the station, but you are supposed to validate before you board.

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