Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2017
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Ticket to ride

Forget Ryanair! Dicscount airlines are no longer a match for the Eurail Pass. It's fun, flexible and gets you to your destination in less time

Much happened in 1959. As Castro and Khrushchev were in the headlines, manufacturers were making a slew of new products. Barbie dolls, Bic pens, Jiffy Pop: they all first hit the market a half-century ago. Yet, from the traveller’s perspective, no innovation was more alluring than the Eurail Pass.

Though merely a piece of paper, the newly-launched pass made crisscrossing Europe a do-able dream. Buying one quickly became a rite of passage for the college crowd. Holders, after all, had only to pay the equivalent of $130, then strap on a knapsack to access endless kilometres of track.

Fifty years on, the pass (like its first users) has grown up, deftly adapting to changing times. So it’s not nostalgia alone that accounts for its longevity. For instance, today’s pass — re-christened the Eurail Global — costs more and includes more. Priced from $815 for adults, it is valid in 21 countries rather than the original 13.

Recognizing we aren’t all solo backpackers with months to spare, Eurail now sells it in smaller increments too, starting with 15 consecutive days worth of unlimited first-class train trips, and offers 15-percent discounts for two or more people touring together.

Better still, it has created a Flexi version good for a certain number of days (say any 10 within a two-month period) instead of back-to-back ones; thereby letting those of us who prefer to smell the proverbial roses set our own pace.

For further flexibility, a whole array of related products have also been added to the Eurail roster. They range from One Country Passes starting as low as $78 to Regional Passes covering classic combos (such as Portugal-Spain or the Benelux nations) and Select Passes for up to five adjoining countries.

Needless to say, the passes’ built-in appeal is enhanced by the fact that train travel as a whole is currently making a comeback. The rail resurgence is driven in part by rising environmental awareness: trains are being touted as the greenest way to go, and riding them has become a point of honour for folks interested in reducing their carbon footprint. And frugal souls who are as concerned about their pocketbook as the planet are getting back on track as well.

A Fare Comparison

When Europe’s budget airline craze took off in the mid-’90s, it seemed inconceivable that trains could ever again compete cost-wise with planes. Back then the tickets quoted by leading carriers like Ryanair and easyJet were so cheap, only a severe aerophobe could afford to pass them up. That, however, is no longer a given. While the base price for intra-continental flights may still appear low, new add-ons add up fast.

Consider the one-way flight from Milan to Rome I recently found advertised on www.
ryanair.com for just €5.99. Although it began under $10 Canadian, the cost climbed to $46.25 by the time taxes and fees were factored in. Once charges for checking two bags and paying by credit card were added, the total rose to $122.85 — and that’s before ground transportation was tacked on. (It can be a significant sum since Ryanair typically operates from out-of-the-way airports: in this case, Milan Bergamo and Rome Ciampino, which are 45 and 15 kilometres outside their respective cities.) By contrast, you would shell out $121 for a second-class train seat and be deposited at a centrally-located station.

Make that same rail journey using a One Country Italy Pass and you shave off an extra $10 to $45. Happily for visitors who sightsee with la famiglia, the savings grow when you have children in tow. Whereas Ryanair charges a flat $33 before fees, regardless of route, for kids younger than two years and full fare for older ones, railways give greater latitude. Eurail allows children under four to go free and ones under 12 pay half. (FYI, passengers under 26 are entitled to reductions, too.)

For those who think time is money, the kicker is that for a short-haul trip like the one from Milan to Rome, both types of travel are of comparable length. Total time by air, including city bus transfers, is three hours and 25 minutes versus three hours and thirty minutes by train. Even on longer treks when flyers might have an advantage, riding the rails has unmistakable benefits. Trains trump planes in that the check-in procedure is relaxed (meaning you can forgo snaking security lines and carry liquids at your leisure — no Ziplocs needed!). Moreover, once on board you can savour the scenery and make otherwise ho-hum “transit time” an experience in itself.

On the Right Track

The trick to maximizing the passes’ potential is to pick the one that suits you best. For starters, think carefully about the number of travel days your itinerary requires. Non-consecutive Flexi Passes, in particular, let you explore a surprising amount of ground with a limited number because you can use them to link places where you intend to linger. (You can stretch them farther still by paying out-of-pocket for quick outings, saving your pass for long legs). No matter how many days you choose, one way to utilize them wisely is to focus on countries known for their extensive rail networks.

France and Switzerland are two notable examples: and since the 2008 debut of the TGV Est Européen line — which features high-speed Paris-to-Zurich service in comfy Christian Lacroix-designed carriages — pairing them has never been easier.

Want to hit the highlights? A $452 four-day Regional Pass, valid in both countries for a two-month period, will carry you (first class no less) from the City of Light to Switzerland’s “Capital of Cool,” eastward to lush Lugano on the Italian border, down to the Mediterranean city of Marseille by way of Geneva, and back to Paris.

Another strategy is to concentrate on places where having a pass is most convenient: namely Eastern Europe. Eurail products come in handy there as air connections can be spotty and even car rentals are untenable. My latest jaunt, zigzagging through Austria, Slovenia and Croatia, offers a case in point. Taking a rented vehicle from the first of those countries to the second and from the second to the third is prohibited. So as a driver, I would have had to repeatedly do that tedious drop-off/pick-up dance.

But with a first-class Regional Pass for the three in hand, I breezed across borders. Having bought it before leaving home, I bypassed local ticket booths as well (a definite bonus for someone who understands neither Slovene nor Croatian!); and the $310 price tag was as attractive as the scenery en route.

With four travels days to parcel out over two months, I dallied by the Danube in Vienna, enjoyed Alpine adventures in Salzburg, gorged on fabulous food in Ljubljana and Zagreb; then dipped my toe in the Adriatic before splitting from Split.

Of course, the real beauty of the Eurail scheme is that the choices are virtually limitless. For instance, upgrading from a France-Switzerland Pass to a Select one puts Italy in easy reach, especially now that a new 35-kilometre Swiss tunnel has cut travel time to that country by up to 75 minutes; and beyond Italy, Greece (which is accessible to pass holders by free ferry) beckons.

An Eastern European junket, meanwhile, can be rounded out with visits to Germany, Hungary and, as of this past January, the Czech Republic.

Deal or No Deal?

But there are places where a pass isn’t to your advantage. Though Eurail Passes save money on long hauls, point-to-point tickets tend to be cheaper for short hops. Rail Europe sells both and you can use its website to compare fares. Be sure to calculate any supplements that pass holders may be charged for perks such as reserved seats, sleepers or high-speed service.

Point-to-point tickets might also be a budget-conscious alternative to One Country Passes in smaller nations (think Ireland).

If you are over 25 and want to go second-class, Global and Select Passes won’t work: they are strictly first-class. But there is some wiggle room. Take the five-day Regional Pass, good for second-class trips in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. It covers the same turf as a four-country Select Pass yet costs $160 less.

Eurail Passes aren’t an option in England, Scotland and Wales because they don’t participate in the program. Anyone planning an extended rail journey through Great Britain should check out www.britrail.com instead. Passes there are priced from $257 for four days of consecutive travel.

Even some partner countries sell separate national passes. If you’ll spend the bulk of your time in Switzerland, click www.swisstravelsystem.com. Its passes include more scenic, high-mountain and private trains, plus post buses, most municipal transit and entry to over 400 museums. Three-day versions start at $265.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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