PARIS — I'd just battled an Italian train conductor over a modest procedural omission regarding my Eurail pass, and now, for grisly reasons unrelated to the altercation, her fast train to Milan had become a slow train to Milan.
I wasn't going to make my connection in Milan for Ventimiglia, Italy, and Nice, France, which meant if I got to France at all on this 11th day of my Eurail adventure, I probably would have to settle — in France — for a late vending-machine dinner of a Kit Kat bar.
I was not happy. I was tired of this. I wanted off trains. No more worries about irascible conductors or lifting my one bag onto another luggage rack.
I wanted three untimetabled days in Paris, like what normal adults do.
Until now, I loved trains. I mean, that's why I'd attempted this thing.
* * *
There's more to that conductor story, of course, including the fact that the poor woman who so angered me was absolutely right. Details later.
But first: 30 years and 40 pounds ago, I'd bopped around Europe on a Eurail pass for two weeks, all of it (as I remember it now) glorious.
The purpose of this trip, then, was for a lover of trains (me) to revisit Eurail and, three decades later, judge its worthiness as a travel experience. And there was something a little more personal: to see if years of soft travel — cruises and all-inclusives, hotel rooms with minibars — plus age-related realities had made bopping something better left to the backpacker generation.
But first: Is Eurail still a bargain?
In 1983, an adult pass good for unlimited first-class rail travel for 15 days cost $260; a two-month pass was $560. A good deal.
Pricing and categories are more complicated now, but a 15-day Eurail Global Pass, the equivalent of the classic pass from 30 years ago, runs $799. A good deal in today's dollars?
My original itinerary, which I junked (more on that later too), began in Berlin and was to include stops in Leipzig and Dresden in Germany, Prague and Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, Verona in Italy, Regensburg back in Germany, then Nice, Marseille, Avignon and Paris in France.
Skip Eurail and buy the right mix of single tickets and regional passes (Germany Rail Pass, etc.) while staying in first class, and that $799 plummets all the way to … $791.
But dropping to second class, on some trains an almost indistinguishable drop, cuts that to $347. That's a bargain.
(You, too, can do the same comparison using a number of programs on the Web. Eurail Group, eurailgroup.org, owned by the rail companies, can link you to those sites.)
So if Eurail isn't necessarily cheaper, what's the point?
In first class, you can reserve seats (on some trains it's mandatory, and there's a small surcharge), which can be critical at peak times and seasons.
But the main thing is flexibility. I'd planned a stop in Regensburg, which, as a UNESCO World Heritage site, looked promising. Instead, while in Cesky Krumlov, another UNESCO site, I decided to go to Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia.
Why? Because I'd never been to Slovenia, that's why.
(Ljubljana, by the way, turned out to be a knockout.)
Could I have done that without the pass? Sure. But having that prepaid pass in your possession just screams, "Consider the possibilities!"
OK, what was the beef with the conductor?
Eurail has a few rules. Here are the main ones: 1. You buy it in the U.S., not in Europe. 2. Before you get on the first train, the pass must be activated. A clerk at any station ticket window in Europe can do it. Easy. 3. If your pass has limits on the number of travel days (mine, a variation of the basic pass, allowed 15 travel days over two months), you're required — before you get on each day's first train — to write that day's date in a space on the pass. That's to keep you from taking more travel days than you paid for.
In Verona, running a little late, I got on the train, intending to fill in the date after I found a seat. The conductor found me before I sat down and asked to see my ticket; she saw no date marked on the pass and wanted to charge me $58 for my ticket and maybe fine me as well. (It was resolved by another Italian conductor whose better English included the following words: "No problem.")
Any other unplanned stops besides Slovenia?
An overnight and dinner in lovely Salzburg, Austria, so I could catch a morning train to Ljubljana. Veal Milanese in Milan, thanks to the wait created by the missed connection. Sausages and beer in the pretty Austrian town of Villach after another missed connection.
How was the Kit Kat bar in Nice? Restaurant Franchin graciously stayed open for me. Escargot, veal with mushrooms, a glass of wine, dessert, coffee. $57.89. Tres terrific.
Did I enjoy the Kartoffelsuppe and all those dumplings and the halusky and the tafelspitz and the krvavica and the ragu d'asino and, of course, the bouillabaisse in Marseille?
Ja. Ano. Ja again. Da. Si. Oui.
And the hotels?
The Internet is a beautiful upgrade from 30 years ago. Aside from Europe itself — the Wall neutered in Berlin, no border passport checks, etc. — that's the biggest change. Reserved a day ahead and, though a few inns were elevator-free (pack light!), not a clunker in the bunch.
And the three untimetabled days in Paris?
That was the plan at check-in, but Chartres has this big church, and it was just an hour train ride away, and I still had a day left on that pass.
So do I like this Eurail/train thing? Still? At that price and after the conductor and the stairs and with one small bag and the missed connections? Would I do it again?
Ja. Oui. You betcha.
What else you should know
Bring one piece of wheeled luggage (or a backpack) light enough when full to easily lift onto an overhead rack, plus a smaller utility bag or purse for items (documents, reading material, other essentials) — and that's all.
Leave room for a few souvenirs; you don't want to be hauling plastic shopping bags across the continent.
Obligatory warning on theft: Be smart with your money, passports, cameras, phones, etc.
You may have to pay a surcharge for some high-speed trains when you make your reservations. It's usually worth it.
Even small stations typically have stalls with sandwiches, pastries, wine, cheese, etc. Load up before you board.
There's no rule against riding in a second-class car with a first-class pass and no law against peeking. The cheaper cars can be livelier and the difference in comfort modest.
If you're confused and there's no information booth, ticket windows usually have English speakers.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun