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Eurail Pass Enters the 21st Century!

I became a fan of the Eurail Pass when I first visited Europe decades ago, then enjoyed finding point-to-point discount tickets when online ticketing became possible, and finally returned to Eurail last year when I admitted that flexibility and spontaneity are worth more than always paying the lowest possible train fare. It's supposed to be a vacation, right?

Even so, I've criticized Eurail for its unwieldy paper passes. Never forget your pen!

European railway operators started accepting print-at-home tickets with barcodes more than a decade ago, and then mobile tickets with barcodes displayed on cell phones.

Now, Eurail is finally catching up. The notice for yesterday's update to Eurail's official Rail Planner app on iOS mentions,

"Our very first mobile Pass is here! Travel all over Italy paper-free with Eurail and Interrail's new mobile Italy One Country Pass. After purchase, simply load your mobile Pass..."

It goes on to say that you activate the pass within the app, and add train trips you've planned within the app to the pass before you board. (That must be their way of replacing the paper travel diary.)

Though most of us won't be able to try the Eurail variant for a while, hopefully an EU resident can test the Interrail variant and report back.

I'm particularly curious whether conductors, especially on regional trains, will be immediately familiar with the mobile pass. (The real test will come if and when there's a mobile Eurail/Interrail pass for a country like Switzerland with a strict, by-the-book culture.)

Posted by
4981 posts

One could hope that by going digital, maybe they can make some fundamental changes to the program, basically making the pass usable and more of a bargain.

I too enjoyed using a pass for several country groups "back in the day", but the increased use of fast trains and the need for compulsory...and expensive when added onto an already pricey pass...reservation fees, took the value out quick.

With digital passes, one could conceivably check for open seats on a train in real time, and if available, hop on, avoiding a separate purchase...sort of traveling "space available", making the pass more attractive, and not costing the rail services greatly. It could even be restricted from use up to a few hours before departure.

Also planning features, a travel log, and other bits could be added to make the app useful.

Other useful passes have gone by the wayside. I loved the kilo-pass the Italian rail used to have, you bought 1000 kilometres, it could be used like a rail pass over a length of time, you could use the same pass for two (double the kilometres), and if you ran low, could add another 1000. It made Italy even useful for a pass.

Posted by
1161 posts

We used a digital ticket reservation last year on Amtrak going from Washington State to BC Canada. This arranged a stop at our semi-rural train platform and going and return reserved seats; your id is preapproved, but you must be ready to present it in your assigned seats for Border Crossings. I did carry a paper ticket copy, but nobody asked or it. We learned that the best way to enjoy this trip was to spend the rest of the time in the lounge car with snacks and a better view.

Posted by
16817 posts

Thanks for the update. FYI, Swiss Travel Passes are already all available electronically, with the flexi pass version “solved” I think about a year ago. A bit easier for them with fewer trains requiring reservations. The Eurail Global pass may have an electronic version by the end of the year, but getting 31 countries to work on the same system can’t be easy.

Posted by
4981 posts

Well, I think you can check for available seats on quite a few railways websites, sure it would be great to "squeeze" that feature into an app covering most European railways. The problem I see with your idea is that trains have either a mandatory or an optional seat reservation policy. If it is mandatory you'll have to book a seat anyway with your pass, you can't just hop on even if there are empty seats

True, but if you combine that into the app, "based on my location, I want to go to this town", the current trains are presented, with availability, you select a seat, the app books you and your reservation appears in the app...you are set to go. If they could waive the reservation fee for seats filled within a couple hours of travel, all the better.

Having it in the Eurail app would avoid having to go to "quite a few" railway apps, go through a purchase sequence, link to your rail pass, and wind up with a separate validation from the pass.

Posted by
85 posts

Hi Paul. I agree that Eurail and the railways should restore the spontaneous, hop-on experience of the past. I like your idea of a "space available" check in the Rail Planner app. The natural extension would be a policy allowing a passholder, after completing the "space available" check, to board a restricted train and to pay a (non-punitive) reservation fee and/or supplement onboard. Today, the railways' own Web sites and apps all handle passholder reservations differently. In some cases, it's still necessary to buy passholder reservations from an agency or the ticket counter.

Luftmensch - I don't know your travel habits, but my latest paper Eurail pass certainly became unwieldy. It was a 2-month continuous all-country (so called global) pass. For 140+ rail segments, I had to attach 6 travel
diary continuation sheets. Despite always storing my pass in a robust outer envelope made of Tyvek and storing that in a dedicated pocket of my shoulder bag, the "pass cover" soon started to tear at the two folds, from being opened and closed so many times. (As you know, the "pass cover" comes folded like a business letter; I didn't fold it further.)

I would have recorded even more segments if I had relied on my Eurail pass for the Berlin S-Bahn. (A 7-day Umweltkarte in the DB app was more convenient than writing down every S-Bahn trip, and of course, the Eurail pass would not have covered the U-Bahn or the bus.)

I took a risk by putting Scotch tape on the two outer folds of the "pass cover". The letter of the policy is that this constitutes mutilation. It could have rendered the whole thing invalid and put me at risk of a fine. Thankfully, no one noticed the two clear, neatly-applied strips of tape.

In rainy or snowy weather, and especially when I was taking an early-morning or late-night train and the indoor area of a station was closed, it was hard to find a place to fill out the travel diary. Given delays and cancellations, it's unwise to fill out the diary until just before departure. In most cases, there is time to fill it out onboard before the conductor comes, but again, the letter of the policy is that it must be filled out before you board.

Laura - The SwissPass is amazing! It's a model of cooperation between public and private travel suppliers. For example, you can use SwissPass credentials to log on to private railway and ski lift reservation Web sites. Since that degree of integration is cultural, and unlikely ever to exist outside Switzerland, one way for Eurail to implement a mobile all-country Eurail pass would be to display separate barcodes for railways with incompatible systems.

Posted by
85 posts

Thanks for your reply, luftmensch! I want to add, for others who might read this in the future, that it is important to follow the Eurail pass rules.

Different travelers have different experiences based on what passport they carry, how they look, how they talk, the dominant culture in the country or region that they are traversing, and the individual train conductor.

As a traveler who doesn't look traditionally European (I am part African and part German, male with long hair, and I have a beard), I tend to get extra scrutiny, especially in countries with "high-context" (unwritten rule) cultures like Germany and Switzerland, and in regions that were historically less open, like East Germany. (This is not to single out European countries; things aren't perfect in the US.) Add to this traveling in first class, which is my habit, and using obscure local trains because I love exploring. Conductors are even more surprised when I answer them in German, French or Spanish, despite carrying a US passport.

99% of these interactions are very pleasant, but observing the rules -- even inconvenient ones like filling out the travel diary precisely -- helps in the 1% of cases when I meet a surly staff member. It's a vacation, after all, and I want it to go smoothly.

I have a lot of hope that mobile technology will make Eurail passes more practical, and that Eurail's railway partners will explore consistent and fully-digital ways to sell passholder reservations and supplements, restoring the convenience of passes.