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Vagabonding as a 58 year old!

Ever since high school I've wanted to hit Europe with nothing more that a Eurail Pass and a backpack. I'm perhaps 40 years late but I finally managed to do this. I just returned yesterday from 10 days in France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Overall I had a great experience but here are some tips, meaning things that I wish I had known!

First, I can't imagine wandering Europe today without a roaming data plan. Train schedule booklets are no longer printed and many (most?) train stations don't even have the big schedules displayed on the walls any more. Everything, everything, is now done online. Open Wi-Fi access was hard to come by, the most reliable being what was available in hotels. After a day or two I managed to get my iPhone plan enabled for roaming data and that made the rest of the trip possible. I'm not exaggerating.

Second, it is now almost essential to have a European-style credit card with the embedded chip. Our lame American cards won't work in the automatic machines. Thus, if you need a train ticket you have to see a clerk. And since the machines are the main way to purchase tickets nowadays, the number of clerks have been reduced. I routinely stood in line from anywhere between 20 and 40 minutes to get a ticket. Which brings me to the third point.

I'm not convinced that a Eurail Pass is the right way to go now. Nearly every trip required a reserved seat or a supplemental charge. I couldn't arrange these things from the machine, having a Eurail Pass (even if I did have a European credit card), so I had to stand in line. I suspect I really didn't save much, if anything, by having the pass. And I would have covered more territory if making travel arrangements had been easier.

Finally, as an independent traveler I found it really essential to have some rudimentary language skills. Prior to my trip I spent several months brushing up on Spanish (which I didn't have the chance to use), and adding a bit of proficiency in French & German. I bought the Rick Steves phrase guides, which are good, but I'm really partial to the Penton Overseas, "Learn in Your Car" CD sets. I pretty much mastered the first two CDs from each set and that proved adequate. I started every interaction using the foreign language and no one was ever rude to me even though we often switched to English. One high point occurred in Bruges when someone thought I was actually a French speaker!

I could mention many other things like listening to the Rick Steves podcasts about everyplace I was interested in visiting, discovering Ibis Hotels, or all the great advice in the Back Door books, but I'm sure that's old news around here. All-in-all I had a great time, fulfilled a life long ambition, and I'm grateful for all the tips & advice that I've picked up from Rick Steves over the years.

Posted by
2854 posts

Hey Brian,

Thanks for posting and glad your trip was great. I also use the Penton Overseas Learn In Your Car cc's. I'm fairly proficient in German, but these cd's are great as a refresher course before a trip.


Posted by
12040 posts

"One high point occurred in Bruges when someone thought I was actually a French speaker!" I hope you realize, though, that the local language in Brugge is Dutch, not French? Tourists are usually exempt, but it can be a sensitive issue to use the wrong language presumptively in Belgium.

"Train schedule booklets are no longer printed and many (most?) train stations don't even have the big schedules displayed on the walls any more." I'm not sure about this, at least in Belgium and Germany. There's usually charts on the platforms that show each train's intinerary. I couldn't comment on France or Luxemburg, though.

Glad you enjoyed your trip. Forgive my nit-picky comments.

Posted by
14208 posts

Hi fellow vagabonder,

The picture you paint in paragraphs 2,3, and 4 is not accurate, It is not as bleak for vagabond traveling as you suggest. The US magnetic stripe credit card works on the Automat in Germany at DB stations to buy rail tickets, but not in Holland and France. Train schedule booklets (the "Städteverbindungen"... if you read German, they're great.) are still printed along with those little folded time schedules indicating from what city to what city, say Munich-Cologne, Munich to Ingolstadt, Munich to Bamberg, Munich-Leipzig, Munich-Cuxhaven, etc. And, the color coded yellow and white schedules for departures/arrivals can be seen everywhere in the stations.

Yes, you might stand in line waiting to use the DB machine, then you can enter the Reisezentrum to pick a number and wait for it appear on the screen as you do at the DMV to go to staffed counter. Machines are not the "main way to purchase tickets." not so in the big cities. You can use that option or step into the Reisezentrum. For point to point tickets or schedules/price I use the machines. That's the planning part. BTW, they changed the word for that service, used to be called Fahrkartenschalter (ticket counter), now it's a Verkaufsstelle. This change doesn't apply in Austria.

To get the latest info on a your particular train route, read the electronic tape. In the big cities it's usually in 3 languages, listen to loudspeakers. I don't see the traveling as bleak as you do. Whether a rail Pass is worth it or not, depends upon several factors, true, it's not for everyone, even if money/cost is not an acute issue. Factors such as length of stay, how many days, geographic extent of your itinerary, say from south France or Barcelone to Budapest or Sweden, whether you take a night train, etc. True, on those rides even with your Pass, you have to stand in line getting the mandatory reservation. I do that once I arrive in the country in the evening when the crowds at the station have diminished.

Posted by
2 posts

I want to make sure that I didn't leave any negative impression. My experience was not bleak at all! But these points are simply things that had I known before I went, I would have wandered farther & wider! In any event, I appreciate the responses and I think they will be helpful for anyone who might be embarking on a similar adventure. And I know that if I were to get a "do-over" I would 1.) start out with a roaming data plan, 2.) get a credit card with a chip, and 3.) ditch the Eurail pass. While it certainly might not be essential to do any of these three actions, I am convinced that travel is easier following these guidelines.

I heartily encourage anyone with a bit of an adventurous streak to try out the backpack & train life, regardless of age!

Posted by
715 posts

" Hallelujah I am a bum, Hallelujah I am a bum again" - Ed Buryn

Posted by
9199 posts

Brian, glad you had a good trip! And thanks for posting your experience and what worked and what didn't, it's helpful to other first-timers.

Posted by
14208 posts


Much depends upon maintaining a positive attitude when traveling, to stay cool and unruffled when things don't exactly your way. The way one travels also plays a role, ie what you're willingly to put up with, such as budget traveling, night trains, certain inconveniences, etc. Plan for the next round!

Posted by
127 posts


How were the trains in Luxembourg and what was the main language you heard spoken there by the locals there? I am planning on taking a quick train ride to Luxembourg city next month. I am better speaking a small amount of French vs. German. I will have to try and get my hands on those Penton Overseas CD sets. Thanks for sharing your travel experiences with everyone.