From backpackers to retirees, more than 300,000 people a year travel through Europe by train, and it’s now possible to visit 28 different countries by train on a Eurail Global Pass. A lover of the rails herself, Silvia Fischer serves as sales and marketing manager for Eurail Group G.I.E. Fischer chatted with us about what’s new in Europe train travel and where she dreams of going.
IndependentTraveler.com: If a traveler hasn’t been on a European train in a few years, what will they find that’s new?
Silvia Fischer: One of the key differences is the quality and breadth of services, including high-speed train lines. In first class, seating is now more spacious, and many seats recline. Food is often served right to your seat, and in several countries you can charge your devices and connect to Wi-Fi straight from your seat.
With the Eurail Pass there have been plenty of improvements too, including the Children Travel for Free program that allows two children between 4 and 11 years old to travel for free with an adult Eurail Pass holder. This covers grandchildren as well.
Some other changes also include the addition of four new countries for Eurail — Poland, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro — and new passes like the Scandinavia Pass and the Greek Islands Pass.
IT: Eurail’s research shows that Central Europe is the most popular destination for travelers 50 years old and up. Why is that part of Europe trending?
SF: Countries like Germany and Switzerland will always be popular rail destinations due to the extensiveness of their networks. However, when people are coming back to Europe for a second, third or even fourth time, they are often looking for new experiences away from well-known hot spots. They are keen to explore areas that didn’t used to be as accessible, such as Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Croatia. It also helps that long-haul flights from the States are opening up to these countries too.
IT: You were recently in the U.S. What do you like about rail travel in the States, and what do you think could be improved?
SF: Similar to Europe, the U.S. offers some grand scenic journeys that can only be witnessed by rail — there’s nowhere else in the world where you can see the likes of the Grand Canyon from the comfort of your seat! On the flip side, passenger or commuter rail within the U.S. can be quite limited, and in many cases stations are only located within city limits of major hub cities. Coming from Europe, where there’s more than 10,000 stations accessible by passenger trains, I find the difference quite striking.
IT: What tips can you share to save money on rail travel in Europe?
SF: One of my top tips would be to book in advance before landing in Europe. One bonus of the booking period is that travelers can take advantage of promotional offers throughout the year and then travel up to 11 months later.
If you’re looking for a vacation that’s easier on the wallet, consider traveling within Eastern and Central Europe, or in the quieter months outside of the busy summer season.
IT: Which European routes are absolutely essential to reserve in advance?
SF: Due to popular demand, some high-speed, international and overnight trains in Europe require a reservation. That said, high-speed and international routes for countries popular with U.S. travelers like Germany and Austria don’t require a reservation. And in many cases there are alternative regional trains that passengers can opt for instead. The journey might be longer, but you skip having to make a reservation.
IT: What are your favorite tips for train travel?
SF: My number one piece of advice is to download the Rail Planner App. It’s a great tool that provides train timetables and tells you where connecting routes or reservations are necessary. The app is free and works offline.
If you’re in search of some quiet time, it’s quite common in Western Europe to find trains with “silent” carriages or cabins — no chitchat allowed! This is ideal for catching up on a book or sleep. And don’t forget to admire the views from the window!
IT: What are your personal favorite rail routes in Europe?
SF: That’s a tough choice! For the idyllic views in wine country, I’d say the Rhine Valley Line between Koblenz and Mainz in Germany. … For historic significance, it would have to be the Bernina Express between Chur in Switzerland and Tirano in Italy. This route follows two UNESCO World Heritage-listed lines, the Albula and the Bernina.
And for the uniqueness I would have to say the route between Hamburg in Germany and Copenhagen in Denmark. The train literally rolls onto a ferry to cross the sea.
IT: What train trip — anywhere in the world — is on your travel bucket list?
SF: Outside of Europe, the Seven Stars line on the island of Kyushu, Japan, is on my wish list. A relative newcomer — it only opened in 2013 — it’s a luxury sleeper train that travels around Japan’s southernmost main island with views of lush green landscapes and even volcanoes!
Within Europe it’s tricky to choose, but if time allows, my ultimate dream would be undertaking a single trip that encompassed all the 28 countries covered by the Eurail Pass. Now that would be an incredible European experience!
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— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma