Many summers ago, when you announced that you were off to Europe with your rucksack, older and wiser souls counseled, "Get a Eurailpass." And like millions of student travelers to take advantage of those discounted youth passes since their creation in 1971, you did. But now, with your 20s dimming in memory, hearing the word "Eurailpass" might just make you a little sad. "That," you sigh, "is another one of those privileges wasted on the young."
Not so. Yes, there are Eurail Youth Passes and Eurail Youth Flexipasses limited to travelers aged 25 and under. (This summer, a $605 Eurail Youth Pass gives you a month of travel in Western and Central Europe.) But there are 16 kinds of passes available for European rail travel, and most are available to travelers of all ages. Further, the continent's 100,000-mile rail network includes a new generation of high-speed lines that have shortened travel times. If you want to do Europe cheaply, you're bound to end up looking at train schedules.
The most notable addition to Europe's rail network in this generation, perhaps this century, came in November 1994, when Eurostar service began through the 32-mile Channel Tunnel, making a London-Paris or London-Brussels connection a matter of about three hours. One-way adult fares on both those routes begin at $99, or $85 for holders of rail passes for further travel.
Another simplifying change came last year in March, when the Rail Europe Group, the principal merchant of Eurailpasses in the U.S., representing about three dozen European rail companies, bought BritRail, which represents about two dozen rail companies in England, Scotland and Wales. Britain is still absent from the list of 17 countries covered by the common Eurailpass, but this new alliance makes it simpler for travelers to combine Britain with the rest of Europe. Rail Europe, BritRail and Eurostar can be reached through the same toll-free phone number, (800) 438-7245. And through that number, travelers can request a single 40-page catalog ("Europe 98 on Track") that includes service in Britain and mainland Europe. More information is available at the company's Web site, http://www.raileurope.com, which also accepts bookings.
This year brings another new offering. Rail Europe has begun selling packaged trips ("Eurovacations") that may include rail reservations, air fares, Hertz and Avis rental cars, sightseeing and hotel reservations. The idea is to give travelers one-stop shopping while leaving them free to travel without the constraints of following an escort or joining a group. An announcement of specific itineraries and prices is due in March.
But even if you're not buying a Eurovacation, it's possible to assemble parts of a vacation puzzle through Rail Europe. (For instance, a hotel voucher program called Flexotel involves several major European chains, including Best Western, the budget Mercure, the upscale Sofitel and the SRS consortium of about 140 other, mostly upscale hotels. Hertz and Avis rental cars are also available.)
Here, as the planning season begins for spring and summer trips to Europe, are several new details and enduring principles of European rail travel:
* The 17 countries covered by a Eurailpass are: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. But for travelers concentrating on France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland, a Europass--which covers just those five nations--is cheaper. In fact, a Eurail spokeswoman notes that Europass sales are threatening to surpass traditional Eurailpass sales.
* The new generation of high-speed trains notwithstanding, European rail travel can still be cheaper than it is fast. For instance: second-class seat, Florence-Paris, $150 and 12 1/2 hours; first-class seat, Lisbon-Madrid, $73, 10 hours; second-class seat, Paris-Rome, $123, 15 hours.
* Getting from plane to train will probably be easier than you think. Unlike many American cities, most major European cities have rail connections at major airports, including Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Geneva, London, Malaga, Munich, Paris, Rome, Stuttgart, Vienna and Zurich.
* Though amenities and service vary by country, first-class cars are roomier and quieter than second-class cars and cost 50%-60% more. Sleeper cars typically accommodate up to two people in first class (costing $52-$94 per person per night on top of basic fare) or four people in second class and include private washstands, fresh linens and towels. Less costly couchettes (usually an extra $28 per person per night) are basically a collection of six bunks in a compartment car. (Given the lack of privacy, Rail Europe instructs travelers to "sleep in your daytime clothes.") Children's fares vary widely by country.