On Eurail, a familiar journey, with refinements

Up to two children age 11 and younger can travel free with a Eurail pass-holding adult.
Up to two children age 11 and younger can travel free with a Eurail pass-holding adult. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Eurail
When I completed my studies in Paris after my junior year in college, my parents presented me with a great gift: a Eurail pass. I spent the entire summer traveling around Europe with friends, staying in pensions and hostels and seeing the sights. While I've enjoyed many short rail trips in Europe since then, last year I revisited that youthful experience by spending more than a month traveling throughout Europe almost exclusively by rail.

Of course, some things have changed. This time we were traveling in first class, I was accompanied by my husband and we were staying in four- and five-star hotels.

The company has changed over the years, as well. To keep pace with a changing marketplace, Eurail recently extended the age limit on its youth pass discount program from 25 to 27.

"We recognize that traveler demographics are changing and along with that the definition of youth," said Clarissa Mattos, Eurail North America market manager. "The Eurail youth fare eligibility age cap was increased from 25 to 27 years to be more in line with changes to the youth age characterization in Europe and industry trends."

In addition, to woo families, up to two children age 11 and younger can travel free with a pass-holding adult.

Despite these changes, we discovered that the ease of travel and the beautiful scenery, much of which isn't visible from the motorways, remains reassuringly the same.

Our trip started aboard the Eurostar in London, which became part of the Eurail network in January. The trip typically takes about 2.5 hours and whisks passengers from London's St. Pancras station to Paris' Gare du Nord. Other Eurostar routes link London to Paris, Brussels, Lille, Disneyland Paris, Marseille, Avignon, Lyon and Calais, with a new route to Amsterdam set to debut in 2018.

After a few days in the City of Lights, we boarded the TGV, or rapid train, to Tours for a week in France's Loire Valley. You could, in theory, explore the Loire by making one destination your base and taking day trips via bicycle, hiking or even short local rail journeys, but because we wanted to revisit old haunts, we rented a car at the St. Pierre des Corps train station and returned it to the same location a week later.

Avignon in France’s Provence region.
Avignon in France’s Provence region.

The next few weeks found us zigzagging through France on an ambitious itinerary that included Avignon in Provence, and Nice and San Rafael, both on the Cote d'Azur. Since St. Tropez doesn't have a rail station, we attempted to hop on a ferry from San Rafael to the resort town, not realizing that service had ended for the season. We could have taken a bus at that point but instead opted for another car rental.

Since I was due to join a group of journalists in Lisbon at the end of the month for a weeklong rail journey through Portugal and Spain, I flew from Nice to save time. Doing the journey by rail was tempting but would have taken more or less a whole day and required several changes.

From Lisbon we approached the rail experience differently by taking several short, local train rides.

We explored the picturesque and relatively untouristed town of Evora, for example, a Unesco World Heritage Site and the capital of the rural Alentejo region, which took about an hour and a half by local train from Lisbon. You definitely don't need a car to explore the walled, medieval town, with its winding streets and historical architecture.

By contrast, our visit to Sintra the next day, which took under an hour to reach by train, was a study in contrasts. Sintra is one of the most touristy destinations in Portugal, for good reason, and it boasts more fairy tale castles than you can see in one day.

Once we left the town to explore the coast, we switched to cars so that we could stop for a first-rate seaside lunch at Bar do Fundo, about 15 minutes from Sintra center, followed by a stroll through Cascais, returning to Lisbon by train.

Transitioning from short hop to international journey, we boarded the Trenhotel night train to Madrid, departing from the ornate Lisbon-Oriente Station.

The ride differed from my memories of overnight journeys of my youth in that this time I had my own compartment and bathroom, although both were almost too tiny for me to turn around in. It's worth noting that not all of us had our own bathrooms, although all the cabins featured sinks.

In the morning, I ventured to the breakfast car, where friendly service consisted, almost exclusively, of coffee and toast.

Arrival in Madrid was a little tricky in that we pulled into Madrid Chamartin Train Station, then transferred via metro to the city's beautiful Atocha Train Station to store our luggage, in preparation for another departure later in the day.

Of course, most travelers would spend more than a few hours in Madrid, but our goal was to assess the ease of getting from place to place on the train.

Certainly, this proved to be true on our next leg from Madrid to Valencia. The journey took under two hours, and we were able to explore the city easily on foot, by bike and, at one point, by taxi when we wanted to have a paella lunch at La Marcelina restaurant in the city's marina district.

In all, Eurail passes can be used to travel in up to 28 countries, and travel agents typically go through RailEurope or other general sales agents to book and receive their commissions.

Passengers can take advantage of a free smartphone app that supplies offline rail planning information, including timetables, lists of passenger benefits and even a new reservations function for trains in Italy.

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