An Online Primer for Budget Exploration
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I suggest traveling by train if you can afford it. Some of my best European memories are from train trips, both short jogs and overnight hauls. It is one of the best places to meet and get to know Europeans. It gives you a chance to talk with the people in a neutral setting, with few distractions except the lovely scenery.
The rail network is incredibly extensive in most places, particularly the center. You have probably heard about the Eurail pass, which allows unlimited travel in 18 western countries. The rail pass comes in five main pass types, not including the youth options. There is the usual unlimited travel for up to three months. There is also a "Flexipass" which allows travel on any 14 days within one month, for example. To add to the confusion, there is an off-season discount "Saverpass" which allows two people to travel 15 days, providing they always travel together; the same pass can be used year-round for three or more people traveling together. For those under 26, there is a "Youthpass" for a nearly 40-percent savings. For the latest options and prices visit http://www.eurrail.com/.
A nice extra with the Eurail pass is that it covers many boats, such as ferries between France and Ireland, Italy and Greece, and between the Scandinavian countries, as well as some river boats on the Rhine and Danube, and various lake boats.
A rail pass is also the ultimate in freedom. With it you can board any train at any time to any destination in the Eurail system, except for a few express trains on which you must pay a small supplement. Imagine showing up at the train station in Zurich, all set to catch the train to Berlin, and then changing your mind and taking a train to Rome instead. No problem.
The drawback with Eurail is that it is no longer the bargain it once was, and you may have to cover a lot of miles quickly to make it a good value. If you plan on doing a lot of travel in Scandinavia it is probably worth the price. Elsewhere the convenience factor should be considered.
And here is the bad news: the price goes up every year. For 2006, here are some sample prices as they would cost you per day for each day of use:
Regular one-month rail pass (unlimited first-class travel): $32.50
One-month youthpass (unlimited second-class travel): $21
Flexipass (unlimited first-class travel for any 15 days in two months): $62
Most countries offer rail passes for their own country or a group of bordering countries. Find out from the national tourist office of the countries you plan to visit. Also remember that the United Kingdom is not a part of the Eurail system, although Ireland and Hungary are. And it is important to note that you have to make up your mind before you go, because Eurail passes can not be purchased in Europe. There are several other sources from which to purchase the pass and prices can differ due to commissions; some of them are listed in Chapter Six.
For all kinds of information about Eurail written by a traveler, check out http://www.eurail-info.com/.
There is another option for trainers. If you plan to travel in one direction, from Paris to Budapest or from Amsterdam to Rome, for example, think about buying a regular, long-distance rail ticket (less than $200) and hopping off along the way. The tickets are valid for two months and you usually can get away with several stops along the way. It is much cheaper than Eurail and depending on where you are going, can work just as well. If you are under 26, you can also purchase these tickets at discounts up to 40 percent. Look for "Transalpino", "Wasteels" or other student travel offices selling "BIJ" tickets (Billets Internationales des Jeunesse).
The only catch is to specify where you are getting off at the ticket window each time you board. This is an effective budget strategy which many Europeans use. Ask about the hopping-off policy in any European train station before you buy a ticket. While you are there, ask for the guide "Through Europe by Train", an invaluable, free timetable for most European towns and cities.
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