“Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it. Those whistles sing bewitchment: railways are irresistible bazaars… Anything is possible on a train…”
— Paul Theroux

TRAVELING ON A EURAIL PASS — learning the ropes, planning connections, meeting locals and non-American travelers — is an American travelers’ rite of passage right up there with receiving that first passport stamp, getting introduced to a foreign market, losing money in a scam, or falling in love with a foreigner.

Markets will become old hand, you’ll never fall for that scam again, and long-distance love fades, but the lessons learned and memories made on that first Eurail pass will remain with you forever.

A well-worn Eurail pass, like that first passport stamp, is a tangible badge of honor, proof of a deep journey planned and executed not by a tour company or your parents, but by you and you alone. It represents connections made along the way — both the literal transportation kind and the intangible cultural kind — and symbolizes new life experiences earned and the freedom to explore new lands.

Completing your first Eurail trip is the beginning of a lifetime of savvy travel. No single decision can have such a lasting effect on your trip and your life as buying that Eurail pass.

Learning the system

Traveling on a Eurail pass forces you to learn a bunch of valuable travel skills beyond just reading timetables. A Eurail traveler picks up at least a little bit of the local language and will be fluent in the layout of cities and countries.

In order to plan connections and navigate train stations, a Eurail pass compels you to learn the rudimentary necessities of foreign tongues — times, city names, station signs, exchanging pleasantries with other riders, deciphering schedule changes and connections, and so on. You won’t be fluent by any stretch of the imagination, but you’ll have learned a lot of useful words and phrases.

The learning doesn’t end at language. Travelers gain geography chops as well — the layout of cities, countries, international borders, rivers, and mountain ranges. Eurail travelers put creases and thumbprints on their maps. They become their own logistics manager, quartermaster, and navigator. They embrace the responsibility that comes with learning about the world around them.

Train travel offers a buffet of options: express routes, milk runs, scenic trains, overnights, day trips, sightseeing stops. Understanding all the options requires learning where cities, rivers, towns, and castles are located. There’s always more than one way to get from Point A to Point B, which may or may not involve an afternoon of sightseeing at Point C, a scenic detour through Point D, and maybe an overnight in Point E just because you can. The map is your kingdom and a Eurail pass is the key.

These two basic skills — language and geography — are paramount to the independent traveler, laying the foundation for a lifetime of smart, savvy travel. You’ll learn how to get around, how to find what you need, and how to make friends with locals.

The value of the journey

Train travel on a Eurail pass is so easy and comfortable that it offers a value in the journey that other transport options can’t match. Air travel feels like a competition or a frantic chase, something to be completed and forgotten as quickly as possible. Bus travel is a cattle drive and you’re the cow. Though occasionally a nice splurge for reaching far-flung destinations, renting a car is more often than not an expensive hassle.

But train travel is something entirely different. It’s a transformative experience — a journey to be enjoyed precisely because of the journey. We’ve all heard the saying that travel isn’t necessarily about the destination. Well, it’s true. And it’s especially true when you’re traveling on your first Eurail pass.

Riding a train, whether for transport or just for fun, teaches you the fundamental importance of taking time to appreciate scenery and towns, interacting with fellow passengers, catching up on your journal, and reflecting on the trip to date. Train travel reinforces that it’s okay to do nothing for a bit.

Bursting the bubble

Eurail travel forces you to leave the travelers’ confines of lodging, bars, museums, and restaurants to confront daily life like a local does. As travelers, it’s so easy to stay in the bubble — hang with other travelers, party the night away. That routine, while certainly pleasurable, omits a key component of fulfilling travel: interacting with locals and experiencing communities’ most important location, the train station.

Did you trade one bubble for another? Remember, breaking out of your routine was one of the reasons you chose to travel in the first place. And there’s no better way to do that than with a Eurail pass.

Feature photo: jac o p o