MatadorU student Diana O’Gilvie checks out luxury train travel in Europe.

[Editor’s note: In 1999, I spent a few weeks backpacking Western Europe. Our crew lived by our Eurail Passes, maximizing the limited travel days and journey legs by hopping overnight trains and staying on for as long as possible. These were Youth Passes, typically scoring us a spot on the floor where we’d bed down with heads on packs and hope no one tripped over us during the night. Proximity to bathrooms with overflowing toilets was also a concern.

When I hit 26 — ‘over the hill’ in Eurail-speak — I figured my long-term train bumming days were done. Pretty psyched to read this piece and learn that doesn’t have to be the case.]

ON A RECENT TRIP to Finland, I traveled first class on Eurail. The train was an overnighter (about 8 hours) from Helsinki to Rovaniemi in the Arctic Circle. I also rode luxury between Helsinki, Espoo, and Turku in the south.

First-class train travel has significantly more perks than are available to the backpacker riding dirty in the third-class car. Here’s what to keep in mind if you’re looking to splurge with a Eurail.

Photo: Poom!

The Global Pass

This is the peak of the Eurail pyramid — it includes all 22 countries within the Eurail system and gives you up to three months to see them.

Prices range from $740 for a 15-day pass to $2049 for 90 straight days of travel (not sure why you’d need to take that many trains, but there you go). Depending on the time of year you visit Europe, your pass could be cheaper than your plane ticket.

The Global gets you first-class berths (where available) on wifi-equipped trains, with no “blackout dates.” You’ll also score discounts on hotels, museum passes, ferries, and narrow-gauge funicular crossings. For travelers under 26, a Youth (2nd class) version of the Global Pass is available.

Buying the pass online is the way to go. In person, you’ll only find them available at the largest European stations, and you’ll pay 10-20% more there.

First class perks

Whenever possible, I rode first class with my pass, which meant wider seats and a power outlet at every window seat. On shorter routes, access to a snack bar with free cookies and water was included. There was also a newspaper rack equipped with Finnish newspapers and gossip magazines, along with overhead storage and a small area at the back of the car for larger luggage.

Photo: Author

On the overnight train, I had a private cabin with my own bed, built-in alarm clock, two blankets and a comfortable pillow, bottles of water, and soap in the private bathroom with shower. There was space for my luggage under the bed.

This was my first time sleeping on a luxury train and I thought the announcements would bother me, but when my cabin door closed it sealed out the train’s noise. When I settled into bed, I looked up to see the moon framed in the window, casting a glow behind the clouds.

The differences in travel classes were made obvious to me the next morning. On my way to the food and beverage car to snag some breakfast, I passed through an economy car. Backpackers and other passengers were sprawled out on top of their luggage, festering in overnight funk, like they’d just gotten off a red-eye.

Thank you, first class.

Eurail travel tips
  • Plan your train route before booking your airline ticket. Most luxury trains require reservations and they sell out fast.
  • Travel light — the luxury compartments are normally located on the upper level. The stairs are winding and hard to haul a bulky suitcase up.
  • Border crossings are quite frequent and it’s not uncommon for conductors to collect your ticket and passport before you retire for the evening so as not to disturb you later.
  • Overnight trains save on hotel room costs, as they stand in for a night’s accommodation. Check out the City Night Line routes from Amsterdam to Munich and Utrecht to Prague, among others.
  • Always read the terms and conditions of your ticket.
  • Lots more tips can be found at the Eurail site.