As an American traveler, I too often let airlines dictate my life. When am I going on that cross-country trip I’ve been planning? Whatever dates the Big Three (Delta, United, American) or Southwest decides are cheapest. With few other modes of affordable transportation in this vast country, airfare reigns supreme.
So the perfect antidote to stressful high-season airfare hunting and one too many connecting flights this summer seemed clear to me: An airfare-free jaunt around Europe by train, hitting all the E.U. cities at the top of my bucket list—and being able to do it for cheap, even during the summer high season, with a Eurail pass.
For me, Eurail meant one week split between Prague, Vienna, and Budapest—each one home to its own unique language, people, and cuisines, yet a mere few hours apart via train. Hopping a scenic Europe train ride directly to the city center is perhaps the most relaxing way to complete your dream Euro trip: no early airport arrival, security lines, or public transit into the city. Just rolling hills, a few hours to plan what you’d like to do, and the occasional dog seated nearby thanks to the many smart Europeans who refuse to fly with their pets.
My personal favorite part of Eurail passes is the option to add on extra time in cities without the hassle of rebooking (or paying for) new tickets. You have a months-long period to complete your travel—so you’re free as a bird rather than tied to plane schedules or delays. It’s easy to pick any assortment of countries and the length of time you prefer by using Eurail. The ticketing agent for various European rail lines, Eurail’s online trip planner is the easiest way to traverse Europe by train.
How to Plan Your Dream Europe Train Trip Online
If Europe train travel is a foreign beast to you, like it was to me, you’ll be happy to know that it’s much easier (and cheaper) than you probably thought. On Eurail’s trip planning tool, simply choose your dream European cities and how long you’d like to stay at each stop to see the best option for you. My trip journeying from Prague to Vienna to Budapest with two nights in each hub starts at $300 round-trip with a two-month period to complete the travel and plenty of leeway to decide which week to travel depending on airfare to Europe and the cheapest hotel rates.
Eurail, formerly known as Euro Rail, offers Global Passes for travel throughout 28 European countries. Select passes are cheaper and include two to four countries, while one-country passes are typically the cheapest option. Eurostar high-speed trips are included on the Global Pass. Reserving a first-class seat can cost just a few dollars extra, or up to about $25 extra, depending on the route. And youth and partner discounts are also available with a Eurail pass.
On top of the flexibility of choosing your own route, it’s also uber affordable to visit Central and Eastern Europe compared to Western Europe hubs like Paris and London. Hotels for under $75 per night are both easy to find and comfortable: Prague’s cozy Hotel Adler or historic Park Inn Prague are under $70 per night, Vienna’s hip Ruby Marie Hotel & Bar is around $80 (and includes data-serviced smartphones you can take around the city with you), and Budapest’s sleekly designed Anna Hotel Budapest is about $60 per night.
Meals and, of course, beer, are comparably cheap, and the stunning Austro-Hungarian architecture and vibrant nightlife scenes in all three cities will give new meaning to the words “Eastern Europe.” While you might be picturing small cities or countryside travel when you hear those words, the Czech, Austrian, and Hungarian capitals are bustling and beautiful enough to rival Paris. Prague’s Gothic spires, Vienna’s grandiose State Opera House, and Budapest’s sprawling white Parliament are worth traveling for on their own.
But those three cities are just the beginning of the possibilities with Europe train travel. String a few, or several, of your dream destinations together and let the low cost and high flexibility of a Eurail pass take you away. Eurail’s planning tool will have you wondering why you haven’t planned your dream Euro trip yet—one without any dreaded air travel.
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SmarterTravel Editor Shannon McMahon traveled to Prague, Vienna, and Budapest as a guest of Eurail. Follow her Europe travel adventures and more on Instagram @shanmcmahon.