|Subject: Train reservations in Europe?|
There are a couple of aspects to your question. First of all, Eurailpasses
are usually _not_ a good buy IHMO because they can cost more than
point-to-point or, what is usually the decision of choice if you are only
going to one or two countries, passes issued by that country. They are also
not good in all countries (typically they can only be used in Western
Europe). If you do get a Eurail, be sure to check on which countries it can
be used in. They work best for people visiting many Western European
countries, like backpackers. They also have the advantage of saving some,
but not all, interaction with the ticket personnel at European train
stations (you still have to interact with conductors--some are very nice,
but others are not).
We just got back from Prague, Budapest, and several cities in Italy (my post will soon be ready). My wife had won a Eurailpass for herself, but it is not recognized in Prague and Budapest, and neither I nor my daughter could use it. I bought an Italian kilometric pass (good for 3000 kilometers or roughly 2000 miles that can be shared by several people (my daughter and I in the present case). This is issued by FS, the main Italian train company, at its stations. However, there are a few other independent train lines, such as the Circumvesuviana that connects Sorrento, Pompeii, and similar places south of Naples. You must pay for trips separately than the main pass. The bottom line is that you need to check out your anticipated train travel before you go. Unfortunately, noneuropean travel agents may not know.
It is true that my wife's Eurailpass covered the suppliments required on some trains (notably the Eurostar, about which more in my posting), so her pass saved us a few dollars in suppliments over simply including her on the kilometric pass which does not cover the suppliments.
When we were in Prague and Budapest, we took night trains. We purchased the tickets from travel agents in these cities at a minimal, if any premium from buying them at the station. We bought one from a local travel agent in Prague and from American Express in Budapest (because we were meeting someone who worked there). I bought the kilometric pass when I arrived in Italy (be sure you validate each trip or else you pay a small fine of around $10 US). I have no general endorsement for agents save that many don't handle train passes--your hotel can probably help you.
Buying from a European travel agent saves the long lines and often harried service you get at the station itself. They are also generally more experienced than American agents with the train system. However, if you are simply going from Point A to Point B after you have a pass or are buying point-to-point tickets, buying them at the station can be simpler and quicker.
Also, at least in Italy, conductors do not always remember to stamp whichever pass you use so you typically get an extra ride or two, depending upon the pass.
By now, each country's train service probably has a web site in various languages detailing their options. These are also discussed in travel guides, but not, in my experience, with perfect accuracy. Italy's FS (Ferrovia dello stato) can be found at http://www.fs-on-line.com/ as an example. You can also access http://www.raileurope.com for schedules and buy some passes through them, but, I think, at a larger premium than you would pay at a European travel agent. You also cannot buy country-issued passes like the kilometric. Basically, they are the sales agent for Eurail passes, but they also do handle French, Swiss, and British ones.
Ira H. Bernstein, Ph. D. Professor of Psychology UT-Arlington