Today's trip from Kitzbühel to Frankfurt marks the end of my time spent travelling on a Eurail pass. My Eurail Select 5-Country Pass — which allows 10 (not necessarily consecutive) days of unlimited travel, within 2 months, within 5 neighbouring countries (I chose Italy, Switzerland, Benelux, Germany and Austria) — has been tremendously handy, and has been used in place of around €600-€650 worth of over-the-counter tickets (not bad, considering that it originally cost only €350). Backpacking by train in Europe has been a great experience: generally speaking, it's comfortable, reliable, and flexible — and there are trains literally everywhere.
After more than a month to get used to it, I'm now reasonably comfortable with many of the details involved in European train travel; but as a newcomer, I must say that I found the whole thing daunting and complicated. When planning a trip, you need to be aware of much more than simply where you're starting from and where you're going to. You need to work out connections: and for every connection, it's advisable to write down the times, the platform numbers, the train numbers, and the exact station names (as some cities have multiple stations). You must understand the different types of train service: e.g. regional (slow and all-stops); InterCity (faster, still many stops): and high-speed (express, only major stops — they have a myriad of special names). There are also classes (generally just 1st or 2nd; seat reservations (which are compulsory, optional, or not available, depending on the train); and extra services (e.g. food, in-trip entertainment, bar). And much more. Oh, and did I mention that everything works slightly differently in each country, and that international trains are thus even more complicated?
Good ticket services
The European train system is very complicated: however, they have done a remarkable job of making it much less complicated, by making both ticket information and ticket purchasing easy. Information-wise, the best thing is that there's only one organisation for each country — i.e. the government-run train authority for that country — and for each country, the train authority provides an excellent computerised trip-planning system, which can always be used online or at the stations. The trip-planners will work out all possibilities, and find all necessary connections for your trip — and for international trips, they'll even do this for the leg of your journey that's in another country (I guess that although each country has its own system, they do all manage to interface with each other). What's more, purchasing (and reservation) is also straightforward, and it can always be done in-person or online.
Train travel is one of the most expensive forms of travel in Europe. Doing it for extended periods without some sort of special pass — whether it be a multi-country pass such as Eurail or InterRail, or a domestic pass such as Germany's BahnCard — is madness and would be an utter ripoff. The "budget travel for the masses" here in Europe is now air travel; and buses (which also cover numerous destinations) are much cheaper as well. What's more, the locals here in Europe seem to be demanding ever faster and more glamorous train services; and as such, the number of highly expensive long-distance trains (e.g. the Belgian Thalys service, or France's famous TGV) is growing every year. Train travel is very nice, and very convenient; but apart from the regional trains (and even those aren't cheap everywhere — e.g. they're dirt-cheap in Italy, but expensive in Germany), they're not for the struggling among us.
This is the best thing about travelling by train. You can hop on and hop off whenever you want. If you miss your train, you can catch the next one. If you want to stay in town another day, there'll be another train tomorrow. The increasing popularity of compulsory seat reservations — mainly on the busy high-speed international services — has made this less of a reality; but outside of super-busy times, you can usually reserve as little as an hour ahead, or even on-the-spot. What's really made the train flexibility redundant, is the need to book all accommodation well in advance everywhere in Europe. If you know exactly where you'll be staying for the next two weeks, then you may as well take a cheaper if more fixed option.
Compared with the way I've been travelling for most of this trip, taking the trains in Europe has basically been a big treat for me. I've taken buses that travel for 12 hours on unsealed roads, and where Bolivian women sit on the floor with their 5 kids and their 10 sacks of potatoes on top of them. I've boarded motorboats that lurch across Lake Titicaca most nauseatingly, and that leave you freezing-cold on an island in the middle of nowhere. I've ridden in combis where 25 people are stuffed into a minivan that should barely fit half that number. And I've sat in the back of pick-up trucks, that ride along dirt tracks unknown to any map and to few men. Trains in Europe are smooth, quiet, air-conditioned, comfortable, spacious, and always equipped with toilets. Luxury, nothing less.
As well as spoiling me comfort-wise, European train stations are also a treat convenience-wise. I've never seen anything so incredibly well set-up as the European station-hostel combo. Clearly, the town planners and the hostel builders around here were actually thinking, when they decided that hostels should generally be walking-distance from train stations. In South America, walking to your hostel (usually from the bus station) is unthinkable: you just take a taxi. But here in Europe, it's a given — and fortunately so, because unlike in South America, backpackers can't afford taxis around here. As well as being close to hostels, European town centres are generally compact enough that most of the major sights — monuments, museums and the like — are also a short walk from the station.