Europe—Eurail

European rail travel has long been touted as a very economical way to see Europe. Economy aside, it can also be very accessible. I do stress “can be,” because advance planning is essential. You will, however, be well rewarded for your research efforts, because with proper planning you can choose the most accessible Eurail routes and avoid taking those not-so-accessible trans-European commuter flights. Additionally, you can save money by purchasing a Eurail pass before you leave home. Like BritRail, the Eurail network is made up of many regional carriers. These regional carriers are usually country-specific, but some long-distance trains do cross borders. Also included in the Eurail network are some regional ferry and bus routes that connect the train network. So, when planning your Eurail vacation, make certain you investigate access on all modes of transportation along your route. As you can imagine, access varies throughout Europe; however, regional carriers in Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland all officially offer some type of access. Even in those countries, the access varies depending on the route. Remember, your rail travels don’t necessarily have to be limited to those countries, because some long distance trains cross borders. The best bet is to contact the regional carrier directly. Although several outlets sell rail passes in the United States, these offices have very little knowledge of the true accessibility of the trains. You need to contact the regional carrier directly to find out the access details. For example, even though it is possible to travel by rail in Italy, in most cases power wheelchairs can only be carried in baggage cars. So, although most rail pass outlets can tell you that Italian trains provide “disabled access,” most are unaware of specific access details. Contact rail pass offices for information on rail passes, and contact the regional carriers for detailed access information. It’s also important to specify what type of access you require and what type of an assistive device you use when making your inquiry, as some trains can only accommodate manual wheelchairs. Rail passes are very economical, but it’s important to note that there are many different types. Most passes are valid for unlimited travel within a certain time frame. Some passes cover only one country, some cover a combination of countries, and some cover the entire network. Plan your route before you purchase a rail pass, because the economy of a rail pass is directly dependent on your needs. Even though not all trains are officially accessible, some are doable. It really depends on your ability and attitude. My friend Jack spent several weeks riding the rails in Europe last year. Jack is in his mid-twenties, loves to travel, and is in pretty good physical shape. He traveled throughout Europe with his friend Tim. Although he had a great time, he readily admits there were a few “incidents.” Here’s his recollection of one of the more memorable glitches of his trip: “I had a great time in Europe, although some of the trains I took didn’t exactly have roll-on access,” says Jack. “At several stations, Tim had to pick me up and carry me on the train, and then go back and get my wheelchair. This worked OK, except for one time in Germany when the train left the station before Tim had a chance to load my wheelchair. At the time, I was hysterical. We both just kept shouting ’rollstuhl,’ which is the German word for the wheelchair. I thought I’d never see my Quickie again. It all worked out OK, and eventually, I was reunited with my wheelchair, but it was a very stressful situation.” But don’t let Jack’s rollstuhl experience dissuade you from train travel in Europe. Some trains have excellent facilities. For example, the French rail carrier SNCF has designated wheelchair spaces on all non-TGV mainline trains. These spaces are located in first-class compartments, but wheelchair-users who purchase second-class tickets are able to reserve them at no extra charge. It works much like the system on the Eurostar trains. Advance reservations are a must for this and many other access arrangements. Contact SNCF for specific information. Most rail pass offices should be able to give you contact information for the regional rail carriers. You can also search the Internet under “Eurail” for general information on the Eurail network and rail pass retailers.