This is why it pays to figure out, if at all possible, where you will be travelling (when doesn’t matter so much) if you’re thinking about getting a pass. I had one when I went (and I calcualated afterwards I saved about $200 or so) – and this was in '98, so it may be different now – but the way it worked varied from country to country. In Spain, it seemed we had to pay to reserve every ticket (and actually get the ticket at no cost), while in Germany, we just got on the train and went, simply showing the pass instead of a ticket.
It might even depend on what the conductor allows. At one point, we were stuck in the Netherlands just 15 km or so from the German connection point and had to wait an hour for the express train – the bus driver that crosses the border wouldn’t accept the pass.
In almost every case, though, you do have to pay if you want a reservation, and if you want a reserved sleeper/couchette you have to pay for that. The big advantage of the Eurail is the potential ‘package deal’ effect if you take a lot of trips, and for the times and places you don’t need to wait in line for tickets. If you have your trip completely planned out, it is likely not to be a huge savings.
A good web resource while travelling is Lonely Planet’s message board (at http://www.lonelyplanet.com ) – a great place to ask questions when you decide to visit/get stuck in a place you don’t know much about.
Another thing, if you haven’t heard it before : Get an ISIC! Really, really great for discounts, plus it’s an extra photo ID if you lose your passport (makes the embassy visit much smoother).
If you have the money, I’d highly recommend getting a Pac-safe (Available at REI, check their website here to see what it looks like.) It’s a wire mesh that wraps all around your pack to lock it – great for when it’s luggage, and useful when carrying it around. I didn’t have one on that trip, and it’s a pain to always be wondering if someone’s going to run up behind you and cut your pack.
For Quintas, and others trying to budget a trip :
Rather than try and work out what my 1998 dollars would mean today, I’ll give some hints on laying out the budget :
Figure out the price of the plane ticket. If you are flexible in dates & times of travel (or are willing to work with stand-by services), you should be able to get this pretty cheap.
Check the price of a Eurail pass for the time frame, even if you won’t be getting one. It’s a good estimate of what you’ll spend on an average trip of 10-15 stops. Add about $100 for extra fees, subway trips, etc. Add some more if you’re doing more extensive travel (If you’ll be in the UK a while, check Britrail pass prices).
Next consider price per day of lodging. With hostelling, pensioning, or sleeping on trains, I’m guessing $20 a night. You might even be able to trim some of that off.
Factor in what you want to spend on food – in a lot of cities, you can get food really cheap (like a few bucks a meal). I’m missing doner kebab just thinking about it. Just guess per day (note that almost any place you stay (except a train carriage) will provide you with a breakfast, ranging from the most basic, uh, Continental, to a full spread, depending on the country/lodging).
Then, expect about $10 a day on recreational activities, like museums, trips up mountains, etc. Maybe less, maybe more depending on your taste.
Finally, don’t forget souvenirs & an emergency cash source (doesn’t have to be cash itself).
And if you’re a student, get an ISIC!
One last note – someone up there mentioned Algeciras in Spain. I have to say I can’t argue with Mr. Steves if he says that town sucks. It does. However, the hostel there (actually a few miles north of town) is one of the most beautiful in the world. Looks like a resort, it’s got its own pool and a great view of Gibraltar. If you do go down there, don’t spend your nights anywhere else. (Also, get your laundry done there, it’s great!)