A friend and I are planning a backpacking trip to Europe for May of 2014.
We plan to hopefully visit the following places: Berlin, Salzburg, Prague, Munich, Fussen, Venice, Rome, Cinque Terre (Vernazza, Manarola, Riomaggiore), Paris, Madrid, Barcelona. (Would be a dream if we could add Switzerland into the mix, and Colmar, France.)
We are hoping to stay for 1 1/2 - max 3 weeks. I know we'll probably need at least two to truly get the most out of the experience.
We are both fine with just taking one backpack, so originally I had planned on perhaps booking a few flights, but I will have a small camera bag (purse sized) with me at all times as well, and I am unsure if I can take both a backpack and purse onto a flight without having to check luggage.
So we turned to trains, thinking the rail pass would be a good value since we were going to be in so many different countries for such long a period of time.
The problem I am running into however, is that the train schedules are not posted very far in advance at all, and the schedules seem rather sporadic.
In order to book accommodations (Hotel, Hostel, etc.) and entertainment, I'd need to know in general what time we would be getting in and leaving.
I've been doing some research for a few weeks now, and it seems that most hotels are already booked far in advance (I understand that May is the beginning of tourist season). And with us trying to fit in as much as we can (unsure of when I'd be able to get back to Europe in the future) I'd like to pre-plan this as far in advance as possible.
If we get a rail pass, can we still reserve our spot on a train? I understand paying the reservation fee, but is there a way to tell the online reservation that we have a pass and therefore shouldn't be charged for the ticket itself?
Are any overnight trains included in the pass?
I've been looking at some of the perhaps more obscure routes, like Prague to Fussen, they don't show any schedules, they simply ask you to call the EuroRail office to handle it.
Has anyone called their office before to set up a trip? Would that be a better bet?
What happens when the train it gives me as an option for that rout just has Train 1234, not the name of the train company like TrenItalia, DB, etc.
Do you suggest printing train tickets out far in advance or printing them at the station? (Even if we have a rail pass, printing confirmations or reservations for an overnight?)
I have also heard that buses are a good option, does anyone have any suggestions for sites with bus schedules and information?
We're open to taking night trains or buses, but have heard that rail passes do not cover all trains (only the national rail systems?)
Also, if anyone has any advice to share on the following questions, you would be a life saver!
1. If I take overnight buses, do any fellow backpackers have suggestions for where / how to shower if we don't book accommodations for those nights? I heard someone say that if you ask around some hotels will let you use the facilities?
2. We hopefully plan to couch-surf at some point, but if we don't, do you have any suggestions for where to do laundry so we only need to bring a few items with us?
3. I am in dire need of mobile phone suggestions! I have U.S Cellular, not the typical AT&T, Spring or Verizon plan. I want to be able to use a phone for emergency needs, but would like to have a smart phone so I can download train apps, maps, have access to emails with confirmation numbers, etc. Any suggestions for the best way to go about this?
So sorry for such a massive set of questions, I wanted to try and cover it in one post.
Thank you all so much, looking forward to hearing your travel expertise!
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Advice needed on travel and booking Trains for first time Europe trip!