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A column on the art of traveling well
Passing on Passes
What could be more basic for Euro-travelers than purchasing a Hostelling International membership and Eurail pass before leaving home? It's been a standard for years. But are the benefits all they're cracked up to be? Perhaps not.
One of the main reasons people buy passes is to save money. There's nothing magic about itit's a question of simple math. If the rail miles you plan to travel cost more when buying individual tickets, then a pass is a good deal. If you're planning a high-mileage trip that sticks largely to Eurail-served routes, then a pass is almost always the best choiceespecially if you're 25 years-old or younger and qualify for a Youth pass.
If, on the other hand, your transit miles will be fewerif you'll explore intensively rather than extensivelyit gets harder to find a pass that will save you money. The Europass (some combination of France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland), or Flexipass (a few days of rail travel within a longer period) might be the solution. Individual nations and several nation groups have passes. But it could well be that purchasing individual second-class tickets on an as-you-go basis will be the cheapest choice.
Purchasing a Hostelling International hostel membership in advance may actually cost you more than starting your journey without one. If you're under 18, membership is free until you're 18th birthday, but if you're 18 to 54 years-old, an advance membership will cost you $25(US). If, instead, you buy your membership on an as-you-go basis when traveling out of your home country, it will cost you only about $18(US). The reason for this is that an as-you-go membership is earned by paying a premium of about $3(US) for each of your first 6 hostel nights, getting a stamp for a "guest card" each time. When you have 6 stamps, the card becomes a full membership card good for 1 year from the date of the first stamp. 6X$3=$18. Simple.
CONVENIENCE & HASSLE AVOIDANCE
Even if savings are not a big issue, It is often just plain easier to be traveling with a pass. With a Eurail pass, you can just board most trains without a reservation and ride (certain routes and high-speed trains require reservation and/or ticketing and/or payment of a premium). Standard pass-holders ride 1st class, youth pass-holders ride 2nd. I've traveled both with and without passes and have always enjoyed the convenience of skipping the lines and boarding the train.
A Hostelling International hostel membership also has it's advantages. There are certain discounts enabled by having a membership. A few HI hostels don't stick with the international guidelines and may insist on membership, or may be out of stamps or guest cards. HI's IBN reservation network is only open to members.
The points above seem pretty convincing, don't they? Pass-holders enjoy savings (often), simplicity, extras and bonuses, security, peace of mind, etc. All true, but there's a price to pay for all those crutches of convenience and containment of costs. By purchasing passes, you are choosing a framework for your entire journey. You are making advance decisions that will shape your experience. While the comforts of passes are nice, you may very well be cheating yourself out of possibilities that could yield greater rewards.
Remember, always, that the chance to travel freely, perhaps for many weeks or months, is likely to be a rare, perhaps singular chance. Most get one shot at escaping the responsibilities and obligations of home for an unconstrained international adventure.
How might passes close the doors of potential for you, the traveler? Read on:
TOO MANY MILES
Perhaps the greatest mistake eager travelers make is to try to pack too much in to the time they have available. They dash from Euro-city to Euro-city, taking advantage of their rail passes like gluttons at an all-you-can-eat buffet3 days in Rome, 3 in Florence, 2 in Venice, then on to Prague! And they go home, then, with what? Postcard memories and conversational bragging rights.
If you want to learn the world, you have move a little slower. If you want to earn the stories that will fuel your personal evolution, you must relax, open your eyes, and be ready and able to engage. If, instead, you lust for the next postcard-come-to-life and zip along the tracks, nose buried in guidebook, ready to dash to must-see sights before you zip on, then you will never get a "feel" for the lands and peoples you visit, and your experience will be shallower.
Your rail pass will whisper to you. "Go farther!", it says, "go more places, one more helping, have another chicken leg, get your money's worth and more! Move!"
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
How many Alpine valleys can't be reached by train? How many French villages are off the rail network? Which Italian wonders aren't on the main line from Venezia to Torino?
As a rail pass holder, why would you take the bus, or rent a car with friends, or enjoy a long backroad walk, or hitchhike through the countrysideor even take a slow little train that dead-ends at some wonderful nowhere? With only 3 days of validity left on your Flexipass and Salzburg, Bern, and Paris left on your itinerary, who's got time for a walk in Karwendelgebirge?
The pass-free traveler is primed to try the full range of transport optionsready, too, to sit tight and sink deeper.
There are hundreds of HI hostels in Europe. There are hundreds of additional hostels that are independent or members of other, smaller organizations. Not surprisingly, these other hostels are often located better than HI's facilities for a variety of purposes. In many towns, there is no HI hostel at all. Non-HI hostels can be as good, as bad, better, or worse than their HI counterparts. They usually have more character and fewer rules. Many have no curfew or lockout. They cost about what HI hostels cost.
And consider that, in addition to the hundreds and hundreds of hostels, there are more hundredsindeed thousands of budget lodging alternatives: Euro-campgrounds with tent cabins, cheap pensions, budget B&B's, YMCA and university dorms, the homes of people you befriend, and more.
Will you, as an HI membership holder with an HI hostels directory in hand, be as likely to choose these alternatives? If not, your range of options is severely constrainedand thus, the potential you have to enjoy the freedom of the road is constrained.
The crutches of passes are also shackles of imagination and inspiration. Travel is a time when spontaneity can carry you to experiences that are deep and lastingly memorable. Stay longer, leave sooner, go elsewhere, put down the guidebook, go for a walk, break routine, engage! If your travel mind is haunted by concerns regarding making a long-distance train or reaching your reserved HI hostel, then you have surrendered some of the ease and opportunity you need to travel freely, with inspiration.
If chance allows, set forth with a one-way ticket to the beginning point of what may well be your one, best great adventure. Drop the crutches and fly free. I can't assure you that it's a "safe" or "secure" way to goindeed, it isn't ...which is kind of the point. What I can promise is that, by traveling freely, you'll both learn and invent yourselfand self-discovery and self-invention are worthy pursuits.
Consider passing on the passes. You can't see it all... so why try? Go easy. Fear not.