There are so many places John and I want to visit in Europe, we decided to spend two months there. We made that decision last October, before the market really melted down, but we’re going anyway.

We decided to buy a Eurail pass to use in April and May. We already have our plane tickets in hand, too. And John’s son is going to house-sit for us. All set!

Making the big-ticket purchases early freed our minds for the fun part of getting ready — getting in touch with friends we might visit and deciding which places we really don’t want to miss. And I rationalize that some of the money would be gone by now anyway, due to the economic downturn.

At the Internet site www.Eurail.com you buy directly from Eurail. The user-friendly website promises “lowest price and free shipping.”

We selected unlimited first-class train travel for two months. The cost for two or more traveling together was $1,329 each, plus $12 for insurance in case a pass is lost.

(If you’re 25 or younger, the cost was $1,019; if you’re 26 or older and traveling alone, the cost was $1,569. Other time frames and more limited passes are also on sale. Prices in dollars change at least monthly, depending on the exchange rate.)

There’s another popular website, www.RailEurope.com, which was recommended by a travel agent.

“But I don’t buy off websites myself,” she said. “I prefer to telephone a live human and deal directly.”

We had a conference call, the travel agent, the live human at Rail Europe, and I.

“Why buy at Rail Europe instead of Eurail?”

“We are based in the United States,” the live human said. “And you can make reservations on our website, too.”

She wanted a list of the countries we plan to visit. (Eurail didn’t ask. Its website simply listed the 21 countries the pass covers.)

We want to play it light and loose, and we don’t have an itinerary pinned down yet. All we have decided for sure is that we want to take the plane to Frankfurt, Germany, make our way south to Spain, and then meander through several countries, all the way north to the fjords of Norway, then back to Frankfurt and home.

Conversations with John are like this:

Let’s head for the sun, and save the northern countries for the end of the trip.

Sounds good. How about stopping off in Italy first, and visit the caves of Parma? Remember that article about Parmesan cheese?

And don’t forget Bologna, for the fabulous restaurants. And Florence, for the incomparable collections of art.

Shouldn’t we go directly to Spain, because of the weather in early April? The farther south the better, don’t you think?
Should we stop off in Paris for a few days?

On our way north, let’s take a side trip to Ukraine, to see friends who were in the Peace Corps with us in Russia and now have those great jobs in Kiev.

But that’s so far east. And it’s not on the 21-countries list.

Let’s do it anyway; we’ll have time.

Let’s talk about it later.

Meanwhile, how much for the RailEurope tickets?

The RailEurope.com website was not as user-friendly as the Eurail.com website, and it was hard to figure what the actual cost for a comparable pass would be. The live human said the cost would be $1,668 each if we made the purchase at their website, plus $14 each for the insurance. That price might be lower by now, as the exchange rate has changed.
How much for buying the Rail Europe passes through the travel agent? The same, but with the travel agent’s add-on fee. The advantage? None, that I could see.

The travel agent cheerfully said she couldn’t see any advantage either, and suggested I buy the passes myself from Eurail.com.

I took the leap, while there was still spendable money left in our IRAs, and bought directly from the Eurail.com website. The Eurail pass was hand-delivered the next day, complete with voucher, insurance, maps, train timetables. We are ready!
We’re still debating Ukraine.