Before traveling to Europe we purchased first-class railroad passes online at http://www.eurail.com. Why first class? On most second-class cars you have to place your bags on luggage racks near the exit door. Very convenient for thieves. You can bring your luggage with you in first-class. There are all kinds of passes available, most of which restrict you to a certain number of countries and a specific number of days. We chose the regional two country pass — Benelux + Germany, 5 days within 2 months (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg count as one country).
You can buy your pass up to three months before traveling and you must activate your pass within 6 months. We purchased our passes in early March for our late May travels. You also must have your pass activated by a station agent before you use it for the first time.
Most high-speed trains require seat reservations in addition to your pass or ticket. Reservations for ICE trains are inexpensive but those for THALYS trains are quite expensive. If you are planning to travel almost exclusively on THALYS you may not save any money by buying a pass instead of individual tickets.
Here’s how we used our five days:
Day One (May 23rd): Amsterdam to Osnabruck (ICE high speed; inexpensive reservation). It was a pleasant three-hour ride through the Dutch and German countryside.
Day Two (May 26th): Osnabruck to Cologne (THALYS high speed ; very expensive reservation) and then Cologne to Aachen (regional; no reservation required).
Day Three (May 27th): Verviers to Brussels and Brussels to Nivelles (regional, no reservations required). It’s a little scary in Belgium with all the warnings regarding pickpockets and thieves and you need to be on your toes, especially if you are going to the Bruxelles-Midi station. In Belgium all tracks lead to Brussels. There is no train from Verviers to Nivelles. The gangs of thieves at Midi keep in touch with each other via walkie-talkies. Most of the males in these gangs look like thugs but the women dress normally and do not stand out. We made eye contact with all of those who were close to us to make sure they knew that we were aware of their presence and we had no problems.
Day Four (May 28th): Nivelles to Brussels (regional, no reservation required). Again, there were many warnings regarding crime in Belgian train stations. We were advised by fellow passengers to get off at Bruxelles-Central instead of Bruxelles-MIDI because our hotel was only six or seven blocks from the central station. That was fine with us. We didn’t see any suspicious creatures in the central station.
Day Five (May 30th): Brussels to Amsterdam Schiphol (THALYS high speed, very comfortable; expensive reservation). We had to go back to the Midi station to catch the THALYS.
The Eurail website told us that we needed a reservation for the Osnabruck to Cologne train but when we boarded the THALYS train in Osnabruck we discovered that this was not a reservation train. The conductor gave us a voucher to obtain a refund at the Cologne station but we did not have time to obtain this as our friends who were waiting for us in Aachen were on a tight time frame that day and we had to catch the very next train to Aachen.
All in all, we found the trains to be clean and comfortable and all but one ran on time. The train from Osnabruck had some trouble midway to Cologne and was a few minutes late.
Here are some pictures I took on the ICE from Amsterdam to Osnabruck: