The Eurailpass must be the closest thing to a magic carpet now available. It's a single pass offering unlimited access to Europe's magnificent train system, and it is good for all of Western Europe.
With a Eurailpass you can ride the rails in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Holland, the Irish Republic, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and West Germany.
This year the prices for Eurailpasses (issued for first-class travel only) are $260 for the 15-day pass; $330 for 21 days; $410 for 1 month; $560 for 2 months; and $680 for 3 months. The second-class Youthpass, for those under age 26, is $290 for a month and $370 for 2 months.
Andrew Lazarus, a Eurailpass spokesman, estimates that, for a trip of 1,500 miles, the 15-day pass pays off; for 2,000 miles, the 21-day pass does.
The Eurailpass should be purchased in the US, but can be bought in Europe at Eurail Aid offices in major cities (listed on the map you get with the pass).
Reservations for popular trains in season are advised; usually at least 5 to 6 hours' notice is required, and 24 hours is preferable.
If you are the precise sort of traveler who wants to plan a complete itinerary, or if you're not sure you will travel enough to justify the expense of a pass, either find a patient travel agent or send for your own copy of Cook's Continental Timetable (Forsyth Travel Library, PO Box 2975, Shawnee Mission, Kan. 66201; $15.95 plus $1 postage). Another book offering both schedules and advice is ``Eurail Guide, How to Travel Europe and All the World by Train,'' by Katherine Saltzman Turpin and Marvin L. Saltzman.
Prices listed for passes were as of Feb. 1.
Britain: A Eurailpass won't get you anywhere in the United Kingdom. Here you need a Britrail pass, available in first class and economy. Prices are as follows: adult first class, $155 for seven days, $230 for 14 days, $290 for 21 days, $335 for one month; economy, $115 for seven days, $175 for 14 days, $220 for 21 days, $260 for one month; and youth (automatically economy class), $95 for seven days, $150 for 14 days, $190 for 21 days, $225 for a month.
It seems very British somehow that the senior pass costs the same as economy, but includes an automatic upgrading to first class.
A useful booklet is Go Britrail, available from Britrail Travel International, 630 Third Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017.
Britrail also offers a combination pass and rental-car package; you take the train for long hauls, then rent a car to tour each destination. For $149 per person for two, you get a 7-day economy Britrail pass, plus 4 days of a small rental car during the period of the validity of the pass. (With a 14-day pass, you get an 8-day rental for $258.)
Another travel pass is for those visiting Scotland: the Highlands and Islands Pass, which includes buses and ferries as well as trains. The cost is $68 for five days, $113 for 10.
All of the Eurailpass countries have their own passes and discounts for those planning to stay within their boundaries:
Austria: Austria's Network pass is good on all trains, boats, and cable cars, and some buses. The 9-day pass is $100 for first class, $68 for second; the 16-day pass is $140 first, $90 second; and the one-month pass is $220 first, $140 second. The second-class Austrian Youth pass (ages 6 to 26) is $45 for 9 days, $65 for 16.
Seniors (women over 60 and men over 65) qualify for a half-price discount; to get it you need a railway senior-citizen ID. These, and the tickets, are available at all Austrian railway stations.
Belgium: Belgium has one of the densest rail networks in the world. This is one place where the hub-city approach works well; no part of it is more than 21/2 hours from Brussels. Other cities for which you could use this approach would be: Bruges or Li`ege. There is such frequent service that reservations are considered unnecessary.
Prices for 1985 are not yet available; expect to pay about 7 percent more than the prices that follow:
For summer visitors (April 1-Sept 30), Belgium has a Tour Rail ticket, good for 5 days of travel over 16 days: this costs $33 for first class, $22 for second. The Youth (12-25) fare is $24.75 for first class, $16.50 for second. Another ticket, good for 8 days of travel over 16 days, is $43 first class, $29 second for adults, $32 and $19 for youth. Available year-round: a pass good for 16 consecutive days, at $57 and $37 for adults.
There is also a Benelux Tour Rail, available between April 1 and Oct. 31 and between Dec. 15 and 31. This can be used in Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Good for 8 days of travel within 16 days: the cost is $68 first class, $45 second class, for adults, $51 and $34 for youths.
France: The France Vacance pass gives you unlimited rail travel in France. In the US it must be purchased through a travel agent or French National Railroad, 610 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10020. Prices for 7 days -- $170 for first class, $115 for second; 15 days -- $220 for first, $150 for second; one month -- $345 for first, $230 for second.
Ireland: Ireland's rail network is a spoke system with the hub at Dublin; trains go from there to major cities, with buses serving smaller places. You can buy one of the Rambler tickets for just the buses or just the trains for slightly less, but recommended is the ticket good for both, at $66 for 8 days, $96 for 15 days. The Youth Rambler (for those under 26) is 15 percent less. Another ticket, called the Overlander, also good for Northern Ireland, is $107 for 15 days.
These prices are for standard class; reservations are not necessary. These tickets are available in the US and at railway stations in Ireland. Here, contact CIE Tours, 590 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10036 (1-800-223-8944).
Italy: Italy offers the BTLC Italian Tourist ticket in first and second class. Prices for the 8-day ticket are $114 for first class, $72 for second; for 15 days, $139 and $87; for 21 days, $166 and $102; and for 30 days, $202 and $127.
There is also the Italian Kilometer ticket, which gives you 20 trips for a total of 3,000 kilometers (1,875 miles): $140 first class, $79 second. These can be used by up to five people. The tickets may be purchased at rail stations in Italy or at the Office of the Italian Railway, 666 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10113.
Norway: Norway gives a half-price discount to anyone over 67; open to all is the Norwegian Bargain Railpass for $43, good for seven days of unlimited one-way travel; available for those going less than 465 miles is a seven-day pass for $32.
The Scandinavian rail pass is good for 21 days of travel in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland and may be purchased at any of the countries' rail stations: $208 first class, $139 second class.
Spain: Spain offers discounted coupons called Chequetren, which offer savings of about 15 percent. Books come in either $103 or $128.78 denominations; each book of tickets can be used by up to six people. Available at travel agencies or train stations in Spain.
Trains in Spain are good for longer hauls; look for the names Talgo, TER, and Electrotren. The shorter-haul trains are slow and crowded commuter trains.
Sweden: In Sweden, three or more family members get a 45-percent discount. Senior citizens get a 40-percent discount. A reduced-rate card gives a 45-percent discount for a 12-month period (not good Fridays or Sundays). Tickets can be bought at Swedish rail stations.
Switzerland: The Swiss Holiday card is not only good for Switzerland's famous train system but for lake steamers and buses as well. It is restricted to overseas travelers -- in fact, like the Eurailpass, it used to be available only outside the country. Now it can be bought at all major rail stations and airports.
Prices are: for a four-day pass, $94 for first class, $63 for second class; an 8-day pass, $109 and $74; a 15-day pass, $131 and $90; for one month, $183 and $124.
West Germany: Germany's Wunderkarte offers unlimited mileage on Germany's frequent and punctual trains. A four-day card has been added for $100 in first class, $70 in second. The 9-day pass is $150 first class, $110 second; the 16-day pass is $205 and $150. Children from 4 to 11 pay half fare; those under 4 ride free. Also new this year is the second-class ``Junior'' card for those under 26 -- 9 days for $70, 16 days for $90. These can be bought at any major railway station in Germany or through German Federal Railways, 747 Third Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017.
An added benefit of a Wunderkarte: You can obtain bikes free at hundreds of stations; you can even pick up a bike at one station and drop it off at another.