The Eurail Pass helped remake summer travel. Introduced in 1959 by a group of cooperating European railroads, it gave tourists the opportunity to hop from country to country on a single golden ticket.
This offering was not only popular, it was transformative. One reason was that it attracted many a student and other budget traveler for a summer of European adventure. The other was that introduced Americans to a new set of destinations that went beyond the grand European capitals. Every stop on the train became a place to explore. Here’s how LIFE described the joy of the Eurail Pass in its Aug. 14, 1970 issue:
Nowadays more and more Americans—many of them equipped with only a knapsack and a sleeping bag—are bypassing the tourist traps to explore out-of-the-way towns and villages. And they are discovering that one of the finest—and cheapest—ways to roam the continent is on Europe’s dense network of railroads.
The story praised the comfort and the punctuality of European trains, and the pictures by LIFE photographer Carlo Bavagnoli did plenty to sell the experience. The most exotic photo from his set is of a rider in the salon car of a French train, having her hair washed in preparation for a styling.
But the true Eurail experience was more about exploration than luxury. Bavagnoli’s photos of young people bumming around train stations or asleep in railcar seats, on their way to their next new experience, capture its fundamental appeal.
Bavagnoli’s photos also give glimpses of European attractions, such as the tilework in Portugal or a historic cathedral in Germany. Taken as a whole, the pictures capture the thrill of being able to bounce from one country to another without ever having to step on an airplane.
That basic appeal is why the Eurail Pass remains a popular offering today, with the current service expanded to 33 countries—Estonia and Latvia were the most recent to come on board, in 2020. Not only that, but rail companies in other countries have been inspired by the Eurail Pass to create their own cooperative products in India, in Japan, and in South Korea.
Then as now, just thinking about all the possible destinations can’t help but excite the imagination.