Here are some lessons we've learned.
As of now, although there is a Eurail Pass, as well as many other types of international passes, there is no Eurail. That is, there is no single European rail system. Instead, there are individual railroad systems for each country.
At least the trains are on the same gauge track, and there are in fact quite a few international trains, that is, there are trains connecting major cities in different countries. If you want to go from a small city in one country to another small city in the next country, it will generally take you much longer than if the two cities were in the same country.
Although there is much common equipment for the intercity trains, each nation tends to have its own cars, which are different in minor details from the next nation's cars.
In all the countries we visited, the railroads are run by the government. Or so it seems. There may be a privatized railroad corporation, or possibly a quasi-public railroad company, but there is no competition. This leads rather uniformly to a bureaucratic mind set of railroad personnel. Nobody is competing for customers, so everybody feels free to do things their way. However, that's usually very nice.
Perhaps the biggest way in which one sees that the railroads of different countries don't work well together is in the information systems. There's a lot of good information available within each country -- such as line maintenance, scheduled delays, cancellations, and the like. But this information is not Europe-wide, so you're out of luck if, as happened to us, you travel from Copenhagen to Amsterdam and don't know about the planned disruption of service. If you did know, you could have rescheduled your trip through Dusseldorf and saved time. But this information is not available to the traveler, and it looks like many years before it will be.
This is all rather surprising. Europe has been working on unification since 1958, when the first six countries agreed to the common market. (Actually, the ideas go back decades earlier.) It should have been apparent that merging the paperwork and bureaucracy would be a good way to provide efficiencies. Yet this has not happened, and still seems to be far off.
The reservations system is also not terribly user-friendly. There is a charge for reservations, typically two to five dollars per person. There's no need to pay this if the train will be empty, and there are pretty good ways to predict how busy particular trains will be - time of day, day of the week, month of the year, etc. But again, this information is not available to travelers, so you have to get knowledge. We found that after the middle of October, the trains started to be empty, especially in the middle of the day, so we saved on reservations. We also found that on some trains, such as the French TGVs, reservations are required even if you will be the only passengers.
Making reservations has its own difficulties, because you feel bound to accept the seats you reserve, even if they're not the ones you like best! You can ask for smoking / nonsmoking, you can ask for window seats, you can ask for a table, but unless you know the configuration of the particular car you are assigned, you may not get the seats you want. Some cars have six-passenger compartments. Do you want to be side-by-side? How do you know if you are facing forward or back? Would you rather have the two seats facing one another next to the window? If the car has both smoking and non-smoking sections, are the sections separated by a partition? If not, non-smokers may wish to be far away from the border with the smoking section (and even then it may not help.)
If you go into most European train reservation offices, the clerk will enter your request into a computer: where and when do you want to go? The computer, in turn, always comes up with the fastest connection. This may be a high-speed train. The high-speed trains run on special track, that can handle the speed, is banked around curves, etc. But the slow-speed track may be the trip you want to take: following the curves of a winding river past beautiful castles and vineyards, say. You can't get the European computers to give you scenic routes; so you tend to do those yourselves. This is another reason not to make reservations.
During our entire three-month rail trip, with dozens of train rides, we found only a few which were crowded enough to really need reservations: Zurich to Innsbruck, Munich to Hamburg, and Milan to Zurich. Perhaps the first train would not have required reservations a month later; we traveled in mid-September, when there were still plenty of tourists. The Munich to Hamburg was a long (900 km) trip on a high-speed train, which was quite crowded with German business travellers.
One hint we received is not to travel early or late in the day, but in mid-day. Try to plan a trip, say, that leaves at 10:00 a.m. and arrives at 2:00 p.m. This way you will miss a lot of the local commuters and business travelers.
Watch out for Sundays and holidays, when the number of trains scheduled is reduced.
For the countries of western Europe through which we traveled, we found lots of parts of the experience were quite similar. In the train station are posted big schedules -- arrivals in white, departures in yellow. We were mostly interested in yellow, as we weren't meeting anyone. The departures are listed by hour on a 24-hour clock. You look at your watch and then at the schedule, and you can immediately see the next few trains to leave the station. Continue until you find the first train going to your destination. The listing will show you the track and the train's stops and final destinations. Express trains are shown in red, locals in black (those in black and red are a little bit local and a little bit express!)
We also picked up schedules for the regional trains when we arrived at a new city, before we left the railroad station. Sometimes you have to ask for the schedule book, but there are also usually stacks of individual timetables, which are quite useful for developing ideas for excursions.
Handling baggage is pretty straightforward. Most first class cars have plenty of baggage space (Eurail passes are only available in first class.) Some cars have a few locations where you may lock up a suitcase or computer. There's no good way to know if this capability will be available on a particular car, though. The only downside of this for us was that we were unwilling to leave our baggage unattended while we had lunch on the train -- worried about the risk of theft. So we began to buy snacks to eat at our seats -- perhaps from the dining car, perhaps from a little trolley, if they had one, perhaps at the station before we boarded.
We never checked baggage; it seemed expensive and time-consuming, and we were able to take our own baggage with us OK. In fact if we had traveled a little lighter, it would have been still easier to schlep our own baggage.
At major stations there is often a lift or escalator so you don't have to lug your bags up or down stairs. Look for it thoroughly! It's also a good idea to get to your departure track in advance, so you can quickly board the correct car. Originating trains are available for boarding about a half-hour before departure, and you get your pick of the unreserved seats.
Once at the track you will find a diagram showing, for trains which accept reservations, how the cars will line up. Second class cars are green, first class yellow. If you have reservations, you will have a particular car by number. The car diagram also has a symbol showing "You are Here." So the next thing is to go to where you want to be when the train pulls in. If the train originates in your station, you will have more time to get to the right place for your car. One warning here: fairly often the engineers don't park their trains where the diagram says they are going to park their trains, and so you have to walk a long way anyhow!
It is better to pull your luggage along on its wheels along the platform until you come to the car you wish to board than to try to pull your luggage through the train.
We found the Eurail & Train Travel Guide to Europe to be the best book on the subject, but it has its shortcomings. It provides very good information on each country's train system, and lists hundreds of rail trips and excursions throughout Europe. These are strong points. It also provides several possible schedules for these trips, which takes up a lot of space in the book and is not terribly useful, since the traveler must check current schedules. So it would have been just as good to simply list approximate travel times for the trips, saving hundreds of pages.
In general, the strong point of the Guide is trains and the weak point tourism. The authors do list the major sights in and around each of the European cities they cover, but there is little to help the traveler decide which sights will be more interesting. Furthermore, the Guide says little about what you see from the train by way of scenery, except for specific "scenic" train excursions, often into mountains.
Railroad stations, especially in the larger cities, are good sources for food, reading matter, and local tourist information. Some very large railroad stations also contain pharmacies, money change offices, various shops, and Internet cafes. Zurich was the best railroad station we visited by far. Railroad stations in the very small towns can be dreadful -- dirty and unstaffed, cold and dismal. But there is almost always a map posted somewhere, showing the nearest bus stop and tourist office.
The Eurail Pass itself is a little flimsy, and we covered a sturdy envelope with plastic tape to fashion a little hand-made pouch to carry the Pass. If we did it again, we'd probably pay $10 to $20 to purchase a Eurail Pass cover. One that held two passports as well would also be convenient.
We did purchase the loss protection insurance; we didn't lose our pass, but we worried about it, and so we'd probably purchase the insurance if we did it again.