The best way to travel Europe is by train. It may not be the cheapest (flight prices can be ridiculously low), but it’s the most comfortable, relaxing, and easiest. There’s no need for the endless queuing like in airports, and most train stations are in the heart of the city. And you can enjoy the views along the way.
In September we did our third trip with an Interrail pass, which allows you to hop on trains all over the continent. We travelled from London to southern Spain via France, Switzerland, and Italy. Our first Interrail experience was when we were newbie backpackers aged 19 and visited 10 countries in a month, and the second was three years ago when we travelled from London to Sicily via France, Germany, Slovenia and Italy.
We loved each of our Interrail experiences, and despite travelling at a faster pace than we usually do these days, we find train travel much less tiring than flying.
What is an Interrail/ Eurail Pass?
An Interrail Global Pass is a rail pass that allows you to travel on most trains in 30 countries in Europe. Although you need seat reservations for some trains (I’ll cover that below), you can hop on and off many trains without having to buy a ticket. It makes European train travel easy and often saves you money.
You can buy passes for various time periods, such as seven days of travel within one month, 15 days continuous, or one month continuous, which is the pass we’ve always used.
Interrail also has one country passes for individual countries, but the Global Pass is the most popular and best value.
Interrail passes are for European residents. Everyone else can travel with a Eurail pass instead. These are similar but have slightly different time periods available—there are passes for up to three months continuous.
How to Buy an Interrail/ Eurail Pass
You can buy passes online from Interrail.eu or Eurail.com and get them delivered to your home. You must buy them before you start your trip. There are currently early bird sales with up to 20% off passes until the end of 2017. You can use the pass to travel now or next summer.
Prices vary depending on the length of the pass and your age. It’s cheaper if you are under 25 and choose 2nd class. If you are on a budget, 2nd class is totally fine. We love travelling first class, but mostly that’s because we work as we travel and first class carriages are quieter and more likely to have tables and power points. In many cases (especially on slower regional trains) the difference between first and second class isn’t huge.
Sample early bird prices are €407 for a one month continuous Interrail Global Pass for under 25-year-olds or €532 for the same pass if you are over 25. See all the price options on the Interrail or Eurail websites.
You can order a pass up to 11 months before your trip starts. For Interrail passes, your start date will be printed on your pass. For Eurail passes, you don’t need to choose a start date, but you must activate the pass before your trip starts at a European train station or online.
Is an Interrail Pass Worth it?
Whether a rail pass is worth it depends on the trip you want to take. If you’ll only be taking a few trains within one or two countries, it probably won’t be good value. If you want to cover a lot of ground, it could well save you money, especially in expensive Western European and Scandinavian countries.
I recommend coming up with a rough itinerary and using a site like Loco2 to calculate how much it would cost to buy tickets individually, then compare that to the price of the pass. If the cost is roughly the same, go with the pass as it’s so much easier not having to buy tickets for every trip.
Note that European train tickets are usually a lot cheaper if you buy a few months in advance rather than last minute. If you don’t want to commit to plans in advance, then a pass will give you the most flexibility.
Bear in mind that some countries are better for Interrailing than others. France, Spain and Italy require the most seat reservations (which you have to pay extra for), so a trip entirely to those countries might not work out good value. The easiest countries for Interrailing are Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Great Britain, and Ireland as most trains don’t require reservations, even high-speed ones.
Planning Your Route
Where have you always wanted to visit in Europe? I keep a wish list of places I want to visit, so I consulted that when I was planning our last Interrail trip. I added the places I most wanted to go to a custom Google map, which allowed me to see which places could easily be combined and the best route to take.
A paper map comes with your pass or you can download the Europe train map to start mapping out routes.
For variety, I suggest mixing beaches with cities and countryside. Combine famous destinations like Paris and Barcelona with less well known smaller towns like Colmar, Finale Ligure, Spello, Ljubljana, and Ghent. Getting off the beaten track will help you avoid the crowds, save money on accommodation, and have a unique experience. You can also avoid seat reservations by doing shorter journeys on regional trains rather than long trips between big cities.
Once I had chosen some possible destinations, I used the online Interrail Train Timetable or Rail Planner app to see how long the train trips would be. At this point, I realised that I was trying to fit too much into a month, so I removed some countries and came up with a more realistic schedule.
The Interrail Train Timetable was really useful throughout our trip for looking up train times. You can choose to search for trains that don’t require reservations (just tick the box). This was especially helpful for us in Italy, and we managed to avoid paying for seat reservations for all but one train we took there. The app is free and works offline.
Note that the rail passes don’t include the Eurostar train for travel between London and mainland Europe. Pass holders do get a discount but usually it’s cheaper to buy an advance ticket on the Eurostar website (which is what we did)—book as far in advance as possible for the best deals.
Pass holders also receive discounts on some ferry routes such as between Italy and Greece.
Note that Interrail Global Passes are only valid for one outbound and one inbound train in your home country.
How to Make Seat Reservations
Seat reservations are necessary on some high-speed trains and can be quite pricey. You can avoid them by using the Interrail Train Timetable or app to find trains that don’t require reservations. We only needed five seat reservations out of the 23 journeys we took using our last rail pass, despite the fact that our trip was in the countries that require the most reservations—France, Italy and Spain.
Sometimes you want to take the quickest and most convenient train, though, especially for long journeys. Sleeper trains always require reservations.
Reservations can be made up to three months in advance. Seats for pass holders are limited on certain trains like the French TGVs, so it’s best to book as far in advance as possible in the summer. In late August/September, we booked a week or two in advance and had no problems.
How to make the seat reservations depends on the country. You can book in person at train stations around Europe, but we couldn’t be bothered to do that during our trip, and as we were travelling in high season, we wanted to book in advance.
In France, we booked online at en.voyages-sncf.com. Just search for the train you want to take and choose Pass Interrail (Global Pass or One Country France) from the drop down list of discount cards. You can then print the e-ticket or save it on your mobile with their app (which is what we did).
In Italy, you can book online at trenitalia.com. Use the journey planner as normal (make sure you use Italian place names—Firenze not Florence, etc.) and click on the train you want to book. You’ll be given a list of price options and you need to click on the grey box below them that says “View other options”. On the next page choose Global Pass from the Offer drop down list. You can then go ahead and book. You don’t need to print an e-ticket, just show the PNR number on the train.
Interrail Reservations Service
Some countries, like Spain, don’t allow you to book seat reservations online, so we used the Interrail Reservations Service (Eurail also has this service). You do have to pay a €8 booking fee (total cost per train no matter how many seats you book) in addition to the reservation fee, but it was worth it for us.
The service was easy to use. We filled in the details online, and they confirmed our reservations within 24 hours and posted the tickets to our hotel in Italy within a week. They deliver anywhere in Europe for free. Some trains (like Spanish domestic trains) have e-tickets so they don’t need to be posted (and the booking fee is only €6).
Seat Reservation Costs
The Interrail site lists seat reservation fees. Most of our seat reservations were €9–10 each and cost the same for first or second class. Our most expensive trip was the eight-hour journey from Marseille, France to Madrid, Spain. The seat reservation was €48 each in first class (€34 in second), plus the €8 booking fee for using the Reservations Service as we couldn’t book that train online.
Although this seems very expensive, the same train in second class would cost over €200 without a rail pass. If we had had more time, we could have avoided reservation fees by breaking up the journey in Barcelona and taking slower trains.
I recommend making seat reservations for a few major routes near the beginning of your trip, and keeping the rest of your trip flexible so you can hop on and off as you please.
Using Your Pass
Before boarding a train, record the trip details in the Travel Diary that is provided with your ticket.
If you have a flexi pass (such as 10 days of travel within one month), fill in the date of each travel day in the travel calendar, which is printed on your pass. You can save travel days by taking night trains. If your train leaves after 7pm and arrives after 4am the next day, you only have to fill in the arrival day in the travel calendar.
Resources for Your Trip
- The Man in Seat 61 is a really useful site for everything train travel.
- Don’t forget travel insurance. For EU citizens the best and cheapest option we’ve found is with True Traveller. For everyone else, World Nomads is a well-respected company and we’ve used them in the past.
- In high season you’ll need to book accommodation at least a few days in advance. We preferred booking in advance so that we didn’t have to look around for a place once we arrived. We use Booking.com for hostels, guesthouses, and hotels and Airbnb for rooms and apartments. Airbnb is often excellent value in Europe and you can save money by cooking for yourself. If you haven’t used it before, sign up here for $35/£25 off your first stay.
- If you are only spending a night in a city, choose accommodation near the train station to save time.
- Use our Trail Wallet app for iPhone to keep track of your expenses on your trip.
- Packing light will make it easier to navigate train stations and cities. Read my book, The Carry-On Traveller: The Ultimate Guide to Packing Light, or see our carry-on packing list for tips.
- A SIM card with data plan for your phone comes in handy for looking up directions. We got a free Three pay as you go SIM in the UK. Their data packages can be used for no additional charge in many countries in Europe, which was so much easier than buying a local SIM card for each country we visited. If you do need to do that, see our guide to buying SIM cards around the world.
- See our favourite apps to help you plan your trip.
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Our latest Interrail pass was provided by Interrail.eu, but the first pass we used we paid for ourselves. We receive a small commission if you buy the passes through the links in this post (at no extra cost to you). If you want to visit a lot of countries in Europe, we think Interrail or Eurail passes are the easiest and best value way to get around.
Are you planning your travels for 2018? See our Travel Resources page for our favourite tools and gear to help you plan the perfect trip.