Although I love a good European rail trip, I’ve never been Interrailing. The post-university right of passage for 20-something Europeans passed me by, but the passes aren’t just for gap-yearers. Their main selling point is that they makes rail travel around Europe easier and cheaper – but it is true? It definitely would be if you’re under 28, doing a month-long trip, on the move almost every day and making up your itinerary as you go. But what if you’ve only got a couple of weeks, have your itinerary already planned, and 28 has been and (long) gone? I tried out an Interrail pass on my France and Italy rail trip this summer to find out.
What is an Interrail pass?
An Interrail pass is a regional rail pass that lets you travel by train in 30 countries across Europe. You need to be a European citizen or resident to be eligible, but if you’re from outside Europe then you can get a Eurail pass instead. They work in a similar way but some of the options and prices are slightly different.
There are a couple of different Interrail pass options – a Global Pass, which you can use anywhere in the region, and individual country passes. You can either get a continuous pass which you can use as much as you like within a certain number of days (15 days, 22 days or a month). Or you can get a pass for a set number of travel days within a time period (5 days out of 15, or 7, 10 or 15 days within a month) – these are better if you’re not planning on moving each day. You just fill them in on the dates you want to travel.
You can’t use the pass in your own country, other than on the first and last days of your trip, and Eurostar trains cost extra (there’s a discount now though so a single Eurostar trip with a pass costs €30). You can also get discounts on the price of the Interrail pass if you’re under 28 (it was 26 until recently but they put the age range up earlier this year) or over 60, and children under 12 travel free with an adult.
Does it save you money?
The idea of an Interrail pass is that you can save a lot of money versus expensive last-minute tickets. But most rail companies sell a few heavily discounted tickets – you can get from Paris to Venice for €35 or Amsterdam to Berlin for €39. So if you’re very organised (you can normally book 90 days in advance) and know where and when you want to go, it’s often cheaper to book single tickets than get a railpass. The downsides are that you’re fixed to a particular train with no refunds or exchanges. So if your travels are a bit more short-notice or you want to be spontaneous, then you’ll probably do better with a pass.
The only way you can really know whether you’d save money with a railpass involves a bit of research and a bit of maths (and maybe a nice spreadsheet). You can check prices on the different rail operators’ websites (see this list of where to book which journey). For my recent trip I booked about six weeks in advance. My two-week trip involved four countries and six travel days. So the best railpass option was a Global Pass with five days of travel within 15. Then I’d just buy an extra ticket for the cheapest journey. These passes cost £241 for adults, £216 for over 60s or £186 for under 28s (though we got a 10% sale discount).
When I started looking at individual ticket prices they all seemed pretty low so it looked like single tickets were going to be the best way to go… until the last couple of days. A bit like air fares, train prices sometimes feel like someone’s just picked them at random – and a two-hour journey can cost three times as much a six-hour one (especially if it involves Switzerland). So the individual prices worked out as:
- Beziers to Avignon: £25
- Avignon to Ventimiglia: £50
- Ventimiglia to Corniglia: £20
- Corniglia to Domodossola: £28
- Domodossola to Colmar: £84
- Colmar to Cheltenham (including the Eurostar): £134
Overall that would come to £341. So even if we paid cash for the cheapest fare (the £20 to Corniglia) and added on the £27 supplement for the Eurostar, the railpass cost would still only come out as £264 and I’d save £77, right? Well not quite. The one complication of the Interrail system is that in certain countries and on certain trains you also need to make – and pay for – a reservation on top of your railpass. I’ll talk more about these below, but for this trip our reservation fees were £48, so adding that to the pass price makes £312, still a saving of £29 for me (and £52 for my mum) on the individual ticket price.
Does it save you time?
I used to think if you had a railpass you could just jump on any random train you fancied and didn’t need to do any planning. And in countries like Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, the UK and Ireland, that’s what you can do. But in the rest – including popular places like France, Italy and Spain – the seat reservation system means you’ll probably have to book your journeys in advance. And for special trains like the Swiss scenic ones or overnight sleepers you always have to make a reservation.
Reservations usually cost €4 to €20 per journey – the most we paid was €20/£18 for the journey from Colmar to Paris. As we were mostly travelling through France and Italy, we needed a reservation for most journeys – or so we thought. This is where it starts to get complicated. You don’t necessarily need a reservation on regional trains – so in France our TGV trains needed one but local Cote d’Azur trains didn’t. The InterRail website has a journey planner where you can check which trains need reservations.
Then there’s how to make the reservations – and of course each country has a different system. You can make reservations in stations as you go along, but for popular journeys and sleepers you might be leaving it a bit late. You can also book online for some train operators. There’s an app called Railplanner which has all the European timetables and lets you reserve certain trains. Or you can make bookings on some train company websites (Seat 61 has a very handy breakdown on how to make bookings broken down by country). Or if you don’t mind paying a bit extra you can get Interrail to make the reservations for you.
We managed to make most of our bookings through Voyages SNCF (for France) and Trenitalia (for Italy) without too much trouble, though checking each journey and making bookings took a few hours. But things can get messy when you’re crossing borders. Our Domodossola to Colmar journey started in Italy, crossed Switzerland and ended up in France. We made a reservation for the second half but neither Trenitalia or Swiss Rail would let us book the first bit, and although Interrail said we needed to book their reservation people couldn’t do it either. So in the end we just chanced the train and no one said anything!
So does an Interrail pass save you time and money on rail travel in Europe? Well sort of – but it depends on what sort of trip you’re doing. If you’re travelling through countries where you don’t need to make reservations then the convenience can’t be beaten – it’s easy to wing it and travel where and when you fancy. But if you’ve already got your itinerary planned or are are travelling to countries where you have to make reservations for every journey, then you might find it’s cheaper and easier to just book standard single tickets rather than getting a railpass. I’ll definitely look into using one for future train trips around Europe though, especially when they’re on sale, but it’s worth spending some time to do the maths.
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