A Beginner’s Guide to Interrailing Europe – Backpack Europe by Rail
Backpacking Europe is a dream for many and one of the most spontaneous, affordable and unique ways in which to see the continent is to use its extensive train network. Thankfully there are country and global passes that exist which allow you unlimited travel within and between countries. For Europeans this is know as an InterRail Pass and for others Eurail.
We’ll dive in to information about the passes, things to watch out for and interrailing tips to help your trip go smoothly. Here’s also a great resource for Interrailing itineraries and inspiration.
Can I buy an InterRail Pass?
You can buy an InterRail pass as a child, youth, adult, or senior who has lived in Europe for over six months. It is, however, only available for European citizens. If you live in the USA, Canada, Australia, or India, this pass cannot be purchased although you can obtain the similar Eurail pass. Citizens of the following countries can go interrailing as they qualify to obtain a ticket:
- United Kingdom,
- Republic of Ireland
- Czech Republic
If you’ve lived in Russia, Ukraine, Iceland, Malta, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, or the Baltic States for at least six months, you are also eligible to buy the InterRail pass.
You can buy a pass 11 months before your travel date. Youth passes are open to those under 26. Buyers must still be under that age the first day the pass is valid. The rail pass is ideal for anyone looking for the best destinations for backpacking Europe. Popular festivals such as running with the bulls in Spain and Germany’s Oktoberfest are often easily arrived at by rail too.
The Global InterRail Pass
If you’re planning to see all of Europe, the Global InterRail pass is the answer. It is essentially the ultimate European rail pass. With a one-month ticket you can travel anywhere within Europe for just €12 or €17 per day. Continuous travel plans start on the date you choose the pass to start. You then have continuous unlimited travel during a 15- or 22-day period or for an entire month.
Flexi passes last for 22 or 10 days from the starting date. During that time, there are five or ten days of unlimited travel. Boxes are provided on the pass where you indicate unlimited travel days. A good perk is that with overnight trips, you only use up a single day of travel. Remember that, although the pass might be affordable, always budget for travel to mainland Europe and train surcharges in places like Spain, France, or Italy.
More about Overnight Travel
If an overnight train leaves directly for its destination after 19:00 hours, then the general midnight to midnight format of the Flexi pass does not apply. This is good because you don’t use up extra travel days. Just check the box for the following day on the pass rather than the previous date you started on.
Travelling globally gives you various sleeping options. The most basic are couchettes, which are small bunks and are the most economical. Sleepers include full beds and washbasins. For either one, a supplement fee must be paid. The price is different for couchettes and sleepers, and in Eastern or Western Europe.
Also, reservation rules and extra fees vary depending on the country. Check with the latest local regulations regarding your travel destination so there are no surprises.
Single-Country InterRail Passes
As was already stated, prices vary per country, and they also change frequently. A pass covering travel in one country is available in 1st or 2nd class adult, 1st or 2nd class child, and 2nd class youth. It lets you visit any destination of the particular country that’s accessible by train. Even purchase two one-country passes if you plan to visit them both. Single-country or global pass passes, however, are not valid for the country you live in. Except for the Czech Republic, UK, Romania, and Poland, you can get a train fare discount to and from your home country’s border or airport.
How does an InterRail Pass Work?
First of all, InterRail is different from other forms of rail travel. The pass gives you unlimited free travel with any national train operator that covers the program. There’s actually nothing special about these trains; they don’t look different or have super-power engines. Just regular ‘ol trains. When you get the pass, it comes with a leaflet that explains what’s covered and any important details per country. What’s not covered by InterRail is:
- Travel in one’s home country. You won’t get free travel anywhere in the UK if you live in London, for example. If you go by rail from home to a ferry or destination you can start interrailing, a separate train ticket is required. From 2016 you now get two free journey’s wihin your country of residence which can get you to the boarder and back.
- Eurostar is not covered, nor do you get free travel here with your pass. You can, however, coordinate your travel times and buy a Eurostar ticket which is not expensive. An exclusive fare for InterRail passholders is available but much pricier. Passholder fares are risky as quota rules may leave you stranded at the worst time. You’re better off booking a regular ticket two to three months in advance.
- Ferry travel: Another affordable option is the ferry. Some prefer this method to Eurostar. There are train/ferry tickets in the UK, for example, with Dutch Flyer. Sometimes an InterRail discount is available but that depends on the time, carrier, and luck.
- Free travel on metro trains or underground rail in cities is not covered.
- Travel with private train operators such as Italy’s Circumvesuviana railway.
Some private operators do work with the plan. For example, a pass gives you free ferry travel on Stockholm to Turku Silja Line ferries, while you get a 50% discount on Corsican Railways in France. Just who will take your pass varies greatly from country to country.
Some ferries between Italy and Greece are also covered. You may still have to pay port taxes and supplement charges.
Finding Train Times
German Railways provides an online timetable that displays train departure and arrival times throughout Europe. You can use your pass with just about any of these trains listed. Trains that must be reserved are shown, while supplements and added fares may apply to some of the rides listed.
Recording Your Travel
Regardless of how many trains you ride while the pass is valid, it’s necessary to write in the date, time, and start and end points on the pass. Recording your travel is simple. Just enter the appropriate information in the indicated spaces. The travel report is used for market research once you submit it.
In some places, quotas are implemented to control the number of passholder places. This is a common issue in France, where travellers may find themselves stranded if a particularly small quota sells out. Busy travel times are when you’re most likely to be affected. You might be told there will be no places available for a few days, unless you pay a stiff fee for a regular ticket. To avoid a conflict, you can also buy tickets for specific routes in advance. These include Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam or Paris-Turin-Milan.
The problem applies mainly to TGVs in France. You won’t likely encounter quota issues in other countries.
Knowing the Ropes
You will get an itinerary when you order your pass. This includes a user guide covering various subjects, while a basis European rail map is included to get you started on planning. Remember that the Interrail pass may not be the only travel pass you’ll need. There are, however, affordable Eurostar tickets and ferries to get to your starting point. You’ll see some of these in your user guide. Also, country-by-country information can be found on the web.
European Sleeper Trains & Couchettes on Overnight Trains
If you travel on an overnight train, there may be a variety of configurations. Some of these trains combine regular seats with couchettes and sleepers. Others have only couchettes and sleepers. Including at least a couchette in your budget is highly recommended; why would you want to be slumped in a tight seat all night?
Supplement charges are something you will encounter with overnight rides. A couchette supplement is a relatively small addition to your budget. If you strive for more comfort, a sleeper gives you more room at a higher price. Yet it is still economical. As was stated earlier, these add-on costs are lower for train travel in eastern Europe than they are in western countries.
- Couchettes: A couchette is basically a small padded bunk. You have a rug and pillow. Typically there are four or six of them in a train compartment.
- Sleepers: Complete with beds and washbasins, these small carpeted bedrooms are more similar to hotel accommodations. There can be anywhere from one to four beds in a single compartment.
Also mentioned earlier was the after 19:00 rule, in which traveling on a direct overnight rain with a Flexi pass uses up only the following day. Not the evening during which you start. In addition, sleepers may convert into sitting rooms during the day. Deluxe rooms are available on select routes and have private showers and toilets.
A 4-berth compartment will accommodate four people overnight, while a 6-berth will fit six people. For a little extra cost you can book a lower berth count compartment. A single-berth room would be the most expensive. Extra space in a 3- or 4-berth room may be worth it for longer overnight trips.
You may also get a shaver outlet, luggage space, and a security lock. Many sleeping cars also have attendants who serve drinks, snacks and, in some cases, a light breakfast.
How to Make an InterRail Reservation or Pay Supplements
With interrailing, you can hop from one country to another, one train line to another, but how does the reservations and payment process work? It may seem confusing. There are actually a few ways to do it. You can reserve trips at the station, online, or by phone.
You can very well reserve at the train station. The train reservation systems in western Europe are linked. Reservations for a different train and station can be made even if you are at a completely different station. For example, if you are still in London, you can go to the international booking office and make a reservation on a Milan-Zurich ticket.
It’s highly recommended to make advance reservations. Trains may be full if you book at the last minute. If you plan to set out for Italy while still in transit to Paris, you may be out of luck if the trains leaving there for Italy later are totally booked. Some forward thinking is generally a better idea, despite many people backpacking in Europe preferring the spontaneity. A total lack of planning could lead to snags in your journey anyway.
Advanced reservations and payments can be made online. Usually only complete tickets are sold, meaning you can’t make a reservation-only booking via the web. Exceptions include UK residents who can reserve trains within the Rail Europe system along with their pass. You can also reserve a train within or leaving from Italy on the Italian Railways site. German Railways takes reservations as well for trains within the country, to and from Germany, and on the German City Night Line sleeper trains on select routes. For a small fee, you can reserve seats in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland on the ACP Rail website.
By phone, you can make an advanced train reservation in the UK or France with the respective office. The German Railways UK office handles them for trains in Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, and other central and eastern parts of Europe.
There’s no system to book specific hotels with an InterRail pass. It’s better if you can book accommodations without penalties for cancellation, in case you can’t find a train. Booking.com offers hotel bookings with free cancellation just for this reason.
You may also want to compare prices on some of the major hotel booking sites. A good thing about hotels is they don’t charge to secure your bags. This is helpful if you arrive early, prior to check in, or have to catch a train quickly. Also don’t leave out backpacker hostels. These offer the most economical private rooms or you can book dorm beds. Online booking is available at hostelbookers.com.
Numerous options, therefore, are available if you’re taking the train around Europe. Make advanced bookings where possible and use hotel reservation websites to compare prices and book early. Don’t forget about hostels either. Simple reservation/payment options at train stations, online, or by phone can make your journey go much smoother as well.
How to Buy an InterRail Pass
You can buy your InterRail pass online or by phone. The Internet offers the easiest way. While there are several sites you can do this, www.myinterrial.co.uk will get you started. Once you buy the pass, you can start making advance reservations. Phone reservations can be made with International Rail, from where you can also buy the actual pass by calling them up (0844 248 248 3).
Familiarize yourself with the guidance in this article. It’s also wise to expand your knowledge further by reading up on interrailing before you go. Here are a few more tips to take with you.
Plan with Flexibility
There are many things to see in Europe. You should first outline the basic areas you want to go and then work your travels into the timeline. It’s important to factor in the time you have. Planning how long to stay in certain places and cities, and deciding what to see and do, become much easier.
As essential as it is to plan, also be flexible. You may come across places and events you didn’t know about. The fewer people you travel with, or if you’re traveling solo, the easier it is to meet new people and join up with them on your adventures.
Understand Prices and Budget Accordingly
You don’t need a big budget for backpacking Europe. Check the most current websites for pricing; not just on trains, but also accommodations and local activities. Currency converter apps are also handy as you can figure out costs right where you are. Another key tip is to use credit or debit cards rather than carry around a wallet-full of cash.
Research Festivals and Holidays
There are festivals all over Europe, especially during the warm summer months. You have two opportunities on this front. Either research the particular event to know when to book your tickets for (in advance), or avoid certain cities if you want to stay clear festival crowds.
From luxury hotels to hostels, Europe has it all in terms of accommodations. Use online hotel booking sites to check availability and pricing. Also, since you’re bound to run into other travelers, ask about places they recommend. Booking accommodations ahead of time is wise but you can still keep your plans flexible.
Understand Cultural Norms
Cultural practices can impact your experience. In some places, the people are traditionally laid back. Stuff doesn’t get done as quickly as you’re used to. They may be more open to physical affection, or perhaps take long breaks from work during the day. Businesses in Spain and Italy, for example, may close for a few hours while the owners eat and party. Whether they reopen that day is their choice. The bottom line is to check their normal operating hours and plan your stay accordingly.
Learn Key Phrases
It can help to learn basic phrases in the native language spoken by locals. This is not a hard challenge or anything. You can even write them on paper or have a file on your phone handy. Learn how to say “thank you” for example. Even if the locals know some English, they’ll appreciate your willingness to fit in and learn about their culture.
Be Aware of Your Safety
Backpacking Europe does come with its risks, although most places are quite safe. Be on the lookout for pickpockets and thieves. Any naiveté can get you into trouble. That’s what the few bad guys are looking for. They may also try to distract their target, so be aware of any such signs.
Theft may be your biggest concern. Violent crime, while less common overall than in the U.S., can happen. Walk away from confrontations. That doesn’t mean avoiding socializing in pubs; that can be fine. Just be weary of the situation and be alert in areas where large numbers of tourists are gathered.
If you’re uncomfortable in a certain setting or in a crowd, use common sense. Studies have shown purse snatchers take advantage of women who look away. They notice this and come back from behind, so… look ‘em right in the eye as they pass.
Other tips include wearing local clothes, keeping finances/valuables in different places, and being vigilant at the ATM. Also, don’t fall for the requests of strangers to count cash. Ask for their identification; if they’re law enforcement, they’ll show a badge, but police won’t likely make such a demand anyway.
Go with the Flow
If you plan enough and be careful, backpacking in Europe is a great experience. Something could always go wrong. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself. Most little problems can be shrugged off or fixed. It’s easier if you just go with the flow, enjoy the experience, and take it all in.
Why Not Go Interrailing?
Interrailing is a great way to see Europe. It’s relatively easy to get a pass and travel as much as you want. People go backpacking in Europe alone or with groups all the time. Depending on your plans, you can pick the type of pass that best suits your needs. Be sure to research the countries you can travel to and within. If you make reservations in advance and pay attention to schedules, quotas, and safety, you can relax and have the time of your life.
InterRail tickets are much more flexible and affordable than point-to-point tickets. Pricing varies by age and where you travel to. You can easily keep track of train costs online. The tools and resources available help to budget and plan accordingly. Reservations and payments can even be made online too. With an InterRail pass, there are no limits as to where you can go or what you can do in Europe. Click here to search for your InterRail pass.