5 things you should know before planning a European Interrail trip
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An Interrail pass is a great way to discover Europe. It’s a rail pass that gives you the freedom to explore from just one single country to as many as you can fit in — from a choice of 31 countries. Prices vary depending on the length of time the pass is valid for, as well as the number of travel days you are permitted to. The ability to pick and choose a pass that’s right for you means that you can tailor your adventure to suit your time frame and budget.
However you decide to build your adventure, it’s likely to be an unforgettable one. Before you get started with your planning, there are a couple of things you should know to help it go as smoothly and kind on your wallet.
1. The ticket doesn’t cover the cost of all trains
I felt a little let down by this part of the whole Interrail experience. Having already paid well over £300 for the pass itself, I thought it was a bit cheeky that if I wanted to avoid regional, slow trains, travel internationally, take a ferry or an overnight train, for the most part, I’d have to book an often mandatory reservation, which could incur costs of more than 20 euro per ticket. Interrail has put together a handy guide on seat reservation fees to help you plan ahead.
What’s most annoying about the fees is that Interrail favourites like Italy, France, Spain and Greece are the countries that require reservations most often. I ended up getting regional trains at times to save money, but bear in mind this can sometimes take twice or even three times as long as taking a more expensive, high-speed option.
2. Sometimes flying is a better option
It might seem slightly counterintuitive to recommend getting on a plane when the whole point of getting an Interrail pass is to travel around Europe by train. You may call it AvGeek bias, but there are a few occasions when it might make sense to consider take a flight instead.
Related reading: 11 of the most scenic train rides on Earth
If, like me, you have ambitious plans of covering vast swathes of the continent, it might be worth checking out flying to cover those larger distances. I wanted to get from Switzerland to Portugal, which would have been a mammoth and expensive journey by train. Instead, I flew from Geneva (GVA) to Lisbon (LIS) with EasyJet, which didn’t cost much and saved a lot of time.
As I mentioned previously, there are many times when you’ll be charged a reservation fee or even a discounted fare for a journey on top of the price you’ve already paid for your pass. If, for a journey, you’re looking at £30 (or equivalent) in train reservation or ticket fees, have a quick check on Google Flights to see if there’s a flight that will get you there for around the same price. If there is and it will also save you time as well as a valuable travel day, it might be worth considering instead.
The likelihood is that if you’re reading this, you’re based in the U.K. and would be starting your trip from there. If that’s the case, I’d highly recommend flying to and from your start and end destination rather than taking the Eurostar across the Channel. For example, if you decide on a “7 days in 1 month” pass, by flying, you’d be able to extend your trip longer than a month by adding days on at the start and end after of your seven allowed travel days.
3. Avoid cash where possible
The euro is only accepted in less than half of the 31 countries that are included in the Interrail programme, meaning that if you use cash, you could end up with bags of worthless change and notes as you travel from country to country. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Great Britain, Hungary, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey all use their own individual currencies.
Where possible, the best way to pay is using a credit or debit card that doesn’t charge while you’re abroad. But for times when using a credit card — or even debit card — isn’t possible, we put together this guide on using cash abroad.
4. Include a contingency fund into your budget
Setting a daily or weekly budget is highly advisable when taking any kind of trip, but especially a longer trip like Interrailing. I was a student at the time of my trip and hadn’t saved much at all before, which meant I lived on a budget of between 10 to 20 euro per day for food and activities. I was shocked at how that enabled me to eat out for every meal in Hungary, but was barely enough to cover an evening meal in Italy. Thankfully, lots of hostels included some kind of breakfast in their rates.
What I wish I had done, however, is set aside money for when things went wrong. Travelling so often over such a short space of time is bound to come with its fair share of mishaps, and my trip certainly did. Thanks to a terrible hostel and a severely delayed ferry, which meant I missed the last train to Rome, I had to fork out for new accommodation and book a last-minute flight from Bari to Rome just so I could make my flight back to the U.K.
Due to the nature of an Interailing trip, things can go wrong for even the most meticulous of planners. So, anticipate for some errors and keep some money aside. The best-case scenario is: If you don’t have to use it, you’ll have a nice little pot of money to use at the end of your trip of when you get home.
5. Pack light, but think lighter
While we might be used to easily getting on and off the Tube with suitcases in London, it’s a very different story in many countries across Europe. Even modern, cosmopolitan cities like Paris lack the infrastructure on the Metro, for example, for people moving around with luggage — there are hardly any escalators or lifts.
I travelled with a small backpack and a large suitcase. In hindsight, I’d have ditched half of the things I packed and stuffed everything into a medium-sized backpack to make it easy when navigating train and underground stations, as well as walking up hills and cobbled streets — there wasn’t much left of my wheels at the end of my trip.
Interrailing is a great way to explore Europe and see a lot more of the continent than you would by air. Hopefully, these tips will help you with your planning and mean your trip goes as smoothly as possible and without the issues I had.
Featured photo by Watchara Piriyaputtnapun/EyeEm/Getty Images
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