Can an Interrail pass save you a ton of money and time? Or are you throwing money down the drain? Get the lowdown on whether Interrail is worth it.
Before the genesis of the gap year, backpacking through Europe armed with an Interrail pass was a rite of passage. In those sunshine days before starting a degree, this crumpled piece of paper represented freedom and good times ahead.
I know because I was one of those backpackers.
However, these Europe train passes are no longer the preserve of the student, and I am one of an increasing number of older travellers who are taking advantage of their promise of unlimited travel.
But is Interrail worth it?
Whether you are travelling in Europe for one week or two months, this Interrail pass review will help you make the right decision.
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What is an Interrail Pass?
There is no such thing as just one, definitive Interrail pass. Interrail is a range of passes giving European residents unlimited travel on scheduled train services of participating train operators across Europe.
Starting life in the 1970s as a Europe rail pass for young people, Interrail passes are now available for children, youths, adults & seniors. There are Interrail passes covering first or second-class train travel in all participating countries, or country-specific passes.
Types of Interrail passes
Interrail Global Pass
The Interrail Global Pass covers train travel within 33 European countries as well as on some ferries. This gives you unlimited travel on local trains, high-speed trains and night trains over a specified period of time.
Choose between a flexible pass or a continuous pass.
A flexible Interrail Global Pass allows you to travel a set number of days within a specified period, from four days within one month to 15 days within two months.
As its name suggests, a continuous pass allows you to travel on consecutive days over a specified period, from 15 days to three months.
Whilst Interrail passes do not cover unlimited train travel in your country of residence, you can use a Global Interrail Pass for two domestic journeys: one at the beginning of your trip from your home station to a border, airport or ferry port and a second journey at the end of your trip.
You can make this work for you.
I have used this allowance to cover the train journey on Eurostar from London to Paris, and an onward train to Bern, Switzerland. Better still, as I held a first-class Interrail ticket, it allowed me to travel on Eurostar’s Standard Premier Class.
Interrail One Country Pass
Again, the clue is in the name. The Interrail One Country Pass gives you unlimited travel within one of 30 European countries.
Passes are available for up to eight days travel within a month.
What is the Difference Between Interrail and Eurail?
Interrail and Eurail passes are pretty much identical, albeit with one big difference.
If you are a European citizen or a permanent resident of Europe, you can use an Interrail pass.
Non-European citizens can use a Eurail pass instead
How Much Does an Interrail Pass Cost?
The price of an Interrail pass depends on the following:
– Country or countries of travel
– Class of travel (1st or 2nd Class)
– Duration of travel
As a benchmark, the Interrail Global Pass starts at £159 for four days 2nd class travel within a month (2022 price).
Prices of country-specific Interrail rail passes vary by country.
Discounts are available for children and those under the age of 27 and for seniors (60+ years) in both first and second class.
Is an Interrail Pass More Convenient than Point-to-Point Tickets?
So how do you decide if an Interrail pass is worth it? The big selling points of rail passes are convenience, flexibility and freedom.
No need for forward planning and booking (most of the time)
Have you woken up in London and said to yourself ‘I fancy taking the train to Bath today’ only to be faced with a prohibitive fare?
Yep. Rail travel in Europe can be ridiculously expensive if you are not able to plan and book ahead.
For many trains, this is not an issue if you have an Interrail pass. But this comes with one very important caveat.
Some European railway companies have compulsory seat reservations, subject to a fee. This reservation fee is not included in your Interrail pass.
Train services that require an advance reservation include:
- High-speed trains within Western Europe
- Night trains (the Caledonian Sleeper for example)
- Scenic trains (the Glacier Express for example)
Moreover, some services in these Interrail-not-so-friendly countries have a limited quota of pass holder seats available. For example, on some international trains, there are a limited number of seats for those with an Interrail pass. This quota has been known to sell out days ahead of departure
Flexibility without a penalty
Most frequent travellers have been in a position where they’ve had to change their plans at the drop of a hat.
When travelling in Japan, I had to rapidly change my travel plans due to the coronavirus pandemic. If it wasn’t for the fact that I had a Japan Rail Pass I would have been well and truly screwed.
If you do need to change your plans unless you have booked a flexible ticket you are likely to lose money to cancel this ticket, or pay a premium for any changes.
Clutching your Interrail pass, you just need to jump on the next train to your chosen destination when you are ready.
Freedom of going with the flow
Whether this is a benefit for you will depend on which type of traveller you are.
If you like to set out with no fixed itinerary and just go with the flow, an Interrail pass is ideal for you. However, if you like the comfort of sticking to a set itinerary, this will be less of an advantage.
Ease of travel
Forget about queuing to buy a point-to-point ticket or deciphering self-service ticket machines. With your Interrail pass, you can usually just jump on the next train.
The only exceptions are those services that require a reservation.
Does an Interrail Pass Save You Money?
Although convenience, flexibility and spontaneity can be massive benefits of the Interrail pass, assessing its value often boils down to financial savings. You will need to determine if an Interrail pass will save you money compared with individual tickets.
First off, those nice people at Interrail can help you to decide which pass will be the best fit for a suggested itinerary. Let’s look at a sample trip as an example.
Based on the itinerary for my Interrail trip to Switzerland, I will be catching the Eurostar from London to Paris and then onwards to Basel. After spending ten days in Switzerland, I will then head back through Colmar and Strasbourg the Alsace region of France to catch my Eurostar train back to London.
From the Interrail homepage, go to ‘Passes’ and then click ‘Find The Best Pass for you’.
Fill in the requested details in the fields on this screen. You’ll be asked to fill in the length of your trip and the number of travellers (and their age). If you’re travelling solo, just insert 1. When you’re done, click “Go.”
On the next screen, select the destinations in your itinerary by clicking on the map or using the search function, adjusting the number of nights in place as necessary.
Clicking on the orange ‘Show results’ button generates suggestions for rail passes based on this itinerary.
Of course, what this tool doesn’t do is compare the cost of a Europe rail pass with point-to-point tickets. The only way of assessing the comparative costs of an Interrail pass and individual tickets is to sit down with paper and a pen.
Again, start with sketching out your itinerary. Once this is done, tot up the individual fares for each journey using Omio or RailEurope, and compare this total with the price of the rail pass that best suits your needs.
Let’s use my earlier example again. Note that while prices are current as of April 2021, they are subject to fluctuation and are used for comparative purposes only.
|JOURNEY||JUNE 2021 PRICE|
|London -> Paris||£71|
|Paris -> Bern||£82|
|Bern -> St. Moritz||£42|
|St. Moritz -> Zermatt (Glacier Express)||£158|
|Zermatt -> Locarno||£42|
|Locarno -> Colmar||£48|
|Colmar -> Strasbourg||£12|
|Strasbourg -> Paris||£42|
|Paris -> London||£76|
Using these costs, the indicative price for these combined rail journeys would be £574.
Bear in mind that these are prices when booking two months in the future. If you are buying tickets closer to the time of travel, most of them are likely to be significantly more expensive.
These journeys would be covered by the 10 days in 2 months global pass costing £345. Compulsory reservation fees for Eurostar and the Glacier Express would add approximately £90 to the real cost of the pass, bringing the total to £435.
This represents a saving of £139.
However, I would opt for the more expensive 15 days continuous pass at £381 which would still generate a considerable saving over point-to-point tickets.
In harsh economic terms, an Interrail pass is worth it for this itinerary.
But here’s the thing. Just because using a Europe train pass for this trip is likely to save you money, you cannot generalise these savings to other itineraries. This is why you need to do your homework and do the maths for your individual itineraries.
Also factor in any compulsory reservation fees.
Although you can swerve around these by travelling on regional services, they are slower. On the plus side, slower travel allows you to discover places that you never may have found when travelling on high-speed services.
Using the Rail Planner app, you can select the ‘no reservation needed’ filter to exclude services with compulsory reservations. Equally, selecting the ‘no seat reservations required’ filter in the Interrail trip planning engine will do the same job.
Interrail Pass Review: Other Europe Rail Passes to Consider
Outside of the Interrail ecosystem, some countries in Europe countries offer their own national rail pass. Here are a few that are worth considering.
In addition to the single-country Interrail pass, Spain has its own Spain Pass available to anyone not resident in Spain.
Choose from 4, 6, 8 or 10 trips in standard or first class.
The price of seat reservations is included in the pass
The Swiss Travel pass is available to those living outside Switzerland and the Principality of Liechtenstein.
Choose between 3, 4, 8 or 15 consecutive days of travel in trips in first or second class. Alternatively, a Flex pass gives you 3, 4, 8 or 15 days travel within one month
Unlimited travel in Switzerland on trains, buses, boats and on public transport in more than 90 towns & cities
Free admission to more than 500 museums
Mountain excursions are free or at 50% discount
Is Interrail Worth it?
So does an Interrail pass save you money and time? Maybe. Quite possibly. It depends.
Broadly speaking, Interrail is worth it in countries where train travel is expensive and where compulsory seat reservations are not necessary.
For example; Switzerland is a dream Interrail destination. With the exception of its scenic trains, you don’t need seat reservations and you can use your Interrail pass in this famously expensive country for free or discounted travel on boat trips and private railways.
This can save you a ton of money. For example; I have bagged an Interrail discount on the cable car journey between Grindelwald and First.
Conversely, I would question the value of an Interrail ticket in Eastern & Central European countries, where rail travel is more affordable, and in Spain, Greece and Italy where many trains require a reservation. Also, you can only make reservations for trains in Spain and Greece in person once you reach the country.
More often than not, harsh economics will win the day. You need to crunch the figures to determine if an Interrail pass will, at least, make you break even.
A fiddly and time-consuming process? Yes. Essential? Absolutely.
Much like airlines, train operators use dynamic pricing. If you can book a few months in advance or travel at quieter times of the year, you will be able to snag a bargain or two.
That said, if the challenges of travel over the past year have taught us anything, it is the need to keep plans fluid. A Europe train pass removes the need to spend hours crafting a travel plan (which may blow up in your face) and allows you to go with the flow.
And it’s hard to place a value on that flexibility.