Beginner’s Guide to Europe Train Passes: Are Interrail and Eurail Worth It in 2021?

Can Europe train passes save you a ton of money or are they a complete waste of time? Find out if you can benefit from an Interrail or Eurail pass.

Before the genesis of the gap year, backpacking through Europe armed with an Interrail or Eurail pass was a rite of passage. In those sunshine days before starting a degree, this crumpled piece of paper represented freedom and the promise of good times ahead.

I know because I was one of those backpackers.

However, these European 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 are Interrail and Eurail worth it?

Deciding which is the best train pass for Europe is challenging.  But don’t worry; I’ve got you covered. Whether you are travelling in Europe for one week or two months, this guide will tell you everything that you need to know about rail passes in Europe.

Saving money on train travel leaves you with more cash to splash at your destination. In this article, I’ll help you decide whether it is worth buying an Interrail or Eurail pass as well as making the case for travelling by train in Europe.

exterior cover of an interrail pass which is one of train passes in europe

Some articles on this website contain affiliate links. This means that I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase through these links at no additional cost to yourself. This helps towards the upkeep of this website for which I am very grateful. Read the full disclosure here.


15 Reasons for Travelling Europe by Rail

From exploring Provence by rail to the home-grown Settle to Carlisle Railway, I am addicted to travelling around Europe by train. Total journey times can be quicker, you get a sense of the space between two points and train travel can often retain some of the romance of bygone times.

In no particular order, here is why, in my view, taking the train in Europe is better than flying

1. Centre to centre journeys

In contrast to most airports which are far outside the city centre, train stations are in the centre of town. No costly and time-consuming transfers from the airport required.

2. Railway stations are destinations in themselves

There are some European train stations that are architecturally magnificent or have historical significance.  Ones that immediately spring to mind are Rotterdam Central Station, Helsinki‘s wonderful art deco station, the train station in Delft and São Bento Train Station in Porto, Portugal.

In my home city, St Pancras Station is one of London’s most iconic landmarks.

head of sir john betjeman statue in front of clock at st pancras station
London St. Pancras Station. Taking a train in Europe is one of the greatest travel experiences and can bring you to extraordinary railway stations

3. European rail travel is comfortable

Forget being scrunched up in an airplane seat waiting for that ‘Fasten Seat Belt’ light to be turned off. Say hello to stretching your legs and walking around at will.

4. Say goodbye to airline security queues

At the best of times, airport security can be stressful, queues can be long and the requirement to arrive at the airport two hours (or more!) prior to your departure slot extends the total journey time. Who wants that?

No hanging around European railway stations needed. You just rock up a little before your scheduled departure, flash your ticket and you’re done. Decanting toiletries into teeny weeny bottles is a thing of the past.

5. No luggage restrictions

As well as not having to stress about the size of your sunscreen bottle, there are no restrictions placed on your luggage size or weight. As long as you can lift it yourself, you’re good to go.

6. No turbulence

Who amongst likes to be jiggled around when in the air? Not me, that’s for sure, and you don’t have this problem when exploring Europe by rail.

7. Greater flexibility

Have you ever managed to change a flight reservation for free? No, I didn’t think so.

Train travel in Europe is often more flexible than flying. On many routes you don’t need to make a reservation, meaning that you change your plans on a whim, travelling where you fancy.

That type of freedom is priceless.

8. Settle back and enjoy the scenery

I’ve been lucky to experience some of the world’s most scenic railway journeys, including the Glacier Express and Flam Railway. But you don’t need to be on one of these bucket-list railway journeys to experience the joy of watching Europe’s landscapes unfurl from the comfort of your window seat.

Glacier Express travelling through verdant swiss valley
Glacier Express, Switzerland. Let the scenery unfold from your seat when travelling by train in Europe.

9. Ditch unwelcome neighbours

Have you ever been seated next to the person on the plane who has BO / hogs the armrest / talks about themselves incessantly (delete as appropriate)? Yep. A few hours can seem like an eternity.

When travelling through Europe by train, if your neighbour is not your ideal travel companion, you will often be able to move to an alternative seat.

10. Or make new friends

That said, train rides are perfect opportunities for meeting people when travelling.

Most of the time I travel alone. Although solo travel has multiple benefits, the loneliness of travelling alone can rear its unwelcome head from time to time.

11. Dine in style

Have you ever been faced with eating a salt-laden airplane meal, precariously balanced on a tray table, usually with the seat in front of you reclined? Many European trains offer delicious regional and local cuisine on board, sometimes in relatively opulent surroundings.

12. Or bring a picnic

One of the joys of European rail travel is that you can bring what you like on a train, including booze. Therefore, stop at a supermarket before you board the train to assemble your perfect picnic.  

Just don’t forget the wine or beer.

13. Stay connected

Although I am someone who embraces the idea of a flight being a mobile phone-free zone, others do not share my view. European trains will usually have mobile data or Wi-Fi coverage, and plug sockets at your seat. No excuses for not posting selfies of your train journey on social media.

14. Break up your journey into a number of stops

Are you travelling from London to Locarno, Switzerland and fancy stopping in Brussels or Basel en route? Not a problem with rail travel.

15. Be kind to the environment

Last but by no means least, train travel is reported to contribute less to climate change than aviation.

Independent research commissioned by Eurostar concluded that choosing the train over flying between London and Paris cut CO2 emissions per passenger by 90%. Although the cynics amongst us would say that is in Eurostar’s interests to promote train travel, there is a growing academic consensus that trains pump out less carbon dioxide than an aircraft flying the same distance.

Europe Train Passes: What is the Difference Between Interrail and Eurail?

There are two main types of rail passes in Europe: Interrail and Eurail

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

If you live in Europe, keep reading. If you are a non-European, jump to the Eurail pass section.

Europe Train Passes: A Guide to Using Interrail

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.

There are Interrail passes to suit all types of traveller.

Choosing your Interrail pass

The Interrail Global Pass

Interrail’s flagship product, the Interrail Global Pass, covers train travel within 33 European countries as well as on some ferries. This product includes unlimited travel on local trains, high-speed trains and night trains over a specified period of time, forgoing the need to buy point-to-point tickets.  

The Interrail Global Pass is a great option for stress-free and flexible country-hopping in Europe. It comes in ten different variations:

Flexible

  • 4 days within one month
  • 5 days within one month
  • 7 days within one month
  • 10 days within two months
  • 15 days within two months

Continuous

  • 15 days continuous
  • 22 days continuous
  • 1 month continuous
  • 2 months continuous
  • 3 months continuous

As the name suggests, you use a continuous pass on consecutive days. For example; if you buy a one-month continuous pass it remains valid for one month after the date it is first used, allowing you unlimited travel within that period.

With a flexible pass, you can travel a set number of days within a specified period. For example; if you buy a 5-days in one-month flexible pass, you’ll be able to travel on five days of your choice within the one-month period.

What countries are covered by the Interrail Global Pass?

The Interrail Global Pass will carry you through Austria, Belgium, Bosnia Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Montenegro, Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey.

USING AN INTERRAIL PASS IN YOUR OWN COUNTRY

Interrail passes do not cover unlimited train travel in your country of residence. However, 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. 

Although this domestic journey must be a continuous single journey between a point of origin (for example your home station) and a border, airport or ferry port, it can involve more than one train. Note that this will use up a travel day on your pass, but as one travel day lasts from midnight to midnight and you can use as many trains as you like within that time period.

You can make this work for you. I have used this allowance to cover the train journey from my home station to Central London, a Eurostar passholder journey to Paris, and an onward train to Bern, Switzerland.  

Interrail One Country Passes

But what if you are planning an in-depth visit to just one country? Visiting the vineyards of France perhaps? Or exploring Switzerland’s Alpine valleys?

If that’s the case, buying an Interrail Global Pass is likely to be a waste of money.

The good news is that most European countries have their own Interrail pass valid for unlimited travel within that country’s borders. These countries are as follows: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey.

In addition, you can also purchase a regional pass for the Benelux countries (Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg).

Passes are available for 3, 4, 5, 6 or 8 days within a month.

Buying your Interrail pass

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 is the most expensive pass and starts at €246 for four days 2nd class travel within a month (2021 price).

Prices of country-specific Interrail rail passes depend on the country of travel.

screen shot of prices of global interrail passes
Prices of Global Interrail Passes, 2021

Are Interrail pass discounts available?

Discounts are available for children and those under the age of 27 and for seniors (60+ years) in both first and second class.

How far in advance can you buy an Interrail pass?

You can buy an Interrail pass up to 11 months before your first intended travel date.

How to buy an Interrail pass

The easiest way to buy your Interrail pass is direct from Interrail itself.

When you place your order you can choose to receive a classic printed ticket or a mobile pass which sits in an app on your phone.

Paper passes are delivered in around 10 days using tracked delivery (cost included in total purchase price).

With the Interrail mobile pass, it’s free instant delivery (a good option if you’ve left it until the last minute to buy your Europe rail pass). You add the pass to the Rail Planner app and activate it when you are ready to travel.

Advantages of a paper passAdvantages of a mobile pass
A paper rail pass does not rely on mobile phone battery powerInstant delivery
A paper rail pass does not rely on a broken mobile phoneNo delivery cost
Your paper Interrail pass is great travel record to treasure!Greater flexibility – start using the pass on any date within the following 11 months (a printed pass has your chosen start date already printed on it which cannot be changed)
As the pass is on your phone, you will always have it with you and it’s one less thing to carry around (and lose!)
If your paper Interrail pass is lost or stolen it can’t be replaced If you lose your device on which your mobile Europe train pass is loaded, your pass can be loaded on a new device free of charge.
The Pros and Cons of Paper and Mobile Interrail Passes

Can UK residents still buy an Interrail pass post-Brexit?

Brexit has not affected the rights of UK residents to buy an Interrail pass. If you are a UK citizen, you are still able to purchase and use one after 1 January 2021.

Equally, Interrail travellers from outside the UK continue to be able to use their Interrail pass to travel in the UK.

Using your Interrail pass

An Interrail pass gives you free travel on all the train services run by the national train operator in each of the countries it covers. Trains run by private operators are not covered by these European rail passes.

Most of the time, you will not need to buy a ticket ahead of time; you can simply board the train, pass in hand. However, you will need to make a reservation and/or pay a supplement on some trains.

More about that later.

How you use your Interrail pass will depend on whether you have opted for a paper ticket or a mobile pass.  Each of these types of rail pass become valid the first time you use it.

Using the Interrail paper ticket

The classic Interrail pass comprises a cover printed with a blank travel diary (or ‘My Trip’), to which your train pass is attached.

inside of paper interrail pass showing ticket and filled in travel diary
My paper Interrail pass with ticket and travel diary

Each time that you take a train you need to:

  • If you have a flexible Interrail pass, enter the travel date into the travel calendar on the pass itself. 

If you are using your Interrail pass in your country of residence, you will also need to record the inbound / outbound date in the travel diary, and on your ticket if you are holding a Flexi pass.

Make sure that you record these data before boarding your next train. If you don’t and are unlucky to get a jobsworth conductor, you risk a fine and being forced to pay for a full-fare ticket.

Using the Interrail mobile pass

There is a comprehensive guide to using the mobile Interrail pass here, but here’s a short version.

Step 1: Download the Rail Planner app to your phone

Step 2: Add your mobile Euro rail pass to the app

Step 3: Connect a trip to your Interrail pass and give it a name (for example; ‘My Switzerland Trip’) This is how you keep track of the journeys you take.

Step 4: Activate your Pass

Before you start your trip, you need to activate your Pass. You do this by:

  • Entering your passport or ID number. This should match the document that you’re travelling with as you may have to show it to ticket inspectors.
  • Choosing your first day you’ll be using your Pass to travel

Step 5: Save your journey to My Trip

Step 6: Add your journey to your Pass

 When you are ready to travel, go to your trip and tap to add your journey to your Interrail pass.

Step 7: Show your ticket to the conductor

Although this may seem complicated at first, it really is not.


Do you need to reserve seats with an Interrail pass?

Most of the time, you can hop on trains spontaneously, sit where you like and just show your pass to the conductor when he comes round. However, some railway companies have a compulsory seat reservation, 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)
  • Eurostar trains

Reservation fees can be as €2 or as much as €25. Here are a few ballpark figures:

Average reservation fee
High-speed trains€10
International high-speed trains€15
Night trains€20

Check here if you need to reserve seats on European rail services.

To avoid reservation fees, you can choose to travel on regional services. Although these train services don’t require seat reservations, they are slower. On the plus side, slower travel allows you to discover places that you never may have found when travelling on a high-speed service.

Using the Rail Planner app, you can select the ‘no reservation needed’ filter to exclude services with compulsory reservation. Equally, selecting the ‘no seat reservations required’ filter in the Interrail trip planning engine will do the same job.

Even when it is optional, it can be a smart move to make a seat reservation, especially for long journeys and at busy times. This is unlikely to cost you any more than €5.

screen-shot-from-rail-planner-app showing search screen for europe rail journey

How do you make Interrail reservations?

There are three ways of making Interrail seat reservations: online, at stations and by phone.
Although this can be done right up to the day of travel, to avoid disappointment, don’t leave it too late for popular services or during peak holiday seasons.

Making reservations for Interrail journeys can be a minefield and things change all the time. For the most up to date information head here.

Making Interrail reservations at a railway station

Interrail reservations can be made at most station ticket offices.

As train reservation systems are linked across most of western Europe, you can make reservations for trains departing from a station other than one you are at.

A booking fee may be charged when making a reservation in some countries (e.g. in the Netherlands a €10 fee applies). However, in most countries, there is no charge or the fee is less.

Making Interrail reservations online

This is where it gets slightly complicated.

There is no magic bullet here. That is, there is no one website that will make all of your Interrail reservations at no additional cost.

Only a handful of national train operators will make reservations for Interrail passholders.

Alternatively, you can make a reservation via Interrail. However, this is also the most expensive way of doing it.

Making a reservation through Interrail

Log into your Interrail account and go to ‘Plan Your Trip‘ on the top menu bar.

screen shot of plan my trip on interrail page

From this page, click on ‘Check Train Times” and then enter your journey in the Interrail trip planning engine.

screenshot of train planning engine on rail planner
Plan your journey

Once you have selected your service, this takes you to the reservation tool on your Interrail account.

screen shot of seat reservations online booking using interrail pass in europe

You will not be able to make reservations for trains in Spain, the UK, Portugal, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and the Baltic countries using this self-service tool. For other countries, it will let you book e-ticket reservations up to three hours before the scheduled departure time.

You can also make reservations via the Rail Planner App, which directs you to the booking engines of selected rail operators and Interrail / Eurail.

screen-shot-from-rail-planner-app showing options for trains

Making a reservation through the rail operator

Alternatively, you can make reservations online with the national train operators, including SNCB (France), ItaliaRail and DB (Germany). Passholder reservations made through these train companies do NOT attract an additional fee.

screen shot of thalys and eurostar pass fare for those with a europe train pass
Making Interrail reservations over the phone

As a last resort, you can make European train travel reservations over the phone. This is complicated and can attract additional fees.

Can you use an Interrail pass on city transport?

It is rare that you can use an Interrail pass on urban transport systems.

Most public transport (metro systems, buses, trams and the like) is operated by urban transit authorities, not train companies. However, a handful of cities will let you use your Interrail pass on their public transport; check the additional benefits for your country of interest.

For example; you can use your Interrail pass on the S-Bahn (suburban metro railways) networks that DB operate in major German cities.

In a country that is as expensive as Switzerland, being able to use your Europe rail pass to get free or discounted travel on boat trips and private railways can save you a ton of money. For example; I have bagged an Interrail discount on the cable car journey between Grindelwald and First.

Bear in mind that if you are using a flexible Interrail pass, this may not be a cost-effective way of using up one of your days. Of course, this is not an issue with continuous passes.

What are the other Interrail pass benefits?

As well as free unlimited train travel, Interrail passes come with a host of other benefits. As of April 2021, Interrail pass benefits across all countries include the following:

Accommodation

Guides and tours

Bike rental

Other

In addition to these pan-Europe discounts, an Interrail pass also get you money off travel activities in individual countries.

King amongst these are free or discounted rides on many, including Greek islands, Spain’s Balearic Islands and ferries to Ireland to name but a few.

Europe Rail Passes: A Guide to Using Eurail

What is a Eurail pass?

Eurail is a range of passes giving non-European citizens or non-European residents unlimited travel on scheduled train services of participating train operators across Europe.

Eurail passes cover first or second-class train travel in all participating countries or country-specific passes.

There are Eurail passes to suit all types of traveller

Choosing your Eurail pass

The Eurail Global Pass

Eurail’s flagship product, the Eurail Global Pass, covers train travel within 33 European countries. This product includes unlimited travel on local trains, high-speed trains and night trains over a specified period of time, forgoing the need to buy point-to-point tickets. 

Select a Eurail Global Pass for stress-free and flexible country-hopping in Europe.

It comes in ten different variations:

Flexible

  • 4 days within one month
  • 5 days within one month
  • 7 days within one month
  • 10 days within two months
  • 15 days within two months

Continuous

  • 15 days continuous
  • 22 days continuous
  • 1 month continuous
  • 2 months continuous
  • 3 months continuous

As the name suggests, you use a continuous pass on consecutive days. For example; if you buy a one-month continuous pass it remains valid for one month after the date it is first used, allowing you unlimited travel within that period.

With a flexible pass, you can travel a set number of days within a specified period. For example; if you buy a 7-days in one-month flexible pass, you’ll be able to travel on seven days of your choice within the one-month period.

What countries are covered by the Eurail Global Pass?

The Eurail Global Pass is valid for travel in Austria, Belgium, Bosnia Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Montenegro, Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey.

Eurail One Country Passes

But what if you are planning an in-depth visit to just one country? Visiting the vineyards of France perhaps? Or exploring Switzerland’s Alpine valleys?

If that’s the case, buying a Eurail Global pass is likely to be a waste of money.

The good news is that most European countries have their own Eurail pass valid for unlimited travel within that country’s borders. These countries are as follows: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Turkey.

In addition, you can also purchase a regional pass for the Benelux countries (Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) and Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland).

Passes are available for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 days within a month.

Buying your Eurail pass

How much does a Eurail pass cost?

The price of a Eurail pass depends on the following:

  • Country or countries of travel
  • Class of travel (1st or 2nd Class)
  • Duration of travel

As a benchmark, the Eurail Global Pass is the most expensive pass and starts at 295 USD for four days 2nd class travel within a month (2021 price).

Prices of country-specific Eurail passes depend on the country of travel.

Are Eurail pass discounts available?

Discounts are available for children and those under the age of 28 and for seniors (60+ years) in both first and second class.

How far in advance can you buy a Eurail pass?

You can buy a Eurail pass up to 11 months before your first intended travel date.

How to buy a Eurail pass

The easiest way to buy your Eurail pass is direct from Eurail itself.

When you place your order you can choose to receive a classic printed ticket or a mobile pass which sits in an app on your phone.

Paper passes are delivered up to 10 days after you place an order.

With the Eurail mobile pass, it’s free instant delivery (a good option if you’ve left it until the last minute to buy your Europe rail pass). You add the pass to the Rail Planner app and activate it when you are ready to travel.

Note that not all countries offer mobile Eurail passes.

Advantages of a paper passAdvantages of a mobile pass
A paper rail pass does not rely on mobile phone battery powerInstant delivery
A paper rail pass does not rely on a broken mobile phoneNo delivery cost
Your paper Eurail pass is a great travel record to treasure!Greater flexibility – start using the pass on any date within the following 11 months (a printed pass has your chosen start date already printed on it which cannot be changed)
As the pass is on your phone, you will always have it with you and it’s one less thing to carry around (and lose!)
If your paper Eurail pass is lost or stolen it can’t be replaced If you lose your device on which your mobile Europe train pass is loaded, your pass can be loaded on a new device free of charge.
The Pros and Cons of Paper and Mobile Eurail Passes

Using your Eurail pass

A Eurail pass gives you free travel on all the train services run by the national train operator in each of the countries it covers. Trains run by private operators are not covered by these Europe train passes.

Most of the time, you will not need to buy a ticket ahead of time; you can simply board the train, pass in hand. However, you will need to make a reservation and/or pay a supplement on some trains.

More about that later.

How you use your Eurail pass will depend on whether you have opted for a paper ticket or a mobile pass.  Each of these types of rail pass become valid the first time you use it.

Using the Eurail paper ticket

The classic Eurail pass comprises a cover printed with a blank travel diary (or ‘My Trip’), to which your train pass is attached.

Each time that you take a train you need to:

  • Record the date and where it’s to and from, in the travel diary. If you wish, you can choose to record your journeys in the Rail Planner app
  • If you have a flexible Eurail pass, enter the travel date into the travel calendar on the pass itself. 

Make sure that you record these data before boarding your next train. If you don’t and are unlucky to get a jobsworth conductor, you risk a fine and being forced to pay for a full-fare ticket.

Using the Eurail mobile pass

There is a comprehensive guide to using the mobile Eurail pass here, but here’s a short version.

Step 1: Download the Rail Planner app to your phone

Step 2: Add your mobile Euro rail pass to the app

Step 3: Connect a trip to your Eurail pass and give it a name (for example; ‘My Switzerland Trip’) This is how you keep track of the journeys you take.

Step 4: Activate your Pass

Before you start your trip, you need to activate your Pass. You do this by:

  • Entering your passport or ID number. This should match the document that you’re travelling with as you may have to show it to ticket inspectors.
  • Choosing your first day you’ll be using your Pass to travel

Step 5: Save your journey to My Trip

Step 6: Add your journey to your Pass

 When you are ready to travel, go to your trip and tap to add your journey to your Eurail pass.

Step 7: Show your ticket to the conductor

Although this may seem complicated at first, it really is not.

Do you need to reserve seats with a Eurail pass?

Most of the time, you can hop on trains at will, sit where you like and just show your pass to the conductor when he comes round. However, some railway companies have a compulsory seat reservation, subject to a fee. This reservation fee is not included in your Eurail pass.

Train services that require an advance reservation include:

  • High-speed trains within Western Europe
  • Night trains
  • Scenic trains (the Glacier Express for example)
  • Eurostar trains

Reservation fees can be as €2 or as much as €25. Here are a few ballpark figures:

Average reservation fee
High-speed trains€10
International high-speed trains€15
Night trains€20

To avoid reservation fees, you can choose to travel on regional services. Although these train services don’t require seat reservations, they are slower. On the plus side, slower travel allows you to discover places that you never may have found when travelling on a high-speed service.

Using the Rail Planner app, you can select the ‘no reservation needed’ filter to exclude services with compulsory reservation. Equally, selecting the ‘no seat reservations required’ filter in the Eurail trip planning engine will do the same job.

screen-shot-from-rail-planner-app showing search screen for europe rail journey

Even when it is optional, it can be a smart move to make a seat reservation, especially for long journeys and at busy times. This is unlikely to cost you any more than €5.

How do you make Eurail reservations?

There are three ways of making Eurail seat reservations: online, at stations and by phone. Although this can be done right up to the day of travel, to avoid disappointment, don’t leave it too late for popular services or during peak holiday seasons.

Making reservations for Eurail journeys can be a minefield and things change all the time. For the most up to date information head here.

Making Eurail reservations at a railway station

Eurail reservations can be made at any station ticket office.

As train reservation systems are linked across most of western Europe, you can make reservations for trains departing from a station other than one you are at.

A booking fee may be charged when making a reservation in some countries (e.g. in the Netherlands a €10 fee applies). That side, in most countries there is no charge or the fee is less.

Making Eurail reservations online

This is where it gets slightly complicated.

There is no magic bullet here. That is, there is no one website that will make all of your Eurail reservations at no additional cost.

Only a handful of national train operators will make reservations for Eurail passholders.

Alternatively, you can make a reservation with Eurail. However, this is also the most expensive way of doing it.

Making a reservation through Eurail

Log into your Eurail account and go to ‘Plan Your Trip’ on the top menu bar.

screen shot of plan my trip on interrail page

From this page, click on ‘Check Train Times” and then enter your journey in the Eurail trip planning engine.

screenshot of train planning engine on rail planner

Once you have selected your service, this takes you to the reservation tool on your Eurail account.

screen shot of seat reservations online booking using interrail pass in europe

You will not be able to make reservations for trains in Spain, the UK, Portugal, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and the Baltic countries using this self-service tool. For other countries, it will let you book e-ticket reservations up to three hours before the scheduled departure time.

You can also make reservations via the Rail Planner App, which directs you to the booking engines of selected rail operators and Interrail / Eurail.

screen-shot-from-rail-planner-app showing options for trains

Making a reservation through the rail operator

Alternatively, you can make reservations online with a handful of national train operators. Passholder reservations made through these train companies do NOT attract an additional fee.

Making Eurail reservations over the phone

As a last resort, you can make European train travel reservations over the phone. This is complicated and can attract additional fees.

Can you use a Eurail pass on city transport?

The ability to use a Eurail pass on urban transport systems is the exception rather than the rule.

Most public transport (metro systems, buses, trams and the like) is operated by urban transit authorities, not train companies. However, a handful of cities will let you use your Eurail pass on their public transport; check the additional benefits for your country of interest.

For example; you can use your Eurail pass on the S-Bahn (suburban metro railways) networks that DB operate in major German cities.

In a country that is as expensive as Switzerland, being able to use your Europe rail pass to get free or discounted travel on boat trips and private railways can save you a ton of money.

Bear in mind that if you are using a flexible Eurail pass, this may not be a cost-effective way of using up one of your days. Of course, this is not an issue with continuous passes.

What are the other Eurail pass benefits?

As well as free unlimited train travel, Eurail passes come with a host of other benefits. As of April 2021, Eurail pass benefits across all countries include the following:

Accommodation

Guides and tours

Bike rental

Other

In addition to these pan-Europe discounts, a Eurail pass also gets you money off travel activities in individual countries.

King amongst these are free or discounted rides on many, including Greek islands, Spain’s Balearic Islands and ferries to Ireland to name but a few.

Pros and Cons of European Rail Passes

Rail passes are rarely the perfect travel solution and Interrail / Eurail passes are no exception. Let’s examines the pros and cons.

Advantages of an Interrail / Eurail pass

To me, Interrail passes are all about flexibility, spontaneity and freedom.

No need for forward planning and booking

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.

This is not an issue if you have an Interrail or Eurail pass. With the exception of trains that have compulsory reservations or popular services, you can leave your travel decisions until the last minute.

Flexibility without a penalty

For good or bad reasons, 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 your money to cancel this ticket, or pay a premium for any changes.

With a Europe train pass in hand, you just need to jumping on the next train to your chosen destination when you are ready. Simple.

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 or Eurail 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 tickets or deciphering self-service ticket machines. With your Eurail or Interrail pass, you can usually just jump on the next train.  The only exceptions are those services that require a reservation.

Using a rail pass in Europe can be a bargain

Well. Maybe.

European rail passes can save you a ton of money, but you have to plan well and do the maths (math if you’re American).  More about this later.

It’s easier to budget

As you will know most of your travel costs from the get-go, it will be easier to plan your budget. Fewer nasty surprises.

Disadvantages of an Interrail / Eurail pass

Reservation fees

Don’t buy an Interrail and Eurail pass and think that you won’t have to spend another cent on train fares. With compulsory reservations on many high-speed and international trains, you need to factor in these additional fees.

Lack of convenience in some countries

Domestic & international trains to, from & within France, Italy, Spain, Portugal & Sweden usually require a compulsory seat reservation, removing the ability to jump on a train at will.

Moreover, some services in these Interrail-not-so-friendly countries have a limited quota of passholder seats available. For example, on some international trains, there are a limited number of seats for those with an Interrail or Eurail pass. This quota has been known to sell out days ahead of departure date. 

Europe Rail Pass or Point-to-point Tickets?

So how do you decide if an Interrail or Eurail pass is worth it?

Although convenience, flexibility and spontaneity are huge benefits of these European rail passes, assessing their value often boils down to financial savings. You will need to determine if a Eurail or Interrail pass will save you money compared with individual tickets.

First off, those nice people at Interrail and Eurail 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 my itinerary for my last 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.

Let’s go!

You can use either the Eurail or Interrail website. For this example, I will use the Interrail site.

From the Interrail homepage, go to ‘Passes’ and then click ‘Find The Best Pass for You’ (wording is slightly different on the Eurail site).

screen shot of first screen of interrail trip planner showing map of europe

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.

screen shot of route planner using europe rail pass

Clicking on the orange ‘Show results’ button generates suggestions rail passes based on this itinerary.

screen shot of recommended global interrail passes with prices

Of course, what this tool doesn’t do is to compare the cost of a Europe rail pass with point-to-point tickets. The only way of assessing the comparative costs of an Interrail / Eurail pass and individual tickets to sit down with a paper and 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.

JOURNEYJUNE 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 (math if you are American) for your itinerary.

As a rule of thumb, travelling by train in multiple countries in Western Europe will usually be cheaper with a rail pass. However, in Eastern and Central Europe, train travel is significantly cheaper and you should consider buying tickets as you go.

Other Europe Rail Passes to Consider

Outside of the Interrail / Eurail ecosystem, some countries in Europe countries offer their own national rail pass. Here are a few that are worth considering.

Spain: Renfe Spain Pass

In addition to the single-country Interrail / Eurail pass, Spain has its own Spain Pass available to anyone not resident in Spain.

Choose 4, 6 8 or 10 trips in standard or first class.

Price of seat reservation included in the pass

Switzerland: Swiss Travel Pass

The Swiss Travel pass is available to those resident outside Switzerland and the Principality of Liechtenstein.

Choose 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 free or at 50% discount

Is a Europe Train Pass a Good Deal?

Maybe. Quite possibly yes.

More often than not, harsh economics will win the day. You need to the crunch the figures to determine if an Interrail or Eurail 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.

In broad terms, a rail pass is of more value for longer Europe train itineraries than a one-week trip to one or two countries. It also favours expensive and long-distance trains.

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.

To Inspire and Inform your Train Travel in Europe …

A few of my favourite resources …