How Does Interrail Work? The Ultimate Guide in 2022

Are you planning train travel in Europe and are wondering exactly how does Interrail work?

This is where I can help. I’m a massive fan of rail travel and have Interrailed as a backpacker in my 20s and as a mature traveller in my 50, using both the old-fashioned paper train pass and the shiny digital pass.

Whether you are travelling for one week or two months, this guide will tell you everything that you need to know about these Europe rail passes and help you decide if Interrail is worth it for you.

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

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READ THIS NEXT: Is Interrail Worth it in 2022? An Interrail Pass Review

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.

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.

Choosing your Interrail Pass

There are two types of Interrail passes: the Global Pass and One Country Pass.

The Interrail Global Pass

Interrail’s flagship product, the Interrail Global Pass, gives you the joy of train travel in 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 gives you the freedom to explore 33 countries. These are 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, you can use as many trains as you like within that time period.

You can make this work for you.

On different Interrail trips, I have used this allowance to cover the train journey from my home station to Central London, a Eurostar passholder journey to Paris, and onward trains to Bern, Switzerland and Cologne, Germany and the champagne houses of Reims in France

Interrail One Country Pass

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 30 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).

Interrail One Country passes are available for up to 8 days of rail travel 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 starts at £159 for four days 2nd class travel within a month (2022 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, 2022 @ interrail.eu

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.

Should you buy a 1st class Interrail pass?

There are several reasons why you should consider a 1st class Interrail pass (I’m a big fan).

First-class carriages on European trains are more spacious with reduced occupancy. This makes for a less crowded and more relaxed journey.

With larger seats and more leg room, you are likely to be more comfortable.

On services that require a compulsory reservation, the number of seats available for Interrail pass holders is capped. At busy times of the year, you need to be quick off the mark to reserve seats on the more popular routes. As 1st class tickets are less popular, you have a better chance of getting a reservation.

On regional routes that don’t require a reservation, it can be standing-room-only on popular services in peak season. It’s good to be able to make your way to the sanctuary of the first class cabin.

And did you know that your 1st class Interrail pass includes Standard Premier Class on Eurostar? Now, that’s a perk worth having.

In some countries, you will be served refreshments at your seat. Finally, power sockets are more plentiful in first class train carriages in Europe.

All that said, second-class seating is perfectly adequate on European trains and not all countries have first-class carriages on their train services.

How to buy an Interrail pass

Buy your Interrail pass is direct from Interrail.

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 typically delivered in around 10 days using tracked delivery (this cost is included in the 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.

This mobile option is not available for some One Country 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 Interrail pass is a great travel record to treasureGreater 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 the 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:

  • 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 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 or she 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:

The cost of seat reservations depends on the type of train, the type of seat and the railway company. 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 reservations. Selecting the ‘no seat reservations required’ filter in the Interrail trip planning engine will do the same job.

screen-shot-from-rail-planner-app showing search screen for europe rail journey
Using the Rail Planner app to filter results to services that don’t require seat reservations

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

Making Interrail seat 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, don’t leave it too late for popular services or during peak holiday seasons.

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 the 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 pass holders.

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’ button 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 the Baltic countries, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, Ireland, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Turkey, and the UK (except for the Eurostar trains).

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 Austrian railways and DB (Germany).

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.

Other Interrail Pass Benefits

As well as free unlimited train travel, Interrail passes come with a host of other benefits. Check the discounts available with your Interrail pass here.

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

Inspiration for Planning Your Interrail Trip

Man in Seat 61 is the king of rail travel resources and my first port of call when I am planning a rail itinerary. Mark Smith’s excellent website is an up-to-date and comprehensive guide to global rail travel.

Finally, here’s a selection of my favourite train journeys and itineraries.