A Student’s guide to InterRailing
Fancy schlepping around Europe by train? You need to know about Interrailing – the all-u-can-ride ticket that gets you (and your budget) that little bit further.
Want to see the world? Start with Europe! The Continent is just a hop across the channel from the UK, but it punches above its weight for sheer variety, from language, culture and food to weather, activities and landscapes.
Interrailing – zipping across Europe by train – is a great way to pick-n-mix your way across the cultural buffet. It can also be cheap, friendly, and gives you more flexibility than flying. Jump on and we’ll clue you in!
What’s on this page?
Technically we’re talking about the Interrail Pass, an all-you-can-ride ticket which lets you travel around and across Europe for a single, fixed price.
What’s the catch? Well, as you might expect from the name, it’s just for train journeys – although it is possible to use the pass on some ferry, local transport and special services (including Eurostar) as well. If you’re up for cheap travel, flexible holidays and cleaner, greener gap years, riding the rails is for you!
Where to buy passes
You’ll find passes for sale on a number of websites. As prices can vary, it’s worth checking out a couple and keeping an eye out for sales. If you’re travelling from the UK, start with:
If you don’t have a platinum credit card and a bottomless wallet, Interrailing can keep your budget on track. Once you’ve stumped up for an Interrail Pass, you can jump on and off as many trains as your pass allows – you don’t need to pay for any other tickets (we’ll explain how it all works below!).
The pass also comes with freebies and discounts on select ferries, local transport, accommodation and sight-seeing, meaning potential savings on top.
Aside from cost, one of the biggest benefits of Interrailing is the flexibility: you’re not tied down to just one town or city for the whole of your holiday. So if you fancy a few days in Rome and a weekend in Istanbul, it’s up for grabs. And, unlike plane tixs, you’re not stuck with iron-clad travel dates – you can change your plans and itinerary on the fly.
You can buy passes valid from anywhere from a week to a month, but if you want to keep going longer than that, you just buy more passes.
The Interrail Pass come in more colours than Skittles and, while that’s great for choice, it means we can’t pin down to down to just one fare!
What you need to know is that prices vary according to:
- What type of pass you pick and how long you want it to last
- How many days you want to travel
- Whether you travel 1st or 2nd class
- Your age – but if you’re under 28, you’re eligible for youth fares!
- A continuous pass lets you travel on as many days as your pass is valid. So, for example, a continuous pass valid for 15 days means you can travel on any or all of those days.
- With a flexi pass, you get a set number of travel days that you’ll need to ration out across your trip. If your pass includes 10 days of travel within a one-month period, that means your pass is valid for a month, but you can only travel on 10 days (they don’t have to be consecutive).
As it says on the tin, the Single Country Pass is good for just one country of your choice. You can buy passes for more than one country at a time, but if you want to visit more than two, a Global Pass will probably work out cheaper. You can’t buy a Single Country Pass for Bosnia-Herzegovina or Montenegro: they’re only available on the Global Pass.
Single Country Pass options:
- 3, 4, 6 or 8 days flexi travel within 1 month
The price of the Single Country Pass also depends on which country you pick. As a rough guide, youth fares start from £39 (Serbia and FYR Macedonia), up to £142 (Germany and France) – that’s with up to 3 days of 2nd-class travel within one month.
The Global Pass lets you travel in all 30 European countries in the scheme. That includes Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Greece, Poland, Switzerland and Turkey just for starters. You also get one inward and outward train journey in your home country (i.e., to get to the airport or Eurostar terminal).
Global Pass options:
- 5 days travel within 15 days
- 7, 10 or 15 days travel within 1 month
- 15, 22 or 30 continuous (consecutive) travel days
The cheapest Global Pass (2nd-class youth fare) starts from £184, and buys you up to 5 days of travel in a 15-day window. The full enchilada – a month long pass valid in all 30 countries with unlimited travel – starts from £439.
If you plan on doing a lot of travelling, especially long distance or across borders, Interrailing gets you decent value and saves you hassle along the way. As a rough guide, a month-long continuous pass works out at around £15/day if you travel every day.
If you’re not travelling much, or are sticking with a country which already has bargain rail fares, a pass may not save you heaps in the long run. Best way to decide: tot-up the cost of point-to-point train tickets before paying for a pass!
The Interrail Pass give you access to free or discounted travel on some ferry and local transport services, plus money off some hotels and attractions (what’s up for grabs varies by country). While the travel discounts can help you get that little bit further for less cash, the discounted attractions tend to be railway related and may not be that useful unless you really, really like trains…
Need to know!
Some train journeys are only available to pass holders with a reservation (i.e., sleeper, high speed or special services). But, while the pass covers you for train fares, it doesn’t include booking or reservation fees. Some services also come with a limited number of seats for pass holders in peak season: once they’re gone, the only way you can get onboard is to buy a full-price ticket. The lesson is, if your travel plans aren’t that flexible, don’t leave things too late!
Other fare info
- Children travel for free: under 4’s don’t even need a pass. Those aged 4-11 need a (free) Child Pass, which you book with your other tickets.
- Over 60s can get a Senior discount, but there’s nothing on offer for travellers with disabilities.
The Interrail Pass comes with a travel journal (it may be called a travel diary, calendar or report), and you use it to note down the details of each journey you make before you get on the train.
What you’re doing is writing out your own ticket for each journey – so don’t lose your log! You might be asked to show your travel journal to conductors or ticket inspectors. Mistakes can even mean losing one of your travel days on a flexi pass, so definitely don’t doodle on it, either…
If your pass includes other forms of free transport, like ferries or metro train services, you’ll need to add the details to your travel diary each time (and, if you’re on a flexi pass, they’ll count towards your travel allowance).
Pass discounts don’t count towards your travel allowance, so you can use them anytime your pass is valid, and they don’t need to be logged in your journal.
It (almost) goes without saying, but always check the small print for yourself. Some high-speed or special services are included on your pass but require a reservation – and that can mean reservation fees! If you want to avoid unexpected extras, stick with regular national rail services instead or check out the charges first.
Really important to know: lost and stolen Interrail Passes aren’t replaceable. Some seller’s offer ‘ticket protection’ (of course), which can ensure you at least get a refund if something goes wrong en route. If you don’t want the extra premium, check your travel insurance covers you for loss/theft of tickets, and keep your pass safe!
As of 2017, the Interrail Pass is valid on Eurostar services, just like any other train journey. That gives UK travellers an extra, low-cost way of getting to and from the Continent.
To catch the Eurostar from London to Paris, for example, you’ll need a pass that’s valid in France. If you’ve got a Global Pass, however, you can also bundle your Eurostar trip in with your inward/outward UK train journeys. So, if you time your UK, Eurostar and onward journeys right, you could get from home to hotel using just one day from your travel allowance, and without having to pay air or ferry fares.
There’s a catch, though! As the Eurostar is a high-speed service, you’ll need a reservation (30 Euro) before you can jump onboard, and reservations have to be booked a few months in advance. Doing it via your Interrail Pass could save you cash and give you an excuse to do the chunnel, but size-up the fares for yourself!
The 7pm rule
If you’re on a flexi-pass, make a note of this! If you catch a night train (or ferry), it would normally count as two days from your travel allowance.
However, the 7pm rule says that as long as your train leaves after 7pm and arrives at its destination after 4am, you only need to enter the date of arrival into your travel log. That means you only use one day from your travel allowance, leaving you an extra one in the bag. Bonus!
Making the most of your travels
When it comes to Interrailing, Europe really is your oyster. However, it’s easy to get carried away and think you have to hoover up locations to get your money’s worth – or that you can nip round every city in Europe in a month. Well, trust us, you can’t!
Be realistic about how many places you’ll be able to reach, take into consideration travelling times, and remember that it won’t be fun if you try to cover too much ground – you’ll end up spending more time stuck on trains than getting stuck into Europe!
Remember when planning your route that you don’t just have to rely on trains or stick with a set number of travel days. If your pass includes free ferries or regional trains, work out which ones fit into your plans. And, while it might cost you extra, discounted bus or ferry rides can get you a bit further, no matter how many days you’ve got in your allowance.
After planning your route, read up on the places that you’re going to be visiting, work out the best time to go, and plan your trip around your findings. It would totally suck if you booked to leave a country the day before a major festival, or arrive on a day when banks, businesses and bars are closed! Lonely Planet’s Europe on a Shoestring can help you plot out the essentials and what to see along the way.
While it’s quite easy to get across Europe with English and a bit of pointing, getting the basics under your belt is easy, and can help smooth your way. Plus it’s just a lot less embarrassing than miming ‘toilet’…
It’s always a good idea to book some of your accommodation ahead whenever possible so you don’t waste time or tears when you get to your destination. Definitely book ahead in high season!
Hostels, hotels and rooms
Hostels are a great place to meet other young travellers, which is why they’re a popular choice for students. In a hostel, you’ll typically have the choice of either a shared or private dorm, with a communal bathroom or en-suite if you’re lucky! Try HostelBookers.com.
Sometimes one- or two-star hotels work out cheaper than a hostel so if you have time, shop around – try kayak.co.uk to spy out prices across several sites at once.
Airbnb is also worth a look, with private or shared rooms giving you the chance to flat share with locals and feel like you’re really part of a city.
Campsites are safe and cheap, so they’re worth considering. Carrying a tent around with you can be a major pain, though, so only BYOT (bring your own tent!) if you’re sure you’ll use it.
Pitchup.com (web, Android, iTunes) covers almost 8,000 campsites around the world. You can also search for campsites with lodges, caravans, wigwams and yurts for hire – so you can leave yours at home!
Sleeping on the train
If you don’t mind curling up in your seat, sleeping on the train (on overnight services) can be a massive money saver or handy back-up option.
Bear in mind that kipping in your seat isn’t the same as booking a sleeper train with cabins and bunks. If you’re paying for a bed, you’ll likely have to pay extra for it – although it can sometimes work out cheaper than hotel accommodation. You’ll also be saving time wasted travelling during daylight hours, so there’s no harm in checking out prices!
Good to know: The train staff on board have the right to check where you’re from and where you’re headed, so don’t panic if you wake up to staff asking to prove your place of residence or show your ID.
Armed police are also common at train stations in Europe, particularly at border crossings, but remind yourself that they’re there for your safety and not to intimidate you (although it might not always feel that way!).
Travel light! You really won’t want to lug five pairs of shoes across Europe, and ditching them en route will sting almost as much as the bag straps cutting into your shoulders. On the other hand, this is the one time you can get away with wearing the same shirt for a whole week. Take advantage!
Start with the essentials:
- Passport, tickets, travel insurance, etc.
- A secure purse or travel wallet (money belts are also a good option)
- A padlock or chain to fasten your bag to your seat while you’re sleeping or in the loo
- Maps: download them to your phone so you’re not reliant on a wifi signal or data allowance
- Your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) gets you free/cheaper medical help if you need it. The EHIC scheme is still in place for the time being!
- Stick an empty, small/secure rucksack in your backpack – you can use it as a day bag and leave the bulky stuff at your hotel
- Bring any prescription medicines you need. You can pick up other stuff cheaply on the go (toothpaste, insect repellent) etc.
- You’ll also want a combo of currency options: pre-paid travel card, credit card (for emergencies), cash and traveller’s cheques. Don’t just stick ‘em in your luggage and forget about them – split them up and keep ‘em secure!
- Don’t forget travel insurance! Start with our comparison guide to get the best deal
- Photocopy or scan your important documents (passport, rail tickets, plane tickets, insurance etc) and email them to yourself as back-up
- Get yourself an ISIC card (International Student Identity Card) for extra discounts on hotels, hostels, events and sight-seeing across Europe. You can now get a year’s free ISIC with the NUS Extra card, too.
- With Google Translate on your phone you can photograph any signs you don’t understand and the app will tell you what they mean. Genius!
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