Interrailing guide for beginners
Fancy gallivanting around Europe by train? You need to know about interrailing - the all-you-can-ride experience that gets you (and your budget) that little bit further.
Interrailing has become a student rite of passage in recent years. If you haven't stumbled your way round Europe with a rucksack too big to carry while staying in some dodgy hostels and taking a photo in front of the John Lennon wall, then have you really travelled at all?
Of course, the reason interrailing around Europe is so great is because the continent is densely packed with such diverse cultures and landscapes.
You can visit the glistening shores of Croatia, the snow-capped mountains of Austria and the tulip fields of Holland without having to step foot on a pricey plane.
Zipping across Europe by train is a great way to pick-n-mix your way across this cultural buffet. Plus it's cheap, eco-friendly and gives you more flexibility than flying. This guide to interrailing will clue you in!
What's on this page?
What is Interrailing?
Technically, when we say interrailing we’re talking about the Interrail Pass, an all-you-can-ride ticket which lets you travel around Europe for a single, fixed price.
You’re not tied down to just one 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 tickets, you’re not stuck with iron-clad travel dates – you can change your plans and itinerary on the fly.
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:
How much does Interrailing cost?
The Interrail Pass comes in more varieties than Skittles and while that’s great for choice, it means we can’t pin down just one fare!
Prices range from £47 for a One Country pass to £620 for the bumper month-long first class Global Pass. You'll have to do a bit of shopping around to see which pass is right for you, and what your budget can stretch to.
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 first or second class
- Your age – if you’re under 28, you’re eligible for youth fares!
If you don’t have a platinum credit card and a bottomless wallet, interrailing can help keep your holiday budget low. Once you’ve stumped up for an Interrail Pass, you can jump on and off as many trains as your pass allows.
How long does an Interrail Pass last for?
There are a whole range of different options here depending on how long you want to travel for.
The longest pass lasts for a month, although you can easily buy a second pass to top that up to two months and so on.
There are two main types of Interrail Pass – the Global Pass and the One Country Pass, and these dictate where you can travel. From there, you can then choose how often you want to travel:
- A continuous pass lets you travel on as many days as your pass is valid for. For example, a continuous pass valid for 15 days means you can travel on any or all of those 15 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).
One Country Pass
As it says on the tin, the One Country Pass is designed for travelling through 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 One Country Pass for Bosnia-Herzegovina or Montenegro - they’re only available on the Global Pass.
One Country Pass options:
- 3, 4, 6 or 8 days flexi travel within one month
The price of the One Country Pass depends on the length of travel you choose and which country you pick. As a rough guide, for three days second-class travel within one month, you could be paying £47 for the likes of Poland, Slovakia or Turkey, or £152 for Germany.
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 and from the airport or Eurostar terminal).
Global Pass options:
- 5 days flexi travel within 15 days
- 7, 10 or 15 days flexi travel within one month
- 15, 22 or 30 days continuous travel
The cheapest Global Pass (second-class youth fare) starts from £190, and buys you up to five 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 £465.
While the continuous pass gives you more flexibility in terms of when you travel, think about whether it's likely you're going to be travelling every day. If not, it might be best to do a bit of forward planning and opt for the flexi pass option instead.
Is an Interrail Pass worth the money?
If you plan on doing a lot of travelling, especially long distance or across borders, interrailing gets you decent value for money 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.
The best way to decide is to tot-up the cost of point-to-point train tickets before paying for a pass!
Don't forget the Interrail Pass gives 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...
Reserving seats when interrailing
Some train journeys are only available to pass holders with a reservation (i.e. sleeper, high speed or special services). But, while the Interrail Pass covers your 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 on board is to buy a full-price ticket. The lesson is, if you're set on travelling at certain dates and times, always check in advance and try and make a booking if you're able to.
Other fare info
- Children travel for free: under 4s 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.
How to use your Interrail Pass
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 for things like attractions and hotels don’t count towards your travel allowance, so you can use them any time 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 sleeper 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.
Is Eurostar covered by Interrail?
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 of 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 on board, 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!
What is 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!
How to plan your Interrail trip
Navigating train timetables
Trying to decipher European train timetables can be a bit of a nightmare, but sites like Seat 61 bring everything together in one place, making the process much easier.
Even if you want your tip to be more spontaneous, it's best to at least have a vague idea of train times and how long journeys take before you go so you're not caught out.
Think about how many countries you want to visit
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!
Don't forget to budget
Different countries will vary drastically in cost. Countries like Poland and the Czech Republic will be much much cheaper than the likes of Italy and Spain.
Where do you stay when you're interrailing?
People like the idea of a completely spontaneous interrailing trip - just you, your mates and the railroad stretching out in front of you. However, the reality is that when you arrive in Berlin after a five-hour train journey, you're not going to want to spend ages hunting for a bed.
So do some research and book accommodation ahead, even if it means restricting your flexibility slightly - plus it's likely to be much cheaper than paying on the door.
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 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 or bag a whole apartment to yourself.
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 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 the tent at home!
Sleep on the train
If you don’t mind curling up in your seat, sleeping on the train (on overnight services) can be a big money and time saver.
Bear in mind that kipping in your seat isn’t the same as booking a sleeper train with cabins and bunks. If you want a bed, you’ll probably have to pay substantially more 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!
What to pack for interrailing
When you envision a typical interrailer, you probably imagine them equipped with a huge rucksack.
However, you could arguably do just as well with a suitcase, especially if you're worried you lack the fitness levels to carry everything yourself. Just make sure it's small enough to fit in the train luggage compartments.
The main advice: 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.
Plus, this is the one time you can get away with wearing the same shirt for a whole week. Take advantage!
No guide to interrailing would be complete without a packing list, so here's our suggestions:
- Passport, tickets, travel insurance, student card etc.
- Clothes for both warm and cold weather - Europe has a varied climate
- Comfy shoes for walking, and flip flops for those slightly-less-than-hygienic hostel showers
- Check whether your accommodation provides towels - if not, travel towels are much less bulky than normal ones
- Travel wash and clothes line - washing your clothes in the sink and hanging them up to dry when you're out is much easier than taking a million outfits
- A secure purse or travel wallet (money belts are also a good option)
- A travel pillow will be a godsend on those long journeys
- A padlock or chain to fasten your bag to your seat while you're sleeping or in the loo, and to lock up your belongings in the hostel
- European socket adaptors
- 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
- A mini first aid kit is useful if you get ill or injured
- A smaller rucksack to use as a day bag
- Any prescription medicines you need. You can pick up other toiletries for cheap on the go
- A combination of currencies for each country - a lot of them don't use the Euro! Keep them separate, so if your bag's stolen you've got a back up. A lot of hotels and hostels will ask for a city tax or deposit on arrival, and sometimes don't take card, so always have some cash ready to go. You could also take a prepaid travel card with extra funds.
10 top interrailing tips
- Think about who you're travelling with. Interrailing isn't the most relaxing experience and can be difficult to coordinate, so travelling with more than 4-5 people is stressful
- Read up on the places you’re going to be visiting and work out the best time to go. It would totally suck if you booked to leave a country the day before a major festival, or arrived on a day when 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
- You could start your trip by flying out to your furthest destination and then interrailing your way back to the UK. If you can get cheap flights, this is a great time saver
- While it’s quite easy to get across Europe with English and a bit of pointing, learning some basic phrases before you go can help smooth your way. Plus it’s just a lot less embarrassing than miming ‘toilet’...
- Photocopy or scan your important documents (passport, rail tickets, plane tickets, insurance etc) and email them to yourself as back-up, or give an extra copy to a travel companion
- 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 TOTUM/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. Plus, type in your phrase and it will actually speak it in the language for you!
- Don't forget that you'll often have to buy tickets for public transport such as metros and trams - if you don't, you could be stung with a hefty fine!
- You're only human and you will inevitably get tired. Schedule in rest days and be aware that when you hit the cities towards the end of your trip, you'll likely have a lot less energy than you did at the beginning
- Embrace the unexpected! You can't plan for all eventualities, and things will inevitably go wrong, but that's the fun of interrailing.
Looking for some more travel tips? This woman took a whopping 10 holidays in a year for just £1,700 - this is her secret.
Anything we've missed? If you're an interrailing alumnus, let us know your top tips and interrailing hacks in the comments!