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Interrail: All aboard?

Interrail is still widely perceived to be only for youngsters, but the rail pass is for all ages and for some journeys — particularly on slower, regional routes — they’re the smartest option

Interrail: All aboard?
Bernina Express train crosses the Landwasser Viaduct on the Albula Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Switzerland. Image: Alamy

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For those who love travel, the Interrail pass is the equivalent of a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. It gives you the chance to roam freely on Europe’s vast rail network — and who wouldn’t want that?

In recent years, the scheme has seen phenomenal growth, rocketing from 100,000 passes sold in 2005 to over 250,000 in 2015, with the fastest increase in the over-26 age group, who now make up one quarter of total sales. Yet a myth persists that Interrail is just for youngsters.

When the scheme began in 1972, only those aged 21 or younger could buy a pass. By 1979, that had been raised to 26; which was how it stayed until 1998, when the age limit was finally abolished. “The idea we always try to counteract is that Interrail is only for the youth market,” says Silvia Fischer, sales & marketing manager at Eurail Group GIE, the company that runs the scheme. “Even though it hasn’t been that way for nearly 20 years, this reputation can be hard to shake off. People often think: ‘That sounds nice — what a shame that I’m out of the age range’, when actually they’re not.”

These days, fares are based on three age bands: youth (25 or under); adult (26 and over); and senior (60 or over). For a monthly Global Pass, giving access to all 30 countries, the youth fare is £441, the adult fare is £576 and the senior fare is £519. Last year, to encourage more multi-generational travel, Interrail introduced family passes that allow an adult or senior to take up to two children aged four to 11 for free.

The change in the rules to make anyone eligible has been accompanied by the introduction of a range of shorter-length passes and cheaper ones with fewer days of rail-travel included. “The move away from a one-size-fits-all has definitely been one factor fuelling the popularity of the passes,” says Silvia. “This allows people to travel on shorter itineraries if they want to.”

Disaffection with flying and a desire for the romance and adventure of rail travel is helping to fuel the popularity among older people too, says Maria Cook, general manager at rail travel specialist Ffestiniog Travel. “The combination of shorter passes and an increase in high-speed lines has made it easier for people who can’t take a long break to get on board,” she says. “Faster trains put many more destinations within reach, with journeys that some years back would have taken twice as long.”

Overnight journeys have also always been an important component of Interrail itineraries. “Night trains enable you to get further sooner, because you don’t need to keep breaking your journey with hotel stops — and you can sleep while you travel. Plus there’s a certain romance to overnight travel, too,” says Poul Kattler, of Back on Track, a pan-European network that campaigns to improve cross-border European train traffic. However, the last few years have seen the axing of many night-train services by train operators to cut costs. Many within the industry view this as a short-sighted move. “Fast daytime trains are all very well,” says Poul, “but night trains perform a different role and it would be devastating for Interrailers — and other travellers — to lose the possibility of these overnight journeys.”

Main hall, Oslo Central Station, Norway. Image: Alamy

Main hall, Oslo Central Station, Norway. Image: Alamy

Value for money

So, is Interrail good value? According to rail expert Mark Smith, founder of rail guide The Man in Seat Sixty-One, the pass soon starts to pay for itself if you’re visiting several places in one trip. However, if you’re willing to book well in advance, some point-to-point journeys are cheaper to book separately. “Direct with the operator, advance-purchase fares such as Amsterdam-Berlin from €39 (£35), Berlin-Prague or Prague-Vienna from €19 (£17) blow passes out of the water price-wise, as long as you don’t need the flexibility,” says Mark. “If buying one or two advance tickets bumps your required pass duration down from a 10-day one to a five-day one, that can save quite a lot.”

It’s also worth noting that the Interrail pass doesn’t give you carte blanche to travel on the rail network, as certain trains require advance seat reservations. “It’s really the fast trains in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Sweden that are the problem, with a reservation at roughly €10 [£9] a pop for almost every train going any distance,” says Mark. “But in Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and most of Central/Eastern Europe, a reservation is optional.”

To make it easier to plan and book, Interrail has a free app with journey schedules preloaded, so you can look up timetables without needing to be online, as well as a seat-reservation system, (for which you’ll need to be connected to the internet). The Interrail website allows you to filter journey searches to avoid trains that require reservations, too.

There’s a perception that it’s only in recent years Interrail travellers have had to contend with compulsory reservations. That’s a myth, says Nicky Gardner, co-editor of travel magazine Hidden Europe. “There was never a time, not even back in the early days of Interrail, when you could just hop on any train without having to bother with reservations and roam anywhere in Europe at will.”

However, the requirement to reserve is a barrier to really experiencing what Interrail can be about, Nicky argues. “Booking onto fast trains sacrifices serendipity for speed, committing you to a fixed itinerary. Travellers often think that if they don’t cover a lot of distance and stick to fast trains, they’ll not be getting the best value out of their Interrail pass.

“But best value can be measured by the level of spontaneity that surrounds a journey, and the level of engagement you have with your surroundings, other rail travellers and local communities. Journeys undertaken in that manner can be immensely rewarding.”

Indeed, where the Interrail pass really comes into its own is on slower journeys and rural routes where there are few cheap deals. “Dynamic pricing means great offers on busy routes, but shift to lesser-used routes and you may well find that old-style, distance-based tariffs are the only option,” says Nicky. “Interrail is superb for such slower journeys; it preserves total flexibility, you can stop off on a whim, and you can savour the serendipitous diversions that come with slow travel.”

Mark Smith, of The Man in Seat Sixty-One, couldn’t agree more. He first used the Interrail back in 1984, making the pilgrimage from London down to Athens. Since then, the proliferation of low-cost flights has enabled travellers to cheat the long distances by flying. In doing so, Mark argues, they completely miss the point. “If people jet to places and only then use an Interrail, they’re missing out. Back in the ’80s, the whole point of an Interrail was to get you from the UK to Morocco, Greece, or wherever in the first place — epic journeys, real adventures. EasyJet passengers don’t exactly have an adventure, do they?”

Essentials

Hidden Europe
Voyages SNCF
Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide for Independent Travellers, by Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries. European Rail Timetable Ltd (RRP: £15.99).

Interrail passes are available at railway stations across Europe and at interrail.eu

Interrail passholders receive a free rail map of Europe, but it’s worth buying Rail Map Europe (published by European Rail Timetable Limited for £10.99), with far more detail and a clearer insight into routes.

Published in the December 2016 guide issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)