If you’re planning on backpacking around Europe this summer, chances are you’ll be exploring the continent by rail – it’s the fastest, most eco-friendly and most efficient way of covering ground.
The most famous way to do it is by InterRailing – a single pass that gives you unlimited train travel in several (or all) countries around Europe.
But we’ve noticed that this classic backpacking gem has become a little expensive, with some passes costing up to €668 for a second class adult! Luckily, though, with a little planning, rail travel in Europe doesn’t have to cost nearly as much!
To help you plan the perfect trail around Europe, we’ve made a handy InterRail guide to buying the best priced tickets and planning your route, along with a couple of summer itineraries to try out.
Buying Cheap Interrail Tickets – The Five Commandments
1.Choosing tickets: If you’re a European resident, then go straight for the InterRail Pass – you can choose between a ‘Global Pass’, a single ticket valid in 30 different countries, or a ‘country pass’, allowing unlimited travel in your specified country. However, if you are a non-EU citizen, you’ll need to look out for a Eurail Pass. There are a few more options with this, but generally it works the same. For more in-depth information, check out the Eurail Pass section below.
Oh yeah, a couple of pointers before you start hopping on trains – you cannot use any pass for travel in your own country, and if you are using high speed trains or night trains, you might need to pay a special supplement or reservation fee -check the Interrail website for more information.
2. Work out where you want to go: This sounds simple, but it’s the only way to get cheap tickets – don’t just buy a pass for the whole of Europe if you’re only going to end up visiting a few countries. The Global Pass is ideal if you don’t have a set itinerary and lots of time to explore Europe. If you do want to see as many countries as possible, go for the youth pass (12-25 years) or a 2nd class adult for the cheapest fares.
3. Work out a timescale: The prices for global passes are calculated according to how much you use the trains, so you can buy four different types of pass – the most expensive is one month of continuous travel, the cheapest is 5 days of travel within a 10 day timescale. Again, work out how much you are going to be actually traveling before you buy – if you are staying in a country for a few days, you are going to need a more flexible pass that allows time to stop off.
4. Choose your countries wisely: If you would rather explore just a few countries in depth, go for the country pass. Remember, some country passes are cheaper than others (a British pass will set you back far more than a pass in say, Slovenia). If you’re really worried about the cost of travel, choose areas such as Eastern Europe, which are cheaper to explore – not to mention eat in, drink in, shop in…
Some smaller countries are also grouped together to cut costs – Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg are combined as the InterRail Benelux Pass. For Italy you have the option to order a Italy Plus Pass, which includes ferry crossings from and to Greece.
5. If all else fails, skip the InterRail: If you have a set itinerary, it may be cheaper to skip the InterRail passes all together and just buy separate advance train tickets as you go. You can do this quite easily by visiting stations at each destination. While this can work out as the cheapest way to explore Europe, but doesn’t give you much flexibility – for instance if you have a change of heart and want to visit somewhere else, or if you miss your train…
Eurail Passes – 3 Easy Steps
1. If you’re a non-European resident, you’ll need to buy Eurail ticket rather than an InterRail ticket. There are a slightly larger selection of Eurail ticket, which includes different regions that aren’t available to InterRail customers (like Spain to France or the Eurail Benelux – Germany Pass, which covers Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg). Luckily the Eurail website makes it easy to choose and book tickets, and being able to tailor your trip in this way can really help you save cash.
2. In general there are three types of ticket rates – the Youth Ticket (12-25 years), standard Adult Ticket, and the Saver Ticket for groups (a saving of 15% if 2 or more of you are traveling on the same journey). You can find the prices for each different pass type on their website.
3. Then you’ll need to choose from the Eurail Pass and the Flexi Pass. The basic pass allows unlimited travel within a set period of time, whereas the Flexi Pass if perfect if you plan to spend longer periods in some countries – it only expires when you have used up a certain number of days of train travel.
Planning Your Route: A Couple of Pointers…
- We’re not saying you need to map out an exact route you have to stick to, but a bit of advance planning will really help you make the most of your trip. Even if you are traveling alone and have a flexible rail pass, look at a map of Europe before you set off and think about some places you really want to check out. If you are going to popular cities where it’s not going to be easy to find a cheap room in peak season, make sure you book hostels in Europe before you travel.
- If you are going with friends, each pick a place you really want to see, and then negotiate an itinerary between you. But be realistic – there’s nothing worse than cramming a few weeks with endless traveling and countless cities – not only will you be exhausted, you won’t remember the places you’ve visited! Leave a few more days in destinations you really want to see, and read up key points in travel guides to get an idea of how long you are going to need there.
- Think about physical travel time, and how long it’s going to take to get from place to place – traveling always takes much longer than you think, and can be pretty tiring, so leave a day aside here and there to recover – veg out on a beach, chill in your hostel and lay off the sightseeing.
- You don’t have to stick to your itinerary religiously – don’t worry if you get somewhere and you don’t like it – if you plan a route with a little room for manoeuvering, you can switch it up, head somewhere else and might end up finding somewhere more interesting as a result.
Sample Summer Itineraries…
Southern Europe Explorer
Best for… fun in the sun at the main hotspots in the Med. Each city has all the culture, cuisine and nightlife you’ll need, plus a couple of laid-back beaches when you want a break from sightseeing.
Route: Lisbon (Portugal) – Madrid (Spain) – Seville (Spain) – Barcelona (Spain) – Marseille (France) – Nice (France) – Milan (Italy) – Venice (Italy) – Florence (Italy) – Rome (Italy) – Naples (Italy)
3 Cool Things to Do: Bar hopping in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto, touring the Moorish Palaces in Seville, watching the Sun set from the Palatine Hill in Rome.
From East to Greece
Best for… students on a summer break. Far cheaper than the North and West, and by taking a tour from Hungary to Greece, you’ll get more culture, clubbing and chilled out beaches for your money. If you fancy a diversion from the basic route, you can stop off in Croatia or the Greek islands, and if you’ve got more time, take the train on to Istanbul from Sofia.
Route: Budapest (Hungary) – Ljubljana (Slovenia) – Zagreb (Croatia) – Belgrade (Serbia) – Sofia (Bulgaria) – Thessaloniki (Greece) – Athens (Greece)
3 Cool Things to Do: Clubbing in Belgrade, roaming the Statue Park in Budapest, scoping out the Acropolis in Athens.
Best for… scoffing chocolates in Belgium, bike rides, beautiful architecture and beer halls by the dozen. These cities are all great fun to visit, and great value for money – Warsaw in particular is home to some of the cheapest museums and cultural attractions in Europe. If you want a scenic detour, try cycling through the Dutch or Czech countryside, or exploring the Bavarian Alps.
Route: Brussels (Belgium) – Bruges (Belgium) – Amsterdam (Netherlands) – Berlin (Germany) – Warsaw (Poland) – Krakow (Poland) – Vienna (Austria) – Prague (Czech Republic) – Munich (Germany)
3 Cool Things to Do: Swig pints in beer halls in Munich, visit the Museum of Communism in Prague, tour the coffee shops and culture of Vienna.
Looking for budget accommodation for your InterRail Eurotrip? Well you’ll find all you need on HostelBookers.
Have any tips or advice for future InterRailers? Let us know in the comments below…
- Part One Italy by Train
- Part Two Travel by Train: South Eastern Europe
- Part Three Travel by Train: Prague to Stockholm
- Part Four Travel by Train: France & Spain
Thank you to Hipólito Lobato, Ruben Bos, bittidjz, Roland, Andrew Clarke, Serendigity and Wolfgang Staudt for the fine images from Flickr. Please note all were under creative commons license at time of publishing.