Going Flight-Free: Exploring Europe by Train
Last summer, me (Caroline) and my other half had an amazing month-long trip exploring Europe on an Interrail pass. We got a half-price Global Pass ticket in the Interrail sale last spring. Valid for a month for travel on trains in 33 countries, a Global Pass can be activated any time in the next 11 months after purchase. However, to avoid school holidays, we decided to go mid-June to mid-July, so didn’t have much planning time!
Reducing short haul flights is one of the most impactful things individuals can do to reduce emissions . In addition to be being a greener way to travel, it turns out travelling by train to Europe is actually really easy and so much more enjoyable than flying! In a month we managed to visit Brussels, Bruges, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Ljubljana, Lake Bled, Zagreb, Split, Ancona, Bologna, Venice, Lugano, Zurich and Paris.
If you’re tempted to have a flight-free holiday exploring Europe on an Interrail pass but don’t know where to start, read on. We’ve put together this guide to what we learned from our experiences to help you plan your own train adventures!
Route Planning – Useful Resources
In addition to using an old school travel guide to decide on destinations (we used the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet books from the library), the Man in Seat 61 website was invaluable and is the go-to resource specifically for train travel in Europe.
I’ve also recently discovered the Green Traveller website, which looks like it’s easy to use and has lots of useful information on the most popular routes. It also has links to the Train Line if you want to go ahead and book train tickets.
We also used the Interrail website to check journey times between places and work out what time we needed to get each train. However, we found the Interrail website very un-user-friendly. Often no information would be displayed for a specific search or it would appear no trains were available, causing us to worry the train we wanted to catch was fully booked.
As we couldn’t find any way of getting customer support from Interrail, what we found really useful was the online community forum. You have to register as a member in order to post a question or read previous topics. I picked up some handy tips here, either by searching previously asked questions or posting your own question. For example, I hit a brick wall as the Interrail website was saying we had to book seat reservations on the Zagreb to Split train, but it was also saying reservations weren’t available to purchase, suggesting the train was full and we’d have to change our route. After asking in the forum, other members informed me this is because seat reservations for Croatian trains can only be purchased in person at a station in Croatia! Actually, the process of getting the seat reservation was easy once we arrived in Zagreb, as we went straight to the ticket office and were given a paper reservation ticket for free! But it wasn’t easy to find out how to do this in the first place.
Another tip we picked up on the forum is to use the Deutsche Bahn website for up-to-date train timetables for the whole of Europe (not just Germany). This is a useful resource when the Interrail app and website are playing up or you want to double-check the time of a crucial connection.
The Austrian railways website is another useful resource as it allows you to book seat reservations in some other countries at cheaper prices than doing it through the Interrail website. We did this in advance for our journeys in Italy. The advantage of using the Austrian website is the tickets are online and emailed instantly, whereas some train companies insist on sending out paper tickets by post!
Fortunately, I realised in advance that we wouldn’t be able to get from Switzerland to Paris (our final stop before catching the Eurostar home) without a reservation on the TGV. Again, the forum came to the rescue by providing a phone number for SNCF to call to speak to an English-speaking person to book it over the phone (this couldn’t be done online).
The Global Pass includes a discount on one outbound and one inbound journey on the Eurostar from London to start and finish your journey. It cost us £30 each for each leg. We went from London to Brussels and returned to London from Paris. Lille was another option.
The Interrail website wasn’t clear about how to book the Eurostar journeys. Instead of being able to book and pay through our Interrail account, we had to book the Eurostar trips on the Belgian railways website and then link the journey to our Interrail pass. We found all this out from this useful article from the Man in Seat 61.
Making Seat Reservations
The rules about which trains you can just turn up and get on for free vary hugely by country and train operator. Some countries require you to pay for a seat reservation in advance on every train even if you have a global pass, which can massively increase your travel costs. I think this is the norm in Spain, but we didn’t go there. In Italy we found it was necessary to pay for a seat reservation on the national trains but not the slower regional trains. It is also essential to book a seat on the TGV in France. The cost of a seat reservation varies greatly too, from 3 Euros in Vienna to travel to Ljubljana and 30 Euros for the TGV from Basel to Paris.
A lesson we learned the hard way was don’t always presume you’ll get a seat on a train that doesn’t require seat reservations! We didn’t book seats on the Berlin to Prague train and it was really busy. Other passengers kept moving us as they’d reserved seats (the seats weren’t labelled as reserved so there was no way to know if we could sit there or not until we got moved on). As a result, we spent some of the journey standing in the aisle (much like traveling on a British train!).
Using the Interrail App
We got a mobile pass as it was quite a lot cheaper and the paper pass was going to take several weeks to be delivered. This meant we had to use the Interrail app to activate our pass for each journey we made, which sounds straightforward but in practice caused a few hiccups!
The app was as clunky and un-user-friendly as the Interrail website. Technically you are meant to add a journey to your pass before boarding the train. So, on our very first trip, from Brussels to Bruges, we diligently added the journey to the pass from the platform before the train arrived. At the last minute there was a platform change and we ended up missing the train! Luckily another train was due in a few minutes, so all we had to do was add the new train to the pass. This was when we discovered it’s impossible to cancel a trip once it’s been activated. And we couldn’t add the new journey as the app thought we were on the original train! We got on the train regardless and no one actually asked to see our pass, so we got away with it. I’m not sure what would have happened if we’d been caught or whether my French was up to explaining what we’d done! From then on, we waited until we were onboard and moving before adding a journey to the pass.
It’s also easy to accidentally add a journey without meaning to, so this is something to be careful of when you’re using the app to plan your route. In a rush because the inspector was coming to check our tickets as soon as we boarded the train from Bruges to Brussels, I accidentally put our destination as the final stop (not Brussels). This was fine in terms of the ticket inspection. It was only when we boarded the connecting train to Cologne (en route to Berlin) that we realised the app thought we were still on the previous train and wouldn’t let us add the current journey. Again, we had to chance it and we got away with it that time too, but from then on, we were a lot more careful!
The other potential worry of relying on the app is running out of phone battery or losing/breaking the phone. Fortunately, on every train (and at Milan station where we were stuck for 6 hours) there were power sockets, we just had to remember to keep the phone charger and adaptor in our hand luggage. And I think there is a way to retrieve the pass on a different phone if something happens to your main phone, but I’m not sure exactly how to do that!
Using European Trains
In general, across Europe the trains worked well (unlike the trains in the UK). They ran on time and there was good information about the next stop etc. The only major holdup was at Milan, due to an unannounced strike! But even then we were able to buy first class tickets for only 30 euros each to travel on to Lugano.
We tried to be organised and arrive at stations with plenty of time to buy lunch/breakfast/snacks to eat on the train, as the choice and quality on board wasn’t great. Most stations had a good choice of coffee shops and places to buy food, especially Milan, where the food hall offered a huge selection of top-quality Italian food.
At home I see a long train journey as a good opportunity to read a good book. But in Europe I didn’t read anything, I spent the whole time looking out the windows. As the saying goes, it’s about the journey not the destination! The most spectacular scenery was in Austria, Slovenia and Croatia, but on every journey, there were interesting things to see from the train.
Places to Stay
Unlike my last Interrail trip in 1998, these days it’s easy to book accommodation in advance. The downside of this is that places get booked up and it’s riskier to be spontaneous and just turn up somewhere expecting a room to be available. We realised this when we decided to book our first and last nights before we left and found our options limited. We then decided as we more or less had our route planned it made sense to book all our accommodation in advance. This took a bit of time, but it saved stress and time en route knowing where we were sleeping each night.
I used Booking.com (or booked direct if a place had their own website) and we stayed in a mix of cheap hotels and private apartments. A good feature of Booking.com is being able to select places with free cancellation up to a few days before, so if your plans change you don’t get charged. In practice we didn’t need to cancel, but it is worth bearing in mind if you want a bit more flexibility.
A cheaper alternative to paying for accommodation each night is to sleep on a night train. Usually it’s necessary to book ahead if you want to do this using your Interrail pass. This can be a good way to save time too, by travelling a long distance while you sleep (although you’ll miss the scenery). We didn’t get any night trains, but information on routes can be found here.
Walking and Cycling Tours
As we only had 2 or 3 nights in most places, we had to cram a lot in. We quickly realised that most cities have guides that offer free walking tours, you just give them a tip at the end based on what you think the tour was worth. Some walking companies are listed in the guide books or you can use Guru Walk to book or find out the meeting point. All of them we did were very worthwhile and gave us a good overview of each place, saving us having to do the research ourselves and it meant we saw things we would otherwise have missed.
In Berlin and Paris, we paid for half day bike tours, as I knew from previous visits they are big cities with the sights spread out. Cycling was an excellent way to see both cities, and they are very cycle friendly.
To conclude, going Interrailing is a great way to explore Europe and embrace the Swedish concept of tagskyrt (train bragging). I hope my tips are useful if you’re thinking of planning a European train trip. Our trip was fun but tiring at the same time, and I think my advice would be to spend more time planning it before you go, as ours was rather last minute! Next time we’d like to cover a smaller area and spend more time in each place. As well as being the eco option, it is so much nicer to travel by train than to fly – you get to sit back and enjoy the ever-changing scenery and reduce the carbon footprint of your holiday.