What I learned about train travel across Europe.
And finally for my last post on our Interrail adventure – everything I learned after the trip. These are all the questions I had before we left and if you’re planning an Interrailing holiday, you’ll probably have them too. Before you start, if you haven’t already, then take a look at my post on planning an Interrail adventure to get some great tips on route planning, which Interrail pass to choose and how to make reservations. You can also find our final Interrail Europe route here which will give you an idea of the number of places you can tick off the bucket list in three weeks.
Make sure you follow Interrail on Facebook, they regularly discount their tickets so if you fancy trying it out, make sure you get the best deal possible.
This Interrail tips post may contain affiliate links. This means I will receive a small fee if you book via this post. At no extra cost to you.
Packing for your Interrail holiday
We took way too much Luggage. As we were away for 3 weeks, we each had a huge suitcase. This made getting on and off trains pretty stressful and took longer than necessary. If you can get away with it – take a backpack each. Easier said than done I know.
I overpacked the train entertainment. With my usual panic packing, I decided to take every kid friendly activity we own. We could have got by with a couple of books, ipads and a pack of cards. But then my daughter is 8 so probably needs less entertaining than little ones. If you need some inspiration on keeping the kids entertained on a long journey, check out what I think are the best travel games for kids.
Don’t scrimp on comfort
Europe is expensive. We were traveling in the height of a European heat wave. Many of the great value hotels that looked brilliant on Tripadvisor left a lot to be desired. With broken air con and no water in the rooms. Next time I think I’d just bite the bullet and pay a bit extra.
Interrail tips on timing – embrace slow travel
We crammed in so many European cities that by the time we got to Austria I just wanted to stay up the Nordkette mountain. Soaking in the fresh air for a month! Definitely aim for a good balance of city and countryside or beach, you’ll all be happier for it.
Interrail tips for online booking
Do not trust that the Interrail reservations website will give you enough time to change trains. Often when we had booked their suggested itinerary’s we simply didn’t have enough time to disembark with bags, leave the platform, find the next platform and then lug all our bags onto the next train. It’s not always possible to do but half an hour between trains is probably ideal.
Explore the unexplored
Head off the beaten path. I know like us it will be tempting to tick off as many of the major cities as possible. But our favourite days were the ones we spent in the slightly less obvious places. Utrecht, Innsbruck and Bologna were all firm favourites. If you need a bit of European off the beaten path inspiration then this post by Travelynn Family should get you ready to plan your Interrail route.
Interrail admin tips
Check those train times again and again and again, don’t just use the Interrail app, trainline was pretty helpful. It should give you pre-warning if any of your trains are cancelled or rescheduled. And you’ll be able to work out different routes accordingly.
Learn a few basic words
Learn a few important words in the language of the country you’re visiting. Or at least have Google Translate ready to go on your phone. You’ll need to know “platform” “cancellation” “delay” etc. Signs often wont be in English and it can be tough to find someone English speaking to help when everyone’s rushing for a train.
Interrail tips for when you’re at the station
Check the trainline app to work out the final destination of the train you need. That is what will appear on overhead platform screens. It’s much quicker to check that you’re waiting for the right train than trying to find the station you want mentioned.
Tips for when you’re on the train
Take a portable charger for your phone, the train power sockets didn’t always work or we were sat too far away from them. Your phone will take a battering as you track your progress, check if your train is late or for emergency re-routing. Don’t let a flat battery ruin the adventure.
As trains go, the majority of the European trains we travelled on were pretty comfy. Probably the best were in Belgium and Italy. Even though we were in the peak of the European Summer holidays most were pretty quiet. Apart from Prague to Innsbruck which was packed with students.
Remember, if you’ve pre-booked reservations you’re guaranteed a seat. Pretty essential for long journeys with kids.
Most trains either had a trolley service for snacks and drinks or a small shop on board. I would recommend grabbing snacks at the station before you board just in case they’re closed or run out.
The toilets as you would expect in the first class carriages were always cleaner and better stocked than second class. But consistently cramped apart from the Virgin trains in the UK which for some reason have massive toilets!. Generally the toilets were pretty clean but they’re never going to be great, on a level with plane toilets! Take a spare pack of tissues just incase you’re caught short! Most stations will have facilities to use before you board, we always used them!
We travelled on so many different types of train. Some ultra modern with two levels and power sockets. Some with the old fashioned separate cabins. I think these were our favourites but all had their own benefits.
Most trains will have extra storage space for your luggage, sometimes overhead but sometimes by the train doors. Never leave your luggage where you can’t see it. We often squeezed our cases between our legs, on a seat next to us if it was quiet or under our seats if they would fit.
How reliable are the trains?
Short answer – not very! Pretty much every journey we took was late. Mostly only by a few minutes. But this is why I can’t stress enough giving yourself plenty of time to change trains between stops.
We were traveling in the height of summer, it was so hot and at times very busy. One trains air con broke in one of the carriages so they had to close it. Meaning lots of passengers had to get off and wait for the next one. These things are unavoidable but can cause a fair amount of stress. Just try to be flexible, you may need to re-route yourselves at the last minute to reach your final destination. Make sure your phone is always charged so you can use the apps to plan new routes if necessary.
Whenever we rerouted due to train cancellations with previous reservations, the conductor would just accept our reservations on the new route. Try to remember it’s all part of the adventure. More often than not we ended up in fits of giggles trying to think on our feet!
Interrail tips for food and drink
You’ll find a good selection of cafes and restaurants in all the major train stations. However the smaller ones you may be using to change trains at might not have many options. Some don’t even seem to be manned. Try to pick up snacks when you can. The beauty of train travel is that there are no restrictions of liquids or sandwiches!
Interrail tips on staying safe
Keep your Interrail passes close at all times, it’s probably the most expensive train ticket you’ll ever buy! If you do lose it, you’ll need to inform the police immediately and get a crime report.
Do not keep them in side or back pockets of rucksacks or trousers, as unlikely as it is, this makes it very easy for pickpockets. Make sure that once you’ve shown them to the conductor you put them straight back in a safe place, we very nearly left Pipers pass on the table after rushing off a late arriving train.
Interrail does offer the option to add pass protection to your order but it won’t cover you for the full cost of your ticket, just how many days you have remaining. I suggest taking out good travel insurance (as I’m sure you would anyway) checking it will cover you for any lost or stolen passes.
Take photocopies of all your tickets, documents and passports. Have a spare copy with you and leave one at home with someone reliable. This is good practice when traveling anyway and at least you’ll easily be able to find your ticket numbers should you need them.
Is a first class Interrail ticket worth the money?
As you are allowed to use your pass for one outward (and one inward) journey within the UK to get to the Eurostar, we travelled by Virgin Trains from Lichfield to London. I love Virgin first class so that part definitely was worth it.
However you’ll have to pay more for reservations (additional costs on top of your main pass) if you’re traveling first class, so much more that we often just went second class.
Most first class carriages in Europe simply offer a little more room and are quieter, we even got a free water and bag of nuts traveling from Austria to Italy but I don’t think the perks were really worth the extra £80 per ticket (for the 5 day global pass)
First class Eurostar reservations cost an extra £40 on top of our ticket vs £30 for second class.
Is Interrailling better than flying?
Stations tend to be in city centres
This saves you time to get to and from the airport and the taxi fare into town. Even better if you can book a hotel or Airbnb within walking distance to the station.
You have literally no limitations
If you have the time you can be so flexible, imagine looking out your train window at a pretty little town and deciding to jump off to explore. Like the place, just book yourself a cheap Airbnb for the night, not much to do, hop back on the next train and continue your journey.
Trains are more regular than flights. If you miss one, just wait for the next, the worst thing that will happen is you’ll lose your reservations.
Train travel is more comfortable
The seats are bigger, it’s easier to walk around and if you have a long stop at a station, you can even hop off for some fresh air. Although not all seats have them, you’re more than likely to get a table that can seat 4. Perfect to sit round and play cards as you eat up the miles.
You’ll meet some fantastic people.
Train travel is just so much more sociable than flying. There’s a real sense of camaraderie, people helping each other with heavy luggage, strangers sharing tables and playing cards, even the students we met where happy to keep an eye on our bags while we popped to the restaurant carriage. Not everyone will want to talk but we heard some fantastic adventure stories and picked up some amazing recommendations from the people we were sat with on the trains.
It’s so much cheaper than flying.
Yes, flights around Europe are cheap, sometimes as little as £30 one way but most of the low cost airlines will have compulsory extras such as hold baggage and seat booking. This all adds up very quickly, especially if you’re planning on covering a lot of countries. Whilst paying for additional reservations on top of our pass did annoy me, overall it worked out so much cheaper.
There’s just so much to see
I love flying over land, seeing mountains or endless green beneath me but for the majority of a flight, you won’t see much apart from clouds. Train travel encourages you to take in the world around you, there’s always so much to see outside your window, you’ll travel through forests, mountains and cities, each journey will be different.
I panic packed, taking loads to entertain us on our journey but actually ended up spending big chunks of our travel time staring out the window. As did Piper.
No luggage restrictions
We’ve all been there, your favourite perfume wont fit in your carry on, or you’re sick of having to take off your shoes, all jewellery and remove every last item of technology at the airport. With European train travel, you can bring as many snacks and bottles of water as you like. And don’t get me started on the joy of not having to cram all my toiletries into a tiny see through bag!
And finally one of my favourites, the distinct lack of queuing, queuing to get through passport control, baggage drop, security, to get on the plane, to get off the train, passport control on the other side, baggage collection, to get a taxi, it never seems to end. When you’re Interrailing, the biggest queue you’ll encounter is likely to be that of the restaurant cart.
The downside of Interrailing
Lack of sleeper trains for long journeys
I so wanted to try a sleeper train on this journey, it would mean we didn’t waste a full day on a train and we could also save on a hotel night whilst paying a bit extra for reservations. Unfortunately sleeper trains are few and far between nowadays in Europe, I think France, Germany and Spain still have a few but it just wouldn’t fit into our itinerary. If you want to include an overnight train in your trip then look at the ones available here.
Although I firmly believe this is a pro, if you don’t have a lot of time an hours flight versus a 6 hour train journey seems like a bit of a no brainer. We all coped pretty well with the long train rides, taking naps, reading books, playing cards and soaking up the scenery but little kids may get a bit fussy being stuck on a train for over 4 hours.
Planning is a nightmare
Yes, even for someone like me who does this for a living! I’m embarrassed to say how many spreadsheets I had on the go when working out our schedule, researching reservation costs, working out if single tickets would be cheaper, finding decent hotels near to train stations, it’s tough and very time consuming. That said for someone who finds the planning process as much fun as the trip, this is a dream!
Interrail tips on where to go
You can see our full Interrailing route here, essentially we did:
London – Brussels – Amsterdam – Prague – Innsbruck – Bologna – Tuscany – Milan
This was a great option for us. Mixing historic and modern cities, a bit of countryside and a whole heap of culture. But with an Interrail pass, the possibilities really are endless.
For beach lovers I would focus on Southern France, Spain and Portugal.
For mountain lovers, a trip across the Alps would make a great choice. Take the Eurostar to Paris, then Annecy, Chamonix, through Switzerland and finishing in Austria.
If you’re keeping a close eye on the costs then focus on domestic trains rather than the high speed ones to avoid reservation costs. And head to lower cost countries, traveling East. Try Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, finishing in Croatia.
How much does Interrailing cost?
Our three week interrailing adventure for our family of three cost just over £3,000. Including tickets, hotels, car hire and flights home during the peak summer holiday period. Absolutely great value considering you could easily spend that on a fortnight in Spain during the school holidays.
Interrail doesn’t whack up its prices when the kids are off school. Unlike all the airlines do. So if you are traveling with school age children it’s so much more economical.
Even better, two kids per adult under 12 are absolutely free (although you will still have to order them a ticket and book reservations for them) and there is a huge discount of 25% for anyone under 27.
Hopefully this has given you some great Interail tips for your next European rail adventure. If you can handle the planning then it really is an adventure you’ll never forget.
If you like the idea of seeing Europe by train but would rather someone else did the planning work then travel agency Explore has some absolutely amazing pre planned rail tours.
Their Budapest to Prague adventure includes Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Prague and will have you traveling by bus and train. It’s a six night, seven day action packed adventure and will cost around £1,000.
I also really like the sound of their Moorish Spain to Marrakesh adventure which is 13 days, starting from just £1,500. You’ll travel by taxi, train, ferry and bus and take in so many cultures and cuisines.
Any other questions or Interrail tips you have to add, please leave them in the comments below. Or take a look at The Man in Seat 61 this website was a lifesaver when I was trying to plan our European train travel.
Make sure you pin for later for when you’re looking for Interrail tips for your next adventure.