I’m so jealous at everyone turning 18-year old this year, they get free Interrail tickets this summer! I am trying to go back to my good habits of travelling by train in Europe instead of flying, and I thought I would share some tips with you guys. Summer holidays are coming up and if you are planning a trip anywhere in Europe, why not do it by train? In this post I’ll go through costs, how to plan your route and how much in advance you should book.
Ideally, I would take the train much more. I have high ideals, but I am in no way a “perfect eco citizen”. Because of my flying, my carbon footprint is three times the sustainable level. Many people are true eco-heroes without thinking about it even! They live in a small flat, they buy the food that’s about to go off with the 60% tags and they travel by public transport. Often, the people who spend least money are the one’s we should look up too. Those guys are your real heroes, I’m just a spoiled millennial who want to raise awareness among other spoiled millennials. Enough about that, now to train travel!
Why chose train?
If you want to see many destinations in Europe, train is the obvious choice. If you are going to just one destination, most people I know see flying as the obvious choice but train can offer the benefit of giving you a “bonus destination” on the way. Seeing things on the way and more flexibility are two great aspects about train travelling. Taking the night train is the best. For every night you spend on the train, you gain a day for sightseeing and avoid the cost of a hotel.
The other obvious benefit is that most train companies run on electricity that is largely produced from renewable resources. That means that taking the train can on many routes have zero carbon emissions! A typical flight trip in Europe has at least 500kg of carbon emissions. Just one flight roundtrip is almost 10% of the average EU citizens annual emissions, so taking the train can give you some serious saves. Also, taking the train is a real adventure! You meet people, you explore and you learn to enjoy the little things along the way. Most trains are also very comfortable and if you have the chance to travel by night train, you won’t even notice you spent time travelling.
Where to start planning?
The Interrail.eu website shows the best train connections within Europe. I can put in Helsinki to London and it suggests me the quickest route! I keep using that distance as an example because I have made that journey three times but I have also travelled by rail from London to Milan, from Amsterdam to Madrid and obviously the Eurostar routes from London to Paris and Brussells. Interrail.eu also have an app called the Rail Planner that I recommend downloading when you start planning your app. Click here to get to the planner. Plan your journey well in advance if you want to travel during popular times and you have to be on certain trains, the most popular routes on the fastest trains can sell out. You can be more relaxed about planning if have all the time in the world during your travels and you don’t mind having a journey by local trains with several small stop overs and occasionally wait even a day extra to catch a cheaper train the next day.
I would suggest planning your route and your timetable before purchasing an Interrail pass, as for some journeys single tickets can be cheaper. To save money, I really recommend booking the high speed rails such as the Eurostar from London or the Thalys trains in France, Germany, Spain and the Benelux countries well in advance. The prices for these trains tend to go up if you leave booking too late. The Eurostar from London is not included in the Interrail pass but the Interrail pass entitles you to a small discount on your Eurostar ticket price.
When you plan your trip I suggest putting in your starting point and final destination first, just to see which stopover places the app suggests. You want to spend more time than the shortest stopover time in some of these places, so do not religiously follow this first suggested timetable. For example on the journey from Milan to London I decided to have a 13 hours stop over to enjoy a day in Paris, instead of just a 1h stopover where I would have to rush. Search for the timetables of the two journeys separately: Milan-Paris and then Paris-London.
About the cost – Interrail pass or individual train tickets?
An Interrail pass is ideal if your goal is to see as many places as possible and you don’t mind moving from one place to another. They sell both International and one-country passes. I have myself not done a proper Interrail trip with many stops over a month or so, but read a bit further and you’ll see the tips from two of my friends who have done it.
If you are under 27 years old, the price of the Interrail pass is about 25% cheaper. The prices for the International youth passes range from 208€ (£192) to 510€ (£470) depending on if you travel for the minimum of 5 days or up to a whole month. On top of this, many trains charge a seat reservation fee to be allowed travel on that train. Comparing rail travel to flying is very difficult because you can see so much more when you travel by train.
Tips for shorter train journeys
When you are travelling less than 5 days during a period of two weeks, which is the smallest international Interrail pass, it might actually become cheaper to book individual train journeys. Sometimes it can be worth paying the little extra with the Interrail pass even if you are travelling a shorter time because it allows for flexibility. The benefit of the Interrail pass is if you miss a train connection, you can just take the next train instead. On some distances, you might also want to take bus or boat instead of train. For example, all my journeys out of Helsinki include a ferry ride. If you travel by the fastest Intercity trains, for example from Paris to Barcelona, you might as well not have an Interrail pass because the mandatory seat reservation fees for these trains can be quite high. I bought most of my individual train tickets from Go Euro because they sell both bus and train tickets from many countries on just one site.
My experience of shorter one-way train journeys in Europe. 1-4 are with individual tickets, nr 5 is with an Interrail pass:
- Helsinki to London (via Stockholm, Berlin, Amsterdam and Brussels): 235 euro (£210)
- London to Amsterdam (via Brussels): 58 euro (£51)
- Amsterdam to Madrid (via Paris): 205 euro (£180)
- Milan to London (via Paris): 195 euro (£175)
- Helsinki to London in 2016 (via Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hamburg and Brussels) 295 euro (£265). This sum includes the following costs: Interrail ticket 180 euro, ferry to Stockholm from Turku 55 euro and Eurostar ticket 60€.
Tips for longer Interrailing
My friends who have done some longer Inter railing share their experience here.
Emil: No train no gain
Back in 2013 I went on my first inter rail adventure. I took a three week-ticket and decided to travel as much as I could in three weeks. I remember counting that we travelled through at least 18 countries. We had a quite quick pace, because I was eager to see as much as possible. For me the train rides themselves are the main part of the journey. Different landscapes and countries passing by in the window are the beauties you miss when you take that oil-drinking-Dracula, called an airplane.
I good tip for traveling longer distances with train is to take the local trains. Take your time and skip the superfastultrafancygodzillahyperloop-trains that travel approx. 900 km/h. Use the local trains instead. Because that’s where you find the locals. You’ll see the smiling school kids, the praying nuns, the stressed-out office worker and also the weird people inter railing with a shitty guitar on their backs. Note that I might be that guy.
Sofia: Bring a padlock and a copy of your passport!
Some years ago I went inter railing for 4 weeks in Europe. It was in August, which is the most busy month in Europe with a lot of tourists. Because of this, I would advise anyone planning an inter rail to go in June or July, since it will be less tourists and also cheaper prices. Plan your route beforehand but account for one extra day or some extra hours at every place you want to visit. Strive for a good balance between planning and being spontaneous. For example, we planned to stay three days in Verona, Italy, but after one day we spontaneously decided to go to Venice since we had seen everything Verona had to offer in one day.
Try to book hostels in those cities you want to spend more time in. Also, if you are travelling in August, book ahead! Otherwise you might find yourself in a difficult situation when arriving in your destination. Me and my friends were forced to spend the night on a beach since the all the cheap hostels were booked and we did not feel like paying for a hotel.
Last tip: look after your stuff and be super careful! Take a copy of your passport and bring a padlock with you.
Felicia’s comment: It sounds like Sofia may or may not have somehow lost her passport haha 😉
How much time to allow for a distance?
If the route you are taking requires changing trains, allowing for some extra time is really the key to enjoyable rail travel. The Interrail planner says it will take me 42 hours to get from Helsinki to London. I have made the journey in that time once, and it was quite stressful. I had 6 stop overs which were all less than 3 hours long, and the worst stop over was in Hamburg at 3.30 am. I do not recommend for anyone to change trains at 3.30 am and I will never do it again. Unless there is a proper night train that allows you to sleep your 8 hours, I really recommend staying at a cheap hostel and just adding 10 hours to your journey time. Believe me, you will be much happier about your journey iof you sleep properly!
In the summertime (May to September) there is a night train from Stockholm to Berlin with a shorter stop in Malmö. Check it out at Snälltåget.se. In the wintertime when travelling between Helsinki and London there is no night train, so I have to sleep one night at a hostel in Copenhagen to avoid travelling during the night.
Basic tip: allow at least one more day than what the Interrail Planner says is the shortest possible time to travel. The app says it takes 51 hours to go from Helsinki to Madrid but you definitely do not want to make the journey in that time. You can get to Madrid in just two days but it might be a bit stressful. The journey includes stop overs in Copenhagen, Paris and Barcelona and you definitely want to explore at least one of them on the way. Maybe you want to explore them just for a few hours but still, you don’t want to follow the inconvenient suggestions of stop over times that the Railplanner app gives you. Why on earth would you want to be in Lyon between 23:56 and 07:06 for example? You might as well take the later morning train from Lyon to your next destination and enjoy a cute brunch!
I travelled from Arezzo in Italy via Milan and Paris to London in just 24 hours. That was quite good because it included a 40 minute stop over in Milan (time for buying snacks), a night train to Paris, a whole day of museums in Paris and a 2 hour train back to London late in the evening. If you have convenient connections you can make even longer distances in only 24 hours. Short distances like London to Amsterdam take only 4,5 hours. How much time to allow depends on both the distance and the connections, the fewer connections you have, the quicker your journey will be and the less risk there is of missing a connecting train.
The new normal
Recently more and more people in Europe are starting to choose the train over flying. In fact, there are many discussions on political level that some of the night trains that were shut down year’s ago would be brought back. When on holiday, more people are starting to realise that they can enjoy the journey as much as the destination. As for business trips, quick routes like the Eurostar also helps people choose trains over flying. If you are planning your next journey in Europe but you feel unsure about how to join the train-trend, please comment below and ask any question, I will always reply!