I have just finished my first ever InterRail trip, which was a 22-day trip with a Flexi Global Pass.
At first, I was confused because it seemed complex and difficult to understand. However, like with everything in life, experience changed that and I got used to using it very quickly.
What is the difference between an InterRail and Eurail Pass?
The only difference is that InterRail Passes are for Europeans and Eurail passes are for non-Europeans but it is important to select correctly. You are not eligible for a Eurail Pass if you are a European resident nor are you eligible for an InterRail Pass if you do not reside in Europe.
Which pass should you choose?
There are a variety of passes and options available so it really depends on how you like to travel, your aims for the trip, your budget (not only for purchasing the pass but also for the trip), and the length of time you have for the trip.
One Country Pass
This is available for both InterRail and Eurail. As the name suggests, it covers travel around one country, with the exception of Benelux which covers travel in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.
This is also available for both InterRail and Eurail. With an InterRail Global Pass, you can explore up to 30 countries and with a Eurail Global Pass, you can explore up to 24 countries. This type of pass is good if you want to be free to explore lots of countries during your trip.
There are two types of Global Passes: Consecutive and Flexible.
If you have a consecutive pass, you can travel every single day for as long as the pass is valid. If you have a flexible pass, you can travel for a set number of days for the length of the pass, for example 10 travel days in a 22-day period. It is up to you to decide on how many travel days you think you will require.
Getting the consecutive pass is good if you want the option of travelling every day. I met a couple who did just that. If you would prefer to stay in one place for a couple of days or longer, as I often did, you might find a flexible pass suits your needs better.
For InterRail, passes can be valid for up to a month and for Eurail, three months.
Additional Passes for Eurail
There are two additional options for those who are eligible for Eurail: Select Pass and Regional Pass. The Select Pass will enable you to travel around 3, 4, or 5 bordering European countries and the Regional Pass, which is classified as usually consisting of 2 bordering countries.
Should you buy a First or Second Class Pass?
This is really down to you. I had a first class pass, which meant I could sit in first or second class. This is useful if you haven't made a reservation and first class is full, which does happen, because you might be lucky and find a seat in one of the second class carriages. If you have a second class ticket, you can only sit in second class. The ticket inspectors will insist you move if you have a second class pass but are in a first class carriage. I witnessed that a few times.
First class carriages tend to be more comfortable but the facilities and comfort of European trains varies widely. Some have individual seats, working air conditioning, free WiFi access, power sockets, and waitress service.
Before you go
You need to decide where and when to begin your trip. You don't have to plan your trip to the nth degree but it is worth thinking about this. Your pass will begin on (is valid from) the date you state when you buy the pass. It is important to get this right because your pass will expire so many days or months after the ‘valid from’ date, depending on which pass you opted for. There will be an expiry date on the pass so you won't be able to use it after that date.
The pass can be used on trains, certain buses, and ferries, either free of charge or for a reduced amount so it's worth reading up about the benefits of having the pass in various countries as well as the conditions of travel. There may be times when you will have to reserve and pay for a seat/couchette/bed. I had to reserve seats on the trains I used in France, some in Italy, and the two night trains I was on.
Using it in practice
Before getting on your chosen mode of transport with your pass, it's important to know whether you have to reserve and pay a reservation fee. If so, you will have an allocated seat/couchette/bed. If not, you can just get on the train or bus and find a spare seat. You are not guaranteed a seat if you don't have a reservation, which means you might not have a seat on a busy train. It is worth being aware of that because I witnessed that on two occasions during my 22 days. It's worth noting that in Germany, you can't reserve first class seats, only second class.
As soon as you get on whichever mode of transport you are using, fill in the pass. There are two parts to complete.
Firstly, whenever you travel, you need to write the date on the pass itself. Once you have done that, you can travel on as many trains, buses, ferries that are included in the pass as you like. My personal best during this trip was 6 train journeys in one travel day (the last being a night train).
Secondly, you need to record each of these journeys on the piece of paper attached to your pass, entitled 'Journey details'. A ticket inspector checked and stamped my pass on almost every journey I made so it is important to complete it for each journey. I always filled mine in as soon as I got on the train or bus. I never completed it in advance, just in case I didn't catch the train or bus. Whether you complete it before or as soon as you get on the train, bus, or ferry you need to make sure you have a pen handy.
Keep your pass safe because you will need it for each trip you take.
Depending on the journey, you might have to give the pass to the ticket inspector. I had to do this on a night train from Zurich to Zagreb because we were crossing three countries' borders. I wasn't keen on doing so but everyone on the train had to relinquish their tickets until they were due to alight the train. That is the only time I had to do that.
In practice, the InterRail Pass turned out to be a lot easier than I thought it would be. It gave me a lot of flexibility because I was able to hop on and off trains and buses in most of the places I visited. I changed where I was going at the last minute on more than one occasion and got on trains and buses at the last minute because I didn't have to buy a ticket. I only wish the travel period was longer, like the Eurail Passes, so I could have stopped for longer in some of the places I visited.
For more information about the different types of passes available and what each one offers and the conditions, please check out ACP Rail International.