Monday, 30 November -0001

Staying on the rails

One of the best ways to see Europe is by train, says Sophie Butler. It’s comfortable and efficient, with no hanging around in airports

Written by Sophie Butler

An excellent idea for celebrating a landmark birthday was related to me by a retired reverend from Gloucestershire. He and his wife used an InterRail pass to tour Paris, Strasbourg, Munich, Bratislava, Innsbruck, Cologne and Brussels by train. They spent the day of his 70th birthday in Budapest.

‘We took 12 days but I wish we’d had a month,’ he told me. ‘We had a wonderful time, with no worries about driving or parking. It was always easy to find hotels and we explored art galleries, spas, bookshops and museums. Sometimes we had compartments to ourselves – but we also met local people while travelling. Everyone was courteous and the trains were on time – if we had a delay of four minutes the staff apologised. We
definitely want to do it again.’

Once regarded as the domain of student backpackers, InterRailing is in fact open to travellers of all ages who want flexible, long-distance travel on part or all of the European railway network. Not only can you buy senior passes for over-60s but families can buy passes for children aged from four years (travel is free for under-fours). First-class versions are also available.

Rules and regulations are slightly bewildering at first glance, but essentially the InterRail Global Pass covers 30 countries and comes in two different forms. The cheapest is the ‘Flexi’, which allows you to travel on a certain number of days within a 10- or 22-day period. This starts at £245 for an adult. Rather more expensive is the ‘Continuous’ InterRail Pass, which allows you to travel on 15, 22 or a month of consecutive days. This starts at £388.

If you want to focus your travel on only one area, it’s better to buy a ‘One Country Pass’. This allows unlimited travel on a certain number of days within one month. A three-day pass for Spain costs £167 (perfect for doing a triangular tour taking in Barcelona, Madrid and Seville, say), while an eightday pass costs £286 (ideal for hopping between stylish parador hotels in smaller towns and cities). A three-day pass for France costs £189, rising to £293 for eight days – and uses for this might include exploring the French Riviera, visiting the Loire châteaux or touring the wine regions.

These passes don’t cover some of the high speed or overnight trains such as Eurostar and the TGV, but they do qualify you for fare reductions (seat reservations are also necessary). Depending on the country, your pass can often get you discounts on hotels, ferries, museums and public transport.

For mountain scenery, you might also consider the Swiss Pass that also gives differing amounts of unlimited first- or second-class travel within a month. The cheapest four-day pass costs £196 per adult (£167 per person if two people are travelling together).

A holiday spent negotiating schedules and train networks may not be your idea of a relaxing time. That’s where a specialist holiday company can be a good option. By booking a tour, you can travel independently or in a group, exploring different regions or focusing on one specific area. All the legwork will be done for you, hotels booked and luggage transferred. And on group tours you’ll meet like-minded people and have a knowledgeable guide and tour manager.

Whatever you opt for, the best aspect to taking a break away by rail is that you have no airports to contend
with, no driving to worry about and no uncivilised limits on luggage.

It’s a holiday where the train really will take the strain.

More information

  • For passes and tickets, contact Rail Europe: 0844-848 4070, or visit the Travel Centre at 178 Piccadilly, London W1.
  • For planning itineraries, see the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable – Seasonal Edition (published twice-yearly at £16.99 plus £1.50 p&p). Contact Thomas Cook Publishing: 01733-416477,

Specialist holiday companies

  • Danube Express: 01462-441400, offers luxurious train journeys, mostly through eastern Europe.
  • Ffestiniog Travel: 01766-772030, specialises in nostalgic rail travel, classic journeys and Christmas tours.
  • Great Rail Journeys: 01904-521936, has the widest range of itineraries, budget levels and train types.

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