Interrailing around Western Europe: trip overview
In late May, I activated my Interrail pass and boarded the first of many trains on our two-week trip through Western Europe. You might have already seen posts about the places we visited on our trip, but here I’m providing an overview of our Interrailing experience. You can also find links to the relevant blog posts if you'd like to learn more about the places we visited.
My family have long been fans of train travel. In 2004, we did a multi-day train holiday around Europe on a Eurail pass, travelling between the Netherlands, Germany and France. Since moving to the Netherlands over 15 years ago, my family has not owned a car, which has meant we’ve become accustomed to travelling by train in our day-to-day lives.
Although my sister and I have been talking about going on an Interrail trip for years, it wasn’t until this summer that I finally got to experience all that an Interrail pass has to offer. When the European Geophysical Union conference in Vienna got rescheduled for the end of May, Brett and I realised this could be a perfect starting point for a summer holiday together.
Flying less has been one of the main ways I am trying to cut down on my carbon footprint, so I was excited about the prospect of exploring Western Europe by train – a significantly less carbon-intensive activity than flying. Plus, since Brett and I had spent the summer of 2021 driving around California, we figured it was time to see some of the beautiful places a little closer to home. It was settled. I would join Brett, Paul and Dan after the conference and we would go Interrailing together!
Expectations vs Reality
Before we started planning our trip, I thought an Interrail pass granted complete freedom and spontaneity – meet some new friends at a hostel and choose a random destination to go to by train tomorrow! No planning needed. Yet, that's not the reality we faced. Bookings for accommodation and high speed trains were already filling up in the months leading up to our departure date, which made last minute bookings in the high season prohibitively expensive. Instead, we planned everything out beforehand...
Planning our trip
I bought my 10-day first class Interrail pass at the end of March and we started properly planning our trip a few weeks later. I chose the 10-day pass as this would give me 10 travel days within two months, giving me enough time to visit Brett in Exeter for graduation after our Western Europe trip.
Originally we planned to explore Austria and Switzerland, but after discovering that accommodation was outrageously expensive in Switzerland, I suggested we spend more time in Italy instead (which was definitely the right choice from a financial point of view). After agreeing on a basic itinerary, we found Airbnbs at the various cities we'd be visiting. While I had assumed hostels would be the cheapest option, splitting the price of Airbnbs between 3 or 4 people actually worked out to be cheaper.
The Interrail app
At the beginning of May, a couple weeks before our trip, I downloaded the Interrail app, linked it with my pass and began planning our travel days in more detail. This was when we booked our seat reservations on high speed trains. Throughout the duration of our trip, this app is where we activated our travel days, tracked our trip statistics and found other benefits associated with our Interrail passes (such as discounts and access to first class lounges). Although the app did glitch out occasionally, we never had any significant problems and our pass was accepted by all the train conductors in the countries we visited.
In mid-May, the boys travelled from Exeter to Brussels, where they transferred to an overnight train to Vienna. The following breakdown of our travel days is, therefore, applicable only to me, as the boys had already used a few of their travel days to get to Vienna, visit Budapest and travel to Innsbruck.
Travel Day 1: Leiden to Innsbruck
On my only full day travelling alone, I caught an early morning train from Leiden to Amsterdam, where I transferred to a high-speed ICE train to Cologne, Germany. I enjoyed having a whole compartment to myself for most of the journey! There was just enough time to grab a bretzel in the station before catching a second ICE train. In Munich, I stopped for a picnic lunch in a nearby park before catching the final train to Innsbruck, Austria. I felt very lucky that I had a first class pass, because this train was packed – in second class carriages, people were forced to stand in the aisles. The journey from Munich to Innsbruck was absolutely gorgeous as we entered the Alps.
Public transport used: 4 trains
Travel time: 12 hours, 20 minutes
Travel Day 2: Innsbruck to Lucerne
After two nights in Innsbruck, it was time to head to our next destination, Lucerne, Switzerland. This was the journey we'd been waiting for – the luxurious Transalpin train from Innsbruck to Zurich, featuring steep alpine valleys and electric blue lakes we could marvel at as we reclined in the stylish panorama car. This journey required first class reservations, which was the main reason we had purchased first class Interrail passes. I'm so glad we did because this journey was definitely a highlight of our trip!
From Zurich, we picked up a local Swiss train to Lucerne, and then another to Rothenburgh, the suburb where our Airbnb was located. The Swiss lived up to their reputation of prompt trains, comfortable service and incredible alpine vistas in all directions. And it was amusing to hear train announcements in four languages: German, French, Italian and English.
Public transport used: 3 trains
Travel time: 5 hours, 10 minutes
Travel Day 3: Lucerne to Como, via Zurich
While Brett and Paul summited Mount Pilatus in Lucerne, Dan and I took two trains from Rothenburg to Zurich, where we enjoyed wandering around the city and eating vegan ice cream for lunch. After saying goodbye to Dan, who was travelling onwards to Barcelona for a music festival, I hopped on a train to Lugano, near the Swiss-Italian border. Brett and Paul timed their departure from Lucerne to intercept my train as it stopped in Arth-Goldau – Swiss trains are precise enough to attempt such a logistical feat. The trains and rails here accomplish another feat: a 40-minute, 57 kilometre tunnel under ~6000 feet of the Alps that lumber above. Emerging from the other side of the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world’s longest and deepest rail tunnel, it became clear how the Alps divide Switzerland. The Swiss primarily speak German on the north side and Italian on the south and the alpine views change from exposed, rocky peaks to greener (but no less dramatic) hills.
Despite the reputation for punctuality, our train began to delay as we approached Italy, causing us to miss our connection in Lugano. This was (somehow) our only missed connection throughout the duration of the trip, and we were all shocked that it happened in Switzerland, the land of punctuality. Was the Swiss reputation in jeopardy? Well, probably not. Further research showed that most of the delayed trains in Switzerland are those delayed by the trains ahead of them in other countries (*cough* Italy *cough*). We caught the next train an hour later and continued to see the transition from sharp alpine peaks to more gradual slopes. There was also the cultural transition: masks were required again after crossing the border and the trains were more crowded. Not long after crossing into Italy, we made it to Como, where we were welcomed by our lovely Airbnb host at the station.
Public transport used: 4 trains
Travel time: 5 hours, 50 minutes
Read more: Lessons learnt in Lake Como
Travel Day 4: Como to Menton
When our four-night stay in Como had come to an end, we caught an early morning train to Milan. We had officially left the Alps and the scenery transitioned to relatively flat and empty countryside – lakes in steep basins were replaced by the occasional slow moving river and agricultural fields. The landscape urbanised quickly as we approached the city of Milan. We were all impressed with the grandeur of the Milan train station, which was definitely the most magnificent station we saw on our trip.
After a brief catch up with a friend and sampling yet another Espresso, we continued south, first passing around Genoa, and then hugging the coast. Much of the journey was along the Mediterranean coast, offering enticing views of white beaches and turquoise waters, although tunnels did often block the views. As we continued along the Italian coast, we passed through a number of towns and villages, filled with clothes lines strung between colourful buildings. After transferring trains in Ventimiglia, a city near the Italian-French border, we had just a short journey left before reaching the charming city of Menton.
Public transport used: 3 trains
Travel time: 6 hours, 35 minutes (7:40 - 14:15)
Travel Day 5: Menton to Marseille
Feeling sad about leaving Menton, but excited to explore the Calanques, we boarded a train to Cannes. There was a faster option between Menton and Marseille, but we had decided to take the slower route to avoid having to pay for seat reservations. The train stopped at the microstate of Monaco, but unfortunately the tracks were underground, so we were only able to see the skyline from a distance.
The Cannes train station was packed, so we sat on the ground outside eating baguettes while we waited for our train to Marseille. We were rewarded with plenty of beautiful views of the Mediterranean coast before the train cut inland, providing views of the empty and expansive landscape of Southern France (which reminded Brett of the Southwestern United States). As we approached Marseille, we could see the hills of Calanques National Park, which we would visit later that day.
Public transport used: 2 trains
Travel time: 4 hours, 15 minutes
Travel Day 6: Marseille to Leiden, via Paris
Our final travel day was one of the longest, as we travelled from the south of France all the way to the Netherlands, a journey of roughly 1,000 kilometres. The first class car on the high-speed TGV train from Marseille to Paris was lush. Relaxed in the plush velvet seats, we felt in no rush to get to Paris. This was our fastest train, taking only took 3.5 hours to span the distance. Throughout the journey, we watched as the dry Mediterranean climate gave way to more continental European ecosystems – first in the occasional presence of trees, and then forests, and then of course, the urban landscape of Paris.
We had a few hours in France’s capital before our train to the Netherlands, so what did we do? We bought wine and *more* baguettes and had a picnic in the park. Our next train, the Thalys from Paris to Schiphol Airport was also high speed and very fancy, and we were pleasantly surprised to be served a complimentary dinner while on board. We reveled in such luxury! We must have looked starry eyed, because the man sitting across from us asked if it was our first time taking a first class train! The view from the window changed again to the flat, expansive landscape of the Netherlands, and we knew we were almost home. Our last train took us from Schiphol airport back south to Leiden, where my parents welcomed us home with popcorn and cocktails.
Public transport used: 3 trains, 1 metro
Travel time: 10 hours, 10 minutes
The remaining four days of my Interrail pass were used to travel to Exeter, Gloucester and London, and then back to the Netherlands. The boys were very excited about getting to go on the new Elizabeth line on our way to Paddington Station in London.
Because I'm a sucker for data visualisation, I decided to keep track of all of the modes of transport I used on the trip. I stopped keeping track when we returned to the Netherlands, so these statistics are just for the two-weeks I spent exploring the mainland.
I also tried my best to photograph each of the trains I took.
Lessons learnt on our Interrailing trip:
When traveling by train, you really learn to live by the motto: "Life is about the journey, not the destination." Travel days can involve multiple transfers and train journeys can be long. Embrace being forced to relax – bring a book or enjoy watching the views of the changing landscape out of your window.
Be flexible with plans on your travel days – as we learnt, even Swiss trains can be delayed! The good thing about travelling on an Interrail pass is that if you do miss your connection, you can easily catch the next train without having to worry about buying a new ticket (unless it's a journey which requires a pre-booked seat reservation).
If you're planning on doing a longer Interrailing trip (especially in the summer), upgrading to a First Class pass is definitely worth the extra cost. Not only did we always have seats in otherwise packed trains, we had access to First Class lounges at multiple train stations, where we could get free drinks and relax before catching our trains.
It's not always easy to be vegan while travelling and being flexible can make life a lot easier. Staying at Airbnbs with kitchens allowed us to cook our own meals occasionally and bringing tupperware meant we could pack our own lunches, which helped us save money and ensure we had something tasty (and vegan) to eat while we were out. Having a packed lunch was especially nice when we had long travel days and didn't have time between trains to to pick up food.
When things are going smoothly, train travel can be less stressful than flying, as you don't have to faff with security or worry about queues at baggage check. Travelling by train also allows you to see a lot more of the countries you're visiting than when you're on a plane! We saw some absolutely stunning views that wouldn't have been possible had we travelled by air.
To Interrail, or not to Interrail?
I was very impressed with my first Interrailing experience and would definitely recommend it to anyone looking to explore Europe – especially if you are young enough to qualify for the "youth" pass or old enough to qualify for the "senior" pass. My Interrail pass – youth, first class, 10 travel days within 2 months – was €360, or €36 euros per travel day. Yes, there were additional costs for some legs of the journey (mainly the high-speed trains in France and the Eurostar crossing to the UK), but having an Interrail pass made our trip easier and cheaper than if we had booked each journey individually (for example, the train trip from Leiden to Innsbruck is normally over €100). The pass also gave us flexibility around which trains we took on our travel days, meaning we could make some last minute plans – such as Paul and Brett deciding to climb Mount Pilatus.
Since finishing this trip, Brett travelled on a 4-day Interrail pass to visit me in the Netherlands, and I will be using an Interrail pass to visit him in Paris later this year. With the price of trains going up in many places, Interrail passes are increasingly looking like a more cost-effective way of travelling by train.
Earlier this summer I attempted to write a poem about train travel. I'll spare you the discomfort of reading a poem by someone who doesn't know how to write poetry, but share the main message: I sometimes feel sad when I think about all the beautiful places around the world that I probably won't get to see because I don't want to fly. But this trip made it obvious that there are so many beautiful places in Europe that I can explore without needing to fly. As investment in European rail networks continues to grow, I believe train travel in Europe will become increasingly easier and the Interrail pass will offer an affordable way to experience this sustainable way of travelling. The only question is...where will our next Interrail trip take us?