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Are reservation fees and private railways killing the allure of Interrail?

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 00.15.11Knowing how much I travel by train some friends have rather flippantly said I would be better booking Interrail tickets for my trips than the individual tickets separately. So with a trip København – St Malo, and then Par – Trieste – Brussels – København, and a week later København – Paris – Brussels – København to plan, I thought I would have a look. I was quite stunned by what I encountered, conscious that I have three times in the distant past – in 1999, 2000 and 2004 – travelled Europe on Interrail.

The prices of the passes seem reasonable enough – starting from €181 for an all-zones pass for under-26, and €276 for over-26. My only slight quibble is that passes for a few countries (I seem to recall that Morocco, Portugal and Spain used to be in a zone, and all of the Balkans in another zone for example) now are not available – you book either a global pass, or a 1-country pass, with nothing in between.

The real shock however is the cost of reservations, particularly on international services. The full list is here for national services, here for international, and here for night trains. A reservation on Thalys, for example, for Paris-Brussels is €30. A cheap off-peak single regular ticket is cheaper than that! Eurostar is similar – €43 for a youth reservation, €89 for over-26. I am used to paying around £40 per single journey for a regular ticket! Yes, for some routes there are alternatives – taking a TGV via Lille instead of Thalys for example – but with much of France now served only by high speed trains, and the importance of high speed in Italy too, taking Interrail in these countries looks like a very expensive proposition, let alone routes between these countries.

Also for my trip I investigated taking the Thello night train from Venice to Paris, and it seems Interrail is not valid at all on this service, nor is it possible to use Westbahn in Austria or HKX in Germany. OK, these services compete with other operators (although Thello has a monopoly on France-Italy night trains, and an Interrail reservation on the TGV Paris-Milan is €55!) but could acceptable of Interrail not be made a condition of any operating license granted?

Yes, I understand that railways need to be profitable, and yes – within reason – I am fine with competition in rail as well, and some diversions onto slow trains might be OK too. But thousands of young Europeans have been introduced to more unusual parts of the continent, and the joys of travel by rail, thanks to the Interrail pass. It’s surely high time to make sure some of these exorbitant fees are reduced, because otherwise the joy of turn up and go Interrail is gone.


7 Comments

  • Kate Andrews (Co-founder, Loco2) |

    Interesting research Jon but actually I disagree that bringing back the Interrail pass is as simple as cutting the additional fees. I actually think that the whole system is out of date and passes are no longer fit for purpose. Supplements have made them a false economy, and tickets and reservations (when required) often need to be posted to customers, making them impractical when you’re on the road. Perhaps a more sensible suggestion would be the introduction of Europe-wide concessionary passes, like the UK’s young person’s railcard, which can apply a discount at checkout for ordinary point to point tickets (that are increasingly available to print at home).

  • Jon |

    The EU-wide youth pass idea sounds like a fine idea, but I would like to see that in addition to Interrail, not as some sort of replacement for it. And anyway, my BahnCard 25 more or less acts as that already anyway :-)

    As for Interrail though, the fun of it used to be to be able to, more or less immediately, jump on a train and see what you can find. I remember one day, having had enough of Prague, just getting on a slow train to Plzen to see what was there. Further, while it seems to me that in France and Italy passes are now hopeless, in Germany and Austria the supplements (even for ICE and Railjet) remain low, and Interrail still looks to be fine for most of central and eastern Europe.

    As for the reservations by post thing – shouldn’t smartphone tickets eventually solve that?

  • Simon Field |

    A few points of correction. Supplements are not required for travel on RailJet, WestBahn and 99% of ICEs. Only the fastest ICE-Sprinters demand a premium, but that’s for all passengers regardless of ticket type.

    However, InterRail is not valid on many ODEG routes in Brandenburg and Saxony, nor on any open access operator other than Westbahn. Validity is patchy in Poland and Romania, thanks to the disastrous way in which regional routes have been fragmented. The Thello problem is particularly annoying, as these trains are direct replacements for services previously operated in a spirit of cooperation (dirty word) between SNCF and FS.

    I agree that the Pass is near useless in France, Spain and Italy. As for Thalys and Eurostar, forget it!

    We asked the Commission for its position on InterRail, but did not receive a satisfactory answer:
    http://worldcarfree.net/projects/back-on-track/index.php#parl

    Q. “Many long-distance trains in France and Spain are barred to ‘go-anywhere’ InterRail and Eurail pass holders. Expensive supplements are required there and in Italy and Portugal. An increasing number of small regional operators of tendered routes in Germany, Poland and Romania do not accept these passes. This creates confusion and reduces the attractiveness of Europe as a tourist destination. Does the Commission consider a flexible ‘go-anywhere’ pass to be of economic, social and/or environmental value? If so, how will the Commission act to encourage operators to participate fully in InterRail or a similar scheme?”

    A. “The Commission is developing technical standards for interoperability for ticketing, and for efficient provision of travel information, based on Directive 2008/57/EC on the interoperability of the rail system in the Community.”

    Alles klar?

  • sjlkajglksa |

    Sweden is actually supposed to be an awfully complex country for Interrail travel, although it’s possible to use Interrail on Veolia’s trains. Local trains are typically operated on behalf of each Swedish county. Some counties (such as Skåne län) accept Interrail whereas some other counties (such as Stockholms län) don’t. Also, multiple carries operate trains on some long-distance routes, and only some carriers accept Interrail. Good luck finding out where the Interrail pass works!

  • Simon Field |

    Regarding Sweden, there’s some surprisingly good information here:
    http://www.interrail.eu/trains-europe/trains-per-country/trains-sweden

    In Poland InterRail is NOT valid on:
    - Arriva PCC.
    - Koleje Dolnośląskie.
    - Koleje Mazowieckie (KM) trains between Warsaw and Gdynia.
    - SKM (Warsaw region).
    - WKD (Warsaw region).
    - Pociag Papiesky.

    Unfortunately the page for Romania (http://www.interrail.eu/trains-europe/trains-per-country/trains-romania) does not appear to acknowledge the fact that CFR is not the only operator in the country!

So, what do you think ?