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Slow is better: the real value of InterRail


“InterRail isn’t the same as in the early days,” came the cry after our 40th-birthday bouquet in honour of InterRail published in hidden europe 37. Several correspondents have contacted us with stories of how InterRail and Eurail have lost their gloss. Many hold against the scheme that there are too many supplements nowadays — unlike forty years ago, when you could just hop on any train and travel where you wanted. But is this true? It's time to put the record straight.

Interrail isn’t the same as in the early days,” came the cry after our 40th-birthday bouquet in honour of Interrail published in hidden europe 37. Several correspondents have contacted us with stories of how InterRail and Eurail have lost their gloss.

“Too many supplements nowadays,” moaned a Danish reader, who explained how she will take the plane next week from Copenhagen to Rome rather than having to pay “all sorts of extras on top of the cost of a rail pass. It’s not like it was forty years ago, when you could just hop on any train and travel where you wanted,” she added.

Myths of long-lost halcyon days

So it’s time to put the record straight. There never was a time, not even back in the early days of InterRail, when travellers with a pass could just hop on any train without having to bother with reservations. It has become part of the mythology of InterRail that there was a glorious moment in history when the pass cost next to nothing and that one could roam at will across Europe without having to worry about reservations and supplements. Memories of holidays in our youth invariably become rose-tinted with the passage of time.

Let’s take a closer look. InterRail has changed over the forty years since it was launched, and in our view it is a better value and more flexible product today than it was back in 1972. We have researched how the cost of the classic global youth pass has increased in price over the years and it is clear that incomes have increased far more rapidly than have pass prices. Today’s InterRail pass allows completely free travel in more countries and on many more trains than did the earliest InterRail passes.

True, there have been some big changes in the night train market, with many overnight services having been withdrawn. We explored these trends in an article in hidden europe 3. Day trains have sped up so much that there is simply less need to travel overnight. The night trains that remain, generally on longer-distance routes, have moved upmarket with sleeping cars and couchette coaches replacing long rakes of carriages with regular seating accommodation. Travellers today evidently like their creature comforts, and superior accommodation requires a supplement — just as it did in the earliest days of InterRail.

No-go zones for the pioneers of InterRail

Turn to the day train market, and InterRail always came laced with restrictions. The entire Trans-Europe Express (TEE) network was simply out-of-bounds to pass holders. This was not a question of having to pay a supplement. TEE was a complete no-go area for InterRail travellers. Prime-time morning departures from Zürich to Munich (on the Bavaria train), Hamburg (the Helvetia) and Paris (L’Arbalète) were barred to pass holders. The same applied to sensibly-timed morning trains from Milan to Geneva (the Lemano), Nice (the Ligure), Lyon (the Mont Cenis) and Munich (the Mediolanum).

France was very difficult for the InterRail pioneers. The fastest trains on key routes from Paris to the provinces (eg. on the lines to Toulouse and Clermont-Ferrand as well as on services to Alsace and the Rhône Valley) were all first-class only and thus not available to InterRail pass holders. Even more annoyingly, InterRail was barred on some regional services where alternatives were slow or circuitous. For example on the only Rapide of the day from Nantes and Tours to Lyon InterRail was not valid. Perversely, or so it seemed to us pass holders, SNCF would not accept InterRail on the sole daily direct train from Bordeaux to Grenoble.

One of us is old enough to recall the days when many trains on prime routes to the Adriatic resorts of what was then Yugoslavia were barred to holders of InterRail tickets. This meant that pass holders could not use the Marjan Express from Zagreb to Split, the Arena from Zagreb to Pula or the fastest trains from Zagreb to Rijeka. Similarly, the Sarajevo Express from Belgrade to Sarajevo was a no-go zone for holders of an InterRail pass.

The secret of InterRail success: taking the slow train

The early users of InterRail passes worked around the complicated web of restrictions. We eschewed the premium services and took slower options. And we did not complain. Free was free and we rejoiced at being able to travel from northern Norway to the toe of Italy without having to pay a cent beyond that initial outlay for an InterRail pass.

That is still perfectly possible today. Nothing has changed except the horizons of a new generation of travellers that values high-speed and long-distance as virtues in their own right. Very few early InterRail pass holders set off to conquer huge swathes of Europe in a single trip. How times have changed. Today folk set out with the notion that Poland and Portugal must be clocked within the compass of a fortnight.

Those who have used InterRail a few times know the secret of success. Less is more. Slower trains offer a far better perspective on European landscapes. And the local service allows a better engagement with the communities through which you pass.

Nowadays, supplement-free slower trains criss-crossing Europe are generally very much faster than they were in the 1970s. The fastest daytime service on the Barcelona–Zaragoza–Madrid route in the early 1970s took 13 hours for the 680km journey. To use that premium service, holders of InterRail passes had to pay a sobretasa de velocidad — a special high-speed supplement. Yes, there was a time when fifty kilometres per hour counted as high speed.

Today the slow train dashes from Barcelona to Madrid in less than nine hours. No supplement. No need to book. Just hop on and ride. Of course, if you are in a rush, you can pay a supplement to ride the fast AVE train.

TER wins out over TGV

Slow trains have become very much faster over the years, and in our book they are the best way to use InterRail. If you want to speed across France on a TGV, the option is there, but you’ll need to book a seat and pay a supplement. That means committing yourself to a particular itinerary. So easy is it nowadays to buy cheap tickets on premium trains across Europe, that InterRail hardly makes sense on those fastest trains. If you must make haste on certain legs of your itinerary, book high-speed services well in advance and you may well find that point-to-point tickets work out cheaper than a rail pass.

Where the pass really comes into its own is on slower journeys and rural routes where there are few cheap deals on offer. Dynamic pricing means great offers on busy routes, but shift to lesser routes and you may well find that old-style distance-based tariffs are the only option. InterRail is superb for such slower journeys. It preserves total flexibility, you can stop off on a whim, and you can savour the serendipitous delays and diversions that come with slow travel. One of our favourite writers, an early exponent of slow travel, is Théophile Gautier. “What charm can there be in a journey when one is always sure to arrive,” queried Gautier in 1843.

Classic trains, classic routes

InterRail allows us to escape the rush of modernity and to rediscover a slower Europe. True, you might well still move faster than the snail’s pace that characterised the itineraries of the InterRail pioneers.

Back in 1972, a journey to Paris on one of the peak Rapides of the day, leaving Marseille just after nine in the morning, took well over eight hours. The train followed the classic PLM route. Local trains still follow the same route. Using supplement-free TER services, you can still travel from Marseille to Paris via the traditional PLM line, enjoying a feast of French scenery along the way. None of the blurred images of landscapes glimpsed from a TGV. In our view, the slow train is a lot more fun. Yet choose your day carefully and you could speed from Marseille to Paris on a TGV for just 20 EUR. Opt for the slower train and the only published fare is the Tarif Normal at more than 100 EUR one way. You'll need to changes trains along the way in Lyon, but why not make a virtue of a necessity and enjoy lunch in Lyon? It's a nice way to break up a long journey.

Slowness as a privilege of wealth

How often have we heard the refrain: “But I need to cover a lot of distance and stick to fast trains. If I don’t I’ll not be getting the best value out of my InterRail pass.” This tragic chorus has become a convention. Travellers opt for a global pass and become enslaved to speed.

But best value does not mean trying to beat distance records. It might be measured by the level of spontaneity that surrounds a journey. It may be judged by the level of engagement with local communities that your journey affords. And if you really want to bring it down to euros and cents, best value is certainly a journey that uses slow trains to the utmost. Slow is the pricier option. Odd, is it not, how slowness is nowadays a privilege reserved only for the most wealthy — and for those who appreciate the real value of an InterRail pass.

We have followed slow itineraries across Europe by train and have written about many of them in hidden europe magazine and in Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide for Individual Travellers. One can still take slow trains from Switzerland to Spain by day (crossing France with just two changes of train en route). It is a very fine journey. And it is always worth remembering that the InterRail pass holder today who favours slow routes, as we describe, is still generally making faster progress across Europe than even the fastest trains of forty years ago.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(hidden europe)

If you liked this piece, you might be interested in our Manifesto for Slow Travel or our account of a slow train journey earlier this year from Paris to the shores of Lake Geneva.
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