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After chatting to my uncle who had travelled with the pass some 25 years ago, he reaffirmed that not much has changed since then (apart from the faster trains). You still have to acquire the ticket the old way – forget mobile or e-tickets, you either order the pass online (and it is delivered to you), or purchase it at the station of departure (be prepared to queue a lot in peak seasons). You also have to manually record travel days and trip details on your ticket ahead of controller checks – or risk a fine!
If you grew up or travelled in Europe during your youth, then you might remember going on a (probably overly ambitious) rail adventure with the famous InterRail pass, which grants you rail travel in up to 30 countries in Europe for a limited time frame. On my recent trip from Belgium to the Netherlands and Germany I decided to go for a short version of the pass. I like the sense of exploration, freedom and flexibility that it allows, apart from the practical aspects such as taking night trains or arriving right in the center of town.
Planning can be quite a challenge - you’re given a European rail map with hundreds of colour-coded routes, and you can forget trying to reserve a seat the day before on popular routes (Thalys’s Paris-Amsterdam route was full two weeks in advance!). Unless you are very organized, you’re bound to get last minute surprise detours mainly due to full trains, and these can turn out to be quite enjoyable. In fact, if you have the time, it might be more exciting to improvise some of the route as you go! As the Thalys train to Amsterdam was full we had to do change and did a pit-stop in Antwerp just before heading to Amsterdam, and enjoyed a great concert in the beautiful medieval town square.
Earlier this year Amadeus signed adistribution agreement with Thalys, making their rail fares more accessible and comparable to air routes in the region. Furthermore, the deal has unlocked possibilities for intermodal travel, by allowing future agreements with airlines (or other transport providers) to have combined air-rail links on a single ticket. This kind of transport is a key priority of the European Commission as well, appointing an Amadeus-led consortium to develop a model for a multimodal passenger information and booking system.
In terms of the trains themselves, it’s quite remarkable to see how much they can vary in terms of punctuality, comfort, and simplicity. My top pick so far would be Germany’s Deutsche Bahn for all three. German trains are actually the only ones which can be reserved online in advance with the InterRail pass. What also surprised me is how seamless the travel experience was as we whizzed past on the high speed ICE we stopped at Frankfurt airport and was amazed to see it had almost a dozen platforms linking it to everywhere!
Despite the minor frustrations the InterRail experience as a whole is well worth it. It’s quite rewarding to see quaint villages and scenic landscapes rush past as you criss-cross between borders. You probably see more and more backpackers nowadays on Ryanair flights than on any European train, but the InterRail is still a classic travel experience full of adventure and a little surprise now and then.