Decades ago, as a student, I spent a month on the road. Spain, France, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy. Those were the names of the stations I could reach cheaply with a single ticket. In the eyes of my parents, the Interrail ticket was a safe alternative to hitchhiking.
But today – Interrail, in times of cheap flights? And that for all age groups? My son, as a representative of the classic target group, and I, with my glorified memories of full trains and improvisation, put it to the test and then took on yet another challenge. Our luggage also includes two bicycles.
No traffic turnaround without networking
We want to find out how the networking of rail and bicycle, the two most environmentally friendly means of transport, works. And what differences are there in the European countries? The journey will take us from Germany via Austria to Budweis in the Czech Republic in one day.
A good week before the trip, it is no longer possible to reserve first-class seats with Deutsche Bahn. As an Interrail customer, you can’t really feel welcome in view of the fact that a large selection of seats could have been reserved in addition to the bookable tickets. A railroad spokesman explained this circumstance days later only with the fact that there was probably “just at the moment of the booking attempt a technical error”.
For the ICE of the German railroad, which runs from Cologne to Linz in Austria without changing trains, no more bicycle tickets are available already one week before the beginning of the journey. Everything points to an overcrowded train.
With a slightly queasy feeling, we sit in the local train that takes us to the ICE to Cologne, where the decisive situation awaits us. To our delight, the transfer works just-in-time and from now on we also appreciate escalators as a good means of transportation. In the ICE, the uncertainty soon subsides, because despite high occupancy, individual seats remain free and our bicycles are also on the train.
Mobility through flexibility: load instead of bike
If you don’t mind a little effort, there is a rather unknown solution for taking bicycles on board, with which you can achieve the flexibility with which the railroad could distinguish itself much more offensively. For even in long-distance trains, where reservations are compulsory, bicycles are permitted dismantled and packed as a load.
After disassembly and packaging in a commercially available transport bag, all that remains is to find a place on the train where the bulky piece of luggage can be safely stored. Aisles, doors and fire extinguishers must remain free. Interesting side aspect: In contrast to the bicycle transport, every other piece of luggage is transported free of charge.
WLAN, rest areas and free daily newspapers
Once the luggage is stowed, the comfortable part of the journey begins. Wide seats and fewer passengers per car are just the most obvious benefits of first class.
Unrestricted WLAN, free daily newspapers and access to VIP lounges in major transfer stations are further benefits. The train staff is helpful and doesn’t let itself be ruffled by special challenges.
Interim balance on the commuter train
We appreciate the fact that the train is on time, especially because of the short changeover time. In Linz, we continue our journey with a local train of the Austrian Federal Railways, which carries only 2nd class cars. However, the generous space for bicycles is pleasantly noticeable.
Having covered most of the day’s distance, it’s time for an interim review. Local trains in Germany and Austria pose no problem for large pieces of luggage, such as disassembled and packed bicycles. Long-distance trains, however, are not yet equipped for many travelers who want to do without a car and still travel with a lot of luggage.
Spoke and rail only find each other with difficulty
The dream of low-emission travel, where spoke and rail combine seamlessly and uncomplicatedly into a relaxed flow of driving and being driven, is still a long way off. Even the terminology used by Deutsche Bahn and the “fact” that you first have to turn a bicycle into a carrying load in order to get a certain flexibility and continuity into your travel process shows how far behind the rail mode of transport still lags the demands of modern and environmentally conscious travelers.
After crossing the border, we experience another special feature. In Czech trains, only luggage up to 90 cm is carried free of charge. The conductor reveals to us that she knows what luggage we are carrying. But because our loads are so nicely packed, they cost less than we would have to pay for bicycles ready to ride. Fortunately, we can pay by credit card, because we don’t want to take Czech crowns out of the ATM as cash until we reach our destination, Budweis in Bohemia.
The bike tour can begin
On the platform of the small Czech town of Budweis, we get our bikes ready to go in 20 minutes. To do this, the dismantled front wheels are clamped back in place and the transport bags are folded to a manageable size.
And our contrasting program already begins. The southern Bohemian university town of ?eské Bud?jovice is best known for the beer of the same name.
We end the day by the Vltava River and look forward to a relaxing bike ride. On the first kilometers the cycle path still leads directly along the Vltava, which is dammed up by several locks. Following the course of the Vltava, the landscape becomes increasingly hilly and we change sides of the river several times.
After days of encountering few people, we reach the bustling capital of Prague and discover that driving can also be fraught with unexpected adventures.
Conclusion: Interrail either flexible or inexpensive
The question for which trip an Interrail pass is worthwhile cannot be answered in a general way, because there are many different pass variants. As a rule of thumb, the more and the longer you want to travel, the cheaper it is. And with time, you can learn the organizational tricks that make traveling work well.
The price is determined by the different validity periods and age groups. There are various discounts for young people up to 27 years of age and seniors over 60. Global Interrail First and Second Class tickets are valid in 34 countries. (Albania, Kosovo, Russia, Kazakhstan, the country of Moldova, Estonia and Latvia are not included. Small countries like Monaco, San Marino, Vatican City and Andorra or islands like Malta and Iceland). There is also a discount if you commit to a single country or group of countries. The country of residence has a special status, because you can leave it only once per Interrail pass and you can return to it only once.
Study of European railroad systems required
Sounds complicated – and it is. Especially if you consider that almost only in Germany, Austria and Switzerland the high-speed trains can be used without additional reservation fees. For Eurostar, SNCF; TGV; Thalys, Lyria, Trentitalia Frecca, RENFE AVE and PKP EIP, reservation fees are charged, which make especially the so-called Flexi Interrail Pass financially unattractive, which is only valid for a fixed number of travel days within its validity period.
Adults pay 446 euros for 7 trips within a month in first class. So, if you make a trip on each of the 7 days that costs 64 euros, there is no advantage compared to a normally purchased ticket. Research has shown that almost all railroad companies offer various savings offers, which are similarly complicated as the vain attempt described at the beginning to purchase an optional seat reservation for an Interrail pass (i.e. without buying a ticket at the same time).
Interrail is only worthwhile for frequent travelers
The Interrail pass for as many journeys as you like within one month costs 883 Euro in comparison. For 1202 euros, you can make as many trips as you want in first class within 3 months. Seniors get a discount of 10 percent. Young people a discount of 23 percent.
We were not charged for the Interrail tickets