Later this month we will be travelling overland from Lisbon back to London. From the point where we reach the Spanish city of Merida, a little east of the Portuguese border, our journey will be made exclusively by train.
Seeing that we will be crossing two large countries and spending three days making lengthy train journeys in each, my initial reaction was to look into getting a rail pass. Being a veteran of three InterRail journeys in my teenage years I found the idea of getting another rail pass a very tempting one, if driven mainly by my own nostalgia. So I started to do my research and it didn’t take long for me to find that the numbers simply didn’t stack up.
The options for buying rail passes now are far better than they once were. Rather than just a flat fee for a month you can now choose to pay for a set number of days of travel within a given time period (for example 5 days within a month), so that you only pay for travel days and not for those times when you’re actually visiting wherever it is that you’ve bothered to come all that way to see.
Our trip is simple – 3 days across Spain (Merida-Cuidad Real-Zaragoza-Girona) and 3 across France (Spanish border-Montpellier-Nice-Paris) with a Eurostar back to London.
The cost of a one country rail pass to include 3 days of travel is £155 (£106 for those lucky enough to have celebrated less than 26 birthdays). So for us we would buy one for France and one for Spain. In addition we would need to book reservations on some of the trains – these would cost €36 in Spain and €5.50 in France, and £57 for the Eurostar to London – a total of £404 each.
I have chosen to book these tickets using the Renfe and SNCF websites and my total tickets costs (per person) for Spain are €138 while for France, including the Eurostar, the total is €131. A total of €269, or £238. I have booked in advance only those journeys where I could secure a good discounted fare. Where there is little difference between the walk-up fare and the web fare I’ve left it for us to book on the day.
So £238 for self-booking against £404 for using the InterRail pass system (£306 had I been a few years younger). I was quite surprised to find this difference particularly as, when I had been a young InterRailer there was no question that I was getting outstanding value on my investment in a one-month pass.
A pass does give the user several benefits – the main one is the flexibility of being able to get on any train and to change your plans at short notice. We have an itinerary that has several fixed points within, meaning that we could sacrifice this flexibility for the cost savings we are making.
But this little bit of research has left me wandering: for a person aged between 26 and 60, can a rail pass ever be a financially better option? Is it likely that you would travel so much in 3 days in one country that you would run up over £155 in fares? The only scenario that I can imagine it would pay is if you would otherwise do no planning or pre-booking and you just paid the walk-up rate for a few of the most expensive high-speed trains.
Have you bought a full-fare InterRail and got value for your money? If so, it would be great to see a travel itinerary that made these rail passes prove to be a good purchase.