What’s Wrong with Eurail Passes for Travelers
By Michelle Lawson
An Interrail Pass (or Eurail for those who live outside Europe) can be one of the best ways to discover Europe at your own pace, especially the Global pass covering 33 countries.
With the new mobile app, you generate a daily ticket that includes all the trains you’ve chosen for that day. If you decide at the last minute to change plans, you simply generate a new ticket. Sounds flexible, right?
That’s what I thought until I planned a trip for May 2023. I’d always wanted to visit the Baltic states of northern Europe and I’d start the 22-day pass by traveling through Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
That plan fell apart within an hour. It’s hard to believe three small countries don’t have cross-border train connections, but it’s a legacy of Communism.
After the countries threw off the Soviet cloak and got their independence, people chose to travel by car or long-distance bus, rather than railway. Trains were inferior and outdated, associated with the Soviets.
New EU Funded Railways
Times are changing and there’s a new EU-funded Rail Baltica project to forge cross-border links from Estonia right through to Poland. The first stage, from Lithuania to Poland, opened at the end of 2022.
Fine. I’d fly into Lithuania and use the rail pass to travel south, flying back to the UK at the end.
Of course, the pass would be valid to travel in and out of the UK, but when you’ve done London through Belgium a few times, it feels a drag. Flying in and out would bypass that.
How not to use an Interrail/Eurail
A north-to-south trip, from the Baltic to the Balkans, sounded cool. On the rail map, it looked straightforward, with opportunities to stop over in Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, spending the final week on the Croatian coast.
I’d take the snorkel mask lying unused in my wardrobe. It seemed like a good use of a 22-day Global rail pass.
Except that it wasn’t.
The flexibility of Interrail doesn’t allow you to hop onto any train at a whim.
The faster intercity trains often require seat reservations, which you make via Interrail/Eurail, or on the (usually cheaper) train company website.
It’s not as complicated as it sounds, and it’s all explained on Mark Smith’s Seat61.com website.
I’d travel from Vilnius to Krakow in one go—twelve-and-a-half hours—because it sounded like a challenge.
Then I came to my senses and split the journey with a stopover in Warsaw. It was still over nine hours, but I could handle that.
The problem came with the obligatory seat reservation. Neither the Polish nor the Lithuanian train websites had a way to reserve a seat, nor did the Interrail/Eurail site.
Even the cross-border rail experts on Twitter couldn’t come up with a solution.
The only way I could be sure to reach Poland was to buy a full ticket. At 20 euros from Kaunas (Lithuania’s second city) to Warsaw, it wasn’t too painful, just frustrating, and a reminder that flying in and out restricts flexibility.
In and out of Lithuania
Vilnius is a lively city lacking the crowds that plague other European city destinations.
Close to the old town is a bizarre “Republic of Užupis” – Lithuania’s tongue-in-cheek independent state. On the first of April 1997, creative types moved across the river to derelict Užupis and declared an independent republic.
Expecting a bohemian, perhaps edgy district, I was surprised to walk through gentrified streets full of galleries and coffee shops. Even the street art looked respectable.
A couple of days later, I boarded the new Rail Baltica international connection.
The Lithuanian train passed tiny timber stations with vegetable plots before the border at Mockva.
Here we boarded an equally slow Polish train, this one with the six-seater compartments familiar from old movies that encourage eye contact and conversation.
Between us—Polish, Ukrainian and English—we were a mix of travelers, students, workers and visitors, along with a cat and a dog. A congenial, multilingual atmosphere that vanished when stepping into Warsaw’s raucous night-time streets.
On Either Side of the Tatra Mountains
The following morning a modern, and empty, intercity train sped me to Krakow, followed by a rail replacement bus to Zakopane, in the Tatra mountains, where I followed lines of hikers trudging up the snow-lined paths.
I wanted to see the southern side—the Slovakian Tatras. But there was no straightforward rail route around the mountains, only a convoluted route via Polish cities that would use up two days.
Taking the Bus Again
For the second time, I abandoned the rail pass. A bus took all of 90 minutes to drive from the northern Polish Tatras to the southern Slovakian side.
The bus wasn’t expensive, but that wasn’t the point—I’d spent hundreds of euros on a Global rail pass.
At least I could use the pass in the Slovak Tatras, where a system of little electric trains ran across the base of the mountains.
These trains, running since 1908, offer a cheap and eco-friendly way for locals to access the mountains. I used the Interrail to travel to Štrbské Pleso, a lakeside ski resort with two rotting ski jumps. That saved me all of four euros.
Deep into Slovakia
The next stage would make better use of the pass. I’d seen images of a fairy-tale-like town called Bardejov, a UNESCO World Heritage site, deep in north-east Slovakia. It didn’t matter that the four trains to get there would take an entire day. I’d see something of the region and gain a sense of arrival.
The first hours were scenic, following the deep green Hornád River through a forested valley. It was the connecting stations that were ugly. Prešov was the worst—a dim, echoey hall where the only seats were bizarre swirls of piping.
The single-track train to Bardejov stopped at tiny stations as it ran north towards the Carpathians. Bardejov itself was cold and deserted.
Little was open, apart from a few bars, an enormous Lidl, and a stall selling archery equipment. The medieval square was stunning, and for once there was no need to wait for tourists to move out of the way.
But all I could think of was the next day’s journey to Budapest. Another day on slow, empty trains, with endless stopping at isolated stations. More time to kill in Prešov.
National Identity in Hungary
In Budapest I planned to spend time in the historic cafes I remembered from a previous Interrail trip, back when Hungary was still Communist.
It was a shock to find they all had lines down the street; one even had “fast track” ticket options for breakfast. Eventually, in the Castle District, I got a free seat in the oldest café, Ruszwurm, next to the red umbrellas of the Jamie Oliver restaurant.
South to Zagreb
My reservation for the international train from Budapest to Zagreb was for seat 25, but the seat numbering leaped from 24 to 26.
Where was seat 25? The train manager just laughed and shrugged. I took the last free seat on the right, for a view of the eastern shore of Lake Balaton.
How could an international train be so slow? A car would take less than four hours, but by train, it took more than six.
It stopped at so many stations, including eight with the prefix Balaton-. Even as we reached Zagreb, the train pulled up at roadside halts to let locals on.
Zagreb station is monumental when you’re standing outside it. When you’re in the station, it feels like an underpass in a run-down suburb.
A short platform tunnel greets passengers with graffiti shouting “God help us”. It was 10 pm and I needed food, but there was only an enormous bookstall that filled the tiny station hall.
Perhaps the latter was symbolic of a city that takes culture seriously.
The churches were closed, veiled by scaffolding concealing the damage from the 2020 earthquake, but there was a wealth of art galleries and museums, including a Museum of Broken Relationships.
From Zagreb to the Dalmatian Coast
And so to the final train—another six-hour-plus journey, arriving late at night in Split on the Dalmatian coast.
Limited Trains in Croatia
From then on, I’d be using the buses. I’d known Croatia was limited for trains, but some of the lines didn’t even come up on the timetable.
The final week of the Global Pass was a complete waste.
And once again, it failed the flexibility test. Croatia is one of the few countries that doesn’t offer online seat reservations.
You’re told to do it at the station. But for the single, daily train from Zagreb to Split—on a Friday—surely that was too risky?
I ended up buying the full ticket, online in advance. As did other Interrailers on that train, who recognized me from the previous day’s train, and admitted they’d also paid for tickets, to be sure.
A sensible move, as the two carriages were packed with passengers arguing over seats.
No refreshment trolley and no power sockets, and I questioned the logic of leaving my power bank behind while carrying a snorkel mask.
But the train manager had an extension lead, at which we politely took turns to recharge our phones.
The train climbed higher and higher along the single-track Lika line, running through the isolated ground towards a jagged mountain ridge.
We passed hamlets where a solitary man stood with a red flag, and sheep ran from the approaching train. This area was fought over between Serbs and Croats in the Homeland War of the 1990s and many stations remained derelict.
At Blata, barely a hamlet, the caved-in station building was visible through its open doorway. We all got out for a 10-minute stop at Knin, the old capital of the former Republic of Serb Krajina, eerie in the approaching darkness.
Back on the train, the daylight died just in time for the most scenic stretch of all: the drop to the coast.
Stepping into a dark and rainy Split, I passed couples dining to a romantic playlist on my way to a backstreet guest house with the unsettling name “Glamour”.
In the nicest possible way, it was far from glamorous. And it would rain for a further five days before the snorkel mask finally made it out of the rucksack.
Michelle Lawson is an English writer and lecturer but she’d rather be on a train or up a mountain in Europe. Read her blog here.