Interrailing around Europe might sound like something a student gets up to not a family of four. It was my husband's idea to try it this summer. He loved the thought of travelling by train having spent hours stuck in the car in recent years driving to the Netherlands and France. I was a little hesitant about taking a journey into the unknown with kids in tow but agreed to embrace the adventure and book our passes.
With a fortnight to fill we decided on a route starting and ending in our home town that would give us four city breaks back-to-back, each in a different country. We picked Amsterdam, Innsbruck, Zürich and Paris.
Interrail takes some time to get your head around. You need to do your research and read up on the rules to work out which pass to buy, how to use it and when to book seat reservations. There are plenty of forums and guides online from others who have done it all before and can point you in the right direction. Getting the holiday mapped out and booked well in advance made the whole prospect feel less daunting but still daring.
Before having kids we had jumped on a bus in Croatia not yet knowing where we would spend the night in Montenegro but that felt far too risky. Although youth hostels often have decent family rooms we were staggered by the prices in peak summer for bunk beds and a basic bathroom. We chose instead to spend a little more to book two comfortable hotels with generous buffet breakfasts as well as two spacious apartments with separate bedrooms, well-equipped kitchens and a washing machine.
When the big day dawned, our girls who are seven and ten were so excited to leave the house and walk to the station carrying their backpacks full of activities to keep busy on board. We headed to London then picked up the Eurostar direct to Amsterdam.
The weather there was absolutely awful but we braved the rain and hired bikes to cycle around Vondelpark. The kids had a brilliant time in NEMO Science Museum with all the hands-on experiments. Exploring further afield on local trains, we visited the charming city of Haarlem and the seaside resort of Zandvoort.
Innsbruck was next after 14 hours on the Nightjet train. We had booked a couchette compartment with seats that fold down into bunk beds. Sheets, blankets and pillows are provided and a simple breakfast in the morning. Toilets and a shower were along the corridor. It was a surprisingly fun experience that the girls absolutely loved and we all slept well too.
We were immediately struck by the cool fresh air in Innsbruck and impressed by the clean city full of colourful buildings and surrounded by mountains. Our plan had been to enjoy open-air swimming, hiking and high ropes courses but with wet weather we found an indoor pool with slides instead. In a brief window of sunshine we made our way by cable car up to the Nordkette to enjoy the spectacular mountain views. On our final evening we polished off plates of Wienerschnitzel in the traditional Austrian Stiftskeller restaurant which seemed popular with locals and tourists.
The journey into Switzerland guaranteed a scenic view out of the train window. Zürich is eye-wateringly expensive but we found a Lidl store for more reasonably priced self-catering supplies. With the sun finally showing up we had a great morning exploring the zoo followed by a chilled afternoon swimming in the lake at Strandbad Tiefenbrunnen.
The sun stayed with us in Paris and having seen some of the key sights before we looked for ways to keep cool and escape the busy city. The gardens at Jardin des Plantes were free entry and nice for a wander with the bonus of sprinklers to run through. We took a train to Fontainebleau to visit the ornate château then popped to a pretty town nearby for gelato and a swim in the river.
With energy flagging by the end of the trip we were all ready to get on the Eurostar and head home. We arrived back exhausted but happy with a sense of achievement, some wonderful memories and a mountain of laundry.
Booking Interrail passes
Check out travel guru The Man in Seat 61 for a thorough explanation of how Interrail works. He is a font of knowledge for all the FAQ. You will also find helpful communities online who share tips including a Facebook group for Interrail travellers and another group for family holidays by rail. . Decide how many travel days you need and book your interrail passes online then download the Rail Planner app to your mobile. Up to two children aged 11 and under can be added free with every adult pass. For older children you can buy a discounted Youth pass.
Some people use flights or ferries at the start or end of their holiday but if you are relying on Eurostar to leave the UK and return you will have to book well in advance as there are limited passholder seats on each train and they sell out fast. Every family member will need to pay seat reservation fees for certain trains including high-speed services, sleeping compartments and Eurostar. These can really add up so it's worth doing the maths to understand total costs. Paying for mandatory reservations also reduces the ability to be spontaneous or change plans. Tips for travelling
When it comes to packing for the holiday you can take backpacks or carry-on size luggage with wheels that fits onto the overhead baggage shelves can also work well. Kate Franklin from the Seatkickers community has enjoyed two Interrail trips with her family. On their first holiday they visited Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Their latest adventure included the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. She says:
The kids blew me away with their inquisitiveness, joy and positivity
Her advice would be to plan your route carefully and look out for the length of train rides and the timings for connections. She adds: “Make sure to have 3 or 4 days in one place at the end for some R&R. The first year we didn’t do this and it broke me so this year the stay at Lake Maggiore was amazing!”
Packing for the trip
Don’t forget travel adaptors and chargers for any electronic devices. It is particularly important to keep your mobile charged to be able to access your Interrail pass but also to use apps in different cities for public transport and maps to get around. Make sure you have adequate data allowance as you won’t find WiFi everywhere. Kate’s essentials for an Interrail holiday * Pack five or six outfits each and roll them in sets for the kids so it’s easy to pull them out and work out what is clean. Microfibre towels are a must and a pac-a-mac that folds into a bag. * Everyone carries their own toiletries and is responsible for them. Try using solid shampoo and soaps when travelling and take travel wash for clothes. * Pack picnic sets with plates and cutlery plus a sharp knife and chopping board. Great for picnics on trains and to keep lunch costs down. * Take travel journals and pencil cases for the kids, a pack of cards and a couple of travel games. Have a few films or series downloaded onto tablets. Kate’s final tip is to buy a magnet in every town you visit:
They’re great when you open the fridge to prompt dinner time discussions and memories
Interrailing is an incredible experience to share with your family so get planning and give it a go. You won’t regret it and may even want to do it all over again.
Written by Jill Misson, journalist and mum of two