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The Ultimate Travel Guide To ‘Winterrail’

A seasonal spin on your interrailing journey!

Switzerland's famous tourist train, the Glacier Express in winter
Interrail passes cover Switzerland's famous tourist train, the Glacier Express. Credit: Shutterstock/Peter Stein

Interrailing is a popular form of travel, often referred to as a ‘rite of passage’ for the young and adventurous. It is the perfect way to tour and appreciate cities in all their glory. But it’s not just designed for the famous European summer, as Winter Interrailing (or ‘Winterrail’) can be just as rewarding of an experience.

Through trains like the Eurostar, TGV, and the Flåm Railway, interrailers get the chance to experience individual holiday traditions, heart-warming decorations, and snow-capped landscapes across Europe.

If you’re a first-time passenger soon to be aboard the multinational railway ride or are planning your next train-hopping journey for the winter season, we have some helpful tips to guide you on your interrailing journey.

The history of the Interrail Pass

The Interrail Pass celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2022. Originally only sold to adolescents under the age of 21, this arguably ageist yet ingenious marketing ploy was the brainchild of the International Union of Railways(UIC). After 1998, this ticket-granting newfound freedom was made accessible to all ages. And while the way in which you travel may look very different from that of more than five decades ago, the heart of rail travel still takes center stage. This is an essence best summed up by travel writer Paul Theroux.

Whatever drama is being enacted in this moving bedroom is heightened by the landscape passing the window: a swell of hilltops, the surprise of mountains, the loud metal bridge or the melancholy sight of people standing under yellow lamps… A train is a conveyance that allows residence: dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer.

Paul Theroux, “Notes from an author: Paul Theroux reflects on the evolving nature of rail travel”, National Geographic
Signs inside Oslo Central Station.
Other public transport, such as the metro or bus, is not covered by your pass. Credit: Shutterstock/Sergey Kamshylin

Things to know from the get-go

The difference between Eurail and Interrail

Although they are the same in price and purpose, these passes differ on one thing: who can use them. An Interrail pass is specifically for European citizens and residents whereas the Eurail pass can be used by non-European citizens or non-European residents.

Global Pass VS One Country Pass?

Depending on how long you want to be riding the rail you’ll need to decide between either a Global Pass or a One Country Pass. The latter is self-explanatory; this means that you can choose to explore a land unknown to you or get to know an old scenic acquaintance better. However, with 33 countries on the list, it can be hard trying to land on just one.

If you’re the indecisive type or want to cover a lot of ground in a short time, the Global Pass granting unlimited train travel throughout Europe can make all your wanderlust dreams come true.

Seat reservation costs

It’s crucial to note that you must purchase a seat reservation on some trains, usually high-speed and night trains. Keep this in mind, especially if you plan on traveling in countries such as France, Spain, Germany, and Italy. This tip will also come in handy while visiting other wintry places like Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, or the Czech Republic.

Traditional Christmas market in Prague's Old Town Square
Foodies will feel at home in Prague with street vendors selling beer goulash and schnitzel with potato salad. Credit: Shutterstock/Mapman

Winter destination highlights

Nearly everywhere in Europe is worth visiting during wintertime. However, some cities and countries have more festive and cold-themed activities on offer compared to others. Wander through Christmas markets in the UK, check off your Italian destinations wish list, and more.

Switzerland

Zurich, Lucerne, Interlaken, Bern, and Geneva await your arrival. Celebrate Christmas in the Swiss Alps, indulge in the classic mountain dish Älplermagronen mit Apfelmus (a Swiss take on macaroni and cheese served with sweet applesauce), and test your ski legs or sledding skills for the more faint-hearted. Although snow shortages are possible on even the most famous slopes, January is generally considered the best month for snow conditions.

Snow-covered peaks in the Swiss Jungfrau Alps from Schilthorn
The Schilthorn in Switzerland is known for the revolving restaurant Piz Gloria, a film location for the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Credit: Shutterstock/Melinda Nagy

Two of the most scenic routes can be found in Switzerland. Firstly, The Bernina Express runs in both directions from Chur (Switzerland) to Tirano (Italy). On this journey, you’ll roll over the Landwasser Viaduct, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and pass through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges. Secondly, The Glacier Express offers similar panoramic views, giving passengers a glimpse of the Matterhorn and the Matter Valley.

Finland

There’s no better time to visit Lapland than in the winter when the Scandinavian wonderland is illuminated by the Northern Lights, and Santa Claus Village is bustling with activity. Spend the night in a glass or snow hotel. Enjoy drinks at an ice bar, visit ski resorts, and take your trip to this wintry paradise with a side of mulled wine or rice pudding. And to fully immerse yourself in Nordic traditions, don’t miss out on a relaxing sauna.

Rear view of a pre-teen girl enjoying breathtaking views of the winter landscape in Oulanka National Park in Lapland, Finland.
Hop on the Santa Claus Express from Helsinki and Turku to reach Finnish Lapland. Credit: Shutterstock/BlueOrange Studio

Paris, Venice, and Rome

These cities boast impressive monuments, striking architecture, incredible food, and fascinating cultures, respectively. Unfortunately, they share a common drawback—an inundation of tourists during the summer. Getting that almost uncapturable shot of the Trevi Fountain might be more achievable in December or February, finding a table at the iconic Les Deux Magots more realistic, and navigating the “City of Bridges,” or better yet, the city of too many bridges, will be a lot easier without having to find a makeshift turnout every two meters.

Croatia

During July and August, you would be facing gargantuan cruise ships docked in ports, crowds in Split and Dubrovnik, and battling the sun beating down on your already sweat-beaded face. In winter, spending time in Croatia is another story—starting with people-free views and frozen waterfalls. From the Advent celebrations in Dubrovnik to the Zagreb Christmas Market, Croatia during the off-season is mild bliss.

San Sebastian

Right on the Bay of Biscay, this resort town in the Basque Country is home to plenty of winter-friendly amenities and activities. With the traditional San Silvestre Race completed and a sharp shift in the weather, La Perla’s thalassotherapy center and the finest cuts of meat start calling. Follow the city’s cobblestoned streets to the best pintxo bars, although you’ll probably have to elbow your way in. If your ears are brave enough, try and coordinate your trip with the Tamborrada, the country’s noisiest festival, on January 20th.

Isla Santa Clara, San Sebastian, Spain.
A walk along Playa de la Concha is a great way to breathe San Sebastian in. Credit: Shutterstock/Joaquin Corbalan P

Germany

It wouldn’t be a list of the best places to visit during the winter without a mention of Germany. Glühwein, bratwurst, and crescent-shaped cookies dusted with vanilla sugar are just some of the incredible foods on offer. Aside from the eatable aspects of winter in Germany, it is also renowned for its Christmas markets in Dresden, Munich, Nuremberg, and beyond. Hideaway in Cologne’s oldest breweries, visit Berlin’s historical attractions, go snowshoeing in the Black Forest, or even admire the latter from the railway covering 149 kilometers.

Aerial shot of Cologne Germany Christmas market and the Rhine.
The Cologne Cathedral Market is one of the most popular markets in Germany. Credit: Shutterstock/fokke baarssen

Norway

Mountains, glaciers, fjords, the cold and dark—all highlights of visiting this Scandinavian beauty during the winter. Visit the Nobel Peace Center and reimagine your favorite scenes from A Doll’s House while at Henrik Ibsen’s house in Oslo.

One of the most scenic routes to take is the Flåm Railway. Running from the end of Aurlandsfjord to Myrdal station, high in the mountains, this vintage train should be on your bucket list.

Another option is The Bergen Railway, a seven-hour train journey taking passengers from Bergen to Oslo. Spotting bears at Bjørneparken Bear Park and visiting the mountain village of Geilo are all part of the magic. Furthermore, if you’re traveling with family, there’s a special family coach fitted with a playground and extra space for pushchairs.

What should you pack for interrailing?

Fortunately, you won’t be met by the hefty luggage fees long associated with low-cost airlines.

Interrailing allows for ample space for your bags. Nevertheless, keeping an eye on your things from a distance is different from having to lug them on and off trains and through the narrow streets of Prague or Freiburg.

Start with the basics, such as your passport, toiletries, comfortable shoes, a first aid kit, a waterproof jacket, an adapter, and a water bottle. Think practical when packing your bag. Swap out your favorite going-out ensemble for sunscreen. Instead of trying to fit your reading list in a rucksack, download some eBooks. And if you do plan on reading, an e-version of The Great Railway Bazaar and the European Rail Timetable are commendable interrailing companions.

A hiking backpack in the mountains
A sturdy rucksack is vital. Credit: Shutterstock/Encierro

In the case of interrailing in winter, warmer clothing is likely to be a must unless you’re heading to Istanbul. There’s no exact science to putting together the perfect backpack, but places like Oslo and Sweden ask for jumpers, tights, leggings, and quality boots.

Returning to the aforementioned importance of going digital. If you are nostalgic for the physical ticket, you’re within your rights to carry one. However, consider using the Rail Planner App to store your passes all in one easily accessible place.

The list could go on when it comes to what you need to think about when planning your trip. Remember to ask yourself about your currency needs, whether you need to bring cash or just operate by card.

Accommodation

One of the best tips any previous passenger aboard the interrailing journey will give you is to try and travel longer distances while sleeping. On night trains, you can find sleepers, couchettes, and reclining seats.

Interior of the night train from Prague to Slovakia with a single room.
Night trains are practical options for both travel and accommodation. Credit: Shutterstock/Michael Nosek

Taking a night train comes at an additional cost depending on the type of sleeping accommodation selected. But if you’re hoping to sleep on a budget, you can be cost-effective and arrive at your next destination without noticing on a night train.

Other options can range from anything between staying in hostels and Airbnbs to kicking it in an igloo at Iglu-Dorf or even camping. What’s more, interrailing off-season is also going to expose you to cheaper prices!

A magical ride

Steam train crossing a viaduct in the Highlands of Scotland, Scotland UK
Travelling by train can feel like out of a movie. Credit: Shutterstock/Christopher Chambers

From the most luxurious train rides like The Glacier Express to Great Britain’s West Highland Line rolling past lochs and glens, interrailing gives you access to a whole new world in which you can try and live up to the likes of Luisa Yu. As dining options on European trains improve and rail travel becomes more comfortable thanks to air conditioning, Wi-Fi, and power sockets, you’ll find yourself wrapped up in a locomotive state of mind.

These boxy carriages pushing on from city to city carry weighty connotations and offer even weightier memories. On your way from Glasgow to Mallaig, you can pretend to be Harry Potter as you pass the old viaduct at Glenfinnan. Channel your inner Hercule Poirot, clutch the significance of The Polar Express, marvel at the Three Kings Procession in Prague or turn winter on its head in Turkey.

For all your other Interrailing needs, you can discover comprehensive guides on the Interrail website.

Written By

Hi there! My name is Anna-Maya and I'm from Ireland. After graduating from Trinity College Dublin with a degree in English Studies, I moved to Barcelona to discover a different pace of life. Writing, good company, food, and travel, in that order, form my list of priorities.

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