So you’ve seen the journey there and back — but what about the process of planning and booking a trip like this? I know this is can put some people off, so here’s a quick outline of how I went about it for this trip.
As a reminder, this was a moderately complicated journey booked a couple of weeks in advance. If you booked further in advance, this process would be a lot simpler. I’ve roughly organised this into steps, but in reality you can move forward and back between steps as you work things out.
Step 1. Start with your ‘constraints’
Gather together the broad parameters for your trip. I wanted to spend some time in Genoa during certain dates, spend some time in the mountains, and have about a week off work. These constraints are really helpful in narrowing down what you want to do.
I generally prefer not to be too fixed at this stage — especially when booking at short notice, you have to be flexible. And I’m quite happy to be led by a good series of connections rather than lock in my ideas at the beginning.
Step 2. Gather information
The Man in Seat 61 website is absolutely unrivalled for this stage of planning. There are pages recommending routes to countless destinations in Europe — e.g. London-Innsbruck. The site will give you information about recommended routes and timings, and a wealth of information about what to expect. The general information pages, such as the reservations guide, are also invaluable reading.
In my case, I started reading the London to Italy guide. This reminded me that the Bernina Express is actually part of a reasonable London-Italy journey — which, when I thought about it, felt like an opportunity not to miss!
Step 3. Research timetables
The Seat 61 website is amazing, but it won’t cover every bit of information you need. Sometimes, I’m happy to take a connection time that’s a bit shorter than what Seat 61 recommends. Or I want to go somewhere that the site doesn’t cover. Or post-pandemic timetable changes and engineering works mean that reality doesn’t quite match the site.
This is where a good journey planner comes in. I recommend Deutsche Bahn, both online and app (iOS, Android). These will give you a route from Wick to Istanbul without batting an eyelid. Most national railways’ journey planners (SNCF, Renfe, FS or CP) can’t manage complex international journeys, though they are useful within their own countries. The Interrail app journey planner is also not great (though it can be used offline).
In my case, Chur-Genoa looked reasonable in a day, and so did Genoa-Colchester. London-Chur was more challenging, so it looked like that journey needed to be split overnight along the way.
Step 4. Work out which ticket you’ll use
An important decision is whether to use an Interrail pass, or separate tickets. Separate tickets can be cheap, especially once you get into southern Europe (e.g. Italy, Spain, Portugal).
I had a quick look at Eurostar, SNCF Connect, FS and SBB for some prices on the absolute cheapest options I could find. For this trip, this still worked out more expensive than an Interrail pass — so Interrail was the way to go.
Step 6: Get the other bits in order
Work out where you want to stay, local public transport to and from stations etc. This is generally much easier than the train bit. Perhaps book some refundable hotel reservations now, as you can always cancel them.
Step 5. Check availability
Maybe I should have done this earlier. It’s great having an itinerary with timings that work, but it’s no good if you can’t actually book it! Eurostar is normally the hardest, because only certain Eurostar tickets are available for Interrail passholders. Current limitations on Eurostar capacity reduce this capacity.
I looked at Eurostar passholder availabilty at B-Europe. I had to rework my original plans. I considered some pretty silly options like travelling London — Brussels — [somewhere in Germany] — Strasbourg on the first day of my trip. This is a much longer journey than via Paris, but I just wasn’t seeing availability London-Paris at all that would have worked. The final straw was when the train I wanted to book sold out between me looking at options and actually making the booking!
I ended up moving the start of the trip a day later, visiting friends in London the day before, and taking the sensible route via Paris. It all worked out well in the end!
Step 6. Get it booked!
Once you’ve decided which trains you want, get it all booked! I generally buy tickets in this order:
- Interrail ticket (at https://www.interrail.eu/en)
- Eurostar reservation (via Interrail’s reservation service)
- Any other compulsory reservations (in this case, TGVs via Interrail’s reservation service, Italian trains via ÖBB, and the Bernina Express)
- Any optional reservations you want to make (none in this case).
Seat 61’s reservations guide is the best place to find out where to book Interrail reservation tickets. Spoiler: it’s not always with the company that you’re actually travelling with!
Step 7. Check it all over
Make sure everything’s right, and then relax and enjoy looking forward to your trip!