Interrail U-turn means ‘You snooze, you win’

“You snooze, you win”: that is what has happened to Interrail customers who picked up a half-price travel pass, but failed to start using it in time.

Let me take you back to May 2022. It was the 50th anniversary of the unlimited travel rail scheme that has been enabling adventure and enlightening millions since 1972.

To celebrate the half-century, Interrail’s Dutch headquarters came up with the train deal of the whole century: 50 per cent off Europe-wide passes for one, two or three months. These allow go-as-you-please adventures on the national railways of 33 participating countries. The top of the range ticket was available at £505.

The Independent was a strong supporter of a move to make the railways of Europe more accessible, and we wrote plenty about the deal. I bought the three-month version – as did both my elder sisters. We began the most rewarding business of planning and dreaming of journeys ahead.

There was plenty of flexibility about timing, which was welcome given that Covid travel restrictions were still widely in place at the time the deal was announced. The key stipulation was you had to start using the pass no later than 11 months after purchase.

For those of us who opted to travel in 2023, this was sub-optimal: no one could start using their pass any later than early April this year, and by early July all the half-price travellers would reach the end of the line.

At the start of April this year, shortly before the window closed, Nicky Gardner, co-author of Europe by Rail, commendably warned purchasers: “Miss the 11-month deadline at your peril, for after that key date your pass cannot be used.”

Eurail, the Utrecht-based enterprise that runs Interrail, confirmed to me that by 12 April, all passes bought during the promotion but not activated would be void. No refunds. I duly wrote an article to warn travellers.

Yet in a rare exception to the rule “you snooze, you lose,” everyone who had bought a pass but had not activated it for travel in time was emailed with, well, the amnesty of the century.

They were told: “You saw the 50 years of Interrail promo last May and couldn’t resist the whopping 50 per cent discount (who could blame you?).

“However, we can see in our system that your pass has expired. And to reward you for taking swift action and to ensure you can still experience the freedom and flexibility of Interrailing, we have extended your pass for a bit longer (free of charge).

“You have until 10 July to activate your pass.”

Ironically, that is the day before the very last of the Interrailers who were paying attention has to be home. On the escalators at London St Pancras International, they may pass cheerful travellers about to begin unlimited travel holidays that could last long into the autumn, with 10 October the final day of travel.

On all matters to do with international rail travel I defer to both the authors of Europe by Rail and Mark Smith, the celebrated Man in Seat 61. He told me: “I’m pleasantly surprised that Eurail waived the normal 11-month activation limit to stop so many people being caught out.

“They didn’t have to. I think this is a good thing. No one loses, some are helped to avoid losing.”

Allow me to bring in some self-interest. Stuff happens – a wedding here, a work obligation there – which in my case means that I am not able to use the Interrail pass as freely as I had hoped before it expires early in July.

So I am more in sympathy with the contributor “Full Steam Ahead” on an Interrail forum, who writes: “This is simply unfair on those who followed the rules and activated their pass within the given time period. I am sure many of those would also rather have used it for summer 2023.”

Fortunately, I can offer the organisation behind Interrail a solution to keep their customers satisfied: offer anyone who bought the half-price pass and complied with the original rules to buy another for use before the end of this year (no exceptions, this time). No losers, just more rail journeys made – which was the original point of Interrail. You’re welcome.

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