The Utrecht-based company Eurail coordinates the Interrail and Eurail programmes on behalf of rail operators across Europe. These are brilliant schemes, which together have transformed European leisure rail travel.
In this post we look at the Rail Planner app which has long been an asset for pass holders looking to plan trips, but which now is an essential tool for anyone keen on using the new Interrail and Eurail mobile passes. The app is available on Google Play (for Android) and the App Store (for iOS) and also works offline - that latter feature is a huge plus.
No timetable app is perfect – and the Rail Planner app is no exception. Play around with it and enjoy planning notional journeys right across Europe. Then, as you start using the app in earnest, just be aware of some quirks and issues of which we list just seven below. All in all, we do find the Rail Planner app pretty good. The seven areas we highlight below are flaws - but they are not fatal flaws.
Be aware that the app does not infallibly build in the correct connection times at stations. For a search from Gatwick Airport (in southern England) to Lille (France), for example, we are offered a sensible routing with just one change of train at London St Pancras, connecting there onto a direct Eurostar to Lille. The problem is that on many such itineraries we are offered a mere 14-minute connection time at St Pancras which is simply insufficient, given Eurostar’s firmly enforced advance check-in time. So you may want to just be wary of those sometimes way-too-tight connection times presented in itineraries on the Rail Planner app.
Where a train’s number changes during the course of its journey, the app often struggles. So while the direct night train from London Euston to Glasgow Central is shown because it runs under the same number throughout, i.e. 1S26, the parallel route from London to Edinburgh is not shown as being served by a direct overnight train. That’s because this Edinburgh service changes numbers at Carstairs.
This seriously impacts some longer journeys. Consider the following example. From April 2021, there is a direct Nightjet from Amsterdam to Innsbruck. It changes number in the middle of the night at Nürnberg where it has a longish scheduled stop of 57 minutes. Because of the number change, the app suggests that a change of train is necessary in Nürnburg, with a potentially uncomfortable wait from 03.36 to 04.33. A very large number of trains are thus identified as indirect when in fact you can travel right through to your destination without the need to change trains. For overnight journeys like our Amsterdam to Innsbruck example mentioned here, this nocturnal change of train number may lead travellers to suspect they might need to validate a new pass day on a flexiipass at the point where the train changes numbers. This is not in fact the case.
On routes with frequent trains, it may often be the case that only selected services offer seating in first class. And examples of trains which only offer first class are extremely rare. But the Rail Planner app lists quite a number of services as first class only – trains which we absolutely know have in fact only second-class seating available.
You’ll find examples of this glitch if you search for Italian journeys from Ventimiglia to Sanremo or Savona. It’s a route served by a mix of train types. The Intercity services are correctly shown as offering both first and second-class seating. Some of the regional trains are shown as being second class only. But search results for other regional trains display a warning message: “1st class only: this means you need to buy a separate ticket if you have a second-class pass.”
The reality is that all regional trains thus marked are in fact second class only – not first class only.
There are a number of warning messages which have the potential to mislead the unwary traveller. This applies on both national and international journeys.
Search for itineraries from Zürich to Genoa, and you’ll find a rich range of journey options as expected. Depending on travel date and preferred departure time, the app returns some departures tagged with the warning message ‘Global Pass only: this means you need to buy a separate ticket if you have a One-Country Pass.’
The reason for this message lies in the slightly complicated revenue agreement under which a small operator called Thello gets a share of the takings from sales of global passes (as opposed to one-country passes). But the message is quite irrelevant in the context of a Zürich to Genoa journey and its inclusion in the results is just misleading.
To clarify: there is no possible itinerary from Zürich to Genoa which could be undertaken with an Interrail/Eurail pass other than a global pass. Yet marking some departures on a route as requiring a global pass might naturally suggest to travellers that the global pass is not needed on others.
The label ‘conditions apply’ has similar potential for confusion. Searching for trains for a domestic route from Innsbruck to Wörgl (in Austria), there are some departures tagged in that way and a click on the message reveals the additional information ‘included in Austria Pass’. It is of course absolutely true that the one-country Austria Interrail / Eurail pass can be used for a journey from Innsbruck to Wörgl – but not only on the departures marked by ‘conditions apply’ in search results for that route, but on any departure. Employing the label selectively raises more questions than it yields answers.
For any requested itinerary, the app will return various categories by way of travel guidance. However, there are some key issues with these categories and here we just want to briefly turn to some of those.
We list the five categories or response from the app here, from the most stringent down to the least onerous:
There are many journeys which are shown as ‘not in pass network’ where actually the entire journey can be completed using an Interrail pass. The underlying problem is that trains of some operators are wrongly tagged as not eligible for use with an Interrail or Eurail pass. This is particularly the case with journeys to, from or within Germany. Conversely there are trains which are not on the pass network which are not identified as such in the app.
Another issue is how cross-city transfers are interpreted. A long journey from Vienna to Bristol will involve a short cross-city transfer in London. You need to buy a ticket for that London transfer separately, and that’s surely well understood by most travellers. And the Interrail app quite properly doesn’t disqualify a Vienna to Bristol journey with the very off-putting message ‘not in pass network’.
Yet other cross-city transfers are treated differently. So as soon as an itinerary includes a short hop on an urban train between Paris rail terminals (where timings are available and presented), the entire itinerary gets the ‘not in pass network’ qualifier. Only where the app does not pull timetable data (eg. for a foot transfer from Paris Nord to Paris Est), the ‘not in pass network’ warning is suppressed.
There are also issues with the label ‘seat reservations required’ since its presence in search results does suggest that passes are valid on the train bearing the tag. This is not necessarily the case. So searching for a journey from Cologne to Berlin on selected afternoons in April 2021, we find just one train – a departure at 16.15 – with the label ‘seat reservations required’. It’s true since travellers need to have pre-reserved a seat to board the 16.15 train. But it’s run by a private operator which does not recognize the Interrail pass as a valid option.
Last but not least it might be no bad idea to clarify the distinction between a seat reservation fee and a supplement in the app, as it would prevent unpleasant surprises. For the 86-minute journey from Lille to London the app makes no mention of any supplement, but merely advises ‘seat reservation required’. The same applies for the half-hour journey with Thalys from Antwerp to Rotterdam. But the pass-holder fares on those routes (€30 and €20 respectively) seem to be more of a supplement that a nominal seat reservation fee.
The app is underpinned by an impressive station database. But it can be moody. Try and find the Swiss resort of St Moritz. Like many places with saintly prefixes, it’s difficult to pinpoint in the app. The trick is to look under ‘Moritz St’ – for that’s how it’s listed in the station database (and, oddly, you’ll also find it listed – devoid of any saintly claim – as ‘Moritz, Bahnhof’).
So if you want to travel from St Gallen (also in Switzerland) to St Valentin (Austria), the way to find the times is to enter ‘Gallen’ and ‘Valentin’ respectively, where the useful predictive text function will bring up the names ‘Gallen St’ and ‘Valentin St’.
But what applies in the Alps may not be true elsewhere in Europe. St Ives in England and St Malo in France are listed with their proper names. But as a good rule of thumb, when querying the station database you’ll often get better results by omitting saintly prefixes. So for journeys departing from St Pancras station in London, just enter Pancras.
Where there are towns with similar names, it takes a bit of skill to be sure you are finding the right one. And sometimes you have to really root around. We could only find the German city of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder – not to be confused with the eponymous city on the River Main – when we simply typed ‘Oder’ into the search mask.
Each station is tagged to a country (as it should be), but there are some curious oddities in border regions. Liechtenstein might be slightly miffed to discover that stations in that country are all listed as being in Austria. We find a place called Sopron in Austria, although there is a separate correct listing for ‘Sopron, Hungary’.
Where such multiple listings appear, searches will often give completely different results depending upon which option you choose.
Consider the case of the French village of Cerbère, close to the Spanish border, on the beautiful Côte Vermeille. Like Sopron, it enjoys a dual listing on the Rail Planner app. There is Cerbere which is correctly shown as being in France (although French language purists will bemoan the omission of the accent). And then there is Cerbère (this time with an accent) which is incorrectly shown as being in Spain. The Cerbere (France) listing includes all trains serving Cerbère (including those going to Spain) which do not stop on Platform E of that station. To pull up itineraries that rely on trains which serve Platform E (Voie E in French), you need to use Cerbère (Spain).
The app has difficulties on some very long journeys, where it fails to correctly reckon the number of elapsed days. This has the effect of making journeys appear much faster than they actually are. Vladivostok to Moscow is a nice example. It’s not in the pass network of course, but the app doesn’t tell us that. There is merely a reminder that seat reservations are required. The app suggests that the travel time from Vladivostok to Moscow is just under 19 hours. Not bad for a journey of 9,289 kilometres. If the app is to be believed, that’s an average speed of 489 kph :)