One of the most treasured benefits of working on the railway (for an organisation that is a member of ATOC/RDG, at least) is that after a year of employment, you qualify for your free international passes, or FIP. This is my non-exhaustive guide!
It is, perhaps, bizarre to think that if you, like me, joined the railway after privatisation, you need to pay to travel a few miles down the road if it happens to be on another TOC’s service, but you can travel for absolutely nothing from Calais all the way to within sight of Africa or Russia if you choose – but this is the case.
FIP comes in two forms – your annual allocation of passes (coupons) for free rail travel in each country, and your FIP “International Reduced Rate” card (essentially, an international priv card) that gives you significant discounts on walk-up fares.
How to apply
Coupons need to be requested for each country you intend to visit individually. You select which countries you want by way of tick boxes on the online form at this link. Applications must be submitted between 3 months and 3 weeks before your trip – you stipulate the start date of your ticket when you apply and each coupon is then valid for four 48-hour periods within the following 3 months. Your entitlement for each country is refreshed annually – for some countries (e.g. France, Belgium and the Netherlands) you get two coupons per year.
To request your International Reduced Rate card, fill in the form at this link. You only need one of these, regardless of how many countries you intend to visit. As these operate on much the same principal as our domestic priv cards, they are worth getting into your possession as soon as possible, even if they just gather dust in your wallet until it’s time for renewal.
There is no provision for FIP travel at all in Sweden, nor on many of the private railway operators in other countries – some of which have quite extensive networks e.g. ALEX in Germany or Trenord in Italy. Additionally, there is no free coupon provision for Bosnia-Herzegovina, but there are discounted single tickets available with the FIP card.
Some single journeys within metropolitan areas, particularly in Germany, do not qualify for FIP discount, as these fares are set by the local transport authorities rather than the train operator. This is irritating, but unavoidable.
Journeys on high-speed services such as Eurostar and Thalys are subject to special FIP fares and coupons are not valid. There are also some individual services on which you can’t use any FIP discounts – mainly “premium” services such as the (loco hauled) “City Airport Train” (CAT) between Wien and its airport or the Airport Express services between Oslo and Gardermoen airport, etc.
It is best to refer to and keep an eye on the Rail Staff Travel section of the RDG website for updates regarding international rail staff travel and its validity.
When buying a discounted ticket with your FIP card, it is far better to seek out a booking office where you can do this with a human. In the same way as you can’t buy a priv ticket here, most ticket machines do not allow you to buy a FIP ticket directly.
There is no magnetic strip or equivalent in a FIP coupon so barriered stations can sometimes be tricky to navigate. There is no common solution to this – for the Netherlands, your coupon arrives with a another slip containing a QR code that will open station barriers. However, I’ve had problems on the RER in Paris, among others – despite being completely valid on the trains, I’ve had no means of opening the unmanned barriers to enter or egress the system, and with time ticking away for a flight on one memorable morning (whilst en route from Boulogne to work!), had to double-up with locals through barriers at both ends of my journey.
However, it must be seen that the pros massively outweigh the cons!
Family and Dependents
If you have family or dependents who are entitled to priv travel through you at home, then they also qualify for an element of FIP. More info at the online form here.
Having FIP travel documentation does not absolve you of the responsibility to purchase reservations where they are compulsory.
It is fair to say that the benefits of FIP are not well known among British railway staff as a whole (especially those who aren’t cranks), and surprisingly this does extend to some revenue staff on trains and at stations abroad. Our hobby has a habit of taking us to places that are well away from the tourist trail, and it is not uncommon to find your ticket scrutinised from every possible angle as it is the first one they’ve come across.
One thing to really bear in mind, however, is that each box on a FIP coupon is valid for 48 hours, not 24. Therefore, if you write a date on your ticket, say 01/06/17, then this sees you through to close of play on 02/06/17. Many grippers seem unaware of this – it is not uncommon on the second day of a box for them to try and “helpfully” write that day’s date in the next box for you (thus depriving you of two days’ validity!) so do be vigilant of this if they take your coupon off you for a closer look. The “two day rule” is written in four languages on your coupon so you should be able to make yourself understood.
It must be said though, that once they realise that you are fellow railway staff, many will treat you like an old friend and sit down and have a chat (even if you share no common language!).