Everyone seems to be doing it these days. It’s almost a right of passage among young people, especially those at university, as though the only way you can ever really be a student is to strap on a backpack and roam the continent aimlessly for a month or more, often doing little more than drinking your way through countries. But what’s it really like to embark on the InterRail adventure, and what do you need to know before you step on that first train?
Decide where to go
Although many people may not want to have a set itinerary in mind when they set off on their trip, it’s worth having a rough route planned out and a definitive start and end point, especially when living in the UK where flights to and from the continent are necessary. This means that there will always be some planning involved and so having a general idea of the places you want to visit is a good start.
It’s a good idea to decide on places that you definitely want to visit on your trip and locating them on a map before you plan anything else. This will then give you some idea of how close these places are to one another and other places of interest, helping you decide on a start and end point. It’s then worth using a map and the InterRail app (which tells you train times etc.) to decide which routes you would be willing to take whilst travelling, when you may want to take a night train and when you may need a reservation.
It may also be worthwhile looking at events happening in the places you’re thinking of visiting, especially in the summer months. There’s nothing worse than turning up to your hostel only to find out that everyone is talking about a super exciting festival that finished just the day before – if you’d changed your route only slightly you could have been there! Similarly, finding out that a place you’ve always wanted to see is full of tourists attending an event that you’re not going to can put a damper on your experience.
InterRailing is all about being flexible, however, especially when it comes to where you go and what you do, and so don’t let an unexpected event put you off visiting a place, it just might be the best experience of the entire trip.
Travel by train
There is no better way to travel than by train and InterRailing, of course, will give you plenty experience of that. Sitting comfortably in an air-conditioned cabin, watching the beautiful landscape pass you by at speed really is the best way to see the world. But the reality, of course, isn’t always quite like this. Many older trains in Europe don’t have air conditioning and some don’t have windows that open. Add this to 35 degree heat and a packed train and you’re in for a sweaty couple of hours. Those videos they show you on the InterRail website, the ones where they hang their heads out of the window to enjoy the breeze and the view, that doesn’t really happen.
Many trains in Europe, especially those covering long distances and high speed trains, require reservations alongside the InterRail pass. This usually requires a small fee but is definitely worthwhile on some of the more popular routes and on longer train journeys. It’s worth noting that most rail companies will only let you reserve seats in a train station, usually in your country of departure. In some cases, particularly in countries such as Spain, this means taking a ticket and waiting in line, often for up to two or three hours, for someone to deal with your reservation.
Nonetheless, rail travel really is the best way to travel. It’s fast, efficient and generally easy to organise, plus it really is the the best way to see the world. What’s more, with all the other young people choosing to spend their summers this way it’s almost inevitable that you’ll meet one or two like-minded people heading the same way as you.
Gone are the days when backpacking meant turning up at the nearest hostel and finding a bed for the night. Nowadays, hostels are extremely popular among young travellers and it’s not guaranteed that they will have a bed for you. For this reason it is definitely worth booking all accommodation in advance, even if this is only by a couple of days, unless you’re up for sleeping in the train station until morning.
It goes without saying that you should read an array of reviews on different websites before booking any accommodation, but there are a few other things that you should also look out for. Firstly, just because you book a hostel does not necessarily mean that there will be lots of people for you to meet, even if you are in a dorm. Many larger hostels are more like hotels nowadays and don’t offer the same opportunities to bond with fellow travellers that smaller hostels give. Similarly, hostels which offer things such as shared kitchens and themed nights are more likely to provide you with a chance to meet new people than those that don’t. Finally, don’t rule out hotels and, in particular, B&Bs on your travels. Many hostels will up their prices substantially in the summer months where some hotels and B&Bs may not, so always look around for the best deal, especially when looking for things such as double rooms.
Things not to miss
If meeting new people is one of the main aims of your trip then don’t miss the free walking tours which now run in most major cities. These tours not only provide excellent local knowledge and history, presented through storytelling and humour, but are a great way to meet like-minded people. Don’t forget your guide when searching for your new friends, most are very friendly and some are only more than willing to accompany you to the best places to eat and drink. Free tours are not actually free, you are expected to pay your freelance guide what you can afford at the end of the tour, but this means that you aren’t paying through the nose for a tour that may not be as good and you can almost guarantee that this tour will have been cheaper.
Many European cities also offer bike hire and this is an excellent way to get around and see the sights, particularly in larger cities where lots of walking can get tiring. Cycling in Central Europe is very safe. Drivers respect cyclists and most cities have designated cycle lanes.
Other things to note
Don’t expect to see all there is to see when on your trip, and don’t try to. Cramming everything into a few days may be fine on a short holiday but only an Olympic athlete would be able to maintain that sort of pace for any length of time. The main aim is to get the feel of a place and experience some of the local way of life, not spend days on end at packed tourists attractions surrounded by other tourists. Be content in the knowledge that if you like a place enough you’ll visit again.
Similarly, although you’ll be getting loads of exercise with all the walking and heavy lifting InterRailing entails, maintaining some resemblance of a healthy diet is important to make sure that no unwanted illnesses hold you back. But don’t forget to sample lots of gelato and pastries too. With this in mind it’s important to remember not only to bring sensible footwear (you really won’t be wearing heels and you definitely don’t want to carry them) but a first aid kit (Boots have great ones at fairly cheap prices), just in case.
Finally, budgeting is very important on a trip like this. You don’t want to blow all your money in the first week, then spend the rest of the trip struggling to survive. Decide on a daily budget and stick to it, and make sure your travel companions stick to it too. It really will be a lot more fun that way.
InterRailing really is one of the best experiences you can have. There’s so much to see and, if anything, a trip like this will only make you want to see more and more. So I leave you with one final piece of advice: interact. InterRailing is all about meeting people and putting yourself out there is the only way that’s going to happen. Ignore what your mum says about strangers, most people are actually really nice.
Image: Train and railway © Kecko (kecko, flickr)