Two days ago, I came back from three weeks of interrailing with seven of my friends, and it’s safe to say we’ve had an amazing time.
There were so many memories and special moments. From chasing giant bubbles in the old square or lying by the river or the castle (and almost getting run over) in Prague, to exploring the back streets of Vienna at night or watching the world go by at Schönbrunn palace by day. In Budapest we hopped from scorching heat to freezing temperatures at the famous Széchenyi baths, and accepted the funny side of the huge anti-climax of a practically empty club, which had been previously deemed Budapest’s finest… We saw Munich on two separate stop-by trips, but still managed to spend a surprising afternoon watching surfers in the river in the English garden, and a day by Ammersee lake, diving into the water (not so gracefully, in my case) and slowly burning (this one does apply to me) in the afternoon sun. Dipping our toes into the Grand Canal while observing the hustle and bustle of Venice’s St Mark’s Square was briefly punctuated by a quick trip to Milan (more on that later!) Several ice creams later, we were exploring the chocolate factory in Cologne, and suddenly (well, it was slightly more stressful and slightly less sudden than planned) we were in our last destination, Amsterdam. I found that most of my favourite elements of other cities found their way into the streets and the canals of the city, making it a perfect place to finish our journey, particularly on our last full day, when we hired bikes and cycled round places both famous and hidden.
Those are just snapshots, really – if I included every memorable moment from the trip, I think I’d need a blog post for every city! So I’m going to keep it short and sweet. What I do want to discuss, however, are a few dos and don’ts – tips and tricks for anyone reading this planning their own interrail trip.
- Get an interrail ticket in advance: this could earn you a discount, especially if you travel at an unconventional time of year (I think you can get cheaper tickets for travelling in January if you buy them three months before – not sure if they’d always extend this offer to the more popular months though). They’re also great value – we got a 15 day continuous ticket, which allowed us to take any train from place to place, including perks like free S-bahn journeys in Germany
- Make a kitty: this is especially useful for larger groups like ours. For those who haven’t experienced the wonders of kitties, essentially it’s a makeshift bank (we just used a spare purse but bank sounds vastly more impressive) to which everyone donates the same amount at a time, and you use that shared money for supermarket runs (see below) and for any sightseeing trips that will cost
- Night trains: we took three night trains; Budapest-Munich; Munich-Venice (more on this one below); Venice-Munich; they were essentially very useful – they did what they were supposed to do, i.e., take us from place to place without using up our precious hours of the day. You can pay more to get beds, but we limited ourselves to slightly restrictive chairs, in the true spirit of the mean-minded interrailer
- Make copies of passports: however, night trains weren’t all cheery – one girl in our group’s bag was stolen on the way to Venice, meaning we arrived there with eight of us, but only seven interrail passes and seven passports… luckily, we did have a copy of her passport, which came in handy when talking to the Venetian police and getting emergency travel documents. We were actually pretty excited about the fact that we then made a short trip to Milan as a consequence (many shopping opportunities! but “oh wait, we’re travelling and we’re broke”) to visit the British consulate there – it was an adventure, but more importantly, our friend got an emergency passport so that she could continue the journey
- Research where your accommodation is and how to get to it: sounds obvious, but we had one particularly hairy afternoon where we discovered that postcodes in mainland Europe can cover an area of a few square miles, turning your self-assured map-reading prowess into an awkward afternoon of traipsing around with your heavy backpacks, thoroughly lost and thoroughly hangry
- Plan what you want to do in a location, even vaguely: again, this sounds utterly obvious, but it’s difficult with larger groups to accommodate what everyone wants to do. We each researched a city and found accommodation/transport/researched what to do in that destination, which worked well
- Make a travel journal: one girl in our group brought a fabulous diary along with her, which she would write in each day, occasionally with the help of a ‘guest writer’ (i.e., one of the other eight literary geniuses that we are), and we’d include good quotes, funny moments, and a brief (mostly not brief, especially in my case) run-down of the day’s events and what we did. It was a great way to remember the trip, along with the copious photos we took. Side note: we also made a private album on Facebook for all of our photos, meaning that we could share what we were up to with parents/siblings – it provided some very witty comments from the mums, and we’d get competitive about who had the most likes from one mum in particular…!
- Bring a money belt: this is really important, and a classic piece of the interrail outfit – if you’re worried about the aesthetic of them, you can get some reasonably-priced, fashionable ones from places like asos, or you can have a moment of wildness like me and attempt to embroider it (everything I’d embroidered fell off bar one during the trip, but I tell myself that it’s the thought that counts)… Definitely use it to house your passport, interrail pass, money, phone, and anything else of value. Most hostels will have lockers or lockable chests in each room, so make use of those for any valuables you don’t want to carry around with you (bring padlocks!!)
- Prepare some basic research about the country: before we left, I made it my task to look up basic phrases from each of the countries we were going to, seeing as I was also the only German A Level linguist in the group and would be translating/speaking for everyone when we went to Germany and Austria. You can always ask when there about pronunciation, otherwise people may not appreciate your hard efforts to communicate with them (I experienced a few tragic moments of this!) It’s also good to look up emergency numbers – the general European one is 112, but some countries have varying ones for different services. Currency can be an issue too: we went to Prague and Budapest, which each have their own currency as well as the Euro. We’d been informed we’d get by on Euros, but we soon found that lots of tourist attractions and even the accommodation can require you to convert some money (I’d advise my fellow arts students to either arm yourself with a calculator and/or a friend who does maths; both are very useful when conversion becomes complicated!)
- Bring some entertainment with you: whether it be a book, earphones, or Bananagrams (would definitely recommend), bring something with you to keep you occupied for the longer train journeys (just don’t do what I did, i.e., finish Donna Tartt’s The Secret History on a train; I was an emotional wreck)
- Underestimate the money you’ll save from going to the humble supermarket: as much as it’s important to try local cuisine and go to restaurants sometimes, it can also get pretty expensive – so we would go on regular supermarket trips (the local Aldi, Lidl or Spar became our second home) to stock up on essential supplies, i.e., iced tea, brownies, and pastries (naturally), but also to buy a loaf of bread and something to make sandwiches. I remember one particular supermarket trip in Vienna where we effectively spent €5 each for two days worth of lunch and breakfast! (cheap Interrail thrills, Sia would approve)
- Have a nap before going out: this is dangerous – we were so tired most of the time that our great idea of a short nap before we went out at night turned into us just going to bed! You will be much more tired than you anticipated…
- Night trains: now, the more astute among you will have noticed that this one is both a ‘do’ and a ‘don’t’ – that’s because, along with the obvious passport debacle, they weren’t a wholly positive experience. The first night train we were on was pretty cold, which we were able to cope with via the old British mantra of ‘put another jumper on’ (alternatively: harem trousers under skirt & money belt – our very own wild fashion statement). The second one was the problem one: two trains had been merged together, on top of one already being double-booked, essentially forming a triple-booked train; a reality we only knew about when on the train. Half of us secured seats, whereas the other half spent the night with rucksacks chained together, forming a comfy spoon train (if you’ve never tried this, then please do; very comfy) on the floor by the bikes. Essentially, pick your night trains wisely, and watch out for pickpockets!
- Panic if transport doesn’t work out as it should: the aforementioned troublesome trip to Amsterdam was, well… exactly that – very troublesome. We left Cologne, ready for a three hour, direct train to our last destination, only to encounter a two hour standstill halfway through our journey, then an announcement proclaiming that the next stop would be the train’s final one, and we’d have to find our own way to Amsterdam. But we stayed calm and found an alternate route, via a station in the middle of nowhere, a desperate panorama on the side of a road, and an angry German man who yelled at us when we saved places for each other on the transfer bus. All in all, the journey took us almost 10 hours instead of 3, but, seeing the positives in the situation, we were able to see more of the Netherlands, and to meet a wonderfully helpful Dutch man, who, although his substance soberness was questionable, directed us on the right path to reach Amsterdam. Also, we had late night burgers when we got there, so things weren’t really that bad!
So, those are a selection of dos and don’ts, hand-picked from the learned adventurers for the future adventurers among you, or the simply curious. In all seriousness, I would really recommend interrailing. I’d recommend that you choose destinations that aren’t too clichéd, or that you’ve been to before, so that you can step as much out of your comfort zone as possible, and that you can explore as much as you’d like to. It’s a brilliant experience, especially when shared with brilliant friends. So go out there and start planning now!