Interrailing is a great way to explore Europe on a budget, and is perfect for people who want to go travelling after finishing their exams, like me and my friends did last summer. We went into the experience pretty much blind, determined to prove our parents wrong and organise a successful holiday by ourselves. The holiday was successful, and we spent a very enjoyable 3 weeks travelling around Europe, but there were many things that it would have been nice to know about before we left, rather than at 1am in a Parisien train station from an angry ticket inspector…
Here are my top tips to make sure your interrailing experience goes more smoothly than ours did.
1. Enter the DiscoverEU lottery
The interrail pass is relatively cheap considering what you get: for around £250 you can travel across Europe on any train. However, if that is still too much for you, or if you could use the extra money to spend while out there, then you are in with a chance of getting a free pass. If you turn 18 during the year before you want to leave, then you can enter a lottery to win a free pass. You simply need to go to the DiscoverEU website and fill out a short quiz (with answers you can very easily Google on the fly) and you are entered into the draw to win. There’s only a 15% chance of snagging one, but it’s worth a shot to save a couple hundred pounds. I managed to get one so it’s clearly not impossible
If you do apply for a free pass, make sure you check your
emails as there is a deadline to accept the pass if you win.
2. Plan your journeys
The interrail pass gets you on any train for free, but you still might need to spend a bit more money to get on some of the trains. Any high speed or sleeper trains (including Eurostar) require a seat reservation to get on. This is not expensive if you book in advance so when you’re planning out your journeys, check if any of the trains you want to get might require you to spend a bit extra to get on. There is an official Interrail app called Rail Planner which shows you all the trains you’ll need to pay for and even lets you reserve your seat from the app. It doesn’t always show the best times but it’s a good tool for figuring out which trains you can get on for free.
If you want to avoid these costs, then be prepared for very long journeys with long waiting times in potentially very obscure places. This is what I did, and I have to say, some of the most enjoyable parts of my trip were spent in places I’d never heard of before waiting 5 hours for the first train the next morning.
The most expensive trains will be the ones in and out of the UK so book those well in advance to avoid extortionate prices.
3. Research your accommodation
Whether you’re doing a luxury tour of the finest hotels in Europe or slumming it in hostel dorms, it’s always a good idea to check out where you’ll be staying ahead of time. Making sure you’ve got the best price and location is vital in maximising your enjoyment while travelling. Hostelworld is a great website/app where you can make and manage bookings as well as access all the necessary information for you to get to the hostel or contact them if needs be. It’s also worth looking into the city you’re staying in to make sure that you’ve got the best placement. Don’t make the mistake I did and book a hostel 2 miles out of the city centre just because you’re going for the best price.
For more touristy cities, you can’t really afford to be fussy. Hostel dorms are generally affordable but if you’re expecting anything more glamorous than that, then expect to spend a LOT more money.
There’s nothing worse than having to phone up your parents to ask them to send you money. This can be avoided by taking care of any costs you can pay before you leave (accommodation, seat reservations etc) and by planning how much you’ll be spending each day. Obviously different places will be more or less expensive but generally, you can spend €20 a night at a decent hostel and €20 a day on food.
Other costs will swing a lot more depending on where you’re going, but you can generally bet that you’ll be able to get cheap alcohol wherever you go. If you’re strapped for cash, then consider which cities you’re planning on going to. If you want to go to a touristy destination eg Rome, Paris, Barcelona; expect costs to be a lot higher than smaller cities where you’ll be able to get a very similar experience. Also, don’t be afraid to haggle.
In most shops you can knock a few euros off the price tag, especially in tourist traps where prices aren’t displayed and generally made up depending on the customer. If you start chatting to the shopkeeper and charm them up a bit, you’re certain to get a better price. They’re only going to rip you off if they think you’re dumb enough to be ripped off.
Monzo is a great online bank that gives you a card that you can use abroad with the best conversion rates. Also, if you’re planning on carrying large amounts of cash, then split it up among your luggage so you don’t lose all of it in one go if the worst does happen.
5. Prepare for the weather
If you’re planning on going interrailing in the summer – as I would imagine most people will be – then prepare for it to be HOT. Especially in this day and age, you will probably be sweltering for the majority of your trip. Make sure you pack plenty of socks as they will get drenched in sweat very quickly, and prioritise t-shirts over hoodies. Loose button-up shirts are always a good idea as they are the most socially acceptable alternative to walking around topless (at least for guys, I’m afraid I can’t give many fashion tips for girls). Remember sun cream and bring a refillable water bottle, especially if you’re going to be walking around all day.
Weather forecasts are rarely reliable more than a week in advance, so don’t base your packing on them. If you’re going in the summer, it will be hot. Don’t exclusively pack summer clothes but be conscious of how much you want to carry with you while you’re travelling.
6. Don’t forget the real world
If you’re planning on going travelling after you’ve finished your A-levels and you want to continue on to higher education afterwards, then you’re going to be out of the country during a very important period. If there’s anything still left to be done regarding university or apprenticeships when you leave, then make sure you’re checking your emails, or have someone back in the UK checking them for you. You’d hate to come back from your trip to find you’ve missed a deadline which could affect your plans for the future.
It might be a good idea to contact your university or employer to let them know that you may be unavailable for the duration of your trip and to ask them for any key dates or information that will be useful.
If you find yourself in a sticky situation, you may have to rely on your charisma to help you out. If you’re stuck in a small French town in the middle of the night, it’s worth talking to people you meet there in case they can help you out. This is exactly the situation my friends and I found ourselves in, and we ended up with a bed for the night, just because we said hello to someone.
Interrailing has restored my faith in humanity and the kindness of strangers but please note we were a group of three tall lads and not everyone might feel confident doing this.
Even if you don’t need help, your trip will be so much more enjoyable if you make friends along the way. You’ll be surprised at the charity and friendliness of complete strangers if you give them a chance.
Learn a few key phrases in the language of the countries you’re going to. This will help you massively at restaurants and shops and will prevent you from being viewed as a typical English tourist.