A Beginner's Guide to InterRailing
If you're looking for an adventure this summer, an InterRail ticket could be just what you need. Having spent two summers InterRailing round France, Switzerland, Italy and Spain, I can reliably inform you that InterRailing is cool.
With one ticket, you can travel freely on Europe's trains for up to a month. You can visit bustling cities, sun-soaked beaches and tiny towns clinging to mountainsides. You can cut through Alps and olive groves on trains that run quickly, smoothly and on time. You can meet locals and fellow travellers from around the world. You can jump off on an impulse if you pass through somewhere that looks interesting, or if you can't afford a hostel, kip your way across the continent on a night train for zero Euros. See, told you it was cool.
Buying Your Ticket
You can either buy a pass for a single country or purchase a 'global pass' that covers all of the countries below.
France, Germany, Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Finland, "Greece Plus" (incl. ferry Greece - Italy), Republic of Ireland, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Croatia, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, FYR Macedonia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Turkey.
Before You Go
Before you go, read up on the places you're thinking of visiting:
There's nothing like leaving a town far behind only to read that it's home to the word's biggest cheese sculpture, or that you've just missed the international air guitar championships.
Chances are your trip will take you through several different language zones, which can be a bit daunting. Try to learn a few basic words in the language of each country you'll be visiting. It really will help. I think you can get by with the ones listed below. A basic grasp of mime will also help.
Do you speak English?
Numbers (up to the number of people in your group - so you can ask for the right number of drinks or croissants!)
The word for the drink you're most likely to choose ('coffee with milk', 'beer' etc)
Supplement (so you can find out if you'll have to pay one on a particular train)
If you only learn one word in each language, I'd recommend 'thanks'. Then if you sound like an ignorant Brit, at least you'll sound like a polite ignorant Brit.
What to Take
The normal rules apply - make sure you have a comfy backpack and pack light.
You're passing through six countries. This doesn't mean you have to lug around six guidebooks. Take a general Europe guidebook, such as Lonely Planet's Europe on a Shoestring.
How much money?
As a general rule in Europe, east and south are cheaper than west and north. As a rough guide, if you're camping and making your own sarnies, you can get by on less than a 15 a day. If you're hostelling and eating out, you'll need more like 25 to 30.
And how to take it?
Say what you like about the Euro, it does make InterRailing easier. Take 100 in Euros and the rest in travellers' cheques. Take a debit card too and you'll be able to withdraw local currency from ATMs in most towns, sometimes for a small charge (around 1.50).
To tent or not to tent?
Camping isn't everyone's idea of fun. Putting your tent up every night... the inevitable thunderstorm/cockerel/amorous couple next door... cooking on a wobbly little gas stove surrounded by cow-pats... I love it. In my opinion, a tent is an essential companion on an InterRail trip. You can camp for a fraction of the price of a hostel bed and there's less necessity to book ahead. As well as countryside and seaside campsites there are campsites in - or just outside - most major cities, and many run free buses into the centre.
Sun cream, sunhat and rain-coat (no, we're not the only country with unpredictable weather)... a sleeping bag... a small bag of washing powder... a penknife... a gas-stove, two pans, forks, plastic plates and cups...
How it Works
Your InterRail ticket allows you to hop on and off Europe's trains for free, with a couple of exceptions. If you want to reserve train seats in advance, you'll have to pay to do so. And if you want to travel in a sleeping carriage with bunk beds, or on some high-speed intercity trains, you will have to pay a supplement. Ask before you get on to avoid nasty surprises.
The InterRail pass is personal and non-transferable, which means that only you can use it and you may have to prove you're you. Keep your passport handy.
InterRailers are not permitted to travel with their pass in their own country of residence, although discounted rail travel is available on presentation of the pass when purchasing a rail ticket.
Along with your ticket you'll be given a special form, which you're supposed to fill in with your journey details before you get on a train.
InterRailers have these choices when it comes to finding a bed for the night...
Hostels and hotels
Preferred by many backpackers, hostels are a great place to meet people. Sleep in a shared dorm, or bag yourself a group or double room. You'll often find that a one- or two-star hotel works out just as cheap as a hostel, if not cheaper. Book your hotel or hostel in advance through our accommodation section, or try to find one when you turn up. (In my experience, it's possible to find a bed without booking in advance around 75% of the time. For the other 25%, see 'winging it').
Top tip - Write down the name of your hotel and the street it's on when you go out. Trust me on this one - we must have wandered round Paris for three hours one night looking for the mysterious disappearing auberge de jeunesse...('I'm sure we've passed that tall spiky thing before...')
Like I say, campsites are everywhere. Buy a map that shows campsites and you'll never be stuck for somewhere to stay. Tourist information in any town will be able to give you a list too, though the campsites they promote will probably be the more posh/expensive ones.
Top tip - Try putting up your tent before you go, to make sure you've got all the necessary bits.
Sleeping on the train
Before you get too comfy, make sure you won't have to pay for the privilege. Actual sleeper cabins with bunks are generally not covered by your InterRail ticket; if you want to sleep in one of these, you'll need to pay a supplement. However, most night trains will have seats that you can sleep on for free; some tip back or unfold to make a comfy-ish bed.
Top tip - Pack your sleeping bag close to the surface of your backpack (it can get cold on trains at night, wherever you are), along with something comfy to rest your head on, a bottle of drinking water, toilet paper, a toothbrush and toothpaste and a bar of soap. You'll feel gross in the morning.
You haven't booked in advance and you've arrived in a town where all the hostels are full with no campsite for miles. Tut tut, I'd never find myself in a situation like that, well-prepared type that I am... If this is the case, don't panic. Kip down at the station if it's open all night, pitch your tent on a flat bit of ground (roundabout, anyone?), or find yourself an all-night cafe and go for the world record in slow-coffee-drinking. None of these options are very sensible or very safe, but they've all been tried at one time or another. Just not by me. Honest.
Top tip - If you haven't booked in advance, try to arrive at a new destination in the morning to give yourself more time to look for somewhere to stay.
When travelling on trains, keep your valuables in a money-belt around your waist and under your clothes. Use a cable-lock to secure your backpack to your seat or the luggage rack.
What with all this criss-crossing of the continent, you may not know when you're about to cross a border, and those armed border police piling into your carriage can come as a bit of a surprise. They'll ask to see your passport, and they may check through the contents of your rucksack thoroughly, so don't be carrying anything you shouldn't.
About the Author: Jess Fitch
I spent my gap year volunteering as a teacher in northern India. I've since explored much of Europe by train, which is my favourite way to travel. I love camping, discovering new veggie food, and the little differences between countries - like crossing the border into Spain and finding that the hot chocolate is suddenly so thick you can literally stand your spoon in it. My favourite places are beautiful but a bit scruffy and crumbly, like Naples.