To Inter-Rail (v): to travel around Europe by train on a budget staying in hostels as you go.
It may come as a surprise to those of you used to the price and complexity of travelling by train in the UK that rail is a surprisingly simple and affordable way to get around the rest of Europe.
If you have been living in a European country for more than six months you can buy a train ticked that allows you to, for one month, travel on all trains in all other countries in Europe for (at the time of writing) just over £2501. If you are from outside Europe you can buy a similar sort of pass known as a Eurail pass.
Inter-Railers are a distinctive breed that can be found at the central train stations of all historical European cities, looking confused and lost. Often having a distinctive odour, they clutch rucksacks as big as themselves and a guidebook.
Planning an Expedition by Inter-Rail
It's said that planning is the key to a good Inter-Railing trip. For a start, you need to make sure that you end up back at the place where you started. Otherwise you will find yourself with an invalid train ticket, miles from home, with no money left.
Step One - Decide Where You Want to Go and Who You Are Going With
Some people choose to travel around one country and get a good feel for it, while others flit around from historic city to historic city with long journeys in between.
If this is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip, it makes sense to try to cram in as many sights as possible. Yet it can be very tiring. Large cities that get a lot of tourists tend to have a lot of things in common. For some people, it feels that all you are seeing is one long line of tour groups, souvenir stalls, and hostels against a varying backdrop of beautiful buildings.
If you have time, it makes for a more relaxing and enjoyable holiday to spend some time relaxing away from sight-seeing. Going off the tourist trail also enables you to experience more of the culture of your destination.
Plan a basic route including the things you've always wanted to see, and most importantly knowing when and where you are going to end up.
Once you are travelling don't feel that you need to stick to your route. The chances are you will change your plans en route. You will love some places and decide to stay longer, whereas in other places you will feel it time to move on sooner than you imagined.
If you are travelling with a friend it can be a very intense experience and arguments are likely - especially if you feel that you have to spend every minute together for reasons of personal safety. Travelling alone can be an enjoyable experience and you will meet plenty of people, usually people who are travelling in groups and are sick of each other's company. However, it can also be lonely.
Step Two - Get the Money to Go
Work out how much money you are going to need and make sure you have it. As well as the cost of the Inter-Rail pass, you will need to consider the cost of staying in hostels, entrance to museums and galleries, the odd meal out2, etc. A common mistake made by young travellers is to grossly underestimate how much they will need. It is better to overestimate rather than underestimate.
Step Three - Don't Make Your Parents Bail You Out
If you are mature enough to travel around Europe alone, you should be mature enough to do so without your parents having to bail you out if you do get into a mess. Remember that you have to carry your valuables with you, as there is no hotel safe to leave them in. It may sound morbid, but plan ahead: what you would do if you got mugged in a foreign country and you lose your passport, ticket home and Inter-Rail pass?
Firstly, make sure you get travel insurance. If you are thinking of hiring a motorbike abroad or doing some water sports, make sure that it covers that as well. Check that it covers loss of your possessions as well as theft and your health care needs. When you book, it asks what you should do if you were injured or robbed - some companies have a help line that you need to ring, while some others will ask you to make a claim for your out-of-pocket expenses when you return. If you are from a European Union country, you can get a form known as an E111 (in the UK these are available from the Post Office) which, if you fall ill in another EU country, entitles you to the same healthcare as someone from that country. Be warned though - not all EU countries have healthcare systems as nice as the NHS, and some still charge you for some things. Some require you to pay up-front for your treatment. So still take out health insurance before you go.
Since the Euro was introduced it may not seem worth taking travellers cheques. However, they are something you should still consider, as they can be replaced in an emergency. While you are travelling keep your valuables in a money belt, and keep it on all the time3. Unlike a bum-bag, a money belt is worn under your clothes.
Do you have debts that you haven't told your parents about? Unless you are one of the few families who are completely honest about their financial situation, you probably do not know whether your family can afford to get you home if you ring them in tears from a foreign country. Even if they are going to be reimbursed by your travel insurance company they may not have the disposable cash available. It is polite to give them the money for a return ticket that they can send to you in an emergency: they can return it to you when you arrive safely home as planned.
By all means tell your parents that you will write or email as often as possible, but don't promise to do so every day. There will be days when you cannot manage to, and they will worry endlessly until they make contact with you.
If you do get in trouble, and you are a British subject, search out the nearest British Embassy/Consulate as they are superlative in helping stranded travellers get home.
Step Four - Decide What to Take
You will need something to carry your things in. A backpack is good but heavy, and carrying a backpack around will almost declare that you are carrying your passport and a lot of valuables with you. You also need an up-to-date guidebook that has the telephone numbers of all the hostels in your different destinations. Another useful book is the Thomas Cook International Rail Timetable. It also helps to have something to read on trains. Don't take a book you are emotionally attached to - then you can swap it with fellow travellers when you have finished it. Try not to take too many non-essential things - most things can be bought as you go.
Some useful things that don't take up much space:
A spoon - This means that you can buy bread and cheese from supermarkets and make your own sandwiches - it can be used for spreading soft cheese on bread.
Stationery - A notepad and pen to record your thoughts on trains.
Sticking Plasters - You will get blisters.
Step Five - Go
This is pretty self-explanatory really. After all, it is the whole purpose of all this planning!
While You are Travelling
So you've made all your plans, and started your journey. What next?
Finding a Bed for the Night
The first time you arrive in a strange city not knowing where you are going to sleep that night you will feel scared out of your wits. There are several sorts of places that you can stay in:
Hostelling International-affiliated Youth Hostels
All countries in Europe have an Association of Youth Hostels similar to the YHA in England and Wales. To stay at these you have to be a member, but you can join at a hostel or in your home country before you leave. These are usually large hostels, with kitchens that you can use, restaurants, and some larger ones run activities and day trips. You can usually book in advance through the International Booking Network or through another HI hostel. You should be aware that some very popular destinations (such as Venice) will only accept a booking 24 hours in advance from another hostel.
HI hostels have their advantages however: if you have booked everywhere in advance, it can turn from a holiday into a chore, and you aren't able to stay on in somewhere that you like. Also, they tend to have a strict segregation in male and female dorms which can be intimidating for those travelling in a mixed pair as well as the transsexual traveller. Many of them have a curfew and time that you have to vacate the hostel by and some other rules, such as in Bavaria they aren't open to the over 26s.
These tend to be more relaxed and cheaper than HI hostels. They don't take bookings in advance, but they will sometimes hold a bed for half an hour if you ring from the station. They are more likely to have mixed dorms, which some travellers find intimidating.
These are an option where there is no hostel in the town you are travelling to. The advantage is that you don't have to be out by a particular time in the morning, or share a room with other people. They can be quite economical if you are travelling in a pair and able to share a bed, however few hotels actually have twin rooms available.
Sticking to Your Budget
Once you have travelled a few times you will get more confident at finding places to stay. The next challenge is to stick to your budget. A good plan is to stick to it religiously for the first two days in new country, until you get a feel of how much things cost there. Then you can afford to splash out on a meal or a night out if you know that the next day you will have a long train journey, and won't be spending much.
When You Don't Speak the Language
While very few people will speak the language of every country they pass through, it is impolite to assume that everyone will speak English, even in main tourist sites (where they usually do). Before you go to a country, learn 'I'm sorry I don't speak French/Spanish/Italian,' and 'Do you speak English?' in the local language. Remember that if someone doesn't speak English then shouting will not make him or her understand. If you have to make an enquiry and the person concerned does not speak English then be creative. For instance, if you are enquiring about train times you can do so with diagrams of clocks and a map. If you are enquiring about train times and you speak none of the language concerned, it is polite to pick a time where there is not a queue of native travellers behind you!
Making Friends as You Go
If you get sick of your friends' company, or you are travelling alone and feeling lonely, then the ability to get chatting to fellow travellers is essential. However, if the only time you spend in the hostel is late at night and early in the morning then it can be difficult to get talking to people. If you are not the sort of person who gets chatting to strangers, try getting to the hostel early. Sitting on the bed reading a book while others are arriving and unpacking gives those who are moving into neighbouring beds a chance to see that you are alone. Making eye contact and saying 'Hi' will show them that you are friendly and looking to chat. As a very rough guide, people on their own or in pairs are often looking for company; people in large groups of four generally have enough.
Chat about where you have been and where you are planning to go: you can find out valuable information from other travellers about the best things to see and do, and the best places to stay. You may find out that a town is very pleasant for a day trip, and consequently change your route.
If you are going on a long train journey (eg, from Paris to Milan) then one option is to get a night train. This means that you can sleep through a long journey, arrive at your new location early in the morning, and have plenty of time to find a bed for the night. It also means you can save the money you would have spent on a night's accommodation. For a small fee on top of your Inter-Rail pass you can book a couchette (sleeping car) in advance.
Some people find night trains intimidating and feel vulnerable on them. They are concerned of being relieved of their valuables while asleep. If you do get night trains, always keep your money belt on, and several layers of clothing over it - if you are rifled you will be woken up. Some people choose not to book a couchette in advance, to give them the choice over who else is in the compartment.
Coming Back Alive - Taking Care of Your Personal Safety
You undoubtedly want to enjoy your trip. However, travelling on your own or in small groups can make you an easy target for unmentionable types. Following a few simple guidelines will minimise any risk, allowing you to enjoy your trip with much less worry.
Backpacks are easy to steal. Some travellers take a small padlock and chain, and secure their backpack to luggage racks; others have chicken wire inside it to stop their bags being slashed. A simpler way is to not have anything worth stealing in it. Then the worst that can happen is that you are relieved of some smelly clothes. Some travellers have ended their holiday wishing that their luggage was stolen...
Avoiding Getting Mugged While Sight-seeing
If possible, leave your backpack at a hostel or a left luggage locker at a station. Having it with you makes it clear that you have a large amount of valuables with you. Don't have visible valuables such as a camera or mobile phone around you. If you are mugged they will probably take your wallet, so never have more money in it than you can afford to lose. Keep the rest of your money as travellers cheques (as they can be replaced easily) and keep them in your money belt. Some travellers also keep an out of date credit card to hand over if they get mugged.
If You Are a Solo Female Traveller
Many women will not go Inter-Railing alone because they are worried about their personal safety. If you are careful, there is no reason why you shouldn't go and enjoy it. A woman on her own will make many more friends than a man on his own, because people will see them as non-threatening. It can also be an advantage - a hostel that is full will usually let a solo female traveller sleep on the floor in reception. But you do need to take some extra safety precautions. By all means go out for a drink with new friends from the hostel, but don't get drunk with them. Some women choose to take a shoulder bag instead of a backpack, as it does not single them out as traveller when they are walking around a city. Some others feel less vulnerable if they do not wear shorts or a short skirt, especially in some southern European countries where men can be a little over familiar. A long pair of loose, cool trousers is an essential accessory here. This Researcher knows of at least one female traveller who chose not to use a shower for a week in Italy, because it meant that she did not have to deal with unwelcome male attention. Instead of going out to a bar alone, spend your evening in the hostel common room. You will soon meet new friends who will offer to take you out for a drink or a meal.
Travelling around Europe is an amazing experience - as well as fulfilling some of your life-long ambitions, it will give you self-resourcefulness and confidence, and memories that you will keep for life. But please, do try not to bore all of your friends with your holiday photographs when you return...