A Beginner’s Guide To Inter-Railing
August 21, 2012
By: Alice Gray
This summer, accompanied by two friends, I embarked on a three week trip around Europe. Being students (and therefore a little limited in the funds department) we decided that the cheapest and easiest way to travel would be by train; and so invested in a Global inter-railing pass.
With the British rail service in mind I can’t deny that I was a little nervous as to how reliable our chosen form of transport was actually going to be – but I am pleased to say that I was very pleasantly surprised. That is not to say that we did not experience any problems, a particularly delightful two hour stop in a tunnel on the way to Amsterdam, in 30 degree heat, comes to mind; but it was for the most part a very easy way to travel.
There are however, a few things that it would have been very useful to know beforehand. So here is a short list of pointers to help you make your trip as easy and enjoyable as possible:
1. Seat Reservations- these sneaky little things are mandatory for many of the train journeys and are something that we didn’t even discover existed until just a few weeks before we left. There are two ways that you can make seat reservations, you can do it in advance online and have them posted to you or you can buy them at the train station. Seeing as we left it to late for the first option, my friends and I bought all our reservations at the stations which (minus the boredom induced whilst queuing to buy them) actually turned out to be pretty simple. Even though we were travelling at the busiest time of the year there was only one occasion where there were no seats left on our first choice of train. One thing we did, which I would definitely recommend, is that we would book a few train journeys at a time, reducing the amount of queues we had to stand in and also making it easier to plan what we wanted to do as it meant we knew when we would be arriving/leaving.
Another important reason you need to know about seat reservations is that they cost money as, annoyingly, they are not included in the price of your inter-rail ticket. Having said that the charge is normally only about 15 euros, unless you go on an overnight train which can cost quite a bit more. Because of this I would probably advise booking seat reservations before you go as that way you don’t have to worry about having enough money left whilst you are actually doing the travelling.
2.Hostels- chances are if you have decided to go inter-railing you will, for the most part at least, be staying in youth hostels. Two words that, if you are anything like my parents conjure up images of hell; but that in actual fact are normally just like a basic cheap hotel room. Whilst travelling I met several people that had decided not to book any hostels but just to find them when they got to each city, and whilst I’m sure they felt that this made them far cooler and adventurous, I would definitely advise booking all your hostels before you go. Because after a 4-6 hour train journey the last thing you are going to feel like doing is traipse around trying to find somewhere to stay for the night. Plus just finding the one you have booked normally ends up being plenty of an adventure!
3.Food- after the cost of hostels, this is probably the thing that is going to eat up (excuse the pun) the most of your budget. This does of course depend slightly on where you are travelling to, but even if restaurants are cheaper than those at home it still adds up. That is why I would definitely recommend trying to book hostels that have kitchens, which, as well as helping to reduce costs, enable you to get to know other people staying there. Finding somewhere to have a picnic is also a much cheaper meal option.
4.Attractions- make sure you do a bit of research on what there is to do in a particular place before you go. Most tourist attractions have websites that can help you plan what it is you want to do during your stay, but they can also give you an idea of ticket costs, opening times and whether you need to book in advance. Speaking from experience there is nothing more annoying than getting somewhere only to discover that it is not open on Mondays!
5.Planning- so I know that I have just spent the previous four points explaining the importance of planning your journey, but as the two hours I spent sat in a tunnel trying to get to Amsterdam show, things can go wrong on trains. It is therefore important to make sure that your plans aren’t too rigid. Remember you are also meant to be on holiday, so although an idea of what you want to do is useful/important so is leaving things a little open, so that you can just go and explore that interesting looking square or spend a few hours sat people watching in a bar.
6.Be Patient- no matter how well organised the train network in Europe may be, it is still a form of public transport so chances are at some point during your trip your are going to experience at least a delay. When/if this does happen there two basic ways you can react: you can sulk and huff and just generally get yourself in a bad mood, or you can accept the annoying fact that there is nothing you can do about it.
During my trip we experienced more then one time when things went wrong and it was incredibly tempting to scream and shout, but all that would have done is put me and my friends in an even worse mood. On the train to Prague, for example, the train was taking several hours longer than it should have, we had no idea where we were, the train kept changing direction and just to add to the fun none of us could speak a useful language! I can’t deny that there was a point where we started to seriously question if we would be spending the rest of our lives on said train, but instead of letting it ruin the day we laughed about it. Easier said than done I know but even if that laughter did start off a bit strained, it stopped anyone from getting upset and managed to distract us for the rest of the journey.
I hope these pointers will help you to have just as an amazing (if not better) time than I did!