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During the final year of my A-levels, me and my fellow sixth former friends decided it would be fun to plan a post A-level holiday. After thinking it through for months and coming up with a variety of different ideas on what kind of trip we wanted, we finally opted for an inter-railing trip round Europe.
For those of you who do not know what inter-railing is I will tell you a little about it. Inter railing, involves travelling round Europe by train, using a pass which you can purchase for between £108 and £405. The price you pay depends upon your age and the amount of zones which you would like to visit. Europe is divided up by Eurail in to zones for the purpose of this pass and the zones are as follows,
Zone A- UK and Ireland
Zone B- Norway, Sweden and Finland
Zone C- Denmark, Switzerland, Austria and Germany
Zone D- Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Zone E- France, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Belgium
Zone F- Morocco, Spain, Portugal
Zone G- Greece, Slovenia, Turkey, Italy
Zone H- Romania, Yugoslavia, Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria
You can purchase a pass for one of these zones, which allows you 16 days travel, 2 of these zones which allows you 22 days travel, or 3 or more zones which allows you 30 days worth of travel. The prices for these options depends on your age.
Under 12's prices range from £108 for a 1 zone pass, to £208 for a pass for all zones. Under 26's can purchase a 1 zone pass for £145, with the all zones pass being £285, and over 26's may purchase a 1 zone pass for £215, with an all zones pass costing £405.
Personally, I would recommend buying the all zones pass as it gives you more time and much more freedom to do as you wish. The passes include pretty much all your train travel throughout the countries which your pass is valid for, with the exception of a few high speed trains where you must pay a supplement. For example, we had to pay our Eurostar fare from London to Paris, however this was at a cheaper rate than we would usually pay, costing just £20 each. Examples of other trains which you may need to pay a small supplement for are the Talgo (high speed train from France to Spain) or the TGV (high speed train which travels through France). In addition to this, if you are making an overnight journey you may which to pay a supplement to have a bed for the nigh on the train. This cost varies depending on the train and the country, and ranges from approximately £5 to £15. I highly recommend this option. The cabins are basic with beds which fold down and blankets, sheets and pillows provided, but I have never come across a dirty cabin and when I have had to share my cabin with other people, I have only ever had polite people, never experiencing any trouble. By travelling overnight you also save yourself time, giving yourself an extra day to spend in the city of your choice, and money as in most of Europe you would struggle to come across a decent hotel for a fiver!
If you do opt for an overnight
journey then it is not a necessity to pay the supplement to have a bed. Most night trains have carriages which have reclining chairs in them. For these there is no extra cost. My experience of them was that they were extremely comfy with lots of padding and plenty of leg rooms.
One worry of many people considering inter railing is the cleanliness of the trains. Often people picture themselves camping out with their big backpacks on grubby floors similar to those which you may see on a suburban line outside London. This is not the case. I have already mentioned that the sleeping compartments are generally clean, and this seems to be the general rule on all trains which I have travelled on throughout Europe. I'm sure there must be the exceptions to the rule, however I have travelled throughout much of Europe by rail and have only come across clean trains, which in general are extremely modern (particularly in Western countries such as Germany, France, Spain and Holland).
Also dissimilar to the trains which you will find in the UK is that everywhere else in the continent they seem to be on time! I don't know how the rest of Europe has made this work and the UK can not, but out of my whole inter rail trip which involved at least ten train journeys, I only had one late train and believe it or not, that was my train which was going back in to London from Paris!
Safety on the trains is also something which may worry prospective inter railers. If you are sleeping on them then this is obviously a worry however I feel that it needn't be. On all night trains there are guards who check tickets and patrol the trains. There are also locks on the doors to the sleeping compartments. Although these may not be particularly strong, they do the job and in order to force them open the person would need to make quite a noise thus waking the people in the sleeping compartment. In the day time I also feel much safer on the trains in other countries than I do in the UK. Over here you often see undesirable people ripping the seats, graffiting carriages, shouting and throwing things, where as I did not have any experience of that on my trip.
I have spoken about the transport, now I feel I should mention a little about the actual experience. For the price it is very worthwhile. Obviously it would be quicker if it was affordable to travel Europe by plane, however even with airlines such as Easy jet and Ryanair, to visit the amount of places you are likely to visit on an inter rail pass it would still be pretty costly. The price is not the only advantage though. From the ground you get to see so much more than you do from the air, and from a train you get to see so much more than you would by car. Picture crossing the south of France in to Northern Spain at about 7am with the sun glistening on the sea, surrounded by the rugged rocks. It is absolutely sublime to see something like that.
Inter railing obviously isn't everybody's cup of tea. When I went I had already had a taste of it many times before due to frequent train trips abroad with my parents. I knew what I was in for but not all of my friends were quite so prepared. Still, out of six of us only one did not enjoy it. It must be remembered that you are carrying big rucksacks (suitcases aren't really practical), with shoes, camping stoves, pots and pans, all hanging from the side. You may have a long way to walk from a station to your hostel and you may need to go up and down flights of stairs to reach the correct platform. I think this was my friends main problem. She had trouble handling the walking involved and the carrying of the bag. Many people go inter railing anticipating a great adventure, only to realise that it's much harder than expected. A lot of people are used to going on package deals where your luggage is taken from you at one end, loaded on to the coach at the other and only returned to you when you reach your hotel room. With inter railing you must do all this yourself.
With inter railing you have many options for accommodation. We mainly camped whilst we were doing it. This gave us more money to spend visiting places and buying food and drink. If you have a little more money then most cities have a number of hostels to choose from, and if you have even more money you may want to opt for hotels. My experience of the campsites was that they were run by friendly people and were generally clean. Be careful for extra charges such as for the shower. This isn't necessarily a bad thing though as it generally means that the whole place is even cleaner. Also with campsites you must be careful of the location and research public transport thoroughly. You may find that your stuck miles from the city centre as we did in Berlin. After missing the last bus back one night we had to use our best GCSE German to try and find someone who could help us figure out another route. After our German failed, our Geography skills of map reading came in handy! A campsite for one tent and two people costs between about £5-£8/night each.
Hostels can range in quality. Some of them have dormitories. Some of these dormitories are single sex and some are mixed sex. In other hostels you can find rooms for 2, 3 and people sharing, giving you a little more privacy. Hostels are generally clean but in many you will need your own sleeping bag, so it is best that you bring one even if you are not camping. A hostel room will cost typically between £12-£20/night each.
The route that we picked when we were inter railing was quite a long one. This is a mistake that I believe a lot of people make when planning their trip. We travelled from Paris to Amsterdam. Amsterdam to Berlin. Berlin to Nice. Nice to Barcelona. Barcelona to Geneva. Geneva to Brussels. Brussels to home. That was a lot to do in 30 days and was great, but I feel we may have got even more out of the trip if we had spent a little more time in each place, and just visited less places. Our main reasons for visiting so many places was because of the size of our group. Each person wanted to see different places, and so we had to accommodate that. For this reason I would recommend travelling with a small group, probably no larger than four people. If you do travel in a larger group then bear in mind that people may want to do different things from each other and give each other the freedom to explore the routes that they want. When my sister and her friends went in the late 80's, their group split up half way. The boys wanted to visit Monte Carlo and the girls Istanbul. They agreed to meet up in Athens on a certain day at a certain time, in a certain place and it all worked to plan. Bear in mind that this was in the days before mobile phones which would make it even easier now, and I also believe there was some kind of train strike on at the time which hampered their efforts a little, but still did not ruin them completely.
As I mentioned at the beginning, it is possible to buy a kids inter rail pass. This may seem like a crazy idea to some but I can assure you it is not. Travelling by train through a foreign land was one of the most exciting things in the world to me as a child. On a long train journey you would end up making lots of new acquaintances from other children, to nice old ladies and even if you did not have the language in common, you still seemed to find ways of communicating. Travelling by train is also a great way to get the kids imaginations going. I used to create all sorts of crazy child like scenarios in my head as to where I was going and why I was travelling by train. It was great fun and the travelling was a great part of the holiday itself.
I will finish with some tips which I believe are important to any potential inter railer.
1/Safety- Be careful in big cities, particularly at train stations and in tourist areas. There are lot of pickpockets about in any big city and when you are struggling to carry a backpack, a tent, a small travel bag etc...it is easy to become distracted. This happened to my friend. Luckily she got her bag back, but it's best to be on your guard just incise.
2/Don't take more than you can carry. Girls in particular can be bad at this with their clothes (although I know a fair few men this applies to as well). There is nothing worse than discovering your hostel/campsite is at the top of a great big hill and you have to try and drag your bag up there in the sweltering heat.
3/Don't try and be overly structured with your plan. Leave room for change. You may decide to miss out Milan in order to spend a few extra days in Roma. It's not the end of the world. Just go with the flow.
4/Make sure you have access to emergency cash. Perhaps take a credit card or have a separate account, just incise you run out towards the end of the trip. It could mean you miss out on doing something cool.
5/Keep all your money, documents etc... in a safe place.
6/Try not to argue with the people you are with. Keep calm and if you feel yourself getting stressed then give yourself a break from everyone else. Some harsh words can be said when your stressed. There were an awkward few weeks after our trip between one friend and myself. Luckily things got back to normal but it all came from us both being a little too stressed from the heat and tiredness.