Interrail: A guide to planning your first journey

26 days. 6 countries. 11 cities. Countless trains, various automobiles, even a couple of boats and a plane. And that pretty much sums up the most intensive trip of Europe I have ever done which was all made possible with a handy little thing called Interrail.

What is Interrailing (otherwise known as the Eurail if you live outside of Europe) you may ask? Well it is a pass you can buy that provides you with validity to travel on trains around Europe, in which the majority conveniently connect one country to another.

For me, I found it all very confusing and complicated knowing where to start, what to do and what everything all means so here is some guidelines I hope you’ll find useful, and some tips that personally worked in my favour…

Step 1: Decide where you want to go, and what you want to see

Planning is key when it comes to large trips such as this and the more research you put in before your journey, the more you’ll get out of it once your there. It was this that made me think it was a good idea to stay in the small medieval town of Kutná Hora for the night in the Czech Republic due to its close proximity to the Sedlac Ossuary instead of travelling an hour or so from Prague. And it was also this, that made me find amazing things to do in Berlin such as visit the NSA Abandoned Space Station in the middle of the forest or do a Street Art workshop. Looking up things online in advance, gives you the opportunity to visit places slightly off of the main tourist trail, and gives you the knowledge of where is best to stay. I also found that looking up where I wanted to go, and seeing each individual city on a map, marking them all out, helped hugely, as it made me think “oh this is a good connection route” or “actually no this city is too far out, I’ll have to leave this for another time”, this gave me the opportunity to also see places such as Bratislava and Hamburg, which I might not have previously considered but considering they were on the way, why not!

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The map of cities travelling to and connection times between each one I used for my trip

Step 2: Work out/have in mind your ideal budget

This is hard to do, and most of it is a guessing game. But knowing how much you have to spend keeps you in line. For example I wanted to go on to Sweden and Norway but after figuring out my budget I realised that wasn’t really possible so realised it was best to cut them from the list.

Getting ideas of costs in your head is a good start, for example look at the pass you want, work out how you’re going to get there and home – do you need to book flights? And give yourself a budget for hostels/hotels each night. That will give you a rough idea on your main spendings, then whatever’s left can go towards food, drinks and entertainment. It is important to note that the price difference varies hugely in some countries, for example Eastern Europe is extremely cheap, whereas Scandinavia will drain your resources.

My budget for the trip was £1,500. The maximum we would spend on a hostel for a night would be £20. I feel this was a good budget to have as we had a nice time, our hostels were adequate, we ate out at restaurants at mealtimes and were still able to partake in fun activities. You could definitely do a month for cheaper if you went to the supermarket instead of restaurants, camped and/or spent less on entertainment.

Step 3: Look at which Interrail pass suits you, and buy it!

This is where things get confusing. Looking at the Interrail website, and seeing the words global pass, continuous pass or 5 days within 15 days floating around can be mind boggling. Depending on which route you’re taking, how many countries you’re planning to visit in what time frame or what your budget is depends on which ticket may suit you. First of all, you can pick between a Global Pass or a One Country Pass, this is a little easier to understand. A One Country Pass allows you to travel on trains within ONE country for an allocated amount of time (for example, if you JUST wanted to travel around Germany this would be for you), whereas a Global Pass is the one you need if you want to go to more than one country.

Now, the more confusing part for picking either the continuous or the set amount of days pass. The continuous pass allows you to travel on ANY day that your pass is valid for up to 15 days, 22 days or 1 month depending on which one you buy. This mean you can use the train every day for 15 days, every other day or even just 2 or 3 times if you wanted. This is the pass that gives you the most flexibility but in turn is the most expensive. Whereas, the set amount of days pass such as 5 days within 1 month, or the pass I got: 15 days within 1 month, allows you to travel on any 5 (or 15 or 7 or 10 depending on the pass you buy) days within the 1 month but not any more, so you’re more restricted on your flexibility and it requires you to be a little bit more organised.

For me, as I pre-planned the cities I wanted to visit which were: Amsterdam, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava, Kutná Hora, Prague, Berlin, Hamburg and Copenhagen, I was aware that I would need at least 10 days of travel to get me to and from each city. But as I had planned to go a few more places such as Dachau Concentration Camp (near Munich), Neushchwanstein Castle (again near Munich), and as previously mentioned the NSA Abandoned Spy Station (near Berlin) I knew that it was probably best to buy a ticket with more days on it instead of going to the country and buying single train tickets for these extra  journeys, so I decided that the 15 days within 1 month would be sufficient. And it was. I would have gotten the continuous pass but considering there was just over a £100 price difference between the pass I got and the 1 month continuous pass, there was just no point.

These are the prices for a youth (under 26) currently for an Interrail Pass for all the different options (correct from July 2016). I believe the prices do vary slightly if your buying them during the “off-peak” season.

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Step 4: Book your accommodation – or not!

Depending on what sort of person you are, whether you like to go with the flow or like to be highly organised (like me!) you may want to book your accommodation in advance, or maybe look into where you could potentially stay if you don’t want to.

As my friends and I had quite a tight budget, and we were going in June (peak season) we thought it was quite important that we pre-booked our accommodation in advance and I’m so glad that we did. Weeks went into finding potential places to stay, I looked into the locations a lot and selected the best places I could find. As we only booked it all 1 month before going, not everywhere was available and some prices were just crazy out of our budget so we had to settle. But it was nice whilst we were away, instead of feeling the burden to spend hours looking up places when we could be seeing the city we were out having fun, and we didn’t have to worry about lack of availability or rising prices. Just to put it in perspective for you, whilst we were in Budapest we met 2 Irish guys who were wanting to go to Amsterdam next (in a day or so) and were looking at hostels, the only ones available were £30 each upward, whereas my friend and I stayed in one just the week before for £18 each.

We booked the majority of our accommodation through Hostelworld, it just seemed honestly they had the best deals around.

I do understand not wanting to pre-book everything before you go especially if you’re travelling on your own as you do find places you want to stay longer in but can’t really accommodate it if you’ve already paid deposits, ect. But it is a lot more hassle-free doing it all in advance as it does take off a lot of pressure! I’d really recommend it if you were tight on a budget too, just as you can’t foresee what the prices might be like.

Step 5: Set out a brief itinerary

When you’re travelling for so long, and packing up and moving every other day I do find the brain goes a bit scatty so having something you’ve written down in advance, setting out potential places you could visit is helpful to say the least. Especially when you’re having one of those days where you can’t be that bothered to figure out what to do, you know? I found the best way around this, as we stayed in almost every city for 2 or 3 days was to plan in the following format: the day we’d arrive was free to do whatever we felt (usually nothing as we’d arrive late), the next day was planned for activities we knew we wanted to do, the day after was left free in case we found or heard of stuff whilst we were out there and on our last day where we’d leave we’d either go early, or if there were still things we wanted to do, we’d do them. This just helped optimise our time a little bit, without setting everything in stone so much that there was no space for any last minute decisions.

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Using a calendar of the month found online, I made suggestions for an itinerary. This also helped to visualise where we would be on a given day

Step 6: Using your interrail pass

One thing that got me the most confused, and I just couldn’t find out much information was how do you use your interrail pass. It’s actually quite simple once you know how. So once you’ve brought your ticket, they’ll send you all your stuff such as a “how to use pass” (not much help), an interrail map and your interrail ticket. Depending on what ticket you’ve brought, I think it may differ slightly but my one (15 days within 1 month) looked like this:

Don’t fill it out prior your journey incase anything goes wrong as plans do change, it’s best to wait once you’re on the train or waiting for it on the platform to fill out the necessary information. On the top half of the actual ticket you just put in the date (I believe the continuous pass does not require this bit), then in the long bottom part (The Travel Diary) you fill in the details for your journey such as 10/03 – 10:30 – Amsterdam to Munich, blah blah blah. All rather simple once you’ve done it.

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Top part of the ticket – fill in the dates as you travel to each place
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Travel diary – fill in the information once you do each journey

Now, one thing I did not know was that the majority of stations (or all the ones I went to but can’t speak for every one) in Europe don’t have barriers (the ones in England definitely do, so beware. Unfortunately I don’t know how you go about this when using the Interrail pass as I live here), you literally just walk through them and go find your platform and hop on the train, that simple! After a stop or two a ticket inspector usually comes round, just show them the whole interrail ticket which they will most likely stamp or sign and you’re done, some inspectors may also ask to see your passport so it’s good to have that handy too.

It’s also a grand idea, to look up in advance which trains you’re getting on need reservations. Most trains don’t, but some do such as the Hamburg to Copenhagen line for a small fee of approx. 5 euros. You can do this up to 3 months in advance online I believe either on the interrail website or through the local train provider websites: information on different countries can be found here. I struggled with this and could only manage to book one train reservation online 2 days in advance, so with the other I went to the reservation centre in the train station in person the day before I wanted to get on the train. Interrail advises doing reservations quite far in advance due to trains being popular and there not being any space for you but I didn’t seem to have a problem with this at all but it could be worse during July and August.

So those are my 6 steps to Interrailing, before I end this post I’ll just leave you with some tips that really helped me whilst I was away:

  1. Download offline maps with the Google Maps app. If you’re stuck for Internet but need to know where you are in relation to something this app is great. Once you’ve downloaded the offline map for a certain city (you need wifi to do this) it can show you your current location with a compass and you can type in an address so you can see where you are in relation to it. Although you can’t get directions without the internet connection it does show your location moving as you walk so you can work it out.
  2. Download the interrail app in advance to figure out your train routes, times, etc. This app also shows you which trains need reservations
  3. Write down the stations you need to get to and from in each country and the addresses of your hostels/places of interest. This just helps as once you step off the train you have an idea of where you need to go instead of having to figure it out in an inconvenient place or time. Please note, that the main city stations aren’t always the most central so make sure you know which ones are closest to where you need to be.
  4. Be aware of the currencies you need and try to have some handy in advance if you need to. Also look into currencies cards as that may be more beneficial for you to use once you’re away.
  5. Try not to take bags/suitcases that are too big as some trains just don’t have the space for them.
  6. Learn the basic language of the countries you’re going to (and have download the Google Translate app on your phone in case of emergencies) – I have always found “hello”, “thank you” and “sorry” to be the most important.

 

 

Disclaimer: Please note that I am in no way affiliated with the Interrail website, I brought the ticket and arranged this trip on my own accord with my own money.

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