Adventures in Interrailing

It’s the week before Freshers’ and I’m all officially moved into my shared student house in Exeter. I’m the first one here and am currently rattling around this house for six on my own, so I’ve been keeping myself busy the past few days unpacking my stuff, thoroughly sanitizing the kitchen, decorating my room and attempting to mentally prepare myself for second year. Although I am slightly nervous about starting the new year, I am mostly hugely pleased to be back, and I’ve got a good feeling about second year being better than my first, despite the threat of ‘everything counting’ degree-wise and the inevitable drama shared housing is bound to bring. Before I get to all that however, I thought I might make a post about how I’ve spent some of the past 3 months away.

This summer, while many of my Exeter friends were off being responsible students getting themselves sorted with useful internships at banks in London or part-time jobs in their local areas, I instead decided to blow a chunk of my savings on something I’ve wanted to do since I was about 14. The pinnacle of traditional student vacations: Interrailing.

I was admittedly in part influenced by the fact I had a friend from Canada making a brief stop-over who was very much of the mindset that ‘Europe is all so close together, right?? Surely we can see basically all of it in 9 days’. Though we had to work on her expectations a little, I’m not the type to step down from an excuse for travelling.

After hours of Skype discussions, emails back and forth and debates about whether this was all just a ludicrous idea, in the space of those 9 measly days we ended up making our way from London to Paris via Eurostar and then flying to Italy, stopping off in Milan and hiking the Cinque Terre coastline before finishing our trip in Rome. It was a packed schedule with a lot of painfully early starts, sleeping on public transport and insane amounts of walking, but it was also a truly awesome experience and something I can’t recommend enough to do as a young person.

Me being me though, I couldn’t help but make a note of blog-worthy titbits of advice along the way. We were complete novices and learnt a lot through trial and error and from other backpackers we got talking to, so I thought I’d share some of them here in case anyone else out there was planning on their own interrailing adventure at some point.

  1. Choose your travelling companion carefully – Best friends don’t always make the best interrailing buddies. Consider things like taste in tourist attractions (are you going to be traipsing around art galleries or hitting the shops?), budget, whether you’ll be happy to get along with them at 5am on an early train on 3 hours sleep, and even things like fitness. That last one was particularly relevant to me, as my Canadian friend is a national cross-country runner and exceptionally fit. I am decidedly not. Needless to say, she could probably have hiked the Cinque Terre in half the time it took us.
  2. Don’t forget budget airlines – In the days of yore a round-the-continent train ticket was indeed the way to go, but things have changed since the 80s and now £50 for a 2 hour flight from Rome to London just makes sense.
  3. Look up key phrases in the languages of the countries you’re visiting – This does not need to be extensive; ‘thank you’, ‘good morning’, and ‘excuse me’ will do (that last one is especially important if, like me, you spend an inordinate amount of time accidently bumping into people). Even if you butcher the pronunciation most locals will appreciate the effort.
  4. Make the most of each city – Or if you’ve never been before, know in advance what you want to see. In retrospect, Florence would have been more our scene than Milan and we should have thoroughly researched what was available before we stopped off there.
  5. If you’re going to hostels, make the most of the common room – The Canadian and I had a pact to try and make at least one friend in each place we stayed, and although they mostly ended up being Americans, I’m glad we made the effort to talk to people. Heated debates about gun control and ObamaCare vs. the NHS aside, the international chat with other people our age really made the ‘interrailing experience’ for us.
  6. Ask people to take your photo instead of selfie-sticking it – Now, I’ve got nothing against the selfie stick, it’s a fab invention – but we met some lovely people and had some useful conversations through taking each other’s group shots.
  7. Prepare for at least one thing to go wrong – And by prepare, I mean make sure you’ve got emergency money. For us, it was within the first 15 minutes of our 9 days when we forgot one of our train tickets to London. Cue me splashing out on a hideously expensive one-way £80 ticket.
  8. Check for Air Con – I cannot stress this one enough, especially if you’re going to Italy in July. As a born and bred Brit who is well adapted to drizzle and mild summers, 35 degree heat at midnight was not enjoyable. If I were to do things again, I definitely would have spent a little more and invested in somewhere with air con given the chance.
  9. Take a padlock for your luggage – Particularly if you’re staying in shared dorms in hostels, it gives you peace of mind to know your stuff is safe overnight. Plus, most places have luggage rooms to leave your things during the day, but not all of these will have lockable lockers.
  10. Print off maps of how to get from train stations to your hostel – If you don’t fancy traipsing through a new city for hours on end with all your luggage, like *cough* some people, I’d recommend Google mapping it before you get out there.
  11. They like their lunch breaks on the continent…make use of this – If you’re doing big tourist attractions e.g. climbing Notre Dame or visiting the Colosseum, early in the morning (and I mean 8am early) is a sure way to beat the queues, but lunchtime isn’t a bad bet either. We joined the queue for St Peter’s Basilica at 1:30pm and were in in a record 20 mins. On the way out at around 3pm the queue must have been pushing three hours.

And a side note for Italian interrailers:

  • Remember dress codes when visiting religious sites – In the 30+ degree heat of Italy, we spent most of our time in shorts and dresses, but you won’t be allowed into Churches and Cathedrals if you don’t have some means of covering up to be sufficiently modest. Either remember that you need to keep your shoulders covered and dresses/shorts down to just above the knee or get into the habit of taking a scarf or two around with you.

All this being said from lessons learnt the hard way however, interrailing is amazing fun and if you’re careful about it, it really doesn’t have to burst the bank. Italy and France are pricey destinations, especially in summer, but you can stay for as little as a tenner a night if you opt for hostel-hopping in Belgium and the Netherlands. Plus, many tourist destinations and museums have student or under-26 discounts, so make sure to take some ID.

Independent travelling is a unique experience after years of family holidays, and although it takes some time and effort in the planning, it’s definitely a good way to use up some of those long summer months in between university. Plus, as the adults in my life keep so kindly reminding me, holidays this long won’t be around for much longer now, so if you can, I’d say make the most of them!