Interrail – hot or not?
Tekst & fotograf: Jeanne Wislund Hansen
To go on interrail or not – that is the question.
Yes, why indeed go on interrail when you can buy extremely cheap plane tickets to travel around? For me it had been a wish for a long time to go about Europe this way instead of always just flying somewhere and staying there for a prolonged weekend. Also, some of my best friends from when I did my Erasmus in Granada live in Germany now and a friend of my boyfriend lives in France, so it was a good and easy way to get to see them all. Also, I knew it was time to go on this trip before I got too old and too comfortable about the way of traveling – as well as too comfortable about the accommodation on vacation. So was this a wonderful vacation? Yes, certainly, and yet it had flaws.
The first step after deciding you want to do interrail is to buy your interrail pass from your national distributor or through the Interrail company itself. In Denmark, it is easier to buy your interrail pass through DSB – that is how we got our interrail pass. It is extremely quick and easy – I had it two days after I ordered it. Before ordering the passes you have to make up your mind about whether you just want to travel in one country or have the possibility of traveling in all of Europe. It means you have to choose between a ‘global pass’ and a ‘country pass’. I went on interrail for around three weeks with my boyfriend and we had global passes so that we could travel to different countries. Furthermore, there are different possibilities depending on how long and how much you want to travel. For an example, we chose a global pass with ten travel dates within a month, meaning we could make the outbound journey from Denmark to our first stop, which in our case was Berlin, and we could have made eight more stops and used the last one to make the inbound journey to Denmark. We did that because we did not feel like traveling every day. However, we did have the opportunity to buy a global pass where one can travel as one likes, similar to a month card. No doubt, the price for an interrail pass also changes depending on which solution you choose and which travel class you want. For our global passes we chose 2. class with ten available travel days and we paid 4.440 DKR in total. I would say it is cheap for all the places you are able to get to. Remember, a travel day only counts the day on which you want to travel – how many hours you want to travel within the 24 hour of the day is irrelevant. It means if you choose to travel one day only two hours it still counts as travel day, but another day you might travel 20 hours and it still only counts as one.
If you are going on interrail as a student it is possible – and very likely – that you cannot afford a month of sleeping in hotels and dining out every day (not even if you have good savings). At least we could not afford doing it like that. We did, however, have two of our stays in a bed and breakfast and a hotel and in one stay we were able to sleep at a friend’s place, but the rest of the journey we slept in various hostels. Therefore, find hostels (or go with Airbnb and couch surfing), sleep in dorms and cook yourself if you want this vacation to just be a little bit economical as a student traveller. If you travel as a couple, you might want to look into Airbnb and renting a room or an apartment privately. I say this because in dorms you have to sleep in separate beds with several other people in the room, which can become a bit of an annoyance in the end.
As a student you are probably thinking “how much does it cost to go on interrail”? I will start with the facts. We used around 15.800 DKR for this vacation for two persons, but it did include everything: train tickets, seat tickets fares in France and Italy, accommodations, food as well entrance to attractions. It is, without discussion, a lot of money, but think about what you get: almost three weeks’ vacation where you can get around in Europe almost as you like and it is still cheaper than flying to every location. With that being said I will definitely advice one thing: have an economic plan before starting the journey. Know your economic limits. Say “I can afford to spend that and that” and then also have some backup money in case of unexpected expenses – such as seat reservations in the trains.
So when did we do it and where did we go? We went this summer, in the month of July. If you do not like the heat – do it earlier or later because it was warm, very warm. Our route was the following: Berlin-Münster-Dijon-Lyon-Torino-Genova-Milano. If none of these cities, except from Berlin and Milano, strike you as famous or give you any associations, you are not the only one – we did not know much about the other cities either before we went. The idea was not going only to famous and known cities, but also going to less famous cities, and it actually succeeded quite well. My favourite stops on the route were actually some of the less famous cities such as Dijon and Torino – I especially recommend Dijon as it was one of the most charming cities I have been to my entire life. So how did we plan the route – was it all decided before we went or did we make it up as we went around? It was a combination and a compromise. The only cities we agreed on before going was Berlin and Münster. Besides from that my boyfriend wanted to go to France and Spain after Germany and I wanted to go to Slovenia and Italy after Germany. We made a compromise – France and Italy. For as if you should plan the route from home, or make it up as you go, I would say do more of the last option and the less of the first option. I am usually a very well-organized and structured person and therefore some of the adventure in itself was not to plan an entire route, but just to go with the flow and be let a bit of your guard and comfort zone. Of course, have an idea where you want to go – there is a long way to Poland if you suddenly want to go there but find yourself to be in Spain. Therefore, have an idea about the countries, but make up the more specific destinations as you go.
Trains in Germany, France and Italy
Germany has good trains – they are late (actually, it is just like riding with DSB except that these trains are not that crowded) – but they are very comfortable and it is so easy to come around because they have trains to everywhere and usually a seat reservation is not needed. Therefore, I can say nothing more than Deutsche Bahn works, which is more applause than I will give to France’s SNCF. Possibly you should avoid France on Interrail. No it is not because I do not like France – on the contrary, I realized what a great country France is – but you will eventually get screwed with the trains. France does have regional and local trains which are free and they work perfectly, but they also have something called TGV: high speed trains. I cannot at all recommend these trains. Firstly, in my opinion, they are not that much better than the regional trains and I really do not think that we saved that much taking these trains. The problem is that they connect France to several neighbouring countries such as Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium etc. and they can be very difficult to avoid. It is a problem because they are extremely expensive and it is obligatory to have seat reservations on them when you have an interrail pass. We had two routes where we needed to change onto these trains. That was four seats in total on two journeys and it cost us 154 € (1145,61 DKR). I dare say that I felt screwed. And no, it was not possible to see how much these trains cost in advance – there was no online information. We knew that TGV-trains would cost something because the Interrail company writes that when you get your pass that it is obligatory to make seat reservations on these trains, however, they do not mention the price. The price turned out to be very high. It is the same in Italy. Here a lot of routes also demand a seat reservation, but fortunately they are usually way cheaper than France.
Dos and Don’ts: the best and the worst moments
Dos: Go to places you have not visited before – and not necessarily the capitals. Really, just stay out of them and see the “real” country. In France, where I only had been to Disneyland as well as Paris, I so enjoyed to visit different and more “authentic” French cities because honestly Paris is simply not France more than Copenhagen is Denmark. A friend of my boyfriend from Lyon took us on a trip to the country so we went out to see chateaus and vineyards and had dinner with his Danish/French family, which was a marvellous experience. And again, I especially recommend Dijon. The only problematic thing about France is that their English is bad or non-existent. We managed it because I speak Spanish and therefore can read some French (however this does not mean that I understand it when French people try to speak French to me) and I knew a few French words. It was enough to get around and order stuff. However, it was slightly more difficult to enjoy the museums when they did not have English translations. This is also worse in Dijon than Lyon, I might add. Still I would still recommend Dijon – even with the lack of understanding the language – it was a wonderful city. Also, Torino in Italy is absolutely worth a visit. It is a funny city because it is not very typical Italian, but it will most certainly satisfy your cultural needs. The Royal Castle and the Egyptian Museum – I cannot begin to explain how much I enjoyed these sites. And, one might add, their English in Italy is really good (and if not, Spanish and Italian is quite similar).
Don’ts: Do not just go only to big cities. It will eventually drain you of energy – or at least, it did us. This was our biggest mistake. We would have been better off taking a few days in a city with a beach or lake or just taking the train to a city with a lake or beach for one day. The relax-break is so important so that you actually can enjoy the big cities more when you get there. Also, there is one city I cannot recommend: Genova. It looks so charming when you read about it and see the pictures, but pictures can deceive. It was a very dirty city and the first impression you get is the smell of urine and a statue of Christopher Columbus in one sitting. Really not so charming. Furthermore, it was unfortunately very Italian when it came to tourism: pay a lot of money to see another church (we did not as we had seen plenty in both Germany and France – for free), a lot of beggars walking about and a lots of immigrants trying to sell false brands and also a group pretending to be university students from Kenya selling totems and wanting us to “give them everything we have”. This is therefore a typical tourist city and some does not find it annoying, but I do and I usually I would try to avoid these types of cities.
Hot or not?
Is interrail hot or not? Hot, definitely hot! Even with a student’s budget. I really liked travelling this way. However, the several surprises we had during our vacation such as really expensive high speed trains in France, a bed and breakfast that did not include the breakfast (and several hostels not including breakfast either) were annoying aspects, but I do not regret going on interrail – it was worth it. One thing I in particular liked about interrail compared to going with a plane, is that you do not have to show up many hours before going with the train. You can be there just like two minutes before and if you miss the train no harm is done because there will probably come a new train later so you can always catch that one.
Should you go on Interrail?
Whether you should go on Interrail I cannot tell you, but I can say this: it is simply not for everyone and if you are used to more luxurious vacations with better accommodation then staying in hostels for some week this might not be your favourite choice of vacation. Personally, I do not mind the shared dorms and bathrooms in the hostels – my problem was the slob guests who do not clean the kitchen after using it. There I might admit that I felt like an old grumpy lady when I had to cook and felt disgusted about which state things were left. Therefore, do not be sensitive if you choose to stay on hostels. It is not as clean as your home. Also, it is very important that you find riding the train a lovely way to travel and that you do not mind it takes longer than an airplane. For me, half of the experience in each country was sitting and looking out the window and just watching the different landscapes and the changes in them. Here I must confide that especially Switzerland is very beautiful going through. Furthermore, as I already mentioned several times, it is important that you do have the money for such a trip. It is simply not such a cheap way to travel as it was when our parents were young. You cannot just sleep on a beach today or plant your tent wherever you like – you will have to pay for a place to sleep everyday unless you go with the night trains. It can be difficult to have tickets on these trains unless you make reservations in advance and that undoubtedly kills some of the flexibility that is so charming about interrail. But the question remains: to go on interrail or not? Yes, do it. I would most certainly do it again!