School exam season is ending and teenagers all over the UK are planning to get away from it all. And more specifically their parents. Here are our top interrailing tips for families whose teens will be travelling round Europe by train this summer. Read on for how to plan your interrail routes, tips on interrail seat reservations and best backpack for interrail.
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What is interrailing?
The European interrail pass is a single ticket that allows rail travel around up to 30 countries for a set period of time from 5 days to a month. Non-European residents can use a Eurail pass. The Interrail Trip has become a bit of a landmark of teenage summer life in the UK and is often the first proper holiday that teens take with friends rather than family. Most interrailers we know set off after their A levels when they’re 18 years old, although some do go after the first summer of 6th form or GCSEs.
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A teen’s eye view of interrailing
Both my boys have been interrailing. Ed went last summer, when he was 18, and I’ve asked him to share his top tips for a fun and (fairly) stress-free trip:
Ed: “For many teens the final summer before gap year, uni or a full-time job features an interrail trip, exploring the most remarkable (and remarkably cheap) cities in Europe. It’s a rite of passage into adulthood and the real world and the very word ‘interrail’ conjures up contradictory emotions of excitement mixed with apprehension. Unfortunately for parents it evokes very little of that excitement but all of that apprehension as they prepare to release their offspring into the outlandish world of party hostels and European dance clubs.
How to plan an interrail trip
“First step, at least six months before you go, is to get your group together and plan your route. Interrail is an amazing opportunity to explore what Europe has to offer . Whether you want to absorb the peaceful vistas of Lake Bled or the frantic nightlife of Budapest it’s important at the outset to decide what’s most attractive to your group. And incidentally this will tell you whether you’re in the right group for you.
I travelled with four good friends. My brother Nick was part of a bigger group of seven. There’s no perfect size but four or five works well as there are enough of you to split up to do different things without being too big a group to go around a city all together.
Now plan your route. The earlier you book your interrail passes the more you save. The Interrail website is an easy guide to the obvious routes between cities and countries in Europe. Unless you need to use routes which require seat reservations – more about that below! – you are free to jump on whichever train you want as long as your travel complies with the particular pass you have bought.
Getting an interrail pass isn’t always the cheapest option. A one month continuous pass is the most expensive and you probably don’t need it. Alternatively you can choose a number of travel days to be taken within a month – our passes were for 10 days within one month. You need to use all those days or it’s not worth the money so the better you plan the more money you’ll save. You might find you can also budget by flying to your first destination rather than going by train from London.
Where to go interrailing in Europe
“Talk to people you know who’ve done it before about their interrail routes. Our group had two older brothers to call on so we asked them what’s good and what’s not and started to work out an interrail route from that. Traditionally most people start in Amsterdam but we didn’t because we thought we’d probably do that particular city separately another time. So we began our route in Berlin as logistically that made the most sense given the other cities we wanted to include. From here we went to Prague, Krakow, Budapest and Split, allowing about three days in each city.
Some people fit in more but we didn’t want to rush as we were already spending time in Spain and France before we began the interrailing leg of the holiday.
One friend, travelling in a group of three girls, chose: Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Innsbruck, Bologna and Rome.
Nick and his friends did a three week tour: they flew to Prague then took trains to Vienna, Krakow, Budapest, Belgrade, Zagreb, Split, Ljubljana and a flight home from Venice.
When working out interrail routes the interactive map on the interrail website displays journey times between destinations whilst train timetables show frequency of train services. It helps if you have a couple of highly organised people in your group as there is a lot of planning and booking in advance to do.
Expensive Interrail cities
“The glamour of Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Berlin or beachside Split is alluring. The first three in particular are obvious hubs on the interrail map. But bear in mind that they are all horribly overcrowded in mid summer and that this is reflected in the cost of living when you get there. We chose to avoid Paris for this reason. Three days in Berlin was much more expensive than the same amount of time in Krakow but we decided the attractions outweighed the expense.
Budget Interrail cities
“Prague, Budapest and Krakow all proved better for our budget. Accommodation, food and drink were delightfully cheap and we found these cities do attract like-minded interrailers. I was unsurprised to bump into a few people I knew from home on the dancefloor of Karlovy Lazne, Prague’s famous 5-floor nightclub. Likewise, Nick came across half a dozen friends in pedaloes on a sunny afternoon on the river.
Of the three Eastern European cities on our route we were least keen on Krakow and I wouldn’t go back there. It may have one of the largest medieval squares in Europe but I didn’t like the vibe in the city which was very geared to stag parties. Sorry to be blunt but as a group of boys we got bored with fending off invitations to visit strip clubs.
Best interrail cities for culture and attractions
“Do you want to immerse yourself in European culture and explore historic sites? Or are you primarily concerned with finding cheap drinks and lots of nightlife? In our group we tried for a balance between the two and for us Budapest, Prague and Berlin were the highlights of our interrail trip.
Rome is a city packed with culture and history that will engage the whole family. Click here for our guide to visiting Rome with teens
Hostels vs Airbnb
“Have a think about whether you and your group want to stay in hostels or Airbnbs during your travels. They offer very different experiences.
Hostels aren’t always the cheapest option. Famous party places like the Greg & Tom Party Hostel in Krakow and the Grandio Party Hostel in Budapest will cost more than an Airbnb in a similar location in the city.
Party hostel staff are super friendly and know their cities inside and out. It is also an amazing opportunity to meet visitors from all over the world and we had some of the most memorable moments of our travels whilst staying in them. But party hostels can also be a gruelling and tiresome experience!
Airbnbs can often provide affordable accommodation for a group in surprisingly good locations. To get the best spots you do need to book well in advance. We booked Airbnbs in the centre of Krakow and just five minutes from the centre of Prague at prices comparable to those of an ordinary youth hostel and cheaper than a party hostel.
Away from the organised chaos of a party hostel, Arbnbs give you the chance to explore a city at your own pace. They might not be as exciting as party hostels but they are more relaxing and more conducive to a good night’s sleep!
Interrail seat reservations
“This might seem obvious but I’m speaking from personal experience here. It’s easily overlooked! A global interrail pass will set you back around 200 euros and because this is a significant sum it’s easy to forget that you often have to spend more money reserving seats on trains. No one in our group realised this until a week before we were due to depart. It hadn’t been a problem for Nick’s group who had made reservations at the stations. But time’s change and now it must be done at least two weeks in advance as physical tickets will be shipped to you. They need to be signed for too. As you may imagine this led to a rather stressful build up to our holiday and a courier package, coordinated by various parents, to an address on our route in mid-France!
The interrail website makes it clear which train journeys require seat reservations and which do not. For example, on our trip in 2017 the journey from Berlin to Prague took under 4 hours and did not require reservations. However it’s worth considering whether saving money on the seat reservation is worth the risk of several hours on a train that you might have to enjoy on a carriage floor.
“A direct overnight train from Budapest to Split takes 13 hours and does require a reservation. Or you can save some money by taking connecting regional trains via Zagreb and travel without reservations. We did this but waiting for our connection in Zagreb in the middle of the night with nothing to do was a low point for us and we got very annoyed with each other. And later still, after 16 continuous hours of trains and station platforms, being woken up at 4am on the Split train by a group of Spanish pre-teens screaming the lyrics of You Don’t Know Me by Jax Jones was a bit harrowing.
So consider what you can put up with. If you love the freedom of an open ticket to Europe and can sacrifice comfort for the sake of spontaneity then the Interrail pass is for you. If you’d rather take the safe option and book the most direct routes with compulsory, extra cost, seat reservations then the interrail pass itself might not be the best investment. It could be more cost efficient to book and reserve train tickets from the websites of the individual transport companies, albeit with a lot more effort on your part.
Best backpack for interrailing
“Getting the size of your bag right is crucial. Too small and you’ll struggle to pack all your essentials, let alone any souvenirs you pick up on the way. On the other hand too big and you’ll overpack and find yourself burdened for the whole holiday with a huge bag to lug around in the scorching European sun.
For a three week trip I took a tough 70 litre Craghoppers holdall with grab handles and shoulder straps. Amazingly it still looks as good as new.
Nick chose a Patagonia duffel bag for his trip, also with carry handles and shoulder straps. He managed with a smaller 60 litre size though admits there wasn’t much spare space in it. Several of his friends have Patagonias too.
If you’re going for longer than three weeks or are a particularly hyperactive shopper you may want something a bit bigger but the sizes worked for us and the bags weren’t over heavy. These bags wouldn’t be comfortable to carry on your back for a long hike but we found them fine for jumping on and off trains or walking from station to hostel.
During our trip I often saw teenagers lugging around big hiking rucksacks. I’ve used them for D of E but never felt I needed one for interrailing. Their frames add weight and you have to take everything out to get to the stuff at the bottom of the bag.
However I don’t mind carrying a heavy bag for short distances – when you choose your bag do check you’ll be comfortable carrying it when it’s fully loaded. One friend says she wouldn’t have been able to manage the weight of her interrail kit without a proper backpack with hip straps.
What to take interrailing
“Here are five things that you might overlook on an interrail packing list but you really shouldn’t:
European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) I never imagined an EHIC would be required on our trip. Suffice to say that it was. I kept mine tucked inside my passport on the grounds that keeping two important items together makes you more careful with them and thus less liable to lose either.
Flexible water bottle Very convenient to pack and carry around with you. I used my Platypus bottle the whole time.
A book I took one book with me and during sleepless train journeys with no wi fi it was very handy to pass the time. This wasn’t the book – it’s here for illustration but looks useful!
Plasters It’s helpful if at least one person in the group has plasters – blister and standard fabric ones.
Lightweight waterproof jacket The weather was very volatile on our trip and days of baking sun would often be followed by torrential rain. It doesn’t need to be a warm jacket – just waterproof.
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Best bankcard for interrailing
“Most UK banks charge extra for withdrawing cash abroad in local currency. The summer I travelled Lloyds Bank was charging a non-sterling transaction fee of 2.99% of the amount of the transaction and a cash fee of £1.50 for each withdrawal. This seems like a bit of a waste of money. Luckily we found some solutions:
Metrobank I opened a Metrobank account on Nick’s advice because that’s what he did for his Interrail trip. Mum has one now too. It was a bit of a chore to set up and took three trips to my local branch but the word is that it’s easier to set up an account online. Crucially, Metrobank offer free transactions for card users in Europe. All that effort was worth it for the money I saved on the interrail trip. Apparently Starling and Monzo are also good for travel so they’re worth checking out too.
A prepaid card This is simple. Just load money onto the card and use it to withdraw cash or make purchases. A few of my friends used these. A Caxton card offers 0% commission and no fees on withdrawing money from ATMs internationally.
Personally I prefer the idea of opening a bank account. It’s worth mentioning that I now use Metrobank as my primary current account so it’s a canny policy for them.
What can go wrong interrailing
“If you’re a parent you’ll be wanting to check your children have any clue of what they’re doing before you let them loose on the international scene. So we’ve made a list of potential dilemmas to discuss in advance of the Interrail trip. Just in case.
- What to do if someone gets lost or separated from the group on an outing
- Or, heaven forbid, on a train connection
- What to do if someone is ill or injured…..
- …and what to do if someone needs a doctor/hospital
- What to do if money/ phone/ passport/ ticket is stolen or lost
- Street scams and how to spot them
- Pickpockets ditto
- Remember to always check where the exits are in hostels and clubs
- Oh, and before you go scan all your docs: passport, train pass, EHIC, insurance, plane reservations itinerary, etc and email them to yourself and your parents. You know it makes sense!”
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