Interrailing: still a student’s rite of passage, or something of a cliché? Alison Lee shares her advice on making the most from your trip
Hopping from one city to another by train has the potential to make for an incredible few weeks, but some people’s tales of interrailing can’t help but make you wonder whether they really made the most of a trip to Europe. I speak of the folks who book a flight to one city and a flight home from another, then simply drink their way across the continent on a month-long bender. OK, there’s the occasional call into McDonalds for a Big Mac or a few hours spent trailing from hostel to hostel, trying to find rooms. But if the thought of such an interrailing experience makes you shudder, then start planning ahead now and put some thought into what could well be one of the best holidays you’ll ever have – it’ll be worth it in the end.
‘Global’ and ‘One Country’ interrailing passes are available from the USIT Ireland website, allowing a certain number of journeys within a certain period of time. My friends and I opted for a global pass that allowed five days of travel within a ten-day period, and planned a two-week trip around this – mainly because our funds wouldn’t stretch any further. Other options are available; check out http://short.ie/aianjy for details. Next: where to go? We pored over a map of Europe and chose four cities based on the observation that they lay in a roughly straight line: thus Krakow, Vienna, Prague and Budapest became our destinations of choice. Despite my hatred of the airline, I succumbed to peer pressure and booked cheap Ryanair flights to Krakow and home from Budapest.
The thought of arriving hungover and footsore to a city only to be faced with the task of finding accommodation wasn’t a pleasant one, so we decided to organise hostels in advance too. HostelWorld.com is indispensable on this front: not only can you easily book hostels (after reading fellow travellers’ reviews), but you can print off handy city guides which advise on where to eat, visit, and how to get around.
What to bring
Backpacks are unwieldy, heavy and unnecessary if you only need to get your luggage from a train station to a hostel. Save them from where you’re actually on safari, and opt instead for a simple wheely case for your journey. Raingear is a must-have: yes, I mean those little fold-up raincoats in a zippy bag. Even in summer we were caught in thunderstorms in Vienna, and it drizzled in a disappointingly Irish fashion in Budapest and Krakow. Besides, there’s a certain weird thrill in looking like a complete gimp among cosmopolitan, glamorous Europeans. Aside from that, use your common sense and don’t panic over hair straighteners and high heels.
Where to stay
You can be as cheap as you like on this front, especially once you get east of Germany. We splashed out in Vienna, as the city is reasonably expensive in general and we didn’t want to be stuck in a dive for four nights – so Wombat’s Hostel became our temporary abode. With a bar, internet, and kitchen, not to mention hordes of friendly fellow interrailers, it was well worth the extra cash. The Goodbye Lenin hostel in Krakow was cheap, cheerful and also boasted a bar. The Bridge Hostel in Prague (named for its proximity to the famous Charles Bridge) looked suspiciously like some dude’s apartment as opposed to a hostel, but was clean, spacious and smack-bang in the centre of the city’s action. Our Budapest hostel, Buda Base, was the only dodgy one: this time it most certainly was just some dude’s apartment, definitely lacking on the privacy front. But at roughly €8 a night, with a view of the Danube and free rollerblades, what’s there to complain about? Dorms are cheaper than private rooms and a great way to get to know your fellow travellers; but book into a private room now and then if you need some peace and quiet.
Public transport is bad enough in Ireland, let alone countries where you don’t speak the language. We invested in “Vienna cards” in Vienna, which allowed us use of the metro system – luckily, as the city is pretty big. Everywhere else we slummed it on foot, as the touristy sights were all located conveniently close together in the city centre. Save some cash for a taxi home to the airport, though: by the end of our trip we were far too weary to navigate trams, metros and buses in our less-than-perfect Hungarian.
What to eat
Avoid western chains and eat local! This can be difficult on the cheap, especially outside the eurozone where enterprising locals like to cash in on confused tourists fumbling with zloty and koruna. But the value on offer if you take a ten-minute stroll from the tourist traps can surprise you. Some hostels include breakfast – if so, eat as much and as late as possible to keep you going for the day! Krakow is awash with street vendors selling pretzels and fresh cherries, whilst the Wombat Hostel was situated in Vienna’s Turkish quarter, meaning we could gorge on falafel to our hearts content. If your hostel is equipped with a kitchen just cook for yourself, but try to reserve enough cash for dinner in a proper restaurant in each city you visit.
What to see
In Krakow, the Wawal Royal Castle’s armour museum boasted a collection of swords, spears, guns, and battleaxes that would keep any twisted sadist amused for hours on end. Stop and coo over the cuddly denizens of Vienna Zoo, located in the grounds of the Schönbrunn Palace. The Hundertwasserhaus, also in Vienna, is a colourful, eccentric example of modern architecture that’s definitely worth a trip out of the city centre to admire. In Prague take your inner child to the second-largest toy museum in the world, situated in Prague Castle. And after all this sightseeing you’ll definitely need a nice long soak in one of the thermal baths dotted all over the city of Budapest.
Droves of students descend on these cities in summer; thus, nightclubs, live venues and pubs have sprung up literally everywhere. (Beware if topless bars and strip clubs aren’t your thing though: not all of the bars are what you’d call “classy”.) Prague definitely steals the top spot for nightlife, boasting the five-story Karlovy Lazne nightclub on the Vltava river and jazz and blues clubs on every street.
The summer isn’t that far away now, and once the hurdle of exams is over we’ll all need to de-stress. Although maybe a little old-fashioned, an interrailing trip really is a cheap way to see some of the most amazing cities in the world. With just a little thought and planning ahead your trip can be as blissfully stress-free as that post-exam Sunday morning lie-in that awaits us all so very soon…