There are often two times in young people’s lives when when you get the urge to travel and see the world. The first is before uni, when many 18 and 19 year olds head out to travel before they start their courses and enter the working world.
For many people, this isn’t always an option, whether they don’t have the funds available or want to go straight to uni. This brings us to the next group who’ll wait a few years after they’ve paid off their overdraft and gained some work experience. Sometime between the age of 23 and 27, they’ll head out and explore the world.
Many of the people falling into this latter group will have settled into great jobs, making a full gap year a daunting prospect. Not all businesses are happy to let their employees go for months at a time, even if it’s unpaid. The other question is money. What if you can’t find a job you loved as much when you get back?
The latter is the group that I fell into, so together with my girlfriend, we looked at a way to satisfy our wanderlust in just two and a half weeks. We chose to go InterRailing, embarking on a whistle stop tour around Europe to see some of the great cities along the way.
The result was a taste of the backpacking lifestyle, which we’re hoping will lead on to more travel in the years to come. If you’re looking to go on your own mini-gap year expedition but have limited time, read on for our top tips!
Weekends and bank holidays are your friend
Most businesses, especially smaller ones, limit holidays to no more than two consecutive weeks. The easiest way to get around this time limitation is to start and end your holiday on weekends, giving you a few extra
days to play with. Better still, try and start or end your trip on a bank holiday, giving you another free day.
From taking 10 days of holiday, Monday to Friday, you can now have a maximum of 17 days to work with, and an extra night if you start your trip on a Friday evening.
You can save even more time by flying out to your first destination, if you’re not planning to start your trip in France or Belgium. For example, fly out to east or central Europe and work your way back to the channel. We flew out to Berlin and did a loop through to Warsaw, Budapest, Vienna, Zurich, Paris and Bruges, before heading back to Britain on the Eurostar via Brussels.
Spend at least two to three days in each city
One of the lessons we learnt from our trip is to not try and cram in too many locations. While we allowed three days in the cities we were most interested in, we only had time for one day in a handful of others.
This can get exhausting quickly, as you’ll spend most of your time travelling without having much time to explore and experience the culture.
Allocating up to 3 days is ideal as each location turns into its own weekend break, with plenty of time to explore, see the sights, and even spend a day relaxing after experiencing the local nightlife.
It may mean you have to cut down on destinations, but it means you’ll have more time to enjoy the places you do go. Plus, you’ll have an excuse to go to the ones you missed the following year!
Plan your route and book in advance
A tight schedule means you need to plan your trip in advance. Spending an extra day in a city may not be an option as it could mean you’ll miss out on another exciting destination.
Planning your route in advance means you can prioritise the places you really want to go and spend the most amount of time you can there without having to wait around for trains or wing it when you’re out there.
To make the most of your time away, it’s also a good idea to take the fast trains, like the French TGV or German ICE high speed trains. These are much quicker than the regional or even standard express trains, meaning you’ll spend less time travelling and more time soaking up the culture.
However, the majority of these fast trains require a booked seat, and if you don’t do this in advance you may not be able to board the train you want, especially in the summer. It makes sense to book before you travel out for this reason.
For more advice on choosing trains on specific routes, try the InterRail pass guide at Seat 61.
Save money with a flexi InterRail pass
Because you’ll not be travelling each day, there’s no point paying for a ticket that lets you do so. Fortunately, the InterRail pass is available in two types: flexi and continuous. The continuous ticket ensures you can jump on any covered train at any point on your trip, while a flexi ticket allows you to choose to travel on any 10 or 15 days within one month.
This can save you a decent amount of cash as you’ll not be paying for the privilege of travelling on days you’ll want to spend exploring the city you’re in.
Use night trains wherever possible
Another great way to make the most of your time is to travel on a night train whenever you can, effectively freeing up the day.
There are a range of ticket types on night trains in Europe, ranging from a simple reclining seat, naturally the cheapest option, moving up to a bed in a couchette car, where you’ll be sharing with three to five other people, to a private cabin in a sleeper car for one to three people. It’s basically a hotel or a hostel on wheels, depending which type of accommodation you choose!
A private cabin or couchette compartment are the best options, especially if you’re travelling in a group. I’ve not tried sleeping in a reclining seat, but having done it before on an overnight coach, it’s definitely best avoided.
You’ll need to make a reservation in advance, and on some routes you’ll need to pay a supplement on top of your InterRail pass, but it’s worth it as you won’t need to book a hostel and you’ll save several hours of daylight travelling.
The only caveat is if you’re a light sleeper you may not get on with this mode of transport. Through the night your carriage will be uncoupled and recouped on to the end different trains to take you to your destination – you’ll actually end up at the other end on a different train that you left on. Chances are you’ll get woken up once or twice as this happens.
On another note – don’t leave your carriage past bed time or you might end up alone, without your possessions and in your pyjamas somewhere completely different…
Research what you want to do before you get there
Finally, it’s a good idea to have some idea of what you want to do at each location before you arrive. Of course, you can just wing it when you arrive, which is what we did, but it may mean you miss out on something really cool that you didn’t know about.
For us, we went on a pub crawl around Budapest’s ruin bars, and spent the following day hungover before leaving for Vienna. Later, we realised there was a party (or SPArty) at one of the famous hot baths, which we didn’t go to – all because of poor planning!
On the plus side, if you wing it you’re more likely to find reasons to go back to a place you loved and spend a bit longer next time.