Kevin Le Merle undertakes a staple of student travel culture
I went interrailing in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. It wasn’t much of a surprise, then, to see that many of the people I met along the way were also British; fearful, tearful, and afraid that it was their last shot at interrailling.
Many fail to understand that interrail is not some sort of “experience” or “package-deal” – rather, it is just a cheaper way to use cross-country trains on the continent.
For the most part, even with an interrail pass, you still need to book a spot on the trains you want to take – this is especially true during the peak summer season. It isn’t a care-free experience of getting to stroll to the train station on any day in any country to get on any train. Preparing an itinerary is just as time consuming as if you didn’t have the interrail pass, and some train-routes are not even included in the interrail pass, which means you need to pay extra to pay for those separate tickets as well.
Extra-costs are also rife; night-trains for instance, will be an easy way for the industry to grab some of your hard-earned holiday cash. And if you’re thinking of booking a bed for the night train, you might as well stay at a youth hostel – the price difference is practically zero, and the chance of getting robbed is just as high. You will probably be more comfortable in a youth hostel too, given that while sleeping in a train lulls some to sleep, it can keep others wide awake.
Beyond being a marginally cheaper, glorified way to travel on a train (a subpar train at that), is interrail worth it? It depends. Nowadays, with the rise of cheap air travel companies and some good scheduling skills under your belt, it is likely you can find equally cheap travel options without the drag of spending ten hours on a train. But apart from that, is it worth it? The only answer is yes. Travel is always worth it.
The train ride has the benefit of showing the wide-eyed (albeit wearied) traveller the true distance that separates them from their European neighbours. From Amsterdam to Prague, from Prague to Budapest, from Budapest to Vienna, and from Vienna to Paris, the cultural transitions can be smooth as well as harsh, revealing the fantastic diversity of our historical European heritage.
Without travel between different European nations, many great minds who significantly contributed to academia might not have written what they did. Descartes, for instance, insists that the lessons he learnt through travel were what started his career as a philosopher and allowed him to think beyond his French cultural prejudices. And without Descartes’s theory of refraction, where would the field of optics be today?
However, the more expensive interrail passes incentivise quick travel, rather than longer stays in the different countries. While this form of mass tourism is quite common and popular, it places value on adding a destination under your belt rather than enjoying local culture and history. If you decide to visit too many destinations in too short an amount of time, it also appears likely you will stay stuck in that country’s main city. The pass often doesn’t include train travel within a given country, which is a downside for nature lovers.
Interrail offers the opportunity to experience of an incredible, eye-opening journey, but is far from being the only way to achieve it. If you are a person of limited means, consider a combination of air travel (if the discounts are good), and other train companies before an interrail pass. And use interrail only if the price difference of the cheaper passes makes it worth it.
If you travel to add a notch to your belt, then by all means pick the pricier ones, but be ready to be labelled as a superficial "conquistador" of a tourist. Otherwise, tailor your own journey - the hassle will be the same, and the benefit far greater.