Europe by train. It’s not just the ultimate way to affordably see lots of countries in a (relatively) short amount of time; it’s also a rite-of-passage for many college students.
I spent my junior year abroad at the University of York, and took full advantage of England’s trimester system, using my five-week spring break to visit 10 European countries. Granted, this was before the Eurozone was implemented and while the dollar was strong, but trust me: You can still affordably ride the rails of Europe, cramming as much culture, food, history, beaches, and fun into a short amount of time as possible.
If you’re looking to “do Europe” this spring or summer, here are some tips to consider.
Assemble your documents
First and foremost, you’ll need a passport. If you already have one and it’s set to expire within the next six months, it’s a good idea to renew it before your trip. The cost of getting a new passport or renewing an old one is $97. You’ll probably want to invest $22 in an ISIC card, too. While students are entitled to discounts on local transportation and many tourist attractions across Europe, a regular old college ID won’t work in most cases.
Pick the right rail pass
The best Eurail pass for you depends on several factors, such as your age and your intended destination(s). If you’re under 26, you’re eligible for a discounted Youth Pass. If you want access to all 18 countries in the Eurail system, consider the Global Pass. There are regional passes as well as country-specific passes if you don’t plan to visit so many places. If you plan on traveling around England, Scotland, or Wales, invest in a BritRail pass as well. There’s also an extra pass specifically for the Scandinavian countries.
You must purchase Eurail passes in the U.S. before you leave for Europe (or have someone mail it to you). However, if you’ve already been in Europe for more than six months (for example, if you’re studying abroad for more than a semester), you might qualify for the cheaper InterRail pass.
With all the options available, choosing the right pass can be a headache. RailEurope’s website can help you choose the best pass for your needs.
When all is said and done, plan on paying at least $400 for any type of multi-country pass. For example, Eurail Global Youth passes cost $415 for 15 days, and up to $1165 for three months. It may seem like a hefty price tag, but you can easily get your money’s worth if you spend a couple days on the rails. Point-to-point tickets are often much more expensive.
Go with an open mind
The best thing about backpacking around Europe is the flexibility it allows. Fall in love with Innsbruck? No problem. You can stay for a couple extra days. Serial planners will find solace in the fact that some things do require planning. Certain high-speed trains and overnight sleepers, as well as many popular hotels, require advance reservations. Hurrah!
Choose your travel companions wisely
Nothing is worse than traveling with someone whose likes and dislikes are different from you own, so choose your companion wisely. And keep the numbers low. While planning a trip with six of your best friends may sound like a great idea, in practice it’s often a logistical nightmare. You’ll want to do one thing while another person will not, yet you won’t want to split up for fear of losing one another, so both people will end up feeling cheated and miserable. Not good.
Even if you choose the perfect travel buddy, lay down some ground rules before leaving the U.S. Cover everything from budgetary matters to absolute-can’t-miss highlights. You might want to investigate cell phone options, too, as that can help keep you in touch if you do decide to part ways.
As an alternative, consider going it alone. I’ve never traveled solo, but my friends who have swear it’s the only way to go. You’ll meet tons of interesting people, see the things you really want to see, and be able to take it at your own pace. The downside is that if you’re not friendly and outgoing, it can be lonely.
Stay at hostels, not hotels
I’ve met some Americans recently who, after watching Hoste” (the recent horror flick), look at me all cock-eyed when I say that I stay at hostels all over the world. Hostels are great! They’re affordable, a good place to meet fellow travelers, often centrally located, and generally very safe. Some of them are even destinations in their own right, featuring innovative designs or quirky locales.
The clientele is very much like you, too: open-minded, adventurous, on a budget, and hell-bent on seeing the world. Like anywhere else, of course, you need to be wary of who you join for drinks. Sketchy people are everywhere, even at the Ritz.
Budget enough money
Europe’s not cheap. Even if you’re staying in hostels and eating at inexpensive restaurants or self-catering, budget at least $50 a day. You’ll need more if you want to dine at the occasional fancy restaurant, take guided tours, see any shows, or visit big museums.
It’s best to have multiple ways to access your money, too. Bring some U.S. dollars, because they’re readily exchangeable. Bring your ATM card. Bring credit cards. American Express has also introduced a traveler’s cheque debit card, which isn’t linked to your home bank account but offers the same protection as their credit cards. If your travels will be limited to Western Europe, where American Express is more widely accepted, you might want to consider it as an option.
For God’s sake, pack light
Remember, you’ll be schlepping your bags for several weeks on end, so the lighter the better. And remember that you will be able to do laundry (if you’re so inclined). It might be in a sink somewhere, but clean clothes are clean clothes.
All in all, no matter how you do it, a trip around Europe as a student is bound to be an unforgettable experience. If you head there with an open mind and a penchant for train travel, anything is possible. In fact, it should be a graduation requirement.