Big Experience on a Small Budget

Victoria Hermon and Becca Smith 19 June 2009

Planning to go on a cheap adventure this summer? Victoria Hermon and Becca Smith impart their words of wisdom of what to pack, where to stay and how to get around Europe on not very much at all…

Want a holiday to remember this summer? Take one group of good friends, some very large backpacks and a train ticket that will take you all around Europe- we are of course referring to that popular modern phenomenon and rite of passage for students nationwide: inter-railing.

Gasp at rather gorgeous, naked French men (or women) in the apartment opposite your Paris hostel; partially drown as rain hits St Mark’s Square and laugh hysterically at the exhibits of the (bizarre!) Prague sex machine museum. There is no other way to experience such a wealth of culture and uniqueness without shelling out for very expensive around the world cruises. Even then, you (or your parents) are flashing some serious cash to see what the tour operator wants you to see – with inter-railing you often see what you’d rather not!

Want culture and safety? Do Western Europe and visit as many art galleries as your (you realise) hopelessly plebeian brain can handle. Venice, Florence and Paris may be packed in the summer months with young families and American tour groups (with matching caps), but are still most definitely worth a visit. There is far more to these beautiful cities than the postcards suggest…why not ditch the tour book for a day, get out and explore!

Want adventure and the results of Soviet occupation? Do Eastern Europe and escape from hijacked trains through compartment windows (as two of TCS’s braver sources were forced to do). This is a chance to see a side of Europe that you may never have envisioned before, as well as an amazing holiday for a much lesser price than you would find elsewhere.

The thing about inter-railing is, it gets better as it gets worse: no-one really wants to come back saying everything went smoothly, people are much more interested in tales that will capture the imagination in Fresher’s week. Sure, you will probably have down days; you may want to pull your best friend’s hair out, or just crawl up in a ball and sleep for the whole day; but the lows will only make the highs that much higher! Saying you had a ‘nice time’ basically translates into it was boring and uneventful. Instead, stories such as the creepy man who stared into our all-girl sleeping compartment, grinned and said ‘super!,’ or hitching a ride on the back of a pickup truck in the South of France; or tales of walking in on strange, topless women in your hotel room (as a male friend of TCS did) all make the experience much more fun to experience and to recall. These are the things you can tell your grandchildren!

It is also a holiday where doing it on a budget is better- hostels are so much more credible than hotels after all. Don’t worry about how small or dark your room is; you’re not supposed to be spend any of your waking hours inside, and we can promise you a better view from another point in any city than from any window in a building. Avert your eyes from the lime scale (and occasional mould) in the bathroom, and embrace the country as it was supposed to be appreciated. Plus, you are much more likely to find like-minded travellers in the garden of a small, family run guesthouse than lounging by the pool of a sprawling all-inclusive complex. You never know, you could make friends for life!

Don’t be afraid to haggle, especially in the East; if you are given a price, halve it, and then maybe halve it again. Just ensure that it is all done in jest…shop owners are more than happy to rant at you and throw you out of their shop if they feel you have offended them or their family. If you are obviously being ripped off, challenge it, but never expect to pay the same price as the locals.

Another top tip, don’t be afraid of street vendors! Some of the best pizza we have ever eaten was bought from kiosks down small, cobbled Roman backstreets. One slice will fill you up for a whole day of Colosseum- touring and souvenir buying. Furthermore, you can’t beat a strawberry ‘Gelato’ on a baking afternoon or a Parisian crepe on a chilly evening wondering the streets around The Seine. In fact, why not skip the restaurants all together, buy a bottle of wine, a few authentic snacks and hop on a gondola/boat trip/random grassy patch for an evening of people watching and star spotting.

What to pack? Despite frequent BBC broadcasts suggesting that Europe is experiencing the ‘Hottest summer since records began’, don’t presume this always to be correct. If there is one thing we learnt from our dads, it is to always, ALWAYS pack a pair of jeans; we can almost guarantee that amidst all those days of glorious sunshine, there will be one morning/afternoon/evening of torrential rain and snappy chills to match our bleak English winter.

On that note, take a jacket! And maybe some waterproofs… If you really are doing it on the cheap, the most important advice that we can offer, is to take a bed sheet and a pillow case. All you need is a single cover, rolled up tightly and stuffed at the bottom of your bag. Trust us, if you are digging deeper and deeper into your pockets and are on your last few pennies before the emergency Western Union account; you will appreciate being able to snuggle in your own, clean sheets as opposed to your £2 a night, flea infested itchy blankets provided by the hostel!
Inter-railing has long been recognised as a truly student holiday and you should do it sooner rather than later, so why not give it a go? Have a spur of the moment, mum-I’ll-be-back-in-three-weeks, pure experience filled summer. No-one ever regrets it (and if you do, just stop off in Amsterdam on the way home and you’ll forget all about it!)

Victoria Hermon and Becca Smith