Travelling over land
We’re day 19 in to our crazy mission to get to Singapore across land.
Technically I should be on at least #3 by now, but life took over. And by that, I mean logicising like a boss!
So far, we’ve travelled through and stopped in 7 countries, and visited 5 (as I’m not sure 2 hours at Paris central train station having a complete melt down, or 3 hours waiting on station platforms in Germany count for visiting!).
So, whilst those have been classed as transient stops, we have visited Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and we’re working our way through Turkey as I type.
A lot of people have asked if we’re doing this because I’m scared of flying
And the answer is no, I’ll save the reason why for another day, but suffice to say I am not a good flyer. I can and will do it, but it is fraught with anxiety, panic, diazepam and it’s not a nice experience – for me, or whoever I’m travelling with 🙂
Through conversations with people about why we’re going across land I’ve encountered a lot of other people who would love to travel, but they just can’t get on a plane. And if you’re getting married and have a honeymoon to plan then you’ll have the world asking where you’re going, and sometimes making assumptions about how exciting your trip can possibly be when you’re not clocking up the airmiles.
The reality is the minute you cross the channel you have literally dozens of countries you can visit without the need to fly.
I was horrendous at geography at school, and whilst I am not naive of the lie of our land, I had no idea you could get as far as Singapore without flying. And I’ve had to pull the map up to show lots of other people this too.
It seems so far away, so distant and so utterly implausible that we don’t need to board a jumbo jet to get there. What we have lost with the invention of the aeroplane is the ability to travel.
It’s at our finger tips, it’s easy to book, easy to navigate, it’s not even that costly these days.
But by flying are we missing too much?
We’re also so used to train travel in the UK being too expensive to justify, unreliable and on the commuter trek (I’ve done it!) lucky to get a seat.
Train travel in Europe is not the same.
We’ve previously travelled the length of India using the train system mostly and we’ve used trains to get around in Italy. So, we’re aware of how much fun it can be, how many people you can meet along the way, and how different it is.
Interrail / Eurorail passes: What are they? How do they work? How do I plan my trip? Are they worth it?
What are they?
Interrail and Eurorail passes are exactly the same thing. Where you live determines which you purchase. For us in the UK, and other European countries, we use Interrail.
For anyone living outside of Europe then you buy the Eurorail pass.
What will happen if we Brexit who knows, but for now let’s just assume the scheme will stay the same. The latest reading suggests it will.
The basic crux of it is you can prepay for a certain amount of days train travel. Either within one specified European country, or all of them. For the purposes of this we’re going to look at Global Passes which you can use in all European countries – because that’s what we used.
You can choose between a certain amount of days over a set period of time, and they cover a whopping 31 countries.
For shorter trips: 3, 5 or 7 days in 1 month
Or for longer trips: 10 or 15 days within 2 months
There is also the option of 1 month, 2 months, or 3 months with unlimited travel.
For anyone planning to tour a lot of Europe these passes look great. Yes, they are more expensive to purchase at the outset, but Europe is then your oyster and you can change where you want to go, add places in, or take them out, at your leisure.
Getting your pass / application
You MUST purchase your ticket in advance of travelling as they are sent in the post. If you start a trip and then decide it would be a good idea, well you’ve missed the boat. Or in this case the train.
- They are sent out on 24 hour signed for delivery so you don’t need to apply months in advance.
- It’s an online application and it’ll take about 10 minutes maximum to complete.
- If you do decide to cancel before you’ve used your pass, it’s only partially refundable, so do make sure you have your holiday insurance sorted out ready. You can’t get any sort of refund after you’ve begun to use the pass.
How does it work?
It is your train ticket. Simple.
It’s a paper pass and you will need to record your trip as you go and the conductors on the train will expect this to be done. There is the option of insuring your pass for €14 to cover for loss or theft. We didn’t bother. But it does mean you are then guarding your pass with your life!
If we were to buy them again, especially the 1, 2 or 3 month passes then I would insure without hesitation.
You pick your train (more on that shortly), board, and when the conductor comes you present your pass filled out ready with your journey details and they will punch / stamp the line.
It’s also a great way to look back and see where you’ve been!
Is it worth it?
The thing you need to know in advance is some of the trips charge you a reservation fee on top of what you have already paid for your pass. They only have a certain amount of spaces available per train to Interrail pass holders. It’s the shitty small print that we couldn’t find as much information on as we’d have liked.
So, if like us you live on a wing and prayer, you too could end up in Paris Gare du Nord station after an overnight coach and no sleep, being told there are no spaces on the train for pass holders for 2 days. Yep not ideal.
What we did find out is they only allocate 60 spaces per high speed train, which is tiny. And they book up fast. It’s clearly the price you pay for high speed travel!
You do also have to pay to reserve on a sleeper train but that’s kind of expected really. No reservation = no bed!
When we finally made it out of Paris to Stuttgart on the high-speed train it cost us an additional €48 for both of us. On top of what we had already paid for the pass which was €220 each.
We were told some other trains needed additional reservation along the way, only to find they couldn’t give a flying fuck about how many people are already on the train with their passes.
After some careful planning we opted for 3 days. If we timed it right (we didn’t!) we could get all the way to Istanbul on our 3-day pass, which would have made it very cost effective.
Get ready for some ball breaking maths skills because there is no point paying for a ticket if it’s not going to save you money, right?
I downloaded the Interrail app (free of charge) and we used this to route plan in advance. We then painstakingly priced up each bit of the journey to compare the individual costs of the trains against the cost of the pass.
I’ve had more fun, but as we found before in India, the more you travel across land, the more you realise that travel admin is something that has to be done, and something you just have to suck up!
- The trick is to do as many sections of your journey in a day. If you are super fly, and you manage to get on a night train before 12pm then the pass will count as the day you started your journey. You don’t lose another day because you boarded pre midnight.
- If you are limited on days on your pass make sure you use them for the longer, more expensive routes.
- I can’t speak for the countries we didn’t visit on this trip, but the wealthier EU countries with high-speed rail charge more.
To put this in to perspective we’ve booked a train today to take us from Konya, Turkey to Adana, over 200 miles away, for the bargain price of 51 Turkish Lira for 2 of us.
That’s £6.91. The passes are valid in Turkey, but train travel is so cheap it’s not worth it.
Use the app to search between destinations – the timings to the right show how long in total it would take (if you didn’t take any breaks!) the numbers show how many changes you need to make along the route, so you can search for shorter journey lengths, or those with the least connections.
For trains that don’t need a reservation you just turn up and board the train.
You can open the route up to see exactly where it will take you.
Our route – not the original planned one 🙂
The melt down at Paris Gard du Nord
We left home at 2:40pm on the Monday – filled with excitement and trepidation. We coached to London for £3.50 per person on National Express to London Victoria. Our Ouibus (£11.99 each) out of London was at 7pm and took us to Dover, across on the Ferry and then dropped us off at Bercy Seine bus station.
2 people to Paris for £30.98.
(Catching some zzz’s on the ferry. The Ouibus might have been cheap but it was not what I’d call comfy. I’ve since found out I just can’t sleep on coaches).
We had just over an hour to get from the bus station to the train. We hot footed it to the metro station about a 15-minute walk away, hopped on the metro and arrived at Gard du Nord exhausted.
We hadn’t slept on the coach, we arrived feeling grubby, hungry and like we’d been to an all night party – but without the music, poor life decisions and alcohol.
We went straight to make our reservation for the 7.06am train out of Paris to be told there was no space for Interrail ticket holders and there was none on the route we wanted for 2 days.
I’m going to be brutal. The guy was a jobsworth.
Anyone looking at it us could see we were already destroyed and so out of our depth. Crestfallen, we took a seat outside and began looking at alternatives.
Coaches – after a horrendous night on the cramped Ouibus neither of us were much up for this.
Paying for an actual ticket and not using our pass – out of budget.
Staying in Paris until we could get on the right train – accommodation way too expensive and we’ve been to Paris before so we didn’t need to do the touristy things.
The day before I’d had a big chat with Hannah from Petal and Feast who has travelled extensively and she’d said ‘there will be good bits and bad bits and hopefully the good outweigh the bad and you work through it’.
I already wanted to get on the first train home and bin the whole fucking idea. We’re expecting bad bits along the way – we weren’t expecting them to happen so soon, and so close to home.
Although it was going to cock up our route and our plan to be in Budapest that night (all that way on one day from our pass!) we did work out we could get to Salzburg, Austria, by nightfall instead. (Just for interest sake Mozart and Ferdinand Porsche were both born here. (input from the history buff – Steve! 😉 For those not interested they have Strudel, beautiful hand blown and painted egg Christmas decorations and good chocolate)
I went back to the ticket counter, this time on my own and spoke to another member of staff. Jobsworth was thankfully busy ruining someone else’s day.
He looked at the alternative route, which still put us on the high-speed train out of there so needed a reservation too (seriously there were no other bloody options – we’d have taken a slow train just to get on the move and get some miles between us and home). That route was also booked. It felt like we’d fallen at the first hurdle.
Whether he was just a nice chap or didn’t want to deal with my ugly crying who knows
‘I didn’t tell. You this. You cannot tell them I told you this ok.’
‘Go down to the train which is leaving in 15 minutes and ask to speak to the German train manger, ask him if you can make the reservation directly with him. He’s not going to be so bound by what we are on numbers. I’m not saying it will definitely work, but it might’
(Smug as fuck on the train!)
And that ladies and gents is the backdoor way around the poxy reservation system. It’s the secret door in.
We still had to pay the €48 Euro fee we’d have needed to pay at the ticket office, but we got on that train and got on our shitting way. Elated, jubilant and ready to sleep.
We changed in Stuttgart, picked up our next link to Munich, and from their trained in to Salzburg.
We ended our day 3 countries on, ok not the country we planned to be in, but we were at least over 850 miles from home and on our way.
And we’ll take that as a win.
Psst… We’re still working while we’re gone and George is still manning the office back in the UK! For enquiries the office can be reached by emailing us.