The day after Brexit happened, I popped round to our neighbours’ house. They are very good family friends (my brother and I grew up playing games with their children on a practically daily basis) to the extent they are more like extended family than anything else. The oldest son, Tim, is one of my oldest friends and even though we went to different universities and he’s a good 2 years older than me, we still get along like a house on fire whenever we catch up.
It was at this epic catch-up session, in between bemoaning Brexit Tim suggested something.
“You know, we really should go on holiday together at some point.”
And so, it was the day after the complete collapse of the pound to a 31-year low, the day after the UK had firmly given the middle finger to European collaborations – we decided on a trip to Eastern Europe, and within 24 hours had booked the entire thing, exchange rates be damned.
I have always, always wanted to visit Prague – preferably on an epic interrailing trip of Europe, but had never quite gotten around to it. Last summer I was lucky enough to travel from Paris to Rome via the Cinque Terre coast with a Canadian friend who was over visiting, but while Italy was beautiful and very, very hot – I would be lying if I said that it had always held greater appeal than Germany and more Eastern European countries.
Fortunately, Tim felt much along the same lines, and so our weekend stay in Prague gradually evolved into a 9 day interrail excursion from the city through to Vienna and then onto Budapest.
Our trip quickly became a major focus of excitement for me, especially as having badly sprained my ankle my summer had become depressingly quiet depressingly quickly. I couldn’t train, couldn’t work and could barely leave the house without hobbling. I always knew this summer was going to be a ‘waiting’ one, as in preparation of digging into my savings next year, I had tried to keep my holidays as low-key as possible. And low-key they certainly have been (I went for a week to Cornwall with my parents and that was going to be that) until Tim had suggested an alternative I couldn’t refuse.
So interrailing it was – and on as much of a budget as we could manage.
I’m going to be publishing 3 individual blog posts on each city we visited, with a summary, travel-guide-esque approach to each of them. I’ll be looking at our hostel experience, the best moments of our stay, the parts which impressed us less, and my ‘first impressions’ of each city (because staying only a couple of days is only long enough to just start to get an idea of these complex, beautiful and enormous places.) I’ll also be giving a ‘veggie recommendation’ for each city, as Eastern Europe isn’t famed for it’s meat-free dishes but I still managed to get by just fine and thought it’d be cool to save someone else reading this the trouble of having to hunt vegetarian places down.
Interrailing – Planning Advice
- Flights – When it comes to the super cheap flights be careful. You may be paying £30 a ticket, but the airline will be doing their damendest to try and squeeze more out of you any way they can. Don’t go priority, don’t reserve a seat, don’t book an inflight meal and check their cabin baggage allowance too. (Hint: exceedingly-dodgy-sounding ‘Wizz Air’ has a baggage allowance that is inexplicably 8cm smaller in all dimensions than any other airline I’ve flown with. Hence, the ‘standard size’ of hand luggage needs an upgrade to ‘large cabin bag’ which, you’ve guessed it, will cost an additional fee of £18.) Plus, make sure you’re searching for and booking your flights in a private browser or incognito. Airlines can monitor your search history and will hike up prices if you return to a page multiple times (super sly I know.)
- Accomodation – We used Hostelworld.com like every other backpacker we’ve met and until a better website appears it’s probably easiest to stick with them. It’s an incredibly useful site, so be sure to read the reviews, check the location of hostels on city maps and compare the reviews on TripAdvisor as well. If you’re travelling with a buddy, occasionally it might be cheaper (or worth it anyway for a decent night’s sleep) to book a twin room and split the cost. Be sure to look at what’s included in the price (bed linen, a towel, breakfast etc) as it could save you a whole lot of packing.
- Trains – I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that Seat61.com is an absolute gem. Mark (the creator) is a total babe and has the most put together the most comprehensive webpage for train travel across Europe out there. Don’t just opt for Interrail passes because it’s easier and the traditional thing to do, increasingly it’s far cheaper to book individual tickets. For our trip we used OBB (Austria’s Federal Rail Service) and booked tickets for a steal. €19 for a 4 hour trip from Prague to Vienna? I think so. (Be wary though, second class isn’t reserved seating so make sure you’re at the station early and get on that train fast otherwise you’ll be sitting on your bag by the loo.)
- Packing – Keep things small and keep things realistic. It may go against every English bone in your body, but if you’re scheduled a week of 28-32 degrees, packing a jumper is just going to take up space and never get worn (ahem, note to self). Take one book for train trips and when electronics die, and invest in a portable charger for charging things on the move as well if you like (Tim’s was invaluable.) Take plenty of blister plasters for all the walking, and pre-printed maps of how to get to hostels (you don’t want to be getting lost in a new city at 10pm at night.) Scan every important document you have, EHIC, Passport, Insurance and keep them all in a plastic folder. Also, remember your student ID. This was our one major slip-up and we had to do a whole lot of wheedling to get the student discounts on ticket prices. Proving you’re under 26 with a drivers’ license works in some countries but certainly not them all.
- Things to Do – Tim and I are both History undergrads and big fans of art stuff too, so plotting our museums and galleries in a way that maximised our time in each place was really important. The best way to get as much in as possible in a neatly organised way we found was through Sygic Travel. It has pre-made itineraries if you want them, and a fantastic map interface for major cities that lets you pick out the major tourist attractions you’d like to see, while calculating the fastest and most efficient walking route between them all. It’s full of useful information like opening times and prices, and you can share the trip plans you create like a Google Doc so other people can contribute. It also highlighted a number of things ‘off the beaten track’ as it were that we visited on our way to things. It comes with an app as well, which was a lifesaver on our tour, especially as if you preload it works offline.
All in all our travel, transport and accommodation came to just under £300 each for the 9 days when we’d finished planning everything in advance. We thought this was pretty good value, and by paying close attention to what we were spending while we were out there (supermarket croissants every day and passing up pricey tourist attractions that didn’t interest us so much) we spent approximately £170 each in total to get by for food and museums. I think it’s possible to do it for cheaper, and equally very easy to spend a lot more – but for the type of trip we wanted, it suited us well.
I hope this has been of use/interest – I’ll be posting my travel guides to the cities we visited over the next few days!