Is interrailing still a rite of passage?

Man sleeps on train

Interrailing around Europe was once many a teenager's first taste of international adventure, but in the era of global backpacking is it still an institution, asks Miranda Sawyer.

It was 1985 when I first went interrailing. I was 18 years old, chubby, chatty and utterly disorganised.

I had my backpack - it was as large as I was, stuffed full of tent, towel, gas cooker and enough clothes to give Top Shop a run for its money - and there were 200 pounds-worth of travellers cheques in my nylon money belt.

But, in terms of actually knowing what I was doing, let's just say that I ran out of money after 12 days and had to live on green peppers salvaged from the pavements near markets. And accommodation? I became very familiar with my backpack, as I used it so often as a pillow, on station floors in France, in a park in Switzerland, and outside a shop in Italy.

Start Quote

Interrail taught me resourcefulness, a sense of humour and how to sleep in a luggage rack”

End Quote Miranda Sawyer

The second time I went interrailing, in 1991, I was cannier. I slept on the trains, rather than at the stations. I got further - through Austria and into post-communist Czechoslovakia. When I returned home, I felt… not sophisticated, but experienced.

Interrailing taught me resourcefulness, a sense of humour and how to sleep in a luggage rack. It showed me a world outside Britain that was both familiar and strange. It gave me freedom like I'd never experienced before. It was great.

The interrail pass was launched in 1972 as Europe-wide train ticket for young people - then under 21 - costing just £27.50 and covering 21 countries, from Ireland to Yugoslavia.

It was an instant success - just a year after it arrived, 85,000 young Europeans, most of them British, used it to take to the railways. By the time I went interrailing, in the mid-80s, the age limit had been raised to 26, and well over 250,000 passes were being issued every year.

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Miranda Sawyer
  • Miranda Sawyer presents Interrail Tales on BBC Radio 4, exploring 40 years of European train travel on a budget

But does anyone go interrailing now? Aren't young people more adventurous, travelling to the Far East and India for gap years?

Aren't they more savvy, using cheap flights to get to Ibiza or Ayia Napa for a fortnight of partying? I've just taken a five-day tour that included Paris, Venice and Prague, and I met interrailers wherever I went.

Most travelled in groups, and many were British. Though they looked as daft as I did when I first went interrailing - enormous rucksacks, silly hair - they were much more organised than I had been, sorting out accommodation before they went, hoping to keep to an impressive, some might even say unrealistic, itinerary.

Aaron, who I met as he was setting off on his travels, told me he was planning to visit "Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, Venice, Florence, Rome, Milan, Monte Carlo, Nice, Paris". He was interrailing for just two weeks.

The internet means that modern interrailers can use websites to reserve where they're going to stay. The good places are booked up months in advance.

Bruce's story

In the summer of 1991 I travelled through France, Italy and eastern Europe. We stayed in a private house in Prague with an elderly man whose only English was "to be or not to be" and "English gentleman".

In Czechoslovakia we found a bar selling beer for 17p a pint. We didn't have the right visa for Romania so had to spend a night in the cells.

Changing money was always a major event - the Euro was years away.

Everywhere we went they were playing "Wind of change" by the Scorpions.

When I got to Holland I had to buy the single - it's the soundtrack to the trip.

As a hostel newbie - the ones on offer when I was young being more akin to borstals than anything else - I was astonished to discover they now have free wifi, a bar, barbecues, beer nights, and rooms more akin to boutique hotels than the dirty, ram-a-jam hell-holes of my youth. I could have wept.

Does that make the modern backpacker a bit soft? Forced to be organised, there's no sleeping in stations for them. Another difference is money. No-one has travellers' cheques any more - they have bank cards that work in most cash machines across Europe.

In Venice, the British pro-consul assures me that interrailing had changed. There is much less theft on trains, and, even if you are robbed, you can be wired money that will arrive in less than two hours. Backpackers, no matter how scruffy, are less likely run out of cash.

So much of my young interrailing experience had been devoted to finding somewhere to sleep, to faffing about changing money, to working out just how little I could exist on a day. What was interrailing about, if not such minor escapades?

All the interrailers I met had been changed by their adventures. I met a group in Venice who had visited Auschwitz, another crew that had been running with the bulls in Pamplona, a lad who'd been arrested in Prague. All these experiences were specific to their travels, to arriving somewhere and just happening upon whatever's going on.

The essence of an interrailer is constant, Matthias Schwender, who runs an independent hostel in Prague, said to me.

One month multi-country pass

  • Child: £275
  • Youth: £362
  • Adult: £548
  • Senior: £495

(Child 4-11, Youth 12-25, Adult 26-59, Senior 60+)

"Someone who is independent-minded, that can connect to other people, that is culturally aware, wants to learn about new cultures and cities, they want to know where the locals go. They know the value of taking some time off in your life for travelling."

Another interrailer, Titi, argued that you learn about Europe's tumultuous history by being there, understanding what happened, rather than reading about it in books.

Though they were definitely less naive and more organised than I was, and certainly better-washed, today's interrailers didn't seem quite so different from chubby, cheerful me, all those years ago.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 238.

    First interrail trip at the age of 17 from UK up to Rovaniemi and down to Zurich. Ran out of money, slept in parks, strip searched between Norway and Sweden, but the best of memories and stories to last a lifetime. 18 years later I still often buy a ticket in the summer, although these days I have a specific destination in mind I love to have the freedom to change how I get there along the way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 237.

    Interrailler of four tours, lone traveller who could enjoy company or solitude depending on mood! Superb memories, lifelong friendships and assorted stories. Highlights; Berlin the year before the wall fell, the beautiful walled city of Dubrovnik (and a truly international Youth Hostel), comradeship, the Arhuus festival and walking in the Swiss Alps. Still excellent value for money and a MUST do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 236.

    Had an amazing time inter railing in 1986 as a 16 yr old single female. Eternally grateful to my folks for letting me go. What a fabulous experience! It started off a major travel bug which I am also glad about. But would I send my daughter off round Europe by herself when she's 16? Time have changed, the innocence has gone....

  • rate this

    Comment number 235.

    The first time I interrailed was with 3 friends as an 18 year old in 1985. Cost £116. Bruges, Heidelberg, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, Venice, through Yugoslavia, Athens, round the Peloponnese, ferry to Brindisi, Pompeii, Rome, Arles, Avignon, Paris. It really gave me a taste for travel, history and languages and changed my life. After graduation I became a diplomat and am now an Ambassador.

  • rate this

    Comment number 234.

    chesh303 - thanks for giving inspiration to a guy who feels too old to do this at 28.

    I spent a few weeks on an awesome road trip (still have a soft spot for the Seat Leon) around the continent (Barclona-Florence-Geneva-Bremen-Amsterdam-Brugges-Barcelona, among others) with three buddies in 2009, but sadly vacation policies here are such that folks in the U.S. don't get out much, myself included.

  • rate this

    Comment number 233.

    I went in 1985, and met a more experienced traveller, who taught me how to juggle and earn money from tourists, and the priceless way to get a train compartment to yourselves so you could lie down was to strip to your grubbiest underpants, and go to sleep. Amazingly it worked. In The morning, we pulled the curtains to find faces squashed against the glass and the corridor crammed. Fun days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 232.

    Great article, and it brought back lots of happy memories (I went on my first Interrail trip in 1975, at the age of 17, and spent many more happy summers Interrailing after that).

    However, the author's statement that most Interrailers were British in those days is not at all how I remember things... if anthing Brits were somewhat under-represented.

  • rate this

    Comment number 231.

    Nostalgic read - I inter-railed with my 2 best friends when we finished uni 5 years ago. We did 9 countries (15 cities) in just over 3 weeks. And yes, I got robbed on the sleeper from Budapest to Warsaw. All part of the experience - an amazing time with fond and endless memories.

  • rate this

    Comment number 230.

    I was an interrailer, travelled on my own, completely disorganized, and ran out of cash. But worth it. A great article. It brings back my little adventure at the age of 18.

  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    I didn't start interailing until the grand old age of 33 and the organising as Miranda describes (pre-booking etc) did make life easy.

    And yet the memories of losing my bank card in Madrid, surviving nearly two weeks on chorizo sandwiches and 79pence bottles of wine and then giving a good exchange rate on £5 to an American traveller just to raise funds remain my favourites.

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    Two summers ago I went inter-railing. After a month and about a dozen countries I ran out of money in Paris and had to sleep under the Eiffel Tower with my case as a pillow and a towel as a blanket. Its the greatest memory of my trip. I think that sometimes really roughing it is the most rewarding.

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    I went inter-railing in 1989 aged 25. I too ran out of money in less than 2 weeks and had to rely on one credit card which died in Greece 5 weeks into my journey. I was travelling alone and remember thinking I'd rather walk home than ask my parents to bail me out. Fortunately I didn't have to as I was able to scrape together enough money to book a Danair flight via Prague.

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    Why limit your adventures to Inter Rail? For £36.00 I was able to spend a day on a train travelling Carlisle to Skipton via Settle, Skipton to Carnforth, Carnforth to Grange-over-Sands, then to Barrow, to Workington, to Carlisle, to Windermere and back to Carlisle.
    Rail is such a joy for travel - only complaint - hedges along the track are frequently too high and your view is blocked!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    At 17 in about 1975 I bought an interrail pass. London to Paris to Lisbon and Lisbon to Athens! via the old Yugoslavia. Went out to a couple of Greek Islands ...could not believe the color and temperature of the water. Always slept on the trains. Home from Athens to Ostend took about 70 hours! Great memories. I've been traveling ever since.,, This winter Seattle to Ushuaia by motorcycle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    To rannyway (where do you people come up with these ID's?!) - you'll have a great time but just remember that to keep safe you should always be able to recognise the difference between a fantastic bargain/money-saver and something that's too cheap to be true...and don't plan - shoot from the hip, thats the real beauty of being able to hop on any train you want! Good luck!

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    I first used a BritRail pass at about age 12. Got stuck on Derby station on a Thursday evening because I mis-read the timetable. Went to the Transport Police and they put me on a freight train to get me 4 am. Parents not too impressed as we had no phone so a local "bobby" had to go round to the house and tell them where I was. But the mold was set and inter rail was next at aged 17...

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    I went interrailing two years ago, aged 19, with two friends. We went for a month and were surprised by the number of fellow interrailers we met - far fewer than we had anticipated. Anyway, we had a fantastic time and everything went (pretty much) to plan. We went from Istanbul to Paris. I returned half a stone lighter and with a much greater appreciation for hot showers and student cards!

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    @gironaut - you should try it, not as a rite of pasage but as an experience. You could learn something. I went in 1995 at (just) 18 years old and I wouldn't change a thing. Great times, great memories of people and places, some long-forgotten, some not. A very different way to see the world than from expensive hotels and safety nets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    It sounds so easy now to be an interrailer. I haven't been to Europe yet but I hope to go there one day. Joe [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    Me and my cousin are going tomorrow, my parents would find the idea of us being more organised nowadays very amusing. Anyone got any tips?


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