Taking the sleeper train from Prague in the Czech Republic to Krakow in Poland is an experience that will stay with me long into the onset of my old age dementia. As the sun fell behind the mountains and the light exited stage-left to usher in the night, the conductor gave us all a little night time story to send us off to the land of nod.
Taking the chain lock in his hand, he started ‘before you sleep, make sure you fix this, securely, like this’ he said, displaying to the group how to slide the metal bolt of the lock in place.
He then turned his to each of us, individually, his cobalt blue eyes burning into ours.
‘Because out here, this is bandit country. They ride on horseback’ he said, imitating the motions of a mounted raider ‘and board when the train slows at the junctions. When they board, there is no stopping them. They will take everything. Everything. They will take everything, even your soul.’
I suspect this conductor is one of the best deadpan comedians going, though I do feel like I came back a little spiritually lighter. I fear my place in limbo awaits.
True or not, this was one piece of essential advice I never received before backpacking across Europe. Of course, there’s plenty more besides tales of bandits that never appears in the countless pieces of travel writing online or the grandiose stories of backpacker veterans. Never fear though, Hostelworld is here with a whole list of things people don’t tell you about backpacking in Europe.
Your InterRail pass won’t get you on every train
Of course, before the bandits confine you to limbo for all eternity, you need to actually board the train. Despite the fairly high fee you paid for the ticket, your pass doesn’t actually guarantee you a seat on every train in the InterRail zone. Typically this is a problem in Western Europe (mainly Italy and France) you might face when travelling with the Global Pass. Basically some train companies charge a mandatory booking fee, regardless of how busy the train is.
Make sure you read the small print before setting of and try avoid the fee paying trains. Also, don’t hate on InterRail for this, it’s the individual train companies that charge extra. For some reason, don’t fancy playing by the same rules as everyone else.
InterRaillers, prepare to get lost or stranded
Definitely more of an Eastern European problem where the train staff, especially in small provincial towns, don’t speak much (any) English. Beware of unscheduled stops that leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere and make sure you carry a map to point frantically at.
The views from the train are incredible
All this negativity. Man, backpacking is supposed to be a beautiful experience and beauty is exactly what you’re going to see from your train window. From Mediterranean olive groves, to alpine forests all the way to spiralling mountain routes that pass shining sapphire lakes. Europe provides an ever changing and unforgettable landscape.
The train ride around the mountains in Slovakia is amazing, with the cliff faces on one side and the water so close on the other you fear you might fall in. Also, make sure you get on the Golden Pass trains in Switzerland. They offer mind-blowing panoramic views and do not charge extra for the privilege.
Alternatively, you can ride their classic style trains, decked out in late 19th century décor, and pretend you’re Sherlock Holmes on your way to your final confrontation with Moriarty… one for the literature geeks.
Renting a car works out cheaper than an InterRail ticket
This can’t be right, surely? Well, as surprising as it is, get yourself a smaller budget car and the total cost is still likely to be less than your InterRail pass, especially if you’re over the age of 26. Even better if you travel in a pair or group. The only problem is you can’t really relax behind the wheel and the roads, for the most part, provide far inferior views when compared to the train. If you need a little more help deciding between the train and a car, check out our post on InterRail vs Roadtrip.
Book accommodation in advance
Don’t really fancy a night on a park bench? Make sure you book your accommodation before you arrive, even if you just book the night before. During the summer places book up quick. If you get into a city late or find yourself delayed, you’ll likely find all the best spots have been taken by the time you arrive. Plus walking around the city looking for vacancies with your bag on your back is a real ball-ache.
Also, make sure you know what’s coming up. Big events, like the Venice Film Festival or Munich Beer Festival will make accommodation in those areas nigh on impossible to find while they run. Or if you want to check them out, book WELL in advance.
The local food is lush everywhere
This is a lesson all travellers must learn. Sure, everyone knows that France and Italy have arguably the best cuisine in the world and Spanish tapas is to die for, but there are far too many places beside that get a bad rep.
Get stuck into the local cuisine everywhere you go. Hearty and rustic German dishes like pork knuckle are fall-off-the-bone, melt-in-your-mouth incredible, and go great with the beer. Austrian schnitzel is beautiful, especially with tangerine sauce. And eastern European peasant food, like roast pork and bread dumplings are simply gorgeous. Same goes with Britain; get stuck into a few meat pies and you won’t be sorry. Wherever you are, avoid McDonald’s.
Eat in the local restaurants
If you want to sample true local cuisine for cheap make sure you hit a locals’ restaurant rather than a tourist trap. Usually the proprietors will be happy to serve you, so long as you’re polite and at least attempt the lingo. If you don’t understand the menu, embrace it and pick something at random. After all, it’s supposed to be an adventure!
Europe has the best booze in the world
Beer, whiskey, vodka, Jaeger, gin; it was all invented in Europe – and Europe still does it the best. You’re going to be hard pressed to find better lagers than you will in Germany, better Pilsner than you will in the Czech Republic and better ales than you will in the UK. Scotland is surely the place to sample whiskey and scotch, while if you want real vodka, you have to hit those Eastern European countries and pray you leave with your head.
We also like our pub crawls, so be sure to sign up to one of those on your next hostel stay. The best would have to be the Rafting 99 River Pub Crawl in Cesky Krumlov, which is pretty much how it sounds… a pub crawl in a raft down a river. Blissful.
Remember your student IDs
If you’re a student, don’t forget to bring your ID’s! Europe are big on their student discounts and you can get money off almost all the major, cultural attractions in most major cities around Europe if you show your student ID – and there are a lot of them.
Of course, if you find yourself in Britain most of those are free anyway, student or not. Enjoy!
You can find something for a $ (almost) anywhere
Yes, it’s true. Even in countries that use the Euro you can find something worth buying for a dollar. Find all the information you need in our article about the best budget buys across Europe.
Most places accept plastic
There’s no need to change up every cent into Euros and lug the rolls of cash around with you as you travel, pretty much everywhere accepts credit and debit card or at least has a few cash machines knocking about the place.
Lakeside beaches are better than seaside beaches
OK, so this is something of a sweeping statement, but in general the lakes are far more beautiful and secluded than the coastal beaches. Plus, most of Europe’s most popular beaches are always over-populated by international holiday goers in the summer. If you can find a little gem, like Lake Bled in Slovenia, you can find relative peace. Even popular lakeside resorts, like Zell-am-Zee in Austria are superior alternatives to most seaside beach resorts.
The surf is excellent
Yeah, it’s not just California and Australia that have the sick surf spots. If you fancy a lesson in riding the waves on your next backpacking trip, check out the South West of France, the Costa Verde or Costa De La Luz in Spain and Nazaré in Portugal.
Bring your walking boots
Even if you’re not big into hiking, you’ll be hard pressed not to at least try a little ramble. The mountains in Europe are beautiful – incredibly so. Spain’s lush peaks in the Picos de Europa, the green alpine and snowy cones of Austria and the legendary Mount Olympus in Greece. You’ll be missing out if you don’t have at least a look.
So there you have it, 15 lesser known tips that will make you a Europtripping pro. So what are you waiting for? The summer won’t last forever. Get booking!
Need some accommodation for your epic European backpacking adventure? Get over to Hostelworld and start booking.
Have any secret tips of your own for travelling Europe? Share them in the comments…