This introductory page provides some more background information about the trip, plus some basic planning advice and tips for others travelling in Europe by rail. If you just want to start reading the story, you may wish to read only the brief journey notes below and skip the rest.


I travelled for just one month, but covered France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium before my return home to the UK. I had hoped to spend two or three months travelling and covering all of Europe, and I met many other rail travellers who were doing so, but budget restraints forced me to scale my plans down somewhat. Most of my nights were spent in youth hostels, and largely ones belonging to Hostelling International, so as an extra aid I have provided some reports on these fine and not-so-fine establishments at the foot of each page where appropriate.

I should explain that readers will stumble across the odd reference to the Renault 4 during the story. For those who have reached these pages via my R4 website this will be no surprise, but for other surfers who have just crash-landed here it may seem a peculiar diversion. Almost every travel story and its author has a quirk of some nature, and in this case it's the quaint little Renault 4. My fascination for this strange French car led me to launch a home devoted to them on the Internet, and three years later I decided to meet up with some of the contacts I had made via my site, during my travels abroad. In fact my original intention was to drive around Europe in my own R4, alas by the time summer 2003 arrived the car was in a sorry state, and I had to fall back on the Interrailing option instead. This was, however, something else that I had been longing to do for many years.

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European Timetable June 2003 For people planning such a trip themselves and seeking sources of factual details, a copy of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable (left), is highly recommended. Revised and printed monthly, it is an Interrailer's bible. In addition, the Thomas Cook Rail Map of Europe is possibly the only comprehensive plan of rail networks you will find. I was also keen enough to buy the Thomas Cook Interrailer's / Eurailer's Guide to Europe (2003), which is a good overall reference covering quite a broad financial budget. It offers tips on what to do, where to stay, eat and so on, and is specifically dedicated to rail travellers. It usually lists hostels in each of the locations it covers, including some independent ones. There are many good alternative guides, but whichever you choose, it is advisable to travel light and only take one such heavy volume. (Note that I have no affiliation to Thomas Cook, although if I mention them again I probably soon will have). Finally, if you are thinking of staying at hostels, those belonging to Hostelling International are all listed in the HI Europe directory, revised and updated each year.
I purchased a 2-zone Interrail pass as shown (right), figuring that a month wouldn't be long enough to hop across the whole continent and justify buying the full Europe-wide pass at an additional 100 pounds. In fact, it turned out that covering just the two zones was quite demanding. my Interrail pass

I wasn't perturbed at paying the extra cost for the over-26 version of the pass, being nearly thirty years of age, because until a few years earlier there was no such pass for old dodders like me. Upon reaching my mid-twenties I remember feeling despair that I'd missed my opportunity to ever go Interrailing. But nowadays anybody can do it, or at least anyone who can save up the necessary cash and has the desire to stretch their brains a little, because the fact is that these days one could probably afford several bargain package holidays for the same cost, if their sole aspiration is to lay on a beach all day.

Aside from the money issue, the other main reason it took me so long to make this trip was the belief that I would find other like-minded people to accompany me, which was an assumption that never came to fruition. From my days at college and for several years following, I'd known all sorts of friends who I had hoped would conveniently wish to travel in the same direction as me, at the same time as me, with the same fairly low budget as me, with me. This was never likely to happen; there were too many obstacles halting progress. And those I have developed good relationships with would always fall short on the finances if I didn't myself, or be bogged down by work and unable to find the time.

Travelling alone was still regarded as somewhat unusual not so long ago, and I didn't feel entirely comfortable with the idea, but time was starting to tick by and I had to decide to go for it. It was a decision I wouldn't regret, and I now have a determination to make many more such travels in the future, whether single or not. So for anybody else reading this who is unsure about going, I would recommend getting your skates on before it's too late and your best opportunities pass by. I met many other single travellers who agreed, and although the majority of my meetings with people didn't occur on trains, there were plenty of opportunities to get to know others in youth hostels and elsewhere. There can be moments, such as on tiring long journeys and in quiet hostels where some company might be desirable, but a good book can help see you through! The only real down side is the often tedious planning required for organizing journeys, tickets and accommodation, along with the many phone calls that need to be made and drudgy chores like washing which would always be better when shared, although this can of course lead to arguments and bickering, so either way you can't win. Just be prepared for a few inevitable hiccups and hassles along the way.

Certainly you should ensure that you plan your trip with enough time to relax, and not dashing about to the next destination or trying to cover huge distances every single day, as this can become exhausting. Often my best experiences came when I took extra time to stop in seemingly unlikely locations, and although it's worth having a rough idea of where you intend to travel and what you are going to do, it's best to be flexible with your arrangements and not plan everything too precisely. The peak season around July and August is best avoided as it will add to your problems, causing frustrations with fully booked accommodation, throngs of tourists around every corner, and long delays queueing to make compulsory reservations on some of the trains. For sure, advance planning can have its benefits - you could run into problems if you don't reserve for certain popular trains well in advance, and many of the hostels in big cities are fully booked days ahead - but being forced to explore alternatives and change plans at the last minute is often where the real experiences begin, and the best discoveries are made.

If you're a first-time rail traveller or have little experience of Europe, you could opt for one of the shorter 12 or 22-day passes and stick to northern and western European countries to become familiar with things. This might sound a bit lame or half-hearted, but there are many good reasons for doing this when taking the train. Rail services in these countries are generally far more frequent, reliable and extensive than those in parts of southern and eastern Europe. There can be a few culture shocks when travelling to parts of Morocco, Romania, Turkey or former Soviet states, including regular and thorough border checks, and invariably larger numbers of people who prey on inexperienced tourists, offering all manner of undesirable services and operating various scams. If you are going alone or are in any doubt and want to play it safe, you can still have a fantastic time around the UK and Ireland, France, the Benelux countries, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Italy, Scandinavia, Spain, Portugal and Greece. It can get just a little more hairy elsewhere; unlikely to upset most travellers but perhaps best avoided if you're unsure.

Another factor that is well worth considering when planning your journey, is any language abilities you may possess. It can be a much more enjoyable experience when you know even a few key phrases to help you around. Making the smallest attempt to learn some of the language of the countries you are visiting is better than doing nothing at all. At the very least, arm yourself with a multi-language phrase book. There is little more satisfying than coming away from a ticket counter having acquired the correct items, and having done so using solely another language, even if it was a bit of a struggle. In contrast, there is little more humiliating and depressing than travelling around a country totally unable to utter a word which people can understand, and having to ask for special assistance from the only person around who speaks very basic English, if there is anyone, struggling for several minutes whilst several people queue behind you. It can be surprising how fiercely independent some nationalities are in speaking nothing but their native language, however obscure it may be or largely unspoken in the rest of the world. This applies particularly in the more rural regions.

Finally, more weight equals less fun. Do everything you can to minimize your baggage. Visit a camping or outdoor activity shop and stock up on some miniaturized items, such as a travel towel, foldaway anorak and, if you're intending to do much sleeping on trains, a blow-up head pillow. Even look around for tiny slimline pump-action deodorants, travel toothbrushes; the slightest space and weight-saving items you can gain. They will all make a difference in the end. I met some people hauling an enormous second bag around, which they had to stash in station lockers at each destination. Most of them were tied down in some way because of it, and admitted that they actually needed very little of what it contained. I felt comparitively lucky, since I bought a good quality 35 litre rucksack (one with no easily accessible compartments on the rear is a good idea to fend off thieves in crowded places), a flat money belt with a non-irritating fabric for storing just half of my essential documents and some emergency cash (the others being kept separately), and a bucket hat which was essential for the countries with hot climates that I was visiting. It was a tight squeeze packing everything in and still a considerable load which took some getting used to, but it was a well-managed arrangement compared to the cumbersome loads of others.

These are some rather obvious tips, and I could go on forever making suggestions about every aspect of your planning, but there are several guide books around which already do just that, and in much greater detail. This site is primarily about my story, which begins when you click the link below. Have a good read!

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