Planning a trip? Here are some tips and links that you may find helpful.
Interrail / Eurail
There’s a misconception that the Interrail or Eurail passes are just for the young. Not so. Even old salty sailors can enjoy a trip around Europe without having to worry about the potential for getting stung by ridiculously high train travel. We purchased the ten day in two months Interrail ticket for 400 Euros each (Note that if don’t have an EU passport you’ll have to purchase the Eurail pass as Interrail passes only available for citizens of the EU).
Travelling out of season worked for us as we’ll be sailing in summer. The bonus for us was a free upgrade to First Class, but also there were always plenty of seats. It’s worth noting though that on top of the cost of the Interrail pass you’ll have to pay for seat reservations. This is not critical for regional trains, but it mandatory for the TGV trains in France and most definitely in the busy summer months. Reservation costs are typically lower than 10 Euros each.
Check the other discounts available on the train pass. For example, some train companies offer access to the first class lounge for those holding a first class ticket; travelling on local transport at your destination (eg: S trains in Germany) are included when you travel on the same day as your pass. Check the attractions around your destination. The Glacier Express was a nice deviation from our intended route and we used our Interral pass. Note though that reservations are needed on this trip and cost us around 24 Euros each.
Reservations can be made via the Interrail app, but also directly online with any of the European train companies you travel on, eg: DB in Germany.
To visit places near to major destinations you need not waste a day from your Interrail ticket. For example, the train from Bratislava to Vienna is only one hour’s travel and costs around 9 Euros. So why waste a full day on your pass?
All our trips were done during the day. Two reasons – Europe is very small and a trip from Berlin to Prague is only four hours. The longest trip we did was from Paris to Hamburg and that took only seven hours. If you think you’ll travel overnight, think again as the distance is generally not huge.
That’s about it for train travel except to say the trains were always on time and there were no disruptions or problems, at least that was our experience. That may change for you particularly in the summer months!
Briefly about the EU, Eurozone and Schengen
The European Union is made up of 28 member countries, soon to be 27, with the UK still in a state of self imposed confusion.
The Schengen Agreement is between 26 countries (not all in the EU) and allows freedom of movement between the member countries. For example, Norway is NOT in the EU but IS a member of Schengen. What does it mean? You can travel through these countries without border controls, assuming you have a suitable passport.
The Eurozone are the EU countries that have adopted the Euro. For example, Hungary is part of the EU and a member of Schengen, but has its own currency, the Forint; the Czech Republic has its Koruna. Changing Euro notes to local currency is easy and a better rate is usually offered in the country you’re visiting. Be sure to choose the best rate with zero commissions. Some sting up to 28% commission in the fine print.
Having one currency (Euro) is so much easier for travelers. Getting rid of your last local currency is usually easy at the train stations, either buying a small pastry or dropping in the tin of a busker.
After inexpensive months at anchor and winter berth rates, the cost of accommodation in major European cities is a reminder of why you went sailing in the first place. It is expensive. If you don’t stop equating every €100 spent as another potential thingamajig for the boat you’ll go mad! Remember, you’re on holiday and the boat has had its fair share of the cruising kitty over the years.
Unlike thirty years ago, where cheap accommodation found in the relevant country’s Lonely Planet guide included a list of YHA, a Backpackers hostel, or a hospedaje economico. Hotels are usually out of reach for the typical backpacker. As long as you have a Smartphone or iPad, there’s no need to lug these heavy books around.
Nowadays a plethora of third party travel websites (Wotif, Trivago, Hostelworld) all offer the ‘best price’, but read the fine print as typically the best price offered is a six person dorm room in a crummy suburb. On our trip we stayed at one ‘pension’ in Berlin and another in St Moritz.
For a couple of sailors who haven’t lived in a house with a microwave or a flush dunny for many years, we found the best value for money was AirBNB. The hosts are typically the owners and have a stake in offering clean, comfortable accommodation. For example, we had a whole apartment in Vienna for a relatively cheap €45 per night, where we could cook, wash clothes and watch DVDs. No hotel in Vienna could match that.
Other times a simple bunk-bed arrangement with shared facilities worked too. In some cases small hostel style accommodation with shared facilities were way cheaper and cleaner than nearby hostels. On the downside, those with shared bathrooms may have to wait 20 minutes for the loo in the morning, but overall this type of accommodation worked for us.
Choice of accommodation would focus on proximity to the main train station, whether the place had a shared bathroom or private and kitchen and washing facilities, and I would choose the one most suitable for our visit. All places we stayed at had WiFi. Sometimes a place out of the city is a nice change as train networks usually reach to the burbs. Our accommodation in Paris was within walking distance of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. It was tiny, but we had a bed, a kitchen and a bathroom all to ourselves for €66 per night – unbeatable compared to hostel or hotel accommodation in the same location. Good job we are used to living in small spaces!
But like anything, there are risks in staying at a stranger’s home. Be sure to read all the host’s past reviews; make sure there are no hidden ‘additional expenses’; choose ‘Super Hosts’ with many reviews; do the check in/out times agree with your itinerary; do the hosts smoke or have animals. Overall though in our experience, hosts’ descriptions of their place were fairly spot on. Conversely, as you are a guest in someone’s home, it’s important to respect their personal space and leave the place as you found it. Overall accommodation cost us around €20 per night per person.
Eating out doesn’t have to be expensive. The sailors diet of spinach and grog can be put aside for a while as you explore regional cuisines without fear of blowing the cruising kitty. Water is no problem and there’s no need to buy plastic bottled water.
One of the cheapest and filling meals to be found everywhere in Europe is a doner kebab, usually around €2-€5 for a generous portion. Germany is great to grab a currywurst, or perhaps a lángos in Budapest or a crepe in Paris. A Wiener schnitzel in Vienna can be expensive if you dine in the tourist areas, but go out of the city and eat where the locals eat. You’ll pass through many train stations and they all have a good variety of cafes and bakeries for a quick bite.
Some places though are expensive and there’s no escape. A late night arrival in Berne Switzerland and a simple feed of Burger King was €26.
The trick is to remember to eat well and sample the local food.
Toilets! A subject not generally mentioned, but we use them everyday!
Be sure to carry loads of coins as you’ll need to typically pay €0.50 to access a toilet in most places, even those where you may have paid for a meal. The self cleaning loos in Paris are free to use but usually grubby or blocked; it’s worth paying coin in those instances.
The best: Public toilet at Vienna train station had self cleaning seats! I flushed three times just to watch it spin around! The worst: Toilets on trains. I don’t need to go into detail but if you have to go, go early in the trip! The most expensive: Paris at 2 Euros!
What to take?
This is easy for a sailor as we usually travel light and can wear the same clothes for months. Also we know how to layer clothes for maximum wear and warmth. A toilet-bag, small towel, change of clothes, gadget cables and chargers, warm jacket, raincoat, hat and gloves, one pair of good walking shoes. That’s it! A 35 litre backpack and small daypack is all you need for this sort of trip. Keep it simple otherwise you’ll have to carry it!
Keep a little room for the unexpected purchase or souvenir. For example, we found the Australia Store in Berlin selling 250gm jars of Vegemite. As we hadn’t seen the black gold anywhere over the past year, and with our stock depleted causing untold grief among the crew, we bought two 250gm jars, but then had to carry them through the rest of our trip! For Vegemite lovers, you know it was worth it!
In the guidebooks of days gone by, there was usually a section on communication, money, etc. But with apps available on Smartphones and iPads there’s really no need for these books. You can find everything you need via apps or websites. The trains have power-points and WiFi so you can research your next destination as you travel. European power plugs are consistent throughout, but Switzerland has a unique three pronged one.
Communication nowadays is easy with local SIM cards and WiFi available everywhere. EU SIM cards can be used throughout the EU so roaming rates are non existent.
Money is available from ATMs and cash is king, but not all EU countries use the Euro. We carried enough Euros and changed cash to local currency as needed: Hungary, Czech Republic and Switzerland. This seemed to be the easiest way to get local dosh.
Passports were never requested, but carry them with you at all times.
So now that you are ready, here we go on our trip: