This time last year I made the big decision to travel through Europe alone. I had never ‘travelled’ solo before; I went to Canada for six months in 2009 but that felt like such a distant memory and it was part of a structured study abroad programme.
With some of that adventure still in me, I found myself six years later deciding it was time to go out on my own and see what I was capable of when left to my own devices. It was scary but ultimately one of the best things I have ever done. I quit my job, bought an interrail pass and meticulously planned my route so no stone was left unturned.
Before I left, I had the normal concerns as a female solo traveller, but knew that I wanted to go regardless. “If not now, when?” repeatedly went through my mind and I doubted myself until I actually got on the flight to Norway, my first destination. Now that I have had time to reflect on my personal journey and how I made such a trip possible, here are my top five tips if you are thinking of interrailing alone:
1. Definitely go on free walking tours of your destinations
The first time I turned up for a free walking tour was in Brasov, Romania and I was actually quite nervous. I was used to going everywhere on my own and it felt strange to turn up and explore with strangers. However, there is no need to worry and I found it to be one of the best ways to learn about a destination and local history.
Most cities offer this great service (just search ‘brasov free walking tour’ for example) and the guides are mainly local people who are proud citizens that have lived there their whole lives. You will find they know really specific facts and figures you might otherwise miss. These tours also provide a way to relax a little as someone else is taking the reigns and you can not get lost! Check with the operator but generally the tours start and finish in the same place so you always have a strong point of reference.
Mid-way through my trip, I used the free tours as a way to instantly get acclimatised and see the top sights. This is brilliant if you are short on time, which can happen with interrail as you want to make the most of your journey allowance, depending on your ticket option (to have no journey limits costs extra).
2. Pack light and have a trial run with your Luggage
Whether you opt for a backpack or a pull-bag it is vital to go for a test run, especially so when you will be travelling alone. You need to ensure you have all the essentials before the luxuries and that you can carry it comfortably. I would limit yourself to the size of a bag you would happy take on board of a train in your own country as you will face the same space restrictions abroad. For example, are you able to lift the bag above your head to fit in top storage? I frequently had this issue on trains in Eastern Europe where they have very little floor space and lots of passengers trying to squeeze their bags into the same space.
In all honesty, if you can not lift or easily carry your bag by yourself, it will make travel a lot more of a chore and less like the fun time you may be after. At times strangers and train station staff did help me when I had trouble lifting my bag and everyone was very friendly, but it is best to be able to rely on yourself as you can not guarantee someone will be there to help.
3. Book all of your accommodation in advance
You are on your own in Europe, most likely in a country you have never been to before. The minimum you need to be happy and safe is a well-rated place to spend the night. As I planned my trip I went through each destination where I was staying overnight and chose accommodation – hostels mainly but also some cheap hotels – based on online reviews and location to the train station. This added to my confidence of going by myself as I could see the plan and know I never needed to worry about staying somewhere where I would not feel comfortable.
Booking in advance can also mean you get a good deal and can budget the remainder of your travel money on activities, food and everything inbetween. Along the way I did alter a couple of bookings as it is only natural that plans change, however having guaranteed accommodation for the full two months before I set-off was a huge weight off my shoulders and will be for you too.
Train Journey: from Bergen to Oslo
Monte Carlo, Monaco
4. Give yourself a break with overnight trains
One of the perks of interrail is definitely that you can travel overnight across country borders and wake up well-rested in your brand new destination. I picked this option for longer journeys that I did not want to take up the best part of a day when I could be exploring. It also doubles as accommodation for one night as you can book beds (mainly pull out beds in shared carriages of six) onboard which are just about comfortable enough to sleep on.
Are there any downsides? Well, you do not get to choose who you share with. At times I had lovely families and other times the carriage was quite loud with gap year students. One plus of travelling is that you will probably be tired enough to sleep through anything! You can also find yourself in a new destination very early in the morning when it has not quite come alive, but you can make the most of this by going somewhere great for breakfast and planning out your day. A couple of times it was also very hot, which made it hard to sleep, but this will depend on the time of year you travel.
Note: Some trains supply a small breakfast in the ticket price. This was typically a hot drink and a croissant in my experience.
5. Make choices for you and do not be afraid to change your mind
If you have made the decision to explore the world by yourself and have made that opportunity possible, then you are already brave, resilient and good at making decisions. Whilst interrailing alone you have to make lots of decisions every day, from which street to walk down and where to eat, to which sight to see and when to go to bed. Each of these decisions, perhaps for the first time in your life, will not be about anyone else; it is just about you and what you want to do.
Something I learnt quickly was not to feel selfish for making up my own mind and having my interests structure my days, whether this was to plan or completely off-road. As you do this you will gain a confidence that will come home with you and it is one of the best life skills I picked up from travelling. That and how to find a loo in any country.
If you have any questions just let me know and I will be happy to have a conversation and share more of what I learnt. The best way to get in touch is through my Facebook or Twitter accounts.
Guest author: Frances from the travel and lifestyle blog Get Jaunty