“Interrailing, Interrailing, Interrailing” – It’s a word we hear all too often, but why’s it so darn popular? The fact is, backpacking around Europe is the ultimate budget traveller’s dream. But, whether it be for a short summer break or several months of wandering, why does everybody decide to do it by train?
Why should a chap from Birmingham pay for a stingy rail pass to the continent when he could jump in his car, board a ferry, and be in Paris, Amsterdam or Brussels by tea time, and then city-hop all summer long to his heart’s content?
Do people think driving would be more hassle than navigating around bus and train stations in a multitude of languages? Or too expensive, or risky with fuel prices always on the up and inadequate parking facilities? Because, the fact of the matter is, many of these anxieties are but common misconceptions. To shed a little more light on the subject, here’s eight reasons why deciding to go backpacking by car could turn out to be the best decision you ever made.
#1 – You don’t need a backpack
Let’s start with the most obvious advantage. Who needs a backpack when you have a wardrobe on wheels? That’s right. Unless you’re a lottery winner doing your road trip in a stripped-out Lambo, having your own wheels also means having a boot, to boot. This means that before you drive down to Dover, you can stuff that Mama with shoes, clothes and as much imperishable Aldi food as you like.
Tip: Take two suitcases, one small one and one large boot-sized bugger. Treat the big one as a wardrobe, then re-pack the baby case with essentials and fresh clothes each time you move about. This keeps your car organised and saves carting a monster case in and out of each hostel.
#2 – It’s cheaper
Now here’s the one all those who haven’t done their research will swear can’t possibly be true. But read on, weary traveller, and all shall be revealed.
When it comes to eco-driving, diesels are man’s best friend. It lasts longer, costs less (in Europe at least!) and engine’s running the ol’ tractor oil are commonly considered more robust and ‘bulletproof’ than petrol motors. In the right car, you could be getting over 600 miles per tank. In the likes of Luxembourg, that tank could cost you less than £45. That’s less than a tenner per 100 miles… Split that evenly with the passengers you picked up at your last hostel, and you’re practically getting around for pennies.
Worried about parking? Don’t be. Many hostels (and almost ALL camp sites) offer free, or very cheap parking included in the price. The HostelWorld app even has a tickbox for ‘parking’ in its list of desired amenities. And remember, the folk running most of these joints just want travellers to get the best out of their experience. This means that even if the dorms you’re looking at don’t advertise parking, you can email the hostel in advance simply asking the question. 9 times out of 10, you’ll receive a friendly reply pointing you in the direction of the cheapest spot nearby (and even in the priciest cases, let’s not forget the ol’ cost-splitting with your new buddies!).
Tip: If you’re ever struggling on the parking front, try Googling park-and-rides. Most modern cities have these conveniences in spades, and sometimes they’re even free. Additionally, they’ll save you the stresses of tackling the likes of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe roundabout, or the aqueducts of Ancient Rome – The roads of Europe aren’t without their nightmare spots!
#3 – You’ll make more friends and maybe even a little money as you go
Picture the setting: You’re sat sipping strong beer on a Berlin roof terrace and every Tom, Dick and Harry you met at the hostel is banging on about how excited they are to hit Prague. Wait a minute…That same destination’s next on your agenda, so you decide to let slip that you’ve got a car.
I can promise you now: Anybody and everybody on a backpacking budget is going to want to be your best buddy the second they hear this. This is because if they can nab a lift to their next city, they’ll save a day on their measly train ticket allowances; a day they can use to hop elsewhere and extend their trip. Remember, you’re the driver, so name your price, enjoy the company and get the most out of your shared experience!
Tip: As you’ll inevitably be wheeling round in a frugal little hatchback, try not to accept any more than 2-3 passengers at once – backpacks take up a lot of interior space!
#4 – You’ll see more. MUCH more.
With a trusty TomTom in hand (or on dash), off-the-beaten-path gems are always in easy reach. Break up your journeys by getting out to gawp at spectacular sights en route. Driving from Cologne to Stuttgart? Burg Eltz castle is about halfway, and it looks like something straight out of Disney. Prague to Vienna? Hit Český Krumlov and lose yourself in a maze of postcard cobble streets. Switzerland? Yeah… you’ll be stopping every ten minutes to take selfies amidst the Alps.
Tip: Don’t really take a TomTom; buy a Garmin. They’re much better.
#5 – You’ll enjoy some of the greatest roads in the world
If you’re into cars and you’ve dreamt about driving in Europe, idyllic images of the continent’s roads are probably the reason. And I can tell you now, everything you’ve ever seen or heard is pretty much true. From the winding cliffs of the Côte d’Azur, to the racetrack-like roads in the Austrian Alps, Europe is literally littered with drive-candy. At times, it’ll feel like being in your own, private episode of Top Gear. And yes, all the rumours are real: Sections of the German Autobahn really do have no speed limits, the Italian countryside really is as beautiful as they say it is and, yes, the legendary Nürburgring IS a usable, public road!
Tip: Avoid tolls in Italy by taking country routes and make sure your motor has good suspension. Semi-finished tarmac in the Czech Republic occasionally looks (and feels) like it’s been recycled from bits of scrap metal.
#6 – You’ll never be limited by where you can and can’t go
One of the biggest issues with trains is that they only run certain routes. In addition to this, if you’re booking extras as you go to save travel days, cancellations and mind changes can be expensive, and wreak havoc with your spending money. Besides, where’s the adventure in having to stick to routine timetables? With a car you have the ultimate freedom to go wherever the hell you want, whenever the hell you want. Simple, but true.
Tip: Always check your route on Google Maps before setting off from one place to the next. It’s important to make stops on your journey, but even more important to decide where to stop on your journey. That tiny town you pull into to use the loo could end up being your favourite spot of the whole trip.
#7 – You always have somewhere to crash when you can’t get a room
Amazingly enough, Sleeping in the car is perfectly legal in more countries than you might expect. If, however, you’re somewhere where Google tells you otherwise, then just pull over and whack out a tent. Parts of Scandinavia have astonishing laws surrounding the grey area of ‘wild camping’. This might not seem too appealing at first, but after a while you’ll soon see that travelling at night and kipping in the car halfway is a good way of saving days and hostel fees. Besides, do it right and you could be waking up in some real majestic locations.
Tip: Where possible, park near water. Who wouldn’t want to start their day with a swim (or maybe even a cheeky bath) in a Norwegian fjord?
#8 – You’ll naturally attract members of the opposite (or same) sex
For some, ‘sampling the local cuisine’, so to speak, is one of the top reasons for travelling. Sure, almost every backpacker will already have been seduced by their surroundings, but who doesn’t love a holiday romance on-top? (Sorry). Better still, in a setting which requires a lot of time sitting around in hostels, sharing same-same travel stories, who wouldn’t fall for the guy/gal who’s doing their Euro Trip a little differently to the rest of the crowd? The fact is, uniqueness and decisiveness are attractive, and you and your motor are in complete control your own travelling experience. Flirty foreigners will be knocking at your car door.
Tip: Dating is a bad idea if you don’t want to spend money.