The article offers eight tips for solo Interrailers, emphasizing unique destinations, embracing solo dining, choosing scenic window seats, distinguishing accents, enjoying unexpected stopovers, taking and sharing photos, considering the ideal travel duration, and experiencing the sounds of new cities without headphones. The author highlights the enriching aspects of solo travel for self-discovery and a deeper connection with places visited.
You’re on an entirely unplanned gap year and everyone you know is working in a soul-destroying corporate 9-5. You like the idea of ‘going travelling’ this summer but have neither the time, resources, nor desire to spend six months getting food poisoning and meditating in Bali. Or you have had a YOLO moment and want to spend all your hard-earned savings on train tickets and croissants.
Judgement is completely withheld, but solo interrailing is definitely the answer. After spending two weeks travelling through deepest darkest Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and France, I feel somewhat qualified in doling out the pieces of advice that I wish I had been given before setting off.
1) Go to weird places.
You will always find someone who wants to visit Rome, Budapest, or Madrid. Now is the time to go to the cities that no one else has any remote interest in. The most frequent reaction to running through my itinerary was a poorly masked confused expression or a polite ‘why?’ in response to some of my more random destinations. But when else was I going to see the reconstructed Frauenkirche in Dresden? Or spend four hours at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg? Or visit the Tyrolean State Museum in Innsbruck? (In hindsight, I probably could have done without the final example). Go off the beaten track not to find the ‘next big thing’, but because this is a rare opportunity to plan a trip that doesn’t have to be finding a balance between your own curiosities and the fact that you’d quite like to keep your friends.
2) Abandon your shame.
Unless you want to eat bread and cheese for two weeks straight (you don’t – believe me), you are going to have to get used to the notion of cooking and eating alone. Markets and fast food are excellent options for lunch, but soon you will want something more substantial in the evenings. If you’re staying in the same place for several days, it is worth using the hostel’s kitchen for the dual purpose of cooking and socialising. If not, economise for a few days to have a meal out in the evening. Of course, it’s excruciating to ask for a table for one, but I came around to the idea; I’ve never judged anyone for eating alone, and I’m really not interesting enough for people to interrupt their meal to stare and gossip about what a loser I am.
3) Book window seats.
Arguably fitting advice for a group interrailing trip, but even more relevant if you aren’t going to have anyone to talk to for four hours. Then again, my entirely unrealistic expectations of spectacular views were mocked by the painfully flat Saxon landscape so I can also suggest thinking about whether the extra 3 euros is worth it for each individual journey. Through the Austrian and Swiss Alps? Yes. A dark 5 am trip across endless French fields? Less so.
4) Learn the difference between US and Canadian accents.
Even a month on, I’m still not confident that I would avoid mistaking any Canadians for their southern neighbours. Luckily, most of them have an enormous maple leaf emblazoned flag across their rucksacks, so that the distinction is clear. The lovely Canadian girl whose accent I mistook in Salzburg was (stereotypically) polite when she corrected me but clearly wounded by my error. Nonetheless, once our Australian roommate had captured the attention of the dorm with a passionate case for why ‘Aussie rules’ football was the best sport in the world, all was quickly forgotten.
5) The day-long stopover is king.
Thanks to a delightful rescheduling by Flixbus, I was presented with a 10-hour stopover in Zurich. Initially enraged by their daring to impinge on my military-precision timings, the sunshine soon changed my mood and I found myself falling in love with the backstreets of a city which I hadn’t even planned to visit. Having spent the first week of my trip bolting from museum to cathedral, literally sprinting from train station to cable car stop, I could suddenly appreciate the luxury of plodding about without time constraints. The stars had aligned; I happened to be there on a Wednesday when the city’s art gallery was free, and, having posted a picture on my Instagram story (obviously), a friend messaged me to say she was in the city too and could we get a drink. So, all my gratitude to Flixbus’ terrible management, who taught me to appreciate the value of slowing down.
6) Overcome your shame, again.
When you get back, tales of your intrepid travels will only fully capture your audience if you have some good accompanying photos. And no one wants to see 92 photos of pretty buildings. Swallow your embarrassment and ask someone to take a picture of you every two days. Your otherwise dissociating listeners will thank you.
7) Be reasonable with duration.
How long do you actually want to spend alone? I overshot it and did 12 days before meeting friends in Paris – I think my optimal period would have been 9 or 10. Maybe you have no interest in communicating with other humans, in which case skip to number 8, but anyone who enjoys social interaction should consider the occasional dullness of solo travel. It all depends – if you go interrailing around the top cities in high season, you’re not likely to have a moment alone. However, if you go to provincial towns in the autumn then be aware that your options for socialising are significantly limited, unless you’re one of those magicians who can announce their arrival in a bar and become best friends with the locals within five minutes. In which case, I salute you.
8) Take your headphones off.
Based on no scientific research whatsoever, I genuinely believe that you lose out on about 80% of the experience of being in a new city when you can’t hear what is going on around you. You miss the sound of a guitar that might cause you to turn down a street and find a band playing in a tiny square, or the cathedral bells which bellow out in a chaotic symphony on the hour, or a local guide reeling off a particularly niche fact to his flock of tourists, or even just the peaceful silence of a metropolitan park, somehow protected from the aural onslaught of the city.
It’s a reasonable contention that the smaller the group in which you travel, the fewer barriers there are between you and the new world you are trying to enter. Not only are you more likely to learn more about another city or culture, but the time alone and experience of being entirely responsible and free will probably teach you something about yourself too. Whilst I was manically desperate for social interaction by the tail end of my trip (resorted to chatting to people on trains, how mortifying), it became clear that the amount which you can see, hear, taste and smell when you aren’t surrounded by other people is revolutionary. Occasionally lonely though it might be, the solo interrail is – in my humble opinion – the clear mode of travel for getting the greatest breadth and depth out of a short trip.