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    > Student Life: Travelling across Europe by Train and Bus on a Budget

    Student Life: Travelling across Europe by Train and Bus on a Budget

    My name is Iris and I just turned 18 years old. This summer, I am travelling across Europe through 4 countries with my friend, Victoria, primarily by train, but also by bus. We are both students and as such, have a limited budget. We are very excited as it’s our first independent travel experience without family. Hello, Serbia, Greece, Hungary and Germany––here we come! 

    In true European style, we have chosen not to take a single flight. In this blog post, I will explain why we chose to travel by train, how we chose our itinerary, and how much it cost us to cover 4,672 miles by train and bus over 30 days.

    Why choose to travel across Europe by train rather than by plane?

    We opted to travel by rail (and occasionally night bus) for multiple reasons, including the lower carbon footprint. However, the main reason is that flights are far more expensive than trains––a single air ticket is as expensive as our whole travel costs by train. 

    I also prefer to travel with unlimited liquids (face cleanser, shampoo, night cream, sunscreen, etc.), which would make plane travel even more costly, as I would need to pay to check my bags. 

    How do you select trains across Europe? How do you plan your route?

    The trip came to mind when my older sister’s friends did Interrail in 2022 and told me about it. It sounded fantastic, and I wanted to do the same this summer. When I looked into it and did more research, Interrail seemed like the best option for me and my friend. The Interrail Pass is a train ticket that allows anybody to travel on almost all trains in Europe. With it, I would get access to 40 railway and ferry companies in 33 countries.

    Photo shows the interior of a modern German train car through glass doors.
    German trains are very modern and comfortable. Check out the electronic board mentioning seats that are available or reserved. Photo by Victoria.

    While most trains can be boarded by simply showing staff the Interrail Pass on a phone, some train companies require buying an additional seat reservation. I chose to do a mix of both––with and without reservation trains.

    Our first step was choosing which countries to visit: we chose Serbia, Greece, Hungary and Germany. 

    Serbia, Greece, Hungary, Germany

    We’re going to Novi Sad in Serbia, where we’ll be attending EXIT, a music festival. The next step is Athens in Greece, chosen because both my friend and I love Greek mythology and have wanted to tour the ancient ruins for a long time. Budapest, in Hungary, was chosen for the architecture and cultural significance of the city. Finally, we chose Berlin in Germany for the nightlife and the history of the city, particularly the Berlin wall. 

    I actually discovered the EXIT festival in Serbia through the Interrail website when looking for something fun to include in our travel. I never would have considered going to Serbia otherwise. The tickets were very affordable for a 4-day music festival (£100), so I bit the bullet and put it into the spreadsheet, with Victoria’s seal of approval of course. Then, we just compiled a list of countries that we’re interested in and saw what fit. She picked Greece, I volunteered Hungary and Germany, and we were set. 

    Other places didn’t make the cut, like Amsterdam or Prague, which we found to be too expensive, and Italy, which was too far from other countries we were visiting. 

    I made sure to choose countries that we could reasonably afford to go to, as one of my larger concerns is the cost of travelling for so long. I also checked to see if they were at least somewhat near each other and accessible from the UK for travel planning.

    How do you save money on trains in Europe?

    Interrail Travel Planning Tool

    Planning our travels was sadly messier than expected. We used the Interrail travel planning tool where possible, but no trains were going in or out of Serbia (outside of the EU) and Greece (EU), so we had to book some buses for those legs of the journey. 

    Buses between European countries (EU and non-EU)

    As we came to experience, buses were trickier to navigate than trains, because they don’t always drop you off at the right destination and you can be confused into thinking you’re at the right bus terminal when it’s in fact across town. 

    Ah, the romance of night buses. Watching the sun rise on Hungary travelling from Berlin. Photo by Victoria.

    The bus company, Flixbus, is also notorious for poor customer service, so when we had to rebook tickets for a missed bus connection (not our fault), Flixbus policies made the new tickets more expensive without compensation. Not cool.

    Trains (EU and non-EU)

    The Interrail Planning Tool was a great help for all trains. The way it works is it creates an itinerary and any necessary reservations can be made through the tool as well. With Interrail, you can board most trains across Europe for free, but a few require reservations––like the Eurostar or most high-speed trains––which cost £5 to £30 on average, still much cheaper than the train ticket would cost on its own. 

    Photo shows a plush toy shrimp on top of a train seat.
    Larry, the plush toy langoustine my sister offered me on my birthday, is my faithful companion on this trip. Photo by Victoria.

    Budget for 4-Country European Travel by Train and Bus

    Thanks to the cheaper reservations that go with the Interrail Pass, our final costs for each person amounted to £428. What a bargain for over 4,000 miles and 30 days!

    It was broken down as follows:

    • Train travel: £261
      • Eurostar £28 x2 (London-Brussels, Brussels-London)
      • Train reservation from Bulgaria to Hungary (£10)
      • 4-days-in-a month Interrail Pass (£195) 
      • All other trains: £0
    • Bus tickets: £167

    This could have been even cheaper, had we visited European countries fully connected by trains.

    Spreadsheet for Planning

    Another big part of the planning was making a spreadsheet to centralize all the information. My mom always makes them for trips and those turn out wonderfully, so I thought I would do the same. I made a general page with a day-by-day breakdown of where we’ll be, where we’re staying, if we’re travelling, etc… 

    The second page has all our travel information for each train or bus we’ll be taking. I wrote down where the train leaves and where it arrives with the relevant time, along with the reservation details if they are needed. 

    The main page also has a general budget, which I’ve updated with accommodation and travel costs, so I can easily track my spending habits and be as reasonable as possible, staying within budget.

    Can non-EU citizens use Interrail?

    Interrail is available for all European Union citizens and has a sister pass called Eurail for non-EU citizens at similar prices. 

    We were able to get a cheaper pass, as we are under 25, making Interrail a very budget-friendly option for teenagers and young adults who want to travel independently. The main downside of travelling by train versus plane is long travel days. From London to Novi Sad in Serbia, it took almost 48 hours. 

    Outside a German train station. Can’t remember which one. Photo by Victoria.

    To keep our costs down, we chose the cheapest Interrail options without reservation fees, which limited us to only 4 days of travel over a 30-day period. Because of this, some of our travel days were very long. We are not looking forward to the return leg from Athens to Budapest, which will last 22 hours with various trains. 

    To help with confusion around trains and travel days, I have put our exact train times with departure and arrival stations into a spreadsheet, so transfers will be as easy as possible and so my mom will always know where I am while travelling––as mobile connection will likely be patchy at best.

    Travelling by Train and Bus across Europe: Better by Day or by Night?

    We’ll be mostly travelling by day, except for buses, which are primarily night buses since they will take around 12 hours on average to get us to our destinations, and I would rather sleep through that time if I can. 

    In order to be able to read on the bus, without getting carsick, I downloaded podcast episodes, which should hopefully suffice. For trains, since we don’t miss any of our connections between them, I chose daytime travel, so we’ll be awake the whole time. To help with boredom, I packed some cards and the book Dune, which should last me a while. We still do have some night time trains and buses, which aren’t so good for our sleep, but do save some accommodation costs for that night. At the end of the day, both day and night time travel have their advantages.

    Train and Bus Travel across Europe: Is it safe?

    Safety during travel is a big concern. As discussed above, we are taking night trains and having to switch trains in the early morning hours, or even arrive at some destinations around 4 o’clock in the morning. 

    If we’re simply switching trains, we’ll stay in busier areas of the station until we can make our connection and we’ll stick together. 

    For early morning arrivals we’ll probably look for some cafés or equivalent that are open at the time we arrive, to grab something to eat and wait until the day properly begins. 

    What Do I Expect out of the Experience?

    I travelled a lot with my family growing up, and now I’m looking forward to travelling with my friend independently. I can finally go to bars in Budapest, go clubbing in Berlin, visit Ancient Greek sites in Athens, and meet young people from all over in Serbia at the music festival. 

    I expected that there would be some bumps along the road––and there have been, I’ll tell you about them later––but I have already gained some life skills and learned some things about long-distance travel that will help me in the future. I hope that this trip will create meaningful memories that will stay with me a long time. I’m also glad that I get to see some of the world before I settle down for my first year of study at university and have to become more serious. 

    I will be documenting these travels with a blog post for each country, so do send questions if you have any so I can answer them in the next blog post!

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