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From revenge travel to recapturing youth, rail travel is huge. Meet the new generation of Interrailers
As the world opens up again, travel is high priority. ‘Revenge travel’ is big – ie, making up for the time stolen from us by Covid. But the enforced break has also given many people pause for thought. Perhaps the package holiday is less appealing. How about some back-to-basics travel adventure? Perhaps this is why older people are Interrailing, and heading for the backpacker and hippie trails. We meet some ‘silver railers.’
Letting the train take the strain
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the birth of Interrailing – albeit rather mutedly against the background of war in Europe.
Back then, in 1972, Russia was also a threat, with the Interrail route map focused on north, west and southern Europe while its eastern flank was largely blocked off behind the Iron Curtain.
While so much has happened in the past five decades – not least the arrival of Brexit, which makes cross-border travel for Britons difficult – in many ways nothing has changed.
The freedom and opportunity to observe and explore multiple countries and cultures from the comfort of a train seat is as appealing now as it was in 1972.
And it is proving to be particularly popular with Generation X and the Boomer generations, some of whom are retracing steps they took as young Interrailers. While others are trying it for the first time, perhaps because they missed out back then.
They have the time for it
Retirement and an appetite for adventure, especially after the pandemic, has seen the over-60s flock to grab the Interrail pass, and the Interrailing for the Older Crowd group on Facebook has more than 5,000 members.
In 2010, senior price structuring was introduced, offering a 10 per cent discount for those over 60, fuelling the appetite of silver railers. After years of being governed by the deadlines and constraints of work, children, families, and finances, many find the spontaneity of Interrailing irresistible.
A growing number of travellers are also keen to make more sustainable choices and move away from short haul flights, and the delays and hassle of airports.
The history of Interrail
The Interrail pass was dreamed up by the International Union of Railways (UIC) to mark the 50th anniversary of its own inception in 1922, after Europe’s borders were rearranged following World War I and the Treaty of Versailles.
The resurgence in the popularity and number of night trains, which looked under threat a few years ago, means travellers can cover serious distances.
The UIC envisaged a pass to open up the Continent’s rail network to under 21-year-old Europeans, valid for one-month, in second-class, valid in 21 countries for just £32.
More than 87,000 young people used the Interrail pass in 1972 so continuing the scheme and broadening it to older users was a no-brainer.
Fifty years on, there are so many Interrailing options, allowing travellers to choose passes based on number of travel days and class of ticket. The resurgence in the popularity and number of night trains, which looked under threat a few years ago, means travellers can cover serious distances. The passes also offer seats on some of Europe’s high speed trains services, which again makes destinations at the outer edges of the route map reachable.
Today, 33 countries participate in the Interrail scheme and the pass is available in digital form. Prices start at £204 for over 60s travelling four days within one month.
Andy had been working in the airline industry for 35 years when the first Covid lockdown brought about a collapse in the travel industry.
Andy, 59, began working with his wife of 34 years in her podiatry business in West London where the couple live.
While Andy has been fortunate enough to experience First Class airline travel, his roots are in Interrailing having tried it for the first time in 1985, the day after he finished his degree. He set off with his then-girlfriend and a tent on his back for a month, and was instantly hooked on long distance train travel.
“I will not travel on the TransSiberian until peace is declared. I have choices about where to spend my hard-earned money.”
Andy said: “The journey back to my parent’s house at the very end of my first Interrail was one of the worst journeys of my whole life. It made me determined to travel more.”
The following year he set off again, this time with his brother. He then had a long 24-year gap before Interrailing again; this time with his own son, who was 12 at the time.
After decades of Interrailing without his wife, Andy has finally persuaded her to accompany him on his next trip. And they’re heading to the Arctic circle, Norway, Denmark, and Switzerland. While his wife will then return to run their business, Andy will continue to Austria and Poland – although his trip would have been different if Russia hadn’t invaded Ukraine.
Andy said: “I will not travel on the TransSiberian until peace is declared. I have choices about where to spend my hard-earned money.”
Having travelled extensively for work, Andy doesn’t worry about finding accommodation or about being alone. “The hostels can be exceptionally clean, safe, and good value for money. I prefer hostels over hotels. They are the solution to loneliness.”
Andy says that Brexit has made Interrailing harder but encourages everyone to give it a go. “It can be exhausting at times but it’s character-building, and a test of your resources. If you want pure comfort, stay on a beach for two weeks. Travel is always about managing compromises.”
Andy has some advice for fellow travellers: “Use help from others and online forums. And spend time buying a European train timetable and become confident in using it before your trip. Don’t be put off by not speaking the language; a few words or phrases are often enough.”
Retired teacher and grandmother, Tina Potter, is a single backpacker who is a member of many reciprocal hospitality groups. Her forthcoming trip – to Shetland in her campervan – will be her third time away, staying either for free with hosts, at hostels, in Airbnbs, or volunteering at a language school.
“My most favourite experience was in Denmark where a CouchSurfing host left me in her house over a weekend and gave me her bike each day to cycle to swim in the sea. It was simple beauty.”
“There was a one-day Interrail sale and I had about ten hours to make a decision so I decided to go for it.”
Tina spent three months in Europe, travelling through Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Denmark, Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Austria, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, France and Albania. Tina is making up for not having done Interrailing when she was younger.
“Travel did not exist in my life when I was young but in 2002 I spent a year backpacking in Australia then four months in Arctic Scandinavia.”
The secret this time is that Tina did it on a whim. “There was a one-day Interrail sale and I had about ten hours to make a decision so I decided to go for it.
“I learned while I was Interrailing that my brain loves the stimulation and the challenge. I am not ready to be retired.”
And Tina’s advice for novice Interrailers? “Set a small movement in motion, you don’t have to make the big decisions, just start something so that inevitably, one foot follows the other. For me, that was buying the ticket.
“Trying to plan everything at the start is overwhelming.”
Roy and Fiona Bliss
Roy and Fiona Bliss, from Dorking, Surrey, are widely travelled. Roy spent much of his working life overseas, but he decided for Fiona’s 60th birthday last year that they would take the train from their local station all the way to San Sebastian – which they did in one day.
“It felt like a fun challenge, different to being on an aircraft and less messing about at airports, checking in and security.”
“From there we travelled to France, Italy, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands – a round trip of 4,360 miles, 15 trains, three taxis, 12 trams, 12 local trains, nine countries, nine cities, eight beds, 10 museums and, crucially, zero arguments,” said Roy.
Neither had ever travelled abroad by train. “It felt like a fun challenge, different to being on an aircraft and less messing about at airports, checking in and security. And instead of revisiting cities we’d seen, we wanted to see new ones.”
As a surprise for Fiona’s birthday, Roy arranged for his sons and their girlfriends to meet them in Venice. What the couple loved most about the trip was the spontaneity.
“With a fair bit of planning you can have an easy time yet leave yourself free to do things on the spur of the moment.”
And he has some good advice for those planning a train trip. “Don’t be frightened by what might seem complex. Also setting up an Instagram page just for the travels was great fun. We took it in turns to post, and that meant others could share in the fun we were having.
“Go for it. You won’t be disappointed.”
A retired Scuba instructor in Malta, Debra Pope, 61, travels mostly solo and spends the majority of every winter skiing in France.
Debra did an astonishing 71-day tour of 22 countries on an accommodation budget of £500. “It took me 42 years to go Interrailing,” she said. “I didn’t do it when I was younger because I worked as an Au Pair in Switzerland and on a kibbutz for my gap year. It felt like unfinished business, I got 50 per cent off, plus I’d just turned 60, so got another 10 per cent off. My friend said if I didn’t do it now I had to shut up talking about it!”
It was the unplanned nature of the trip that appealed to Debra. “The best things happened in the gaps, the unplanned parts. Apart from having my bag stolen, the worst thing was Brexit which meant I had to do Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey at the end of the trip so I had enough Schengen left to still go skiing in France.”
“My friend said if I didn’t do it now I had to shut up talking about it!”
But it didn’t put Debra off and she still had a wonderful time. “I learnt to be joyful and I decided not to fly home after skiing. I got a two-week/seven-journey pass from TrenItalia to journey through Italy to get back to Malta.”
Debra’s advice to would-be travellers is: “Expect it to be overwhelming at first, but don’t worry about planning too much. There are loads of resources that just wouldn’t have been there if you’d done it at 20 that made it so easy, but you do have to invest the time to make them work for you.
“I called it Adventure B4 Dementia.”
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