Europe

The initial idea for this blog was to build a resource for people planning long-distance overland backpacking trips, where I’d share & pool information for people to easily check and where readers could also share information and updates.

To that end, I made a separate page for every country I’d been to, with tips for including it on a regional overland itinerary etc

It never really took off in that regard though and many of those pages hardly ever got any traffic, so I’ve replaced most of them with regional summary pages instead.

This page covers most of the places I’ve been in Europe, though I still have a separate page for Russia here

If you’re planning a Trans-Siberian trip see my trip report here and discussion of route options here

Where I’ve Been in Europe

Map of my overland routes in Europe

The map shows two interrailing trips plus the overland route I took through Europe to ride the Trans-Siberian (it doesn’t show various family holidays, school trips, snowboarding trips and so on)

Interrail

If you’re planning an overland journey around Europe, you probably want an Interrail ticket. Essentially you pay a fixed fare* for unlimited train travel within a specified period (or on a specified number of travel days within that period), and you can play things completely by ear by just rocking up at the station and getting on the next train to somewhere interesting, or tagging along with the crew you got drunk with in the hostel last night to their next destination. It’s a grand way to travel and having done it twice (see here) I highly recommend it.

*well, not quite, as you have to make seat reservations on some routes, and there’s a supplementary fee for this (ranging from a few euro up to 30 for the Eurostar). This is mostly on the main high speed routes like Paris-Amsterdam or Madrid-Barcelona, and the Eurostar from London to Paris etc

The Interrail and Eurail passes are basically the same thing, if you live in Europe you qualify for the Interrail pass and can go buy it at the ticket office where you live (or online). If you live outside Europe you qualify for the Eurail pass which you have to buy from a travel agent or online before you reach Europe. The Interrail pass for Europeans only covers you for 2 days (your first and last) of travel in your own country, meaning you can use it to leave and return but not to travel around domestically.

View of the Austrian Alps, Innsbruck
Austrian Alps

Ferries

While there aren’t as many as there used to be, with long-distance routes like UK-Denmark having lost out to budget airlines, there are still plenty of useful ferry routes in Europe. These connect Britain & Ireland to each other and mainland Europe, criss-cross between the Scandinavian & Baltic states, and provide all sorts of options in the Mediterranean. If you’re travelling on a rail pass you get discounts on a lot of these routes, including free passage between Italy & Greece.

View of Tallinn from the ferry
Tallinn, from the Helsinki ferry

Here’s a summary of ferry routes, with links to book online with Direct Ferries. If you’re using a rail pass to get discounts you’ll need to go buy your tickets at the port instead of booking on Direct Ferries.

Belgium: ferries connect Zeebrugge to Hull (UK), book online here

Denmark: multiple ferry services to Norway, Sweden and Germany go from various Danish ports, search and book online with Direct Ferries. A discount of 10% to 50% is available to Interrail pass holders on Fjord Line ferries between Denmark and Norway. Most intriguingly, there’s a weekly ferry from Denmark to Iceland via the Faroe Islands.

Estonia: frequent ferries ply the short crossing to Helsinki (including high speed hydrofoils which do it in just 90 minutes) which you can book online here and daily (overnight) sailings to Stockholm, see here. There’s also a long cruise option to St Petersburg (see here)

Finland: overnight ferries run to Sweden (which you can book online here), Germany (see here), and Russia (here). Heading south from Finland there are frequent ferries, including high speed hydrofoils, covering the short hop across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia (here). If you have an Interrail pass you can get a 50% discount between Helsinki and Travemunde with Finnlines, and a 20% to 40% discount between Finland and Sweden or Estonia with Tallinn Silja Ferries. Domestic ferries also run to Finland’s many islands, some of which you can see here.

France: ferry services connect France’s northern coastline with the southern coasts of Britain and Ireland which you can book online here (or a rail pass gets you a 30% discount on some of them). If you take a bus from London to Europe, sometimes it will cross to France inside a vehicle carriage going through the tunnel, and sometimes it will board a car ferry. I’ve experienced both, and the ferry is far, far better – the White Cliffs of Dover are the first/last thing you see of England over the horizon, and it’s nice to stroll the decks and take in the sea air, or have a beer. On the train, the bus parks inside a box and turns off the engine, and you just sit there with the lights on looking at an interior wall a few inches beyond the bus window with just the slight swayings and vibrations of the train telling you you’re actually moving; it is somewhat interesting, once, but quite weird and nowhere near as fun as the ferry.

France also has ferries from its southern ports across the Mediterranean Sea to various places in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Italy (the island of Sardinia), and Spain (Mallorca island). You can search and book these ferries with Direct Ferries.

Germany: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Latvia, and Lithuania can all be reached by ferry from Germany’s northern ports, search and book these online with Direct Ferries. For Interrail pass holders a 50% discount is available on the Finnlines route between Travemunde and Helsinki.

Greece: a plethora of domestic ferry services connect the Greek islands to the mainland, especially via the Port of Piraeus (Athens). The western port of Patras handles most of the international ferries between Greece and Italy, and a couple of the outlying eastern islands also have international ferries to the nearby Turkish coast. You can search and book these ferries online with Direct Ferries. If you’re travelling on an Interrail pass it grants you free or discounted passage on most ferries from Italy (the Bari-Patras ferry is the best crossing for pass holders as you get free deck passage), plus 30% discounts on major domestic ferry services. The rail passes also grant you a free bus ride from Patras to the closest train station (Kiato, located halfway from Patras to Athens).

Ireland: you can reach Ireland by ferry from France, Wales, and England. There are also ferry connections between Scotland and Northern Ireland – while these are technically domestic UK ferries, they offer another good way to reach Ireland overland as you can go by sea from Scotland to Northern Ireland and continue by train (or road) from Belfast to Dublin or elsewhere in Ireland. You can search and book all these ferries online here. With these ferry and train connections, an Interrail pass is a good way to travel to Ireland overland as part of a wider European trip – your pass gets you discounts on some of these ferries.

Italy: on the east coast the main ports are Ancona (with ferries to Croatia, Albania, and Greece), Bari (with ferries to Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece), and Brindisi (with ferries to Albania and Greece). There are also ferries doing the short crossing from Venice to Slovenia. From Italy’s west coast there are multiple domestic ferries from various ports to the Italian islands of Sardinia and Sicily, as well as international routes to Barcelona (from Civitavecchia, near Rome), Tunisia (from Civitavecchia, Sicily, and Genoa), and Malta (including a fast hydrofoil from Sicily). You can search and book these ferries online with Direct Ferries. There are also some good discounts available to rail pass holders: you get free passage between Italy and Greece with Superfast Ferries and Minoan Lines, a 20% discount between Italy and Croatia with SNAV, and a 20% discount with Grimaldi Lines to Spain, Tunisia, Malta, and Greece, as well as the domestic routes from Rome to Sardinia and Sicily.

Latvia: there are several overnight ferries per week to Sweden (which you can book online here) and Germany (here).

Lithuania: car ferries are available from Klaipeda to Sweden (see here) and Germany (here).

Netherlands: there are three ferry routes operating between Dutch and British ports, namely Harwich to Hoek van Holland, Hull to Rotterdam, and Newcastle to Amsterdam, which you can book online here (also Interrail pass holders get a 30% discount on the Harwich – Hoek van Holland route). I’ve done the Hull-Rotterdam route several times, it’s a comfortable overnight journey and the bar can get quite lively!

Poland: ferries sail across the Baltic to Sweden from the ports of Swinoujscie, Gdansk, and Gdynia, though none of these are presently discounted for rail pass holders. You can search and book these on Direct Ferries.

Slovakia: you can also travel between Bratislava and Vienna along the Danube by boat – see here

Spain: the Canary Islands out in the Atlantic are connected to the mainland by long-distance ferries to the southwestern ports of Cadiz and Huelva; the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean have ferries to Barcelona and Valencia. An Interrail pass gets you 20% discounts on the Balearia Ferry routes to the Balearics.

International ferry routes connect Spain to Italy (Barcelona-Genoa), the UK (Bilbao/Santander-Portsmouth), France (Mallorca-Toulon), and most interestingly to Morocco and Algeria from the southern ports of Almeria, Motril, Malaga, and Algeciras. The Spanish exclaves of Cueta and Melilla (on the Morrocan coast) can be reached by ferry from Algeciras (for Cueta) and Almeria/Malaga/Motril (for Melilla). You can search and book all of these ferries online with Direct Ferries

Sweden: ferries connect Sweden to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Norway, and there are cruise ships to St. Petersburg, which you can search and book on Direct Ferries. A rail pass gets you 20% to 50% discounts on ferries to Finland with Tallink Silja and Finnlines.

Other Tips

The Baltic railways were originally part of the Soviet Union’s rail network which connected the Baltic republics to Moscow at the centre of the web. Services still run to St Petersburg & Moscow from Riga & Tallinn, making them possible starting points for a Trans-Siberian journey; but there are no international through services between the Baltic States and the rest of the EU as Soviet railways were built with a wider gauge than those in most of Europe. The existing Baltic railways are incompatible with those in Poland, Germany, and beyond, though this will change in the not-too-distant future thanks to the Rail Baltica plan. Until then, you can travel between the Baltic states by rail using local domestic services and changing trains at the border (as described on the excellent Seat61), but the buses are faster. The Baltic states are also not included in the Interrail system, so unless you’re a train enthusiast the buses are the better option in the Baltics for the time being.

Birthday champagne on the train to St Petersburg
Birthday boy on the train in Russia

For Russia, there are direct trains across the border to St. Petersburg from Helsinki making Finland a good starting point for a Trans-Siberian rail journey (as it was for ours). Russia doesn’t participate in Interrail, so these trains aren’t covered on those passes, and you also have to make sure you’re on top of the visa situation. It’s now (since 2010) only 3.5 hours to St Petersburg on the high speed service, but back when I did it this was a 6-hour train ride… which gave us a little too much drinking time as it was my friend’s birthday and we found ourselves seated behind some Finnish businessmen who hopped off at the border to buy some duty-free champagne… the day started before dawn in Helsinki and ended up in St Petersburg with a very drunk birthday boy throwing pizza around a posh Russo-Italian restaurant while I tried to apologise to the staff in slurred GCSE (high school) Russian.

Borders and Visas

Schengen Area: you probably already know about the Schengen Area, but if you don’t you need to. It covers most of the EU plus several non-EU countries, basically covering most of Europe except for the UK & Ireland and a large chunk of eastern Europe. If you need a visa to enter the Schengen Area, it’s good for you to visit any countries within the area. If you don’t need a visa, you get stamped in to the whole area for 90 days (but can stay no more than 90 days within any 180-day period). The map here shows the visa-exempt and visa-required countries. More info here

CTA: the UK and Ireland aren’t part of Schengen and instead have their own CTA (Common Travel Area) arrangement, which is basically like a mini 2-country Schengen.

Eastern Europe: much of Eastern Europe is still outside Schengen, so you need to check your visa requirements for each country individually. The former Soviet states used to be heavy on the paperwork, but Ukraine & Moldova have scrapped visas for many visitors. Belarus and Russia still require visas for most visitors though, still requiring invitation letters like they did in the Soviet era – fortunately these can be taken care of for you by visa agencies. This is quite pricey, but doing it yourself would be tricky.

Prague

Some Pics and Suggestions

Skiing: the Alps are home to the biggest and many of the best (and most expensive) ski resorts in the world. More budget-friendly (but still high quality) options are found in other mountain ranges in e.g. Andorra and Bulgaria. See my page here for more details

Family photo in front of Les Dents du Midi, France
French/Swiss border
Les Portes du Soleil ski resort, France
Brotherly love!

Best train scenery: my personal favourite (and one of the most memorable train journeys I’ve ever done) was the beautiful route from Innsbruck to Zurich going through the Arlberg Pass, across tiny Liechtenstein, and along the shores of a couple of gorgeous Swiss mountain lakes.

Poorly photographed here, but the train window scenery in Switzerland is stunning

Worst train journey: of my other most memorable train journeys – for the wrong reasons – was the night train from Vienna to Rome. Long story short, we woke up in Italy with groggy heads (gassed?) but without our passports and wasted a few extra unplanned days in Rome applying for new ones… while Rome isn’t exactly the worst place to get stuck, getting robbed and traipsing around in the heat to police stations and embassies really sucked. A better plan than the night train to Rome, I’d suggest, would be to take a day train from Vienna to Venice and travel on through Italy from there. We only skipped Venice due to lack of funds, but the whole passport theft & stuck in Rome scenario probably ended up costing more than we’d saved by skipping Venice…

Kraków: a beautiful city, and the Wieliczka Salt Mine just outside Krakow has to be seen to be believed – the miners carved out sculptures, wall reliefs, and even entire chapels, deep underground. The mines are long since closed but thanks to the scenes within are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and open to visitors.

Kraków old town
Kraków

Another thing just outside Kraków is the Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz and Berkenau. Surely one of the worst things you will ever see on your travels, but also one of the most important. It takes a day to travel there, visit the sites, and then get back to town; but you’ll need many more days to get your head around it. Plan on spending the evening after your visit wanting to be alone or needing a good stiff drink (we went for option B and got fair hammered)

The Wieliczka salt mine near Krakow
Salt mine chapel
Auschwitz
Harrowing

Budapest: a surprise hit on my first Interrail trip around Europe – we didn’t have much idea what Budapest would be like and just sort of went there because it seemed like the most obvious way of continuing from Prague (which is another great city). As we soon discovered, Budapest is an awesome place; strolling along the Danube and over its beautiful bridges you can see amazing architecture on both sides of the river, especially the Parliament building on the Pest side and the castle up the hill on the Buda side.

Hungarian parliament building in Budapest

The food, drinks and nightlife are all great too – I recall being one of a pack of scruffy backpackers feeling very out of place in a cocktail bar (randomly home to a live parrot) watching a load of beautiful people dance the tango, after we’d eaten an awesome meal in a posh restaurant, and being amazed at how we could easily afford it all. It isn’t so absurdly cheap any more, but prices are still considerably lower than in most EU countries.

Walking along the banks of the Danube in Budapest
Budapest

Helsinki:

Helsinki's Russian Orthodox cathedral
On the cathedral steps in Helsinki
Buying some pickled herring at the harbour in Helsinki

Head-size beer glasses in Munich:

Huge beer glasses in Munich

Rome wasn’t a bad place to get stuck for a few days:

The Colosseum, Rome
The Spanish Steps, Rome
The Vatican
View over Rome from the top of the Vatican

Messing around in the dunes in Spain:

Sand dunes in Gran Canaria, Spain
Sand dunes in Gran Canaria, Spain

Paris:

Notre Dame cathedral

Street art and a mixed fairytale/Soviet brutalist architecture scene in Bratislava:

I went to my friend’s boyfriend’s sister’s birthday party near Vilnius, and I can warn you that being the only foreigner at a party in Lithuania means you’re going to have to do a shot of vodka with every single person there. As welcoming as that is, it’s a little too welcoming! I don’t remember much, but at least I managed to get outside before vomiting…

The birthday party in Vilnius
Lithuanian birthday tradition
Very drunk at the birthday party in Lithuania
Far too drunk by this stage

Copenhagen:

The royal palace in Copenhagen

Resources and Useful Links

Official website for the Interrail pass

Official website for the Eurail pass

Search for hotel deals on Hotels Combined

Airbnb’s also a good option, if you’ve never used it before you can get a 30 dollar discount if you sign up with this link

World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance you can buy even if already overseas (this can be a key point, as I once found out the hard way when I got pickpocketed). Also check out their winter sports cover if you’re hitting the slopes.

Lonely Planet: Europe on a Shoestring

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