Interrailing: the popular student getaway. Two weeks to explore Europe in the heat of summer along with the novelties of aching legs and sun burnt shoulders. In many senses a budget holiday, interrailing gives you a taste of backpacking in short space of time. However, like any holiday, it comes with its risks. While we’re all aware of the dangers of thieves and walking down alleys at night, the more eminent risk is most likely in your own hands (quite literally) – our passports.
It’s customary for some hostels to hold your passport or another form of ID during a stay, and while handing over such important documents can seem shady, the request is made with positive intentions. European hotels need to keep tabs on who is staying for legal records. However, this can prove to be inconvenient if you have a memory worse that Dory’s…
“My hand when to my bum-bag in that habitual response to arriving in a new destination: the quick inspection to ensure all your vital belongings are with you”
Our third stop was Budapest, Hungary, a popular destination on the interrailing route. Less than three hours from Vienna and only six hours from Prague, the picturesque city offers host to a variety of cultural experiences as well as an array of clubs and bars. Our trip so far had been on a strict budget – camping at various hostels and camp sites. We spent no more than the equivalent of £10 each a night, usually less.
Our next destination took us away from the chaos of city life, venturing to the countryside. Lake Bled in Slovenia is around 500 km west of Budapest and takes around eight hours on the train. We chose to travel overnight as it’s a great way to save on a night’s accommodation. Situated in the Julian Alps, the Lake is a popular tourist spot for its clear sapphire water, with a central island complete with a story-book castle.
Before we could experience Bled’s beauty however, we had more pressing matters on our hands. On arrival at the train station at 6 AM, after a relatively sleepless night, my hand when to my bum-bag in that habitual response to arriving in a new destination: the quick inspection to ensure all your vital belongings are with you. Why I hadn’t noticed the suspicious weightlessness of my bag I will never know; I like to blame the fatigue and stress of the journey. Yet alas, the familiar feel of those small burgundy books was nowhere to be found.
“There are simply some things you cannot hide from your mum…”
We tried not to panic (easier said than done) and after going through all the emotions; fear, a few tears, a brief moment of self-pity, and a bout of nervous laughter – we made our way towards our campsite. After eating and relieving our backs of our 50 kg rucksacks we could think more clearly and tried retracing our steps, albeit not literally as we decided this would only waste time and money. We called our hostel in Budapest: yes, we had left our passports. While we took full responsibility, it makes you question a hostel policy that demands holding your passport during your stay although forgets to return them or remind you when you leave.
In fear of our parents’ lecture on responsibility, we decided not to inform them in the hope that they would never have to know. Again, this was another one of our naïve outlooks. There are simply some things you cannot hide from your mum…
We agreed with the receptionist in Budapest that the easiest (but perhaps not safest) option was to have our passports posted to our next destination. Our ambitious trip, five stops in just over two weeks, meant we never spent more than three nights in each destination. So, we kindly asked the receptionist to post our passports to the small village on Vitznau in Lake Lucerne, Switzerland. Of course, we were aware of the risks associated with posting your passports halfway across the continent, and in hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best idea – but options were limited. As a precaution, we contacted the Swiss campsite informing them a package would be arriving for some impending guests.
“Little was I to know, this would be one of the most expensive mistakes of my life”
Leaving our worries aside, we made the most of our time in Lake Bled, heading to Lake Lucerne a few days later. However, we hadn’t factored in the minor detail that Switzerland is a non-EU country. Of every border we had crossed so far, this was the only one where our passports were in fact needed. The language barrier played in our favour, and we managed to convince officials to let us through with our driver’s licenses.
Thinking we’d overcome the worst, we enjoyed Vitznau relatively care-free. On the second day we were anticipating our passports arrival, but to our dismay, they didn’t arrive. The next day, our final day of our interrail pass, we eagerly watched the postman with fingers crossed, but there was still no package. Despite losing out on our free travel day home, we tried to keep spirits high. Attempting to make the most of a bad situation, we spent the day climbing the hills surrounding Lucerne. The spectacular views made the disheartening news a little easier to handle.
Perhaps a little too optimistically, we decided to book a train for the following day. First, a high-speed train to Paris, then the extortionate price of a last-minute ticket on the Eurostar. Little was I to know, this would be one of the most expensive mistakes of my life. The following day, convinced our passports must be arriving, we again waited in anticipation for the postman. But alas, it was none other than Swiss national day – a national bank holiday celebrating the foundation of the Swiss confederation – so no post.
“We faced facts and realised it was time to make the dreaded phone call home”
Now our time booked into the campsite had expired we had to increase our stay. Unluckily for us, Switzerland happens to be one of the most expensive countries on Earth. With funds decreasing, and the campsite valued at twice as much as most European campsites, we made the impromptu decision to pitch up our tent on a small man-made beach on the lakeside.
Starting to doubt the whereabouts of our passports, concerned they’d been stolen by the receptionist in Budapest or lost in the post, we began to consider applying for emergency travel documents from the British embassy in Bern. Stranded in a foreign country, now a day later than expected back, we faced facts and realised it was time to make the dreaded phone call home. Once the panic was over and anger subsided, they were sympathetic.
“Looking back it was all an experience, and what’s more, it’s a great story to tell! “
After two nights on the beach watching firework displays across the lake in celebration of Swiss national day, we were beginning to lose all hope. But finally, on the following day, we trekked to the campsite office to find our passports waiting for us. With tears of joy we booked the next flight home from Zurich.
At the time the situation was dire, but looking back it was all an experience, and what’s more, it’s a great story to tell! But most importantly, the trip was a massive learning curve – it made me grow up and taught me to make more informed choices in future situations. There are some mistakes you must learn from, but you nevertheless value when looking back.
Featured image and article images courtesy of Lilith Hudson.
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