“Male 21 seeks female under 26 as Interrail travel companion.” Surprisingly, this is not a line from the personal columns of a local newspaper or a travel magazine but was published in The Times in July 1992. The confidence of this anonymous young man whom I have named Allan is admirable, especially as he included his phone number.
As Allan was seeking a companion for his trip in the summer of 1992, he would have been unaware that the Interrail scheme itself had already entered a period of sharp decline. Since the scheme’s inception, demand for Interrail passes had increased almost every year. In the inaugural year of 1972, 87,000 European travellers purchased an Interrail pass. By 1991 this had risen to 402,000. Yet, the number of Interrailers fell steeply to 333,000 in 1992 before collapsing to 142,000 in 1993, a reduction of almost 65% in two years. Interrail sales figures remained stagnant for the rest of the decade before growing again in the 21st Century.
As part of my research into the early history of Interrail, I recently conducted a search of UK newspaper archives. I discovered that press coverage about Interrail was overwhelmingly positive in the 1970s and early 1980s, and that Allan was not the only one to seek travel companions via the personal columns. Most, however, chose to do so more discreetly via their local newspapers. After returning from travelling, local papers tended to detail the adventures of Interrailers, almost with a sense of civic pride. According to the Southall Gazette, Helen and Peter met in Switzerland whilst Interrailing and were married in 1980. In September 1974, the Belfast Telegraph described how Gary covered almost 12,000 miles from Morocco to Greece to Norway using his £38 ticket.
Unmistakably in need of a bath
Quantity over quality did not always provide the best experience, both for those like Gary travelling almost non-stop to clock up the miles, and for those unlucky enough to share a carriage with them. Robert and John told the Neath Guardian how they learned from the mistakes of the manic pace of their first trip in 1982 and slowed down the following year. In The Guardian in 1984, Alison recalled meeting three lads from County Tyrone who were “unmistakably in need of a bath”. They were taking part in an all-Ulster competition to record the highest mileage and said, “If we get to the end and we haven’t got quite enough, we’ll take a train to the north of Norway, and then catch another one straight back.” It was not only young men who preferred Interrailing the hard way. Tessa admitted to the Daily Mail in 1989 that, “I like roughing it – sleeping on beaches, station floors, being woken in the morning by a German policeman with his boot in your side telling you to move on.”
By the end of the 1980s, press coverage was beginning to link Interrail with more serious brushes with the law. The Times reported in 1989 that a three-year international police operation had uncovered a gang which forged hundreds of Interrail passes worth more than £500,000. Some of these forgeries were found on football fans arrested after trouble at the previous year’s European Championships in West Germany. In 1990, the Thanet Times headlined the experience of Stephen who, whilst Interrailing with a friend, was expelled from Italy during the World Cup after inadvertently being caught up in trouble with police in the seaside resort of Rimini.
As Eastern Europe opened up in the early 1990s following the fall of the Berlin Wall and break-up of the Soviet Union, editorials rather than news stories highlighted how these political changes were impacting Interrailers. Jay Rayner writing about tourist scams in The Observer in August 1993 featured the story of Andy from Teesside. Armed thieves on the Berlin to Warsaw night train used chloroform to knock out Andy and then relieve him of his Interrail pass, money, and most of his clothes. Columnist Rob Ounsworth shared his own Interrailing experiences in Eastern Europe with Liverpool Echo readers. Rob was in a carriage with two bulky Russian women who began stripping off in front of him, only to reveal the twelve T-shirts they were each wearing and smuggling.
The reasons for the downturn in Interrail’s fortunes in the early 1990s are many and could fill another blog post. Partly, this was geographical. The escalating Yugoslav Wars meant that routes to Greece through the former Yugoslavia, long popular with Interrailers, became more difficult. For those wishing to visit Greece and other Mediterranean locations, the emerging low-cost airlines offered a quicker and cheaper option. After twenty years, maybe the Interrail offering had just lost its appeal and the 1990s generation were looking to travel in a different way to their predecessors.
Doubts about the future of Interrail began to emerge in 1992 with reports that France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal were threatening to pull out of the scheme. The railways in these countries were transporting a disproportionately high number of Interrailers, most of whom were from northern Europe. As The Observer noted in August 1992, the French “were particularly sensitive to having their rail network clogged up with backpackers in July and August.” British Rail responded bullishly by urging UK Interrailers to “go east” instead.
You’ve got the rest of your life to be good
In June 1994, British Rail sought to address the sharp decline in sales of Interrail passes by placing full-page advertisements in several national newspapers. These ill-judged adverts paired an image of the European flag where the twelve gold stars in a circle were replaced by rolled condoms with the provocative headline, “Interrail: You’ve got the rest of your life to be good”. To make matters worse, the advert text referred to the European Commission’s year of ‘Europe Against AIDS’ campaign.
The British Rail adverts were short-lived, only appearing once each in The Guardian and The Independent. In response, the Daily Mail rushed to the moral high ground and opined, “It is sad that some newspapers which claim to moral integrity can collaborate in such tackiness.” The Independent quoted Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, who said the advert was “in poor taste”. Ian Katz in The Guardian admitted that the advert was effectively saying to young people, “Buy an Interrail pass and you’ll get laid. A lot.” According to Marketing magazine in October 1994, the British Rail campaign was the most complained about of the year so far, provoking more than 160 letters.
What all this press coverage over a 22-year period suggests to me is that there is so much more to uncover about the Interrail experience from an historical perspective. With the upbeat news stories of the 1970s and early 1980s giving way to more negative editorial, I wondered if this was another contributing factor towards the fall in popularity of Interrail in the 1990s. As an oral historian, I also began to think about the questions I would ask the Interrailers featured if I could conduct interviews with them today. Perhaps to Stephen and Andy, what impact did their negative experiences have on their attitudes towards Europe and Europeans? To Tessa, why did she relish a significant degree of discomfort when travelling? To Robert and John, how much did their shared Interrail experiences bind them together or did they drift apart? And to Allan, where did he go on his Interrail trip in 1972 and who did he travel with?
If you took an Interrail trip in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, or just want to find out more, please contact me.
My postgraduate research project at Royal Holloway University of London entitled ‘Europe by train, 1972–1996: The experiences of young Interrailers from the UK’ was approved by the University’s Research Ethics Committee in February 2023 and is supervised by Dr Amy Tooth Murphy and Dr Edward Madigan.
With grateful thanks to:
Richard Ivan Jobs, Professor of History at Pacific University in Oregon, for sharing the Interrail sales figures he obtained from Eurail whilst researching his book
Tim Thomas @timofnewbury for sharing his Interrail images and for his support of this research
‘Backpack Ambassadors’ by Richard Ivan Jobs, The University of Chicago Press, London, 2017