Interrailing in Europe with a Conference Poster

Alp view from a regional train in Switzerland. Photo.
Alp view from a regional train in Switzerland.

Written by:
Linnea Lindh, Doctoral student, Chemical Physics

Last summer I was going to a conference in Switzerland. The same summer, me and my friends were planning an interrail trip through Germany, Slovenia and Croatia. Instead of going on two long-distance train travels, I decided it would be beneficial to put them back-to-back. This would save me time and money (but not be very good for my poster as you will see). Luckily, it worked out with my friends’ schedule to put the interrail trip just before the conference! So when they travelled home, I continued from Slovenia to Switzerland.

I actually decided to go from Slovenia (Ljubljana) to Italy (Milano) via night-bus, and then enter Switzerland from there. From time to time I travel by night buses, due to their very low price and ability to travel long distances without change. It is however not the option for those who desire to travel with great comfort. In my travel-plans, I had scheduled the whole next day for just arriving to the conference location (Lausanne), so having one rough night did not ruin my conference experience. Something to think about when travelling with buses is that they might not run from the same stations as the trains, so remember to check this in advance.

In Switzerland, you buy tickets from the Swiss railway company that is called SBB or CFF or FFS depending on which language you speak. SBB (which is the German name that I will use) has a wonderful map on their webpage, outlining all stations and routes included in their system. And amazingly, you can buy ONE TICKET called a “day pass” and just travel as much as you like. All trains and even boats are included only with some rare exceptions such as tourist panorama trains. If you buy this pass well in advance, it also costs much less, which gives you very high flexibility in your travel to a surprisingly low cost. The SBB app is also good for buying the tickets, just remember that since Switzerland is not part of the EU, you need to check with your phone operator what deal you can have for getting internet there.

Alp view without the tourist panorama train

Since I had a full day to get to Lausanne, I thought why not go around a bit. The first leg of my travel was to cross the alps, which you could do quickly by going through a tunnel. That I definitely did not want to do. Instead I took a small regional train up to a village on top of the alps, and what a view! I had never before experienced trains going in loops to be able to gain the needed height. Also never had I seen such turquoise alp lakes hiding in the valleys between the mountain tops. Even when travelling by a regional train, I could see a lot through big windows, and I am sure there was less people than in the tourist panorama train. The train ride across the alps also highlighted that Switzerland is a country of many languages. The train conductor who had just asked for tickets in perfect Italian, now instead spoke perfect German after we had crossed a small tunnel in the mountains. To say the least a rare experience compared to travelling in Sweden or Germany.

Bridge over river seen from a train window. Photo.
Train coming into the city of Luzern, Switzerland.

Unexpected meeting in Lausanne

After travelling in the alps and also next to many of the beautiful Swiss lakes, I decided it was time to head for Lausanne. At the main station in Lausanne, looking for the metro, I was stopped by a British gentleman. He had seen me travelling with a backpack featuring a now quite worn poster, and asked if we perhaps were going to the same place. After travelling a full day and night, my brain did not figure out that this was a professor in my field that I definitely should have recognized. This became embarrassingly obvious on the metro ride towards the conference location, where also my hotel was. But, being a true gentleman, this of course did not make him upset and I will now apply for postdoc grants together with the professor who saved me in the metro!

Backpacking with a paper poster

Some piece of advice from my side: always print your poster on fabric! I had at some point during covid-times made a “preliminary” poster which I printed on paper, since I thought this would only be used at a local meeting in Lund anyway. The preliminary status however turned into my most used and permanent poster as a PhD student… But backpacking with a paper poster meant quite some wear and tear. My poster at the time of the conference was not in a good shape, but luckily I could buy some tape and mend it together. It however clearly stuck out from the rest of the posters in a charming way.

Worn scientific poster. Photo.
My worn poster, patched together at the conference.

Especially affected customer

After having taken the mandatory picture of the solar cell wall at EPFL and convinced the British professor that I was not always confused, it was time to go home. I had it all figured out; first I would take a train to Zürich, then an ÖBB night jet to Hamburg and finally the normal train ride through Denmark. Since I am a pessimistic person who likes to play it safe, I can easily plan 2 hours change time for important connections, such as those of a costly night train. This is especially important if tickets are bought from separate companies, as they then will not be obliged to help you if you miss the connection. The likelihood of travelling on a delayed train in Switzerland is however low, which some Swiss persons in the conference assured me and I also experienced with even regional mountain trains keeping the timetable to the minute. But, when I was travelling home it suddenly happened. A COMPLETE STOP between Fribourg and Bern, which I had to cross to get to Zürich. It was not possible to pass by train, and the whole country went into complete chaos. I got extremely stressed and headed for the SBB office, facing a queue of 20-30 people ahead of me. My brain calculated the chance of getting to the night train in time as very minor… But, this was after all Switzerland where they are proud of their train system and make sure to plan also for bad incidents such as this one. After only waiting 10 minutes it was my turn, and I, together with a small family who had a connecting flight, were prioritized as especially affected customers. Therefore SBB paid a taxi for us going past the problematic area, and we could from there find a train taking us to Zürich. Luckily for me the 2 hours change time came in handy, and I safely made it to the night train home.

Travelling with ÖBB, the Austrian railway, is often not a nice experience. But, they seem to run most of the central European night trains, so there is not much of a choice. This time it went smoothly, with only a small delay, some confusion with an exchanged room, and some dripping water into my bed… Only minor things considering travelling with ÖBB in my experience. I got to practice my German, sharing sleeping cart with an Austrian girl, and even got a decent breakfast. All-in-all a good backpacking-interrail adventure had come to its end. And I have now promised myself I need to let my poster retire and make a new one, this time in fabric.

Train at train station. Photo.
Train station in Luzern.
Sandwich, yoghurt and juice at table. Photo.
Breakfast in the night train from Zürich to Hamburg. 
Building with solar cells. Photo.
SwissTech Convention Center at the EPFL campus. The building is covered in dye-sensitized solar cells. 

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