Travelling Europe by rail: The 18-year-olds with a free ticket

A traveller holds an Interrail pass next to a map of Europe and a backpack Image copyright Emily Wyman
Image caption The DiscoverEU scheme is part of an EU effort to tackle "misinformation about Europe"

This summer, 1,900 British 18-year-olds will be travelling across Europe without having to spend a penny on travel.

The lucky teenagers - who are among 15,000 winners from across the continent - entered an online competition run by the EU to boost Europe's image.

They won a free Interrail ticket and can spend up to a month visiting four European countries.

Some Eurosceptics believe the scheme, called DiscoverEU, is a waste of taxpayers' money, but the EU is planning another round of applications in the autumn, which British people can apply for.

Some of the winners - who only have to shell out for their accommodation and spending money - spoke to the BBC.

'I've made a good friend'

Emily Wyman, from Sheffield, and Leah Coulson, from Cambridge, had never met prior to winning the competition and spending a week together on holiday.

They were among more than 100,000 people who attempted the online quiz, answering questions about EU cultural heritage and European Parliament elections.

Image copyright Emily Wyman
Image caption Emily said she applied to the competition as "a bit of a joke" after her mother told her about it

Emily, who hopes to study medicine in September, said she was "so happy" after finding out she'd won a ticket.

"Initially I was like, 'yes! yes!' Then I took a step back and realised I'm going away and I don't know who I'm going to go with. It was scary.

"Another girl who had won saw my tweet about it and messaged me on Instagram. We met up before we went and then went [travelling] for a week. She's lovely, a good friend."

Emily and Leah visited Brussels, Bruges, Cologne and Amsterdam.

Image copyright Leah Coulson
Image caption Leah and Emily in Belgium

"I think in the long run it's giving a lot of young people options they wouldn't have," said Leah. "And now I've made a friend."

'I quit my job for this'

Bilal Bounit, from Framlingham in Suffolk, said he "almost didn't really believe" the competition was real.

"I thought it was a scam. I told my dad and he thought it was dodgy, he didn't believe me."

Image copyright Bilal Bounit
Image caption It is an opportunity that not even a lot of adults have, Bilal said

Bilal, who wants to pursue a career in photography and filmmaking, says he will be "documenting his whole trip" when he travels to France, Italy, Slovenia and Croatia with two friends in August.

He has been saving up for a camera and has quit his job at a Co-op supermarket so he can go.

Responding to the view that it is a waste of taxpayers' money, Bilal called the experience "priceless".

"Offering kids and teenagers this opportunity is opening minds to other cultures," he said. "It's not a waste of money if used correctly."

'I'm a massive Brexiteer'

Mark Stewart, from Cumbernauld, North Lanarkshire, said he was "really surprised" when he discovered he had won, after forgetting about entering.

He has not planned his route yet - but it will likely include a trip to Amsterdam and to Paris, to see some friends.

Image copyright Mark Stewart
Image caption Mark is planning to study international relations at the University of St Andrews in September

Mark, who is a Eurosceptic, says it is possible to support Brexit and believe the DiscoverEU scheme is a positive thing.

"We are leaving the EU, it doesn't mean everybody is going to stop going," he said.

He added the scheme is beneficial to the UK, boosting tourism by welcoming travelling 18-year-olds who want to explore Britain.

And it is a "great opportunity" for young people to travel for the last time while the UK is still in the EU, he says.

Although British people are invited to apply for the next round of the scheme in the autumn, the EU said it is "too early to say" if there will be a third round before Brexit in March 2019, after which the UK will no longer be eligible.

'I've only left the UK once'

Kira Lewis, from Somerset, also believes the scheme is still useful even as as Britain prepares to leave the EU, describing it as "a way of opening doors allowing us to understand Europe".

"We are not going to completely cut ties after Brexit," she says. "We will still work with the EU."

Kira found out about the competition after seeing a link shared on Twitter.

Image caption Kira hopes to visit places which might be useful to her upcoming degree course

The 18-year-old, who hopes to begin a degree in war studies at King's College London in September, is planning to travel to Paris, Berlin, Prague and Venice on her free ticket in September.

"It was amazing to win," she says. "I haven't left the country before, except a trip once to Amsterdam."

'It's not just teenagers going clubbing'

Meanwhile, Daisy Taylor-Ray, from Southampton, is travelling solo for three weeks to Amsterdam, Berlin, Krakow and Paris.

Image copyright Daisy Taylor Ray
Image caption Daisy, 18, will take her trip next month before she begins her English university degree in September

She learnt about the competition through her college and said that although she has been to the continent before on all-inclusive holidays, she is looking forward to a cultural city trip.

"I think people should view it more as educational," she said. "Not as the EU paying teenagers to go on a free holiday.

"It's going and educating yourself on other cultures, not just teenagers going clubbing."

What is DiscoverEU?

The European Union makes no pretence about why it has launched the scheme: it wants to combat the "misinformation about Europe" and the "current growth of populism".

Any person who is a national of one of the 28 EU member states and will be aged 18 at the time of travel can apply.

Each country has a quota of the 15,000 tickets according to their population. The UK quota was 1,900 and 3,786 applied, an EU official told the BBC.

Image copyright Eleanor Page
Image caption The EU selected 15,000 18-year-olds - out of 100,000 who applied - to discover Europe by rail

In the future, the European Commission plans to expand the scheme to enable 1.5 million 18-year-olds to visit their European neighbours, funded by €700m (£619m) of EU money.

Some Eurosceptics say it is a waste of taxpayers' money. Jill Seymour MEP of the UK Independence Party called it a "blatant attempt at bribery" and said "young people across Europe would prefer for the EU to solve the chronic youth unemployment crisis".

A second round of applications will take place in the autumn, which British 18-year-olds will be eligible to apply for.

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