Backpacking through Europe has become an iconic rite of passage amongst high school and college students. It’s dirty, it’s cheap and many say it’s one of the best experiences of their lives. Here are some tips to stay safe, travel efficiently and have fun wherever you go.
Making an itinerary
Although it might seem basic, making a detailed and precise itinerary is incredibly important. Make a plan that caters to your interests to get the most out of your trip. If you have a sweet tooth, for example, stop by Brussels for its amazing chocolatiers. To indulge your inner shopaholic, hit up Parisian flea markets and Florence’s artisan shops. Or for a rich but calmer culture of music, art and history, visit parts of Eastern Europe.
Once you have a clear idea of what you want to do, you’ll be more prepared to tackle the when and the how. Where are you going first? How are you getting from place to place? Do some prior research on trains, planes and ferries online to get the exact prices, locations and times. (See “Getting Around” below for tips).
Even if you don’t have all the details planned out, thinking seriously about what you want to do and where you want to go will help you estimate your expenses. For such a big trip, you should start saving up months—even a year—before your trip for an ideal experience. Remember, you’ll have to spend about $100 to apply for a passport if you don’t already have one. To cut costs, consider using travel agencies like AAA to score some discounts. It’s always a good idea to overestimate expenses, as running low on money abroad would be especially tricky.
You probably already know less is more when it comes to packing—and this is true when you’re backpacking. You’ll start regretting your 20 pounds of clothes after a short week, if not before. If it’s space you’re struggling with, try packing your belongings in separate sacks or smaller bags within your backpack. It’ll be easier to keep everything more organized, which will then make it easier to stuff it all in.
Since backpacking trips don’t always afford many amenities like laundry, bring clothes that are stain resistant and easy to match. Odor absorbers that help keep your clothes smelling fresh can come in handy too. In addition to the basics—toiletries, first aid and sewing kits—calling cards are also very useful when traveling abroad. If you’re staying in hostels, you will want to bring your own sheet and pillowcase as well as luggage locks.
What you’re carrying all of this in is important too—make sure you invest in a backpack that’s truly comfortable and won’t hurt your back. It’s best to get one in person instead of relying on online reviews, because you’ll be stuck with this bag for the whole trip.
The best means of transportation will differ with every trip, but Europe has many cheap airlines for domestic flights, such as Ryanair and EasyJet. These airlines will sometimes fly into a smaller airport outside the city, so make sure to figure out how to get to your hostel. Trains are a great option as well, but they’re not always cheaper, so make sure you are getting a good deal. Overnight trains are a good way to travel and can save you from having to pay an extra night for your accommodations. The Eurail, which has routes throughout Europe, is a good resource, but each country has their own train websites as well.
Places to Stay
If you’re lucky enough to have friends and family who will give you places to stay, take them up on it. Otherwise, hostels, the most common choice when backpacking, are dirt cheap and convenient—so reserve your beds beforehand. One drawback: hostels are unbelievably loud. Light sleepers should either bring ear plugs or lots of caffeine.
Needless to say, hotels are more expensive, but you can try to cut costs with mileage and credit card rewards. Even if you can’t save much, the amenities are worth it; take advantage of the clean sheets, private bathroom, laundry facilities and, if offered, complimentary breakfast. You should also try to sleep when provided with nicer beds in a more peaceful environment.
Few young backpackers run into truly dangerous situations, but you should keep in mind some general safety rules. Most importantly, always be alert. This is a no-brainer, but you’ll stick out like a sore thumb as a backpacker. Being aware of your surroundings will be all the more important. As always, try not to walk around by yourself—even during the day. Backpacking with friends is a lot more fun than flying solo, anyway.