Twenty-six days later and I’m no backpacking pro, but I can say with confidence that I’ve picked up a tip or two along the way. I want to first iterate that this trip was incredibly worth the time, effort, and finances put into it. It wasn’t luxurious by any means; being able to pack up the bare necessities and sling ’em over your shoulder with an uncertain agenda challenged me in so many more ways than I’d expected.
I won’t delve into EVERYTHING I learned from the trip (that’s for another blog post). Instead, I want to share 13 tips to know before you go backpacking through Europe. I hope that if you’re on the fence about going, that this will convince you to get off it and GO!
*These tips may not be for everyone, but they definitely helped me! I tried to keep it short and sweet.
1. Have a plan
Making a plan doesn’t mean you’re bound to follow it to a T. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. The point is to have something in mind: a place to go, an activity to do, a food to try… have a list of options ready to go so you make the most of every moment.
2. Know before you go
Well, duh, right? You’d be surprised how quickly time escapes you when you’re anticipating its arrival. Start early and have a notebook (in my case, a Google Drive folder) with notes of all the places you’re going and some “must-knows” for each, like:
- Safety (areas to avoid, if it’s safe at night)
- Public transport (do they have one? What pass/card should you get?)
- City layout/areas to know
- General cost of living (don’t get scammed!)
- How to get in & out (airports, train stations)
- Major attractions (does it require reservations? Some places fill up quickly, like the Eiffel Tower)
We got lucky in Barcelona — two of the main attractions, Parc Guell and the Sagrada Familia, both require reservations, and we were able to squeeze in the last spots on our last day in the city.
Basically, the more options you know you have in a place, the longer or shorter you can plan how long you’ll be there. Without a general gist, it’s like blindly choosing a date on the calendar. You may have to adjust depending on the cost and availability of flights or trains, but having an idea can really shape your experience in the city.
3. GET EXCITED!
Preeeetty sure I made this up (correct me if I’m not the only one), but I have a major case of FOMO: not with hanging out with people, but of missed opportunity. So, I made a list of all the iconic things in each place, must-try foods, markets to visit, areas to see, etc. This came in handy later when we arrived, and I had an understanding of each city so we could better organize our days.
4. Get a map
Yes, a physical map. Why? Trust me, you’ll thank me later. Cell service can be spotty (even with a portable wifi device), so being able to visualize all the places you want to hit by area can help you when you’re on the go and when you’re sitting in a hostel planning your next day. Circle stuff, mark it, get crazy with it.
5. Download apps
Like I mentioned, service may be spotty, so it’s worth the extra few minutes to download before you go:
- Maps (without service, you can’t get step-by-step directions, but it can show you what direction you’re walking in!)
- Google Drive (if you did your planning here, this is a must)
- Google Docs (make sure to download the files you need for offline access)
- Local transport app (for example, London’s tube map)
- Currency converter (Apple does it automatically if you swipe right and type in the Euro amount, but this is great for when you don’t have service)
- Steps counter
- Uber/Lyft (they may not have it in every country, but they may in some)
Have an idea of how expensive the country is so you’re not caught off guard by sketchy prices. If you don’t already have it, download Venmo so you can transfer money between people (it’s a college student must-have app). Many places don’t accept credit cards, and some don’t accept American Express specifically. Always have some cash on you, and keep your coins! Euro pricing is usually to the nearest tenth, and cheaper items may only cost a coin or two. Avoid doing money transfers airports and keep an eye out for the best money transfer rates.
7. Intercountry travel
This depends on what countries you go to, but try to stay within the EU countries at the same time. Except for Iceland and England, entering the country from another EU country saved a ton of downtime at the airport.
8. Getting around
The great debate: renting a car vs. taking public transport vs. calling a taxis/uber. We did all three — it just depends on where you’re going. Know the terrain if you’re going to rent a car (do you need 4-wheel drive?) or what card to get if you’re taking public transport and if your accommodation is located near one. We rented a car in Iceland (for Ring Road), Ireland, and Santorini (a bit of a mistake). Look into rental companies ahead of time so you can compare costs and reserve, and if you’re doing a road trip, have a plan. There were six of us which would have required us to rent two cars, but we squished. Luckily, one of my friends is an experienced driver and was able to navigate in Ireland, despite being on the opposite side of the road. London’s tube was awesome and I loved taking it — get an Oyster card if you do.
9. Where to stay
The second great debate: airbnbs vs. hostels (or hotels if you’re swanky enough). Depending on the number of people you’re going with, you’ll need to calculate the costs of both. For our group of six, we lucked out in all the hostels, since the bedrooms were private rooms of six (book in advance, they fill up quickly!). Some hostels charge per person, and if your group is small, you may be sharing quarters with strangers. Some airbnbs may charge extra for every person after a certain number of people, which should be factored into your final cost (don’t let that fool you!). Every hostel we stayed at was perfect, especially in London, which was hotel-quality. Use the location of your accommodation to be your final judge, it’ll be worth it in the end.
I’ll do a separate blog post on what I packed, but pack LIGHT. I am not a light packer… and I often leave things to the last minute (not a great combo). Long story short, I ended up making my flight (whoo!) but with a mishmash of things I didn’t have time to sort through carefully. Pack ahead of time and, if you’re not going to wear it or use it at least three or four times, it’s not worth the weight.
11. Bring a camera (or two)
I brought four: my DSLR, mirrorless, GoPro, and polaroid, and used all of them. I have FOMO of taking photos, and so it was worth it to wake up at 5 a.m. to see the Eiffel Tower at the Trocadero… and drag everyone with me. My one regret is not waking up to catch the sunrise at the Trevi fountain in Rome.
12. Talk to people
No shame, I messaged everyone I knew who’d been to Europe in the past two years (even if I didn’t talk to them on a daily basis). I asked them everything: their favorite parts of the trip, advice for getting around, must-go restaurants, and even the little gems they’d found. Honestly it made a world of difference while I was abroad, and I went to places I probably wouldn’t have found otherwise (Camden Market, Borough Market). And, when you’re there, talk to your hosts, people at the hostel, and anyone you encounter (just be safe and use your judgment!).
13. Have a positive mindset
*Stuff* happens. You miss something (hopefully not a flight), lose an item, disagree with someone… it’s probably going to happen. You’re are jetlagged, tired, and involuntarily inseparable, but that’s all part of the experience. Try to meet others at their perspective and get alone time if you need to. Focus on what’s important, remember that time is fleeting, and you’re all there to make the most of this incredible time in your lives.
Some of the most memorable parts of the trip are the unexpected mishaps and ridiculous stories that we made. In the moment, they may have been stressful and less than ideal, but it taught me to focus on what’s important and make the most of every situation. Hopefully these tips will prove helpful to you as you begin your backpacking journey 🙂
Watch the full tip video!
Want to read more? Our first stop: Iceland.
Questions? Ask away! What are your travel tips?