Tips for Backpacking Europe
My friend and I backpacked through Europe for two months during the summer of 2015. We traveled through 11 countries and 13 cities, sleeping in night trains and hostels.
Here are the tips we swore by, and some we wished we had adhered to a bit more strongly.
Tip #1: Pick the right backpack.
This may seem like the easiest hurdle of your trip, but it’s really one of the most important. Your backpack is a deciding factor for whether you’re miserable throughout your trip, so pick something that isn’t too big, fits your frame, and is front-loading. Front-loading backpacks are amazing because they make it easy to access everything in your pack without having to dig. You don’t want to be the person in the hostel rifling through your pack at 2 a.m.
Tip #2: Pick the right hostel(s).
If you’ve never stayed in a hostel, you might be nervous about what to expect. There are thousands of hostel horror stories out there, but I’m here to tell you that in all of the 13 hostels I stayed in, I never had a serious problem. The hostels ranged from surprisingly nice to a little rough around the edges.
Remember to pay attention to three specific things when searching for hostels on any website: rating, location, and reviews. Rating is pretty self-explanatory, and an important indicator of how good the hostel is, because the rating comes directly from people that have stayed there. Location tells you how far the hostel is from the city center, and also tells you how much extra cash you might have to spend on public transport. And finally, sift through reviews to find anything especially alarming, but don’t get hung up on the ones that seem to have a personal vendetta against the place.
Additionally, pay attention to your hostel’s reception times. If they say to let them know if you’re going to be late, then let them know. If you don’t, you run the risk of not having a bed to sleep in that night. Most hostels have 24/7 reception desks, but make sure you know this beforehand because a small amount do not.
Also, if your hostel offers free guided tours, which most will, do it! I can’t stress this enough. They’re usually free, and only require a small tip for the group leader at the end. One of our most amazing experiences while in Granada, Spain was a hostel walking tour that took us up to the cave community of Sacromonte. We even got to go into one of the caves because our guide was friends with the owners. It was an amazing experience we never would have gotten without doing the tour!
Tip #3: Decide on transportation (Eurail Pass, planes, etc.).
For my trip, I used a Eurail Global Pass that allowed me to travel on trains for 10 days within 2 months. However, this may not be the ideal choice for your trip. I picked this pass because I was going through so many cities/countries and taking trains was the most painless avenue. But if your trip is shorter, planes can be an optimal choice, especially with Europe’s budget airlines like RyanAir and easyJet. There is also the option of point-to-point train tickets instead of a Eurail pass.
FYI: Your Eurail pass will not cover Switzerland’s private train lines. I learned this the hard way, and had to pay the 50 franc ticket on the train when the conductor informed my friend and I that our passes were not valid. My friend did not have the money, and because people in Europe are extremely nice, she was able to pay at our stop in Zermatt. This won’t always be the case, though, so study up on what the pass does and does not cover.
Tip #4: Book ahead for certain museums and attractions.
As you may already know, some museums in Europe are extremely difficult to get into if you don’t already have a ticket. They require hours upon hours of waiting in line, sometimes in the dreadful heat or pouring rain.
So my tip to you, if you are able, is to plan and book ahead for the places you know will be crowded. For example, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam is usually completely sold out for months. If you know you want to go to a museum or attraction that has ridiculously long lines, get your tickets now.
FYI: While it is definitely important to plan and book ahead, if you do find yourself in a long line don’t pay your way out. While in line in Florence to see the statue of David, we were offered multiple times to buy into a group tour that would get us out of the line and into the museum much faster. We were outside in 100 degree heat and while the offer was enticing, the 70 euro price tag was not. In addition, we ended up getting into the Galleria dell’Accademia before the people that bought into the tour. However, if the offer is cheap and you can see people getting into the museum much faster, then go for it. But if it seems to good to be true, it most likely is.
Tip #5: Eat away from the main streets.
This is kind of obvious, and while it may seem easier to pick a restaurant right in the middle of everything, you can truly find some gems just a few streets over. Walk around and look at different menus — and don’t be afraid to say no when someone immediately comes out to talk you into the restaurant. Because that will happen.
FYI: Use TripAdvisor to find out about a restaurant you’re not so sure about. Also, if the restaurant has a TripAdvisor sticker on their door, that doesn’t always mean their reviews are good.
Tip #6: Pack sparingly.
I know, I know. You want to take that cute black dress or those new trainers that would look great as you trot around London. But let me be frank: you don’t and won’t need them. While you may wear them once, they will only be a burden to you in the future as you repack your bag every couple of days.
When packing my bag, I used 3 main packing cubes: one for shirts, one for shorts/pants, and one for underwear/bras. The most useful advice you could take would be to pack for a week, or a little more than a week. That means at most, pack 7 shirts and 7 pants. I followed this advice and I still overpacked, as I barely wore half the things I brought. If you think you’ll need it, you won’t.
Here are your staples: at least 3 t-shirts, 1 long-sleeved shirt, one sweatshirt/sweater, 2 pairs of shorts, 1 pair of sweats/leggings, and 1 pair of jeans if absolutely necessary. I’ve seen people say not to bring jeans, but I ended up wearing mine a lot, so it truly depends on how often you wear jeans normally. If you don’t wear them often at home, you won’t wear them ever abroad.
Tip #7 (and possibly most important): Learn to laugh when things go wrong.
If you plan to travel as long as I did, something will go wrong. This isn’t exactly a promise, but it is a statistical probability. While I can’t tell you how to handle the situation specifically, I can tell you to relax and laugh at your predicament instead of stressing and freaking out.
For example, while we expected to take a train from Munich to Prague, we were re-routed to a bus for a portion of the journey. While this may not seem like a big deal, it just so happened that about 80 other people were re-routed to the same 2 buses. Which filled up before we even got there. So, we were forced to stand or sit in the aisle for the two-hour bus ride while a group of crazy German boys drank beer in the back, singing songs at the tops of their lungs. We laughed a lot during that bus trip, because it was the better alternative to crying.
Some final notes:
Have fun. Don’t expect everything to go as planned. Eat new things. Create your own tour. Talk to people in hostels. Sit on a bench in the city center. Go outside your comfort zone.
And finally, in the words of Emily Dickinson:
“If your Nerve, deny you —
Go above your Nerve — ”