Compilation of things I’ve learned after backpacking Europe for a few months
In about three months, I did a (mostly) solo trip through Scotland, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Czechia, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, Slovakia, Switzerland, and England in (mostly) that order. Still on it actually (in London right now) and have a stop or two more planned before heading back home. I’m an American mid-twenties female. This was my first trip. I planned no particular budget, but spent about $2,000 per month.
I thought of a lot of questions people might have before undertaking such a trip, such as:
- What steps do I need to take beforehand?
- How do I find cheap places to stay?
- How do I figure out what to do when I arrive?
- How do I make friends and meet people?
- How do I figure out how to get to and from each location?
- What do I bring?
- How do I keep track of everything?
Here’s how I did (doing) it, hopefully it helps you.
- Google Trips: Google Trips will creepily go through your email and gather all your flight tickets, train and bus tickets, and hostel bookings and store them all in one place. It will give you a list of all the popular parks, museums, landmarks, and you can star the ones you like, which will go into Google Maps.
- Google Maps: Google Maps will store all the stars from Google Trips so you know where the main interesting areas are, and it will show you where you are at any time, data or no. Download the map of each location before you get there at your hostel, and delete it when you leave.
- Hostelworld: I booked every accomodation through Hostelworld. Filter by price, and look at “Map view” to book a place close to all the stuff you want to see.
- Ryanair: Almost all of my flights around Europe were 20 to 80 dollars through RyanAir. You can take one carry-on and one small item, so a daypack and a backpack. No need to check luggage, pay for a seat, or anything extra.
- Flixbus: Cheap buses that go pretty much everywhere (except southern Portugal and Spain, I noticed).
- Rome2Rio: Put your starting and ending destination, and Rome2Rio will show you the planes, trains, buses, and possible rideshare, ferries, and other options to get there, including prices and links to the local transportation website.
- WhatsApp: I don’t have Facebook, and texting isn’t really a thing in Europe. Everyone you meet you can keep in touch via WhatsApp.
- Beforehand: I was dedicated, and preparing for a while. It all depends on how dedicated you are. I paid off all my school/car/credit card debt, planned to leave right when my apartment lease was up, and quit my full-time job (on very good terms) when I saved up enough. So with no rent, no debt, no phone, no utilities, no car payment, no Netflix, I have almost no fixed costs (except health insurance because…America). This was years of deciding if [insert thing here] was more important, or adventure and financial security was more important.
- Phone: I cancelled my phone service (retained for like 5/month) and just kept Wifi. As I have an iPhone, I could communicate with any other iPhone users via iMessage. Otherwise, there’s WhatsApp, which everyone uses to communicate in Europe, and everything else you can do at coffeeshops and hostels. I also bought a cheap burner phone for ten pounds in the U.K. which I use just for calls and texts if necessary to have a real phone.
- Finding transportation and accomodation: Here was my process: Locate airport or train station, and mark it as a “heart” icon in Google Maps. Go on Google Trips and star all the interesting things you want to see. Seeing the radius of interesting things, go on Hostelworld and book a hostel for 10–25 dollars per night that’s within walking distance. Mark hostel as a “heart” icon. Now your map clearly displays where you’re getting dropped off, where you need to get to, and all the things to see. Most airports have a bus or train into the city, and you can either ask someone or use Google Maps (sometimes) to figure out the route. I tried to book flights and trains that would allow me to arrive and get to my hostel during daytime, but that wasn’t always possible.
- Meeting people — Just say “Hey, where are you from?” “Where are you guys from?” or “How are you doing?”, “What are you up to today?”. It really is that simple. To who? People sitting around eating breakfast, people in your dorm room, anyone by themselves who isn’t on their headphones or laptop. Many hostels have free walking tours (which I sadly never went on), some have pub crawls and boat tours and culturally specific tours, which are an easy way to be in forced proximity with people long enough to befriend them.
- In Europe, always keep your ticket. Many countries require you to scan your tram/train/bus/lift ticket before AND after you use it. Also, many places require you to validate the ticket in a machine after buying it and before using it. Fines are harsh if you don’t.
- Most hostels don’t allow you to check in before 1:00pm or 2:00pm. You can arrive and store your luggage and walk around and come back later if you’re early.
- Staying safe: I don’t know. I’m from Chicago, it’s much more dangerous than any of the places I visited. Be aware, be alert, and honestly I kept everything in a fannie pack because I’m frumpy like that. Hoodie or coat around the waist is also supposedly a fashion faux-pas, but it does cover up your back pocket and I do it all the time for convenience sake. There will always be some possibility of danger, at home or abroad, alone or with friends.
- Prices: I mostly spent $10 to $30 per night at hostels, depending on the location. I spent $20 to $30 on buses and trains, and $20 to $150 on flights. There are many flights through WOW Air to Scotland for $200. I got a flight to Scotland for $90 by watching it with Google Flights tracking.
- What to bring and how to keep track of everything: I made a backpacking planner spreadsheet on Google Sheets. It has tabs for itinerary, transportation, accomodation, contacts, budget, and a packing list. Below is a link to an empty one that you can use for yourself. Here is the link to the spreadsheet. Feel free to copy it to your own drive.
- HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. Take care of this shit before you think you’re all depressed.
- Learn to be okay with your own company. Learn to be okay with silence. Learn to be okay without social media and politics. Walk everywhere, as much as possible. Say “yes” to more things. In a few billion years the sun will blow up and all of human history will be lost forever. Saying “hello” to someone you don’t know is relatively small in the grand scheme of things.
- Bonus point, if you have obscure European ancestry like me, do a little digging to see if you can connect with long lost family. All the ones I met were more than happy to show me around and/or host me.