When I was 20 years old I had a working holiday visa for the UK, bought my 70 litre backpack and train pass and set off with visions of backpacking Europe; jumping on trains around, seeing a new country every day and exploring all the different cultures, food, history, etc.
Reality kicked in when I had my first stopover in Frankfurt, it was 10 pm, I couldn’t find my hostel, I was exhausted from carrying my oversize backpack and I realized very few people understood my English. Finally I found someone to give me directions, stepped over someone passed out over a sheet of tin foil and into my hostel. Alone.
This was before Google Maps, smart phones and wifi everywhere, and before Frankfurt implemented a harm reduction strategy around drug users. On this trip I quickly learned a few things about backpacking Europe and have been back quite a few times since better equipped.
A few tips for the Europe first timer:
- When booking your flight to Europe, consider an open jaw ticket. If you are going to travel around, why would you fly round trip into the same airport? Open jaw flights often have savings, in addition to preventing you from backtracking. For tips on booking flights, click here. For my next trip to Europe (September 2018) I will be flying into Copenhagen and home from Oslo with some pretty cool stops in between.
- Where to even begin with itinerary planning? You can book a group tour, or you can check out their itineraries to get ideas of where to go and build your own trip. Lonely planet guides typically have route suggestions at the front of each book as well.
- Book transportation and accommodation in advance during high season. If you have that same vision I had when I was 20 of backpacking around Europe going with your mood and leaving
cities only after you had fully explored them, you better go during low season, or bring lots of cash. I have managed to do this type of travel outside of summer months and it is definitely my preferred way of travelling – I never imagined I’d end up in Bosnia but absolutely loved it after jumping on a bus to Mostar following a recommendation by a traveller I met in Croatia. I live for these moments, but they have to happen outside of June/July/August.
- Speaking of cash, bring local currency. Since you could be arriving in a country at midnight from another country, make sure you have enough to get you through the first day until you find a bank machine or currency exchange. Most countries use the Euro, but not all. I recommend bringing at least $50 cash in all currencies of the countries you will be visiting.
- Research before buying that train pass. I ended up returning that train pass I had bought for my first trip after realizing most trains required advance reservations (with an extra fee!) and that it was often cheaper to take a bus or a flight around Europe. My vision of jumping on a train at the last minute, going wherever my wanderlust would take me, was squashed when I was in Paris and found out the next reservable train to Italy wasn’t for 3 more days. Perhaps the train passes are better now, but it is still worth doing your research.
- Renting a car might be the best way for you to get around. Beware of drop fees, especially if going to another country. These fees won’t show up on the first page so you might think you’re
getting a great deal until you click to the final quote and realize they’ve added a 600 euro fee. If you find a good deal, renting a car can be a cost effective and comfortable way of getting around. Unless you can’t read German and end up getting a ticket in Austria that you can’t pay because you don’t have any of the payment options available to you so end up mailing an envelope of cash to a friend in Germany who could pay with her bank. In that case, renting a car can get a tad expensive. Also, not that most rental cars in Europe are manual (standard) so if like me you only know how to drive automatic, pack a friend who can drive standard.
- Before buying that bargain Ryanair, Easyjet, Wow, Wizz, or other budget airline flight, check the fine print. Baggage fees can quickly add up and end up costing more than a full service flight. And to prevent an unplanned sprint through the Barcelona airport at boarding time, ensure you know all the regulations (such as foreigners need a stamp before passing security) because nobody is going to tell you on these cheap lines. Oh and that boarding pass you need to get stamped? Print it at home to save yourself the printing fee at the airport. Do I still fly these airlines? Absolutely. But I also do my research first including transportation from their often remote airports (is flying into London Luton airport to save a few pounds better than the more convenient Heathrow?)
- To save some serious time and money, consider sleeping on the train, bus, or ferry between destinations. You will not get a great sleep and will hate yourself in the morning but you will save a significant amount of time and money. DO NOT DO THIS TWO NIGHTS IN A ROW. You deserve a real bed at least once every 2 days.
- If you are travelling with another person,
hotels might be cheaper than hostels. In Amsterdam we scored an awesome 4 star hotel (NH in the centre) on Hotwire for less than the cost of two dorm beds at the nearby hostel! For my Hotwire and other accommodation tips click here.
- Keep an eye on your stuff. Pickpockets love tourists and work hard at train/bus stations. I felt as uneasy about getting robbed in Italy as I do when I go to Central America. Thankfully due to my wise packing techniques, the only thing stolen out of my bag in Naples was dirty underwear.
- Make friends with the locals to get some insider tips and possibly a free place to stay. But take their advice with caution or you could end up miserable and freezing in the pouring rain sleeping in a tent in the middle of a field in England.
- Skip the big bus tours. Unless you have mobility challenges you will be able to show yourself to the main attractions walking or taking public transit for a lot cheaper, and on your own timeline. Even better than standing in line with all the other tourists for mainstream attractions, consider checking out some of the more local spots or events. Check out a soccer (they call it football) game, a local parade – I ended up being in Amsterdam one year for the Sinter Klaas parade which was awesome! or look up random smaller known attractions like the random farm animal rescue centre in Germany I spent a morning at. I also had the chance to watch one of my favourite North American bands play a show in Cardiff Wales as my Europe dates coincided with their tour and I happened to have a friend living in Wales at the time. Europe is about so much more than the Eiffel Tower and Buckingham Palace.