The other day, a friend sent me an email asking for tips for his first backpacking trip.
“So I am starting to plan a trip this Summer to backpack in Europe,” he wrote. “But I have not decided where or when.”
Being the good friend that I am, I quickly got to work on a response, which turned into a sprawling, 2,000-word mini-guide filled with basic tips on planning your first European backpacking trip.
After I sent it off, I figured that some other backpacking newbies might find it useful, so I decided to post it here.
This is a hotly debatable topic with many varying opinions and, therefore, should by no means be considered definitive; I just wrote about what I know and thought was important for a first-timer in the early planning stages. If you have tips to add, please do so in the comment section!
There are a ton of resources out on the web for this type of stuff, but I’ll offer up my two cents:
As for when, Summer is going to be the busiest time of the year to be in Europe. This is good and bad. It’s good because you’ll have absolutely no problems finding other like-minded travelers to hang out with no matter where in Europe you are, but bad because prices are generally higher and reservations sometimes need to be made further in advance (as opposed to not at all in the off season). I wouldn’t let this you dissuade you, however, for two reasons: 1) With the dollar the way it is now, prices are going to be high regardless. Better get used to it. 2) Being forced to make reservations in advance means you have to be a bit more organized, which is definitely good for your first real backpacking trip. Regardless, if your time frame is “Summer,” it won’t make too much of a difference whether you choose June or August. They will both be equally busy.
As for where, this is the fun of travel — picking where you want to go. If you’ve already settled on Europe, I’d recommend going to National Geographic’s website and ordering a big, paper map of all of Europe. Hang it on your wall and stare at it for a while — you’ll start to visualize various routes that make sense, and generally start to get an idea of where you want to go.
In the early stages, you’ll need to walk a fine line between planning enough, but not too much. Not planning enough means you’ll waste a lot of time and money. Planning too much means you’ll be far too restricted for the trip to seem like any kind of adventure. Here’s what I recommend:
- Find out how much money you have to spend. As a general rule of thumb, plan on spending $1,000 for round-trip airfare, and another $2,000 per month for everything else. You’ll also want to set aside about $500 for a Eurrail pass (more on this later). $2,000 per month is also an overestimation; you can most definitely spend less, but if you’re anything like me (and I have a good feeling you are), you actually want to have a good time, drink lots of beer, eat good food, and have a lot of fun while NOT sleeping in a bedbug-infested room. This all takes money. $2,000 per month in Central and Western Europe is a good estimation — it works out to about $66 a day, or €45. You can most definitely spend more, too, so be careful and stick to a budget!
- Pick a starting point. This will most likely be a major city where flights are cheapest. Paris, London, Amsterdam — the big ones. Use www.kayak.com to track flights from your hometown to all the major European cities during the time frame. This link to Kayak, for instance, shows all the flights from St. Louis to major European cities in June, ranked by price. Ireland and Germany are the cheapest right now at just under $1,000, but this changes often. You can also get what’s called an “open jaw” ticket, meaning you fly into one city, but fly out of another. This works well if you plan on visiting a lot of countries, and makes planning a route easier since you don’t have to double-back around to get home. These are generally more expensive, too. Regardless of what you do, I’d buy your ticket no later than the last day in February, else the prices will skyrocket and you’ll end up paying a lot more than you would now.
- Figure out your must-see list. Once you have your flights figured out, and know what city you’re flying into and out of, and how much time you have, you can start to figure out what you absolutely want to see. For instance, if you’re flying into Paris and are absolutely positive you want to see Greece, you will have to plan accordingly and head south-east as soon as possible. Once you have your list of must-see sites and cities, you can then….
- Create your itinerary. I used to be under the impression that itineraries were generally lame, but I don’t agree anymore. You need to have at least a rough idea of where you’re headed, or else you’ll waste a lot of time and money trying to figure out where to go when you should be spending that time drinking beer and ogling hot European women. Therefore, it’s best to have a loose itinerary — one that gives you a bit of structure, but not so much that it restricts you. You still want to be able to change plans at the last minute if you want/need to, and this will most likely happen. You’ll meet a lot of cool people that say hey, we’re heading to Poland tomorrow, wanna come? You want to be able to accommodate situations like that.
Some other information:
The Eurial Pass is pretty awesome. The one you’d be interested in getting is called the Eurail Flexi Pass. You can get this pass in chunks of time, like 10 days, 15 days, 30 days, all the way up to two months. But the cool thing about it is you’re only charged time for being physically on the train. So say you go to Europe for a month, you could get a 10 day pass (€387), and you can ride any train to over 25 different countries. (See a list of the supported countries here.) This means that during your month-long trip, you can pick any 10 days to be on the train. According to their website, “A travelday on a Eurail Pass is the period from 12 midnight on one day until 12 midnight on the following day. You can travel as much as you like during that 24-hour period and hop on an off any train whenever you want (except for some high speed trains which require seat reservations, they still count as one travel day, but you will need a reservation prior to boarding).” For a month-long trip, I’d recommend at least 10 days, maybe 15, but it all depends on how long you’d plan on staying in each city. The Eurail also gets you on some boats, too, like the one from Italy to Greece and back.
Assuming you plan on staying in hostels (you should), I’d recommend booking about 2-3 days in advance while on the road. When you find out what city you’re flying into, book well into advance, and give yourself a few days there to get over jet lag and whatnot. But once you’re on the road, plan on booking a few days in advance — especially during the Summer. A good routine is this: Arrive in a city, spend the first day checking out the local sites and, at the same time, be thinking of where you’re heading to next. That night, book a bed in a hostel in the next city you plan on visiting, which should be about 2 or 3 days away. There are a few good ways to find decent hostels to stay in:
- Websites like HostelWorld.com have a huge database of hostels with user ratings. You can search by city, and sort by things like price, rating, location, etc. This website comes in extremely handy if for no other reason than research. But just because HostelWorld lists a particular hostel as being full, don’t assume it is right. Hostels typically only book a portion of their beds through HW to allow for walk-ups. So if HW says the hostel is booked, try emailing them or calling, chances are they have availability. Also, many hostel booking sites charge a booking fee, which might not necessarilly cost you any more money, but it tends tod gouge the hostels. This is especially detrimental to the independently-owned hostels. A good alternative to HostelWorld is Gomio. Unlike HW, they don’t charge hostel owners booking fees.
- Your fellow travelers you meet on the road are the best source of information, however. If you’re heading to Munich, for instance, ask around — there’s a good chance someone was either just there, or has been there in the past. Get recommendations from them.
- Ask the hostel staff. They’ll give you recommendations and pamphlets on other hostels in cities you plan on going.
Packing. Millions of words can be written about packing, but I’ll keep it simple: pack as little as humanly possible. You could spend tons and tons of money buying every little travel accessory that will supposedly make your trip easier and pack heavier, but don’t. Invest in a decent, mid-sized backpack (I recommend under 65 litres, not one of the huge, stereotypical framed backpacks), a money belt, and a decent pair of shoes that are built for walking comfort. For clothes, I pack about 5 days worth, and do laundry on the road. Most hostels have laundry services that are either free or cheap enough. 5 shirts, 1 pair of pants, 5 pairs of socks, 5 pairs of boxers, 1 pair of sleep shorts. That’s it. What most people seem to forget is anything you could ever need can be bought while on the road. Rip your pants? Buy a new pair — it’ll probably be cheaper than what you’d pay back home.
Prices on the road. In general, plan on paying anywhere from €15-25 on a hostel bed, per night. This could be cheaper or more expensive depending on where you go. Western Europe (generally regarded as everything west of, and including, Germany) will be the most expensive. Central Europe, like some parts of Germany, Greece (could be considered west, I guess), Czech Republic (highly recommended), Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and that area is considered Central, and a little less expensive. The cheapest part of Europe is Eastern, like Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and the like. If you want the cheapest beer, go to Poland and Czech Republic, for sure.
- www.kayak.com — airplane ticket agregator
/eve/forums/a/frm/f/307095755 — BootsNAll Europe travel forum. If you have a question, it’s likely been asked before on this forum, so browse around.
/thorntree/index.jspa — Thorn Tree forum. Another good forum.
- http://www.eurail.com/ — Eurail information
- http://www.hostelworld.com/ — book hostels online.