Backpacking through Europe has long-since been the quintessential 20-somethings holiday― while there are a million amazing places to explore, and some even more appealing than Europe, there will always be something magical about zipping across borders on a sleeper train, climbing a church tower for views over a quaint old city, strolling along cobbled streets, and subsisting exclusively on pastries, all the while collecting patches to sew onto your backpack. I can’t pretend to be an expert on Europe, but I’ve certainly loved every minute spent traveling there, so here are a dozen tips to help you have the best backpacking trip. Doubtlessly, you’ll end up just as enamoured with the continent as everyone else.
1. Travel in the off-season
I may absolutely hate cold weather, but I hate crowds more, so travelling Europe in November and December proved to be one of the better decisions I’ve ever made. Not only are prices lower in the off-season and reservations significantly easier to get, there’s a fraction of the travellers that descend upon Europe in the summer and you won’t spend your whole holiday battling with sweaty crowds. Despite the chilly days, it was one million percent worth visiting during winter for the quiet alone, but I also loved being in Europe leading up to the holidays. We spent our days at Christmas markets, drinking mulled wine and hot soup, and there’s just nothing quite like a white Christmas! Even if you don’t visit in winter, skip the over-popular summer period and opt to visit when you’ll actually have an opportunity to enjoy yourself.
2. Plan your own trip
It’s seriously so easy to plan your own trip these days. Tour companies make a killing off overcharging people, as do travel agents (and honestly, what do they know that you don’t know? You’ve got the entire internet at your fingertips and with it the firsthand advice of millions of people who’ve actually been to that city rather than a young girl sitting at a desk who’s hardly left the country and is just trying to meet her sales targets), so indisputably the best way to travel on a budget is to just to do it yourself. I buy my flights from either Skyscanner or Momondo and then start to cobble together my itinerary in a spreadsheet.
3. Make your reservations well in advance
The unfortunate thing about travelling in Europe compared to other parts of the world is that reservations really do need to be made well in advance, even if you’re travelling in off season, so you don’t have quite the same flexibility in your plans. Still, I change my itinerary a million times before I actually lock anything in. The first thing I book, after my international flights, is all of my internal transport.
4. Travel by train whenever possible
In Europe in particular, but also on all of my trips through South America and Asia, it’s usually smartest to travel by train (or bus) rather than taking flights. Europe has some of the cheapest flights I’ve ever seen (you can fly between countries for $20!? It’s literally more expensive to check a bag than it is to get a seat on the plane), so the natural inclination is to book only these cheap internal flights and feel quite pleased with yourself. There are a number of reasons, though, that I think it’s actually unwise to fly if there’s an option to bus/train.
Firstly, as I just mentioned, it’s usually more expensive than the actual flight to check a bag, so if you are travelling with a backpack larger than 7kg, you’re already looking at 2-3x the listed price of the flight. It’s deceptive! Secondly, airports are usually located outside the city (while train and bus stations are usually quite central), so you’ll need to factor in the cost of transport to and from the airport, which can often add quite a bit of money. For the same reason, it can also add quite a bit of time― if you need to be at your flight 2 hours early and then you add on the time of taking several different metro lines, you’ve already lost several hours of sleep or time to explore! On the other hand, you can safely arrive at the train 20 minutes before it’s scheduled to leave AND it’s likely to be much closer to your accommodation. Further to the point, a lot of budget airlines like Ryan Air operate out of secondary airports, and you may not even realise this when you book. In Paris, for instance, most budget flights leave from Beauvais rather than Charles de Gaulle or Orly, so you may end up riding the metro to reach a bus station and then paying 15€ for a bus ticket just to get to the airport. More time, more money.
Thirdly, and most importantly, train travel is part of the classic Euro trip. If you don’t ride at least one sleeper train, did you even backpack Europe?! I absolutely love train travel, having taken many multi-day train trips across America as a teenager (my dad is also a lover of trains), and it’s undeniably more fun to watch the countryside roll by through your window than to be waiting in long security lines at the airport. And also more comfortable to stretch out in your compartment with all your bags next to you and not worry about transporting liquids! It really is the ultimate, so I try and travel by train whenever possible, even if the ticket price is slightly higher.
5. But ditch the Eurail Pass
I grew up hearing all of mum’s stories about training across Europe with her friends, and I could hardly wait to have my own Eurail adventure, but gone are the days when you could buy a Eurail Pass for a few hundred dollars and hop on and off trains spontaneously all over the European continent. When I looked into it, I was horrified to find that you’ll likely spend over $1000 just to get a Pass that doesn’t even entitle you to free travel across all trains. Easily half of the European trains will charge you additional fees to ride, you will pay plenty of extra fees for a sleeper train, and you’ll be stuck with booking fees left, right, and centre. Oh yes, and that’s the worst part: you’ll be making reservations weeks in advance. You can’t just show up to the train station and choose a destination at random like you were once able; instead, you’ll have to book in advance just like everyone without the Pass.
Just considering the cost alone, it’s not worth it anymore to use a Eurail Pass (unless maybe you’re an EU citizen, because they get hefty discounts). But factor in the ridiculous limits on which countries you can travel within, the rules about traveling on consecutive days, and the extra fees for booking in advance, the Eurail Pass is effectively so different from what it once was that I can’t understand why anyone would want to use it. Just book your trains online and forget about using the Pass, however fun your mum’s stories may be.
6. Use Airbnb to stay with locals
While campsites, hostels, and hotels certainly still have their place on a Euro trip, I am a huge fan of Airbnb in Europe. And, contrary to what my mum seems to think, Airbnb actually provides really nice accommodation! Not only is it cheaper than staying in a hotel, you also have the opportunity to connect more with locals and local culture. This is someone’s home you’re staying in, so it’s not usually in the same part of town as all the hotels, which might mean it’s in an even nicer spot or that it’s in a residential area and you have the opportunity to explore the city more like a local. If you’re staying in a private room within someone’s flat, you’ll even get to interact directly with people who know the city best. We got phenomenal recommendations off our hosts in Ljubljana, Budapest, and Amsterdam, and discovered places we never would have found on our own. And in the other cities where we rented the entire flat to ourselves, the hosts were still available via email before the trip to answer all sorts of questions about their city and offer recommendations of good places to visit nearby. It really is the ultimate!
7. Take advantage of free walking tours
Despite being a bit wary of organised tours in general, I came to really appreciate the free walking tours available in most European cities. For starters, they are free (!!), but they are also a great way to learn about historically significant places that you definitely would have just walked right on by if not for a guide. I can highly recommend this walking tour of Kraków, which leads you through the Jewish Quarter, and this tour of Prague. It’s a good way to spend an afternoon getting acquainted with a new part of the world, getting some exercise, and saving a bit of cash!
8. Don’t forget about nature
On the other hand, don’t spend your entire holiday walking around Europe’s beautiful cities and forget to check out Europe’s beautiful nature! I started to burn out on cities after a while, so taking a break from the history and all the bustle was a necessity. There are a million amazing mountains and lakes to explore, so get out of the city and enjoy a bit of nature on your holiday.
9. Don’t wave your valuables about
In South America, it’s particularly important to be wary of your belongings, as anyone with expensive electronics and full wallets becomes an easy target for muggings― I met a couple who had $1000 in cash, their passports, and their laptops taken at knife-point because they had an expensive-looking camera out in a dodgy area. That just screams “mug me, I have money!” While being held at gun or knife-point may not be as large a concern when backpacking Europe, there are still plenty of European cities where pickpocketing is a real risk (probably one of the worst for it is Rome).
I’ve managed to avoid being a target thus far by just being aware of my valuables. It’s that easy. Don’t put your brand new iPhone in the back pocket of your jeans, don’t carry a wallet or purse in your hand, and don’t leave your expensive camera in an easily accessible part of your backpack. It’s seriously common sense, but I know a lot of people who have had their pockets emptied on a metro or while in a crowd of people and they didn’t even know it was happening. I think money belts are definitely overkill, but don’t underestimate the importance of having a backpack that’s difficult for people to get into and of holding it in front of you in busy places.
Another favourite trick of mine, again better for places where mugging is a greater concern than pickpocketing, is to distribute my cash all over my person. I might have $200 on me at any one time, but I’ll have some in my bra, some buried deep in my backpack, some tucked in with my camera, and some in a front pants pocket depending on what I’m wearing. That way, you could hand over the contents of one pocket and never lose more than a quarter of your money in a mugging. Similarly, and this goes without saying (and yet I see people do it all the time), don’t walk away from the ATM with a huge wad of cash out. Count it discretely and put it away before you even leave the ATM, I don’t know why anyone would think it’s smart to just have $500 in their hand walking around.
To that end, my last suggestion is to be discreet about your valuables. That means being wary of when it’s probably not a good time to pull out your $2,000 camera. In an alleyway at night, for instance. A really good trick that we used in South America was to tape up our cameras with electrical tape to make them look old and in poor condition. Not only does it discourage someone from running off with your DSLR, but it also doesn’t draw attention to your wealth. Nothing makes you a target quite like being a confused foreigner with shiny new electronics.
10. Get a SIM card with unlimited data
If you’re someone who likes to have a working phone to check on reservations and use Google Maps (an absolute must if you’re driving around Europe), you should invest in a SIM card with data. There’s a UK mobile company called 3 that offers free unlimited data roaming and it works in nearly all European countries! If you’ll be in the UK, easy: just pick a SIM card up at a store, I think it’s 20GBP ($33AUD) for the unlimited deal. If you won’t be in the UK: still possible, but you’ll pay a bit of a premium. I ordered one as a Christmas gift for my stepmother off this site, which is totally legitimate, they just mark up the price. I paid about $50AUD for the same unlimited SIM― the price of convenience, I guess!
11. But also seize the opportunity to disconnect
One of my favourite things about travel is just disconnecting from social media and constant communication with people for a while. We spend all day, every day talking to one another on the phone, over text, on Facebook, on email, so it’s so refreshing to just be in the moment for once. We actually decided not to put any data on our phones while we were travelling through Europe until we rented a car and needed it for directions because I was worried that we’d spend downtime on the train or at a cafe scrolling through social media instead of actually looking at each other and talking, or meeting new people, or reading a book! We had wifi at most every place we stayed, so it wasn’t as if we were off the grid, we just used our days to speak to humans face to face and I’m so glad that we did.
12. Go somewhere different
My last piece of advice is simply to go somewhere a little different. Visit less touristy places in Eastern Europe, hop on a bike and ride out of the city to find charming country towns, pack up and go on a long hike through the alps, volunteer on a dairy farm, just go somewhere out of the ordinary― it may just be the best part of your whole trip.