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Backpacking in Europe 101: Essential Tips + Resources

by Gizelle Lau
From Adventure + Outdoors
April 17, 2009


Need to start planning your backpacking adventure to Europe?  For today's generation of 20 to 30-somethings, backpacking in Europe is almost a right of passage.  Sleeping on overnight trains, chilling at cafes all day and meeting other like-minded vagabonds and wanderers from all over the world at hostels. 

This week, TripAtlas.com is bringing you essential tips on backpacking in Europe for students, backpackers, flashpackers and budget travellers.  From what to pack, how to choose the right backpack, finding a hostel, how to plan your route and more.

More on Europe?  Discover TripAtlas.com's Favourite European Destinations for the top picks from our travel experts; explore the best of Irresistible Rome: 5 Highlights of the Eternal City; or find out about the 10 Most Romantic Things to do in Venice, Italy.

Backpacking in Europe 101: Essential Tips & Resources

BackpackMake sure you choose the right kind of backpack!


Whether you're backpacking for 2 weeks or 6 months, a good backpack is worth the investment, costing you from $100+.  Look for a backpack that has a strong internal frame (external frames can get bulky) and well-padded straps that will help transfer the weight in your pack from your shoulders/back to your hips. Get a panel or front-loading backpack rather than one that loads from the top so you can easily access your items without having to dig to the bottom. Backpack size depends on your height, weight and body shape, so getting the biggest backpack isn't a good idea because it could be painful and cause injury.  If possible, get a backpack that has another smaller daypack that can attach/un-attach to your larger backpack, making it easier when moving from one place to the next.  Locks are also a good idea to keep your stuff secure!

Go to Mountain Equipment Coop's Backpack Info Page for more on finding the right backpack for you.

Packing essentials: How to pack, what to pack and what not to forget

The lighter you back, the better - especially if you're planning on picking up souvenirs.  For clothing, pack enough for just under 1 week and plan on doing laundry every 1-2 weeks.  Some people belong to the "folding" theory of packing while others adhere to the "rolling" theory.  Find out which works best for you - personally, I do a bit of both.  Remember that what you pack also depends on seasons (heavier sweathers/jackets for winter and flip flops for summer!).  If you're going for an extended period of time, send home heavier sweaters when they're no longer needed.

Pack a pillowcase and bedsheet or "hostel sheet" if you're worried about the cleanliness of hostel accommodations.  If travelling with a buddy, share items like hair dryer, shampoo/conditioner, laundry detergent and etc., to save you both from having to lug around extra weight.  Depending on your hostel, pack a pot and utensils for cooking.  Flip flop are essentials to avoid attracting foot-related diseases in communal showers.  A light windbreak or rain jacket wth a hood is essential for insulating warmth and work better than umbrellas. Always pack a copy of your travel documents/ID (and scan/send to your email) in cases of emergency.  Guidebooks are useful as quick references for places to go, history/story behind attractions and maps but can get heavy and bring you to tourist traps.

For a great guide on how to pack light, go to: OneBag.com - the Art and Science of Travelling Light.

Hostel in EuropeWhere to stay: finding, researching and booking hostels or CouchSurfing


Try to book your hostels before leaving home so that you won't have to knock on doors at 2am.  Some great websites for finding hostels are: HostelBookers.com; HostelWorld.com and HostelsEurope.com.  Be wary of traveller reviews on these sites and always use TripAdvisor.com for better unbiased reviews.  For the more adventurous travellers, the CouchSurfing network offers free board on a fellow CouchSurfer's couch with the understanding that you will open up your couch at home to passing CouchSurfers.  Visit: CouchSurfing.com for more.

Backpacking alone vs. travelling with friends


Travelling alone and travelling with friends both have pros and cons.  When travelling by yourself, you tend to meet more people, learn to become more independent and really give yourself the chance to "find yourself."  On the other hand, travelling with friends can also be a lot of fun, but it can get tricky and requires patience, good communication and a lot of compromising.  Before deciding to travel with someone, it's important to discuss some of the following: your goals for the trip (art galleries, meeting people, partying or relaxing in seclusion?), your budgets (McDonalds or Chez Pierre?), preferred destinations and travel pace.

Budgeting for your European backpack adventure


Your largest expenses backpacking through Europe will be transportation ($1000 to/from Europe and $250+ within Europe) and accommodations (find as low as $10/night).  All other expenses like food, attractions and shopping are easier to control.  The best way to experience all the amazing sights and foods of Europe without having to spend your life savings, is to designate some days as "budget days" and other days as "splurge days."  You'll be able to experience the best of both worlds while being deliberate about saving money at other times.  

It's a good idea to bring a small notebook with you to track expenses, jot down the names of restaurants, people you meet or store addresses/phone numbers of friends/family back home to call or send postcards.

ATM in EuropeMoney matters, ATM's and banks in Europe

Before you leave home, make sure there is enough money in your bank account to finance your trip and in case of emergency. 

When you're backpacking in Europe or travelling the world, it's a good idea to Euros for spending money, around $100 USD packed away, your debit card, an everyday-use credit card and another credit card with a substantial limit for emergencies (i.e. last minute flights home).  It's also a good idea to stash away cash in a few different places: your pockets, your wallet, in your journal, in your luggage, etc. 

Before your trip, go to the bank and order enough Euros to last you for 1-2 weeks or whatever amount you're comfortable carrying.  When you need more cash, use your debit card at bank machine in a recognized banking institution that has the same Maestro, Cirrus or Plus logos/symbols that match the ones on the back of your debit card. Be sure to call your bank before you leave to alert them that expenses will show up from some foreign countries and keep your bank's phone number handy in case of emergency.

Deciding on places to visit and planning your route!

Europe is a big place and you could spend a few weeks or five years exploring all that is has to offer - and it still wouldn't be enough.  If you're interested in visiting a city or destination, 3-5 days is a good time period to learn about the place and enjoy what it has to offer although more time allows you to really discover the city.  Also keep in mind that cities like Rome have a lot more things to do, see, and experience than smaller villages.

Start with a blank spreadsheet and a map.  Put in the dates of your holiday in one column and in another, list the places you want to visit.  Keep in mind that going from north to south (i.e. London, England to Paris, France to Nice, France to Barcelona, Spain) makes more sense than hopping form place to place.  Then plot the places into the dates and see what you can work out.  

Maybe for this trip, you could do all of Western Europe while saving Eastern Europe for another trip.  Another idea is to cover a few cities in each region that spread over Europe for a flavour of both east and west.   

Hitch HikingTravelling within Europe

There are several ways to travel through Europe. The cheapest would be to hitchhike (free!).  If that's not your cup of tea, your next option would be bus or coaches running from town to town.  A trip from Paris to Amsterdam one-way costs about $15 with EuroLines (www.eurolines.com).

Railway travel doesn't get any better than in Europe and is sometimes more expensive than flying.  However, it's fast, efficient and you can save on a night's accommodation by travelling at night.  A train from Paris to Amsterdam one-way costs approx $130 while a round-trip flight will cost approx $250.  For expert tips and advice on taking the train in Europe, go to Seat61.com (Seat61.com).  For train fares and schedules, go to RailEurope.com (www.raileurope.com).

Car rental is as expensive as it gets when travelling within Europe but it's also one of the best ways to wander off the path.  If you can get a car full, you could potentially save money and have a great time!

Eating cheap when backpacking in Europe


When you're on the road, eating out for every meal will quickly drain your funds.  Before booking your hostel, check to see if they have a shared kitchen where you can cook.  You'll not only save money by cooking your own food but you'll be eating healthier and be able to browse and shop at markets all over Europe for fresh foods and new flavours.  Street food is also fun, cheap and one of the best parts of travelling - though probably not the healthiest food option.  Also remember that in most places, wine or beer can be cheaper than water or pop - so enjoy!

How to make things easier for your Europe travels

Join a student tour group like Contiki (contiki.com), Intrepid Travel (www.intrepidtravel.com) or GAP Adventures (gapadventures.com) for already-planned tours through Europe.  They know where to bring you, they know all the history and it saves you from doing a lot of planning.  On the other hand, another idea is to use a guidebook and guide yourself on the itinerary they give you through, i.e. Italy.


Pharmacy in FranceHealth + safety when backpacking in Europe


It's important to carry any necessary prescription drugs you need (bring enough for a few days' more than the duration of your trip), pain reliever (Advil), seasonal allergy medicine, antihistamine (Benadryl) for allergic reactions and upset-stomach relief (Zantac, Pepto-Bismol, Imodium).

Europe is generally a pretty safe place when it comes to threats to your health, the two exceptions being car accidents and events that occur when intoxicated.  Pick-pocketing and scam artists are something to watch out for in high-tourist areas, many wear under-clothing money pouches to prevent this. Use your common sense and try not to go out alone.   

Staying in touch when you're backpacking in Europe

Most hostels have computers with Internet access available either for free or for a rate but it's usually the cheapest way to stay in touch.  Bringing your cell phone is a good idea, just make sure that it is "unlocked" or will work on the same cell phone "band" in Europe.  Other than text messaging (approx 10-50 cents/text), your cell phone's roaming fees are usually not worth making a call unless it's an emergency. Picking up a calling card isn't a bad idea if you're planning on calling home frequently and using it up.  Never use your credit card at a payphone unless it's a dire, dire emergency - the fees are ridiculous.

Happy travels and stay safe!

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Gizelle Lau icon

Gizelle Lau

Gizelle Lau is a freelance writer & photographer in Toronto, Canada with a passion for food and travel. 



Located: Toronto Canada
Likes: cities, culture, food/wine, paths-less-travelled, photography, wildlife
Website: http://www.gizellelau.com/blog.htm

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