Last fall, I had the opportunity to backpack Europe for just shy of 2 months. I left with not much of a game plan, and learned nearly every perceivable lesson the hard way. Despite this, it was an incredible trip that I was so fortunate to have taken.
After I returned home, I had multiple friends of mine who felt inspired to do the very same thing, and many of them were asking for advice on exactly how to do it.
Perhaps you’ve always wanted to do it, but you just never knew where to start? Perhaps you never thought you could afford it? Perhaps you are just scared of being alone, overseas? This blog post is my attempt to answer many of those questions, as well as give you some practical advice on how to make it as fun an affordable as possible.
It’s not as expensive as you might think
1) Timing is crucial
I for one, don’t really care if I’m in Europe in July or September, but apparently that’s not the case for many. If you extend your trip to late Summer and early Fall, you’ll save thousands, not just in airfare, but in bus fare and lodging as well. Besides, Europe in the Fall is gorgeous.
I think the first obstacle that many face when they plan to go overseas, is the price of airfare. When I initially researched the idea, I nearly lost hope, as most tickets I found were in the $2,000-$3,000 range and my budget seemed entirely unrealistic. It was quite a pleasant surprise then, when some friends of mine referred me to websites that became a staple in the rest of my European travel. Here are some that I used to find tickets well south of $500:
Get to the East Coast first
The biggest mistake that I see, is when people try to book direct flights out of Denver or Chicago. Getting to the East Coast is fairly cheap if you shop deals with Southwest or Frontier. From there, flights to Europe are incredibly reasonable if you know where to look.
Based in Iceland, WOW Airlines not only offers nearly unbeatable prices from the East Coast to some of the major stops in Europe, but they offer to let you take a stopover in Iceland for no extra charge. As I’m writing this, you can go from Boston to Amsterdam in September for $200. Seems too good to be true right? It’s not. I did it last Fall.
Pro Tip: Don’t book round trip. Fly from US to Europe in the American version of the site, and then change to the European version of the site to book your flight home. Strangely enough, I found cheaper return flights that way, even considering the currency change. Sure, it’s not much of a difference, but who doesn’t like saving $10 when they can?
I’m not sure how they do it, but Norwegian Airlines manages to have even cheaper flights than WOW Airlines. You won’t get the option to have a stopover in Iceland, but it’s a great flight to book on your way home, after you’ve seen Iceland on your way out. If you book from the East coast in late Summer or early Fall, you can get flights South of $200*.
*Note, there is extra cost for baggage. If you are like me and managed to get everything into a large back pack, then you’ll be fine. But planning a family vacation with multiple items of luggage might add up quick.
Easyjet was my go-to airline once I got to Europe. Many times, it was cheaper to fly than to take a bus or train. I was able to get from Prague to Barcelona for $40, and from Barcelona to Rome for $60. I wish I would have discovered them before I left for Europe, as I wasted hundreds of dollars in the first half of my trip using busses and trains. It’s not a luxury airline by any means, but I’d much rather spend 2 hours on a plane that didn’t give me complimentary peanuts, than 8 hours on a bus that did.
Did you know Google has their own flight search website? I didn’t find this one until mid-way through my trip, and I wish I had. It has a very handy search tool, that allows you to pick a departure airport, and then simply search around the world map, viewing prices for every airport on the globe. This way, you can instantly see if going to a major airport offers the same price as a smaller one a few miles away. It’s also a great way to go places that you may not have thought of.
I’m assuming the basics are already known to you, but try to make sure you aren’t booking flights on the weekend. Tuesday and Wednesday are going to be cheaper than Friday or Saturday in most instances. Lastly, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Paris are often the cheapest cities to fly in and out of on an international flight. Don’t worry too much about going straight from America to your desired destination. Easyjet and Google Flights can get you almost anywhere in Europe for incredibly cheap once you’re across the pond.
3) European Travel
Knowing how to travel inexpensively, once you’re in Europe is going to be vital in having money left over to do cool things like enjoying the restaurants and sites. Here are a few ways you can do that:
One of the best apps I ever downloaded. Not only are the prices far cheaper, but everything gets paid through your app, so you don’t have to worry about tipping a cab driver or whether or not the cabby accepts cards. Lastly, the Uber drivers find YOU, which is incredibly convenient when you’re lost in a foreign country. Not that that ever happens *ahem*.
If Uber happens to not be available and you must use a cab, don’t make the mistake of hailing a cab at the airport. When I arrived in London, I called a cab and was quoted $130 for a 30 minute drive. I did a quick google search of nearby cab services and got the same drive for $40.
Renting a car in Europe comes with the benefit of total freedom, but at the cost of quite a few challenges. Be very sure that you need to rent and consider those challenges beforehand. Here are some of the challenges I faced:
- Most cars in Europe are manuals, and if you’re in Northern Ireland or England, you’ll be driving on the opposite side of the car, shifting with your left hand and trying to navigate roundabouts whilst driving on the opposite side of the road. I was very comfortable driving a stick, and still had a lot of trouble getting used to everything.
- Always buy extra insurance and don’t ever put the rental on a debit card. I made the mistake of using my debit card in Germany, and saw $1250 taken out of my account due to a flat tire. Apparently Germany isn’t very familiar with mishaps. The fact that I spent an extra $20 on insurance was the only reason I saw that money again, but not for another 2 months.
- Map out your route beforehand and become familiar with it. Cell phone service can be sketchy in Europe and few things are more stressful than to be desperately trying to take the correct exit in a backwards roundabout while your GPS is saying “recalculating”.
Airfare and Trains are fairly cheap when you’re in a developed part of Europe, but if you are wanting to go somewhere like Croatia or the Austrian Alps, bus lines are going to be a stress-free and fairly cheap alternative.
FlixBus was by far the best bus line that I used. Every one that I used included WiFi, power outlets, and onboard rest rooms. Also, there are no baggage fees.
Be careful with Eurolines. They offer cheap tickets, but they have baggage fees and they only take cash in the currency of the country that you’re in. I would have been stranded in Munich, had not a generous man in the back of the line come forward and paid mine for me.
Subways and Public Transit
This was one of my favorite parts of Europe. At first it seems like a rat race and it can be difficult to surmise the correct stops to get off on, but most countries offer 3 day unlimited bus and subway passes for very cheap, so if you happen to miss a stop, it costs nothing but time wasted to retrace your steps. I met quite a few friends on the public transit system, and it’s a liberating feeling to know that you can explore an entire European city at your leisure and not have to worry about conforming to a time schedule or having to count the miles you traveled.
Tip #1 – Google maps can navigate the public transit system.
While using phone data in a foreign country can get expensive, keeping your GPS on won’t charge you anything. I suggest mapping your route beforehand on your Google maps app, and then just watching your GPS location to know which lines to take and how close you are to each stop. This is much easier than trying to ask someone who doesn’t speak your language if it’s time to get off, and it will give you the peace of mind of being able to tell from the GPS if you are close to your destination.
Tip #2 – Pay for a ticket.
Countries like France and England have strict security in their subways and bus stops. However, countries like the Czech Republic and Croatia have little to none. While it may seem tempting to do what “everyone else is doing” and just step on to the public transit, keep in mind that most people there have cards that they pay on a monthly or yearly basis. Random checks are rare, but the last thing you want is to be detained by law enforcement in a foreign country, all because you didn’t want to pay $25 for a 3-day unlimited pass.
Tip #3 – Be aware of when the public transit closes
In some countries, the public transit system runs all night. However, I almost got stranded in Prague because I wasn’t aware that they shut everything down at midnight.
This is another necessity that can both be intimidating, as well as expensive if you don’t know where to look. However, if you do it right, you can stay in most places for a fraction of what it would cost you in the States.
Air B&B is a collection of homes that hosts open up to you. This was hands down my favorite way to find lodging. Not only are they nearly everywhere in Europe, but they are often incredibly accommodating, as well as cheap. Granted, the rates go up and down depending on location and time of year, but the most that I ever paid for an Air B&B was $24 per night, and on some occasions, I only paid $11 per night.
With Air B&B, you get a chance for some well-needed alone time. This might not seem that important if you’re an extrovert, but I didn’t discover Air B&B until midway through my trip, and after 3 weeks staying in hostels, I was entirely sick of people and you’d be surprised how refreshing it is to finally get a room to yourself.
The other underrated aspect of Air B&B, is the fact that on many occasions, the host of the home gave me advice on what to see, from a local’s perspective. I was also fed countless meals for free, although that was merely a perk and isn’t to be counted on.
Hostels are a great way to meet new people. Not only will you be in the company of many other travelers like yourself, but the atmosphere is often very fun and exciting.
Hostel Tip #1 – Bring a towel and shampoo
Most hostels charge extra to rent a towel, and soap and shampoo are luxuries.
Hostel Tip #2 – Buy a padlock
It’s very easy to get things stolen when there are 16 random people in a room. Keep your belongings close and buy a padlock to store everything while you sleep. I had a camera stolen in a hostel in London after leaving it for less than 5 minutes.
Hostel Tip #3 – Privacy is obsolete
Once again, 16 random people in a room. If you want the room to be same-sex, you’ll have to pay extra. Don’t be surprised to have people changing in front of you and if you’re a woman, use extra caution to not get yourself in a vulnerable situation.
Hotels in Europe aren’t like the ones in America. In Europe, you usually get what you pay for. Rooms can go for $20 per night, but they are often a tiny room with a cot and may or may not have a shared bathroom. If you want a hotel that is similar to America, you’ll have to pay American prices in Western Europe.
Eastern Europe is a different story. EVERYTHING is cheaper in places like Prague and Croatia, so getting a nice hotel is much more affordable.
Bed and Breakfast
The bed and breakfast that I stayed in in Ireland was far less expensive than I thought. I payed 60 pounds for one night, and it was by far the most accommodating place that I went to in Europe. I can’t speak for anywhere else in Europe, but don’t immediately write off a Bed and Breakfast until you’ve shopped around.
All in all, I would recommend a mixture of all of those options. Stay in Air B&B’s for price, privacy and local travel recommendations, stay in hostels if you want to meet a ton of really awesome people and don’t mind close quarters, and be sure and break it up with an occasional stay at a hotel or Bed and Breakfast. Backpacking Europe can be tiring and you’ll be glad you spent a little extra a few times to stay in a nice place to break things up.
What to pack
If you are truly backpacking it, then the biggest curse you’re going to have is packing too much stuff. It might seem tempting to want to be able to dress for any occasion, but the truth is that when you get dropped off at a train station and you have to walk 2 miles, you’re going to want that backpack to be as light as possible. Furthermore, the more you pack into your backpack, the more time you’re going to have to spend to put it all back together when you leave for a new place. Lastly, souvenirs are going to be impossible to get if you’re backpack is bursting at the seams.
- I recommend no more than 4 or 5 sets of clothing and extra underwear and socks.
- I had two pairs of shoes; one for hiking, and one for strolling. Make sure they are supported, as you will be spending hours on your feet on cobblestone streets.
- Try and dress semi-European. While it’s fairly obvious that you’re not a local, looking like you’re an American will leave you more susceptible to pickpockets, and it’s kind of nice to be able to blend in a little and not feel like a tourist everywhere you go. I bought a newsie cap and I often wore a scarf. Hats are also nice when you don’t get a chance to shower for a couple of days.
- Get a conversion kit so that you can plug into the outlets out there. Best buy sells a whole European kit for fairly cheap.
- Take a small bag to bring along on day trips. I had a burlap bag that I could stuff some food, etc. into and it came in very handy. It’s also nice to stuff layers of clothes into when it gets hotter later in the day.
- Be careful with your overcoats, as they can take up a lot of space. I packed one coat, flannels and a thick hoodie. By layering up and using a scarf, hat and gloves, I was able to stay warm in almost any weather.
- Pack a portable charger. Battery life is a necessity over there when you’re trying to navigate back to where you’re staying.
- Pack a small extension cord with a splitter at the end. This was vital when you have one power converter and more than one electrical device that needs charging.
How to pack
By the end of the trip, I had finally mastered the art of packing my stuff up in a way in which it all worked efficiently. Packing and unpacking your backpack when you get to places will prove to be no easy task, but if you follow my steps, you’ll be able to do it much more effectively.
- Go to a supermarket and get the biggest ziplock bags available. Gallon sized bags worked for me, but it was very tight. Also, get a pack of dryer sheets.
- Take a set of clothes and roll each article of clothing as tightly as possible.
- Put the dryer sheet in the zip lock bag, and then put each article of clothing in the bag.
- Compress the bag so that there aren’t any air pockets and then seal the bag.
- Do this for every change of clothes that you have and be sure to pack extra zip-lock bags.
This method proved effective for multiple reasons:
- The zip-lock bags keep all of your clothes dry in case your bag should happen to get wet.
- This method effectively prevents your dirty laundry from contaminating your clean laundry.
- The dryer sheet makes all of your clothes smell awesome.
- By packing a change of clothes in one zip-lock bag, you can just reach into your bag and pull out one change of clothing, without having to dig around for other articles. Very handy when it’s 4am and you’re in a dark room with 16 other sleeping people.
- On several occasions, there were shower stalls with very little in the way of preventing water from soaking the floor. By putting your clothes in a zip-lock bag, you can prevent them from getting wet.
How to plan
Don’t cram it all in
When you’re in America, plotting your course, it’s going to be tempting to try and hit every place in as little time as possible. What I learned, was that if you don’t space things out enough, the experience starts to be like a slideshow moving too fast; you don’t have enough time to enjoy yourself and take it all in. On top of that, travel is exhausting. It’s disheartening to know you only have one night somewhere and you have to get up early the next morning to catch a flight. It’s better to fully get to experience 5 places, than to rush through 15 places.
Account for jet lag
It’s no joke. It takes 3-5 days to fully start to function like a normal human being after you get there. Start staying up late a few days before you leave and don’t expect to hit the ground running when you get there.
Buy a camera
Yes, cell phone camera’s have come a long way, but having a camera with optical zoom made for some priceless photographs. Also, having a camera makes you more conscious of the fact that you should be taking pictures. Lastly, being able to use my camera allowed my phone battery to stay alive for much longer. If you’re traveling alone, a selfie stick isn’t a bad idea. It gets exhausting to make random strangers stop and take your picture, and it’s a little nerve racking to give your phone or camera to a stranger.
Keep an empty credit card on standby
You never know what kinds of things might happen over there. By having an unused credit card as an emergency reserve, you’ll have a way to buy a last minute hotel, or if worst comes to worst, a flight home.
Hidden gems in Europe
I wasn’t over there for nearly long enough to see everything, but I can highlight some of my favorite places that I did get to see, as well as comment of a few that were a little disappointing. I have separated them by their different types of appeal, but keep in mind that I’m not personally drawn to parties and fast-paced cultures, so my tastes might not represent yours.
Iceland was the most magical place I’ve ever seen in regards to scenery. It was a mixture of foreboding white-capped mountains, breathtaking waterfalls and surrounded by plains that were a striking contrast of black lava rock, blanketed in rich green moss. However, expect the culture to be a bit standoffish and be prepared to spend a lot of money. Iceland is the second most expensive place in Europe, the first being Oslo, Norway.
Switzerland was a close second. It has plenty in the form of beautiful rolling hills, but the small towns were unmatched in their art and quaint village fronts.
Ireland, no contest. The people there welcome you like you are family and I got to experience my lifelong dream of raising a Guinness whilst singing Irish folk tunes in a crowded pub. It’s a place of hospitality and there’s a warmth there that makes you feel like your home.
Rome was like being in a dream for the historically inclined. You’ve seen pictures of the colosseum, but I can assure you that it’s nothing like walking through it and witnessing the sheer magnitude of it. Be sure and take a least 3 days aside for Rome if you love history. It’s eerie, surreal and simply magical.
Vienna was fascinating for the more recent history. You get to go to coffee shops that frequented the likes of Hitler, Freud, Stalin and Toto and you pass by countless sites that you’ve only previously seen in black and white photos. The culture was also very hospitable and polite.
I had previously been impressed by the architecture in London, Paris and Vienna, but they were nothing in comparison to some of the buildings in Prague. Prague was one of the few places that Hitler didn’t bomb and it was because he took such a liking to it. And for good reason.
Croatia has recently gained popularity, and for good reason. It’s a perfect combination of breathtaking ocean and mountain views, rich culture, and historical cities that date back to the early Roman Empire. Plus, the exchange rate is fantastic, so you’ll be able to enjoy incredible Italian-style meals for very reasonable prices. This was by far the most surprising hidden gem that I discovered in Europe
London was wonderful! It was very charming and you have the ability of seeing a variety of fascinating and historical sites in one leisurely stroll. It’s also fun to see constant arial footage in movies and news broadcasts and be able to say “I was there!”.
A bit disappointing
Perhaps I have exceedingly high standards from being able to see so much, or perhaps it just didn’t fit my taste, but Paris was surprisingly a little disappointing. There were some really rough spots that I wasn’t expecting, and the people there were less inviting than anywhere else I went. Plus, they are dedicated to their French language and don’t bend over backwards to help you if you can’t speak French, so it can feel a bit overwhelming.
Barcelona would probably be a top location for many, but it just never struck a chord with me. I was expecting a laid-back, Spanish lifestyle, and instead it was a very fast-paced, bustling city. It was also very diverse, so it didn’t feel like you were experiencing one culture. Perhaps I was all too familiar with that kind of thing in America, so it wasn’t as exciting as some of the other places. I wouldn’t go out of my way to return to it.
I may have based this off of one bad experience, but Germany charged me $1250 for a flat tire, and then almost made me sleep on the street because I couldn’t pay cash for a 4 euro baggage fee. The town of Munich seemed very industrial and closed down a 9pm and the people there were rude. I had a manager unplug my phone charger in a coffee shop because it wasn’t allowed, even though I had bought a cup of coffee. There was just nothing warm about it.
So there you have it…a hitchhiker’s crash course on Europe. I hope that it proved useful for some and I hope that if you have an opportunity to visit Europe, that you take advantage of it! I know I’ll never regret doing it!