We all know that guy or girl who casually drops the story in conversation about how they backpacked around Europe, and to be honest, most of us feel a little bit of envy. It sounds amazing, and yet terribly improbable, both money and time-wise. This is simply not true. If you plan your trip, you can get around very cheaply, and see some amazing sights!
The First Steps
The first step you have to do is decide to go. Once that is done, the rest is following the process. There are a few rules. The biggest is planning. The one and only secret to traveling Europe these days is to plan, plan early, and plan well. It also depends on what you are into.
You first need to pick your time frame that you can afford to go. If you are still a student, this is pretty easy, summer it is. If not, then it is probably a good idea to formulate your vacation around the most vacation days you can have for free. For example, if you are from the U.S., and the 4th of July is on a Thursday, boom, you only have to spend three vacation days for that week!
Plan, Plan, Plan
Now that you have decided to go, you need to plan, and well. Not counting your plane ticket, assume that you will spend about 75 euro a day, if you want to travel decently. Those who are on more of a budget can get around on 50, and you will be doing very well at 100. This is not a lot of money, and the longer you are away, you will find things get easier as you go along. If you literally want to go on a shoestring, you can get away with less than 25 euro a day with good planning.
Getting There and Getting Around
Normally, one of the cheapest places you can fly to is London. Following that are Amsterdam and Frankfurt. Any of these cities are great starting points for your journey. Check around for the best prices around the time you want to go, and be flexible on your travel date. Leaving on a Tuesday or Thursday tends to be a heck of a lot cheaper than Friday or Monday. The same with your return ticket. Also, if you don’t live in a major city, get to a big international airport.
Example: booking 4 months ahead, flying from Indianapolis International to London is about 1,000 dollars. Spend four hours taking a one-dollar bus (any budget bus company will do) to Chicago and the price of the ticket is now 650 dollars. Not a bad savings!
Next, divide your trip into threes. Plan on spending about three days per destination you want to hit. This includes one full travel day, and two days of checking it out. You can help choose places by looking at Europe’s budget airlines. Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) has flights all over Europe for 10 euro per leg. It’s a crazy-cheap way to get places! There is also Wizz Air (www.wizzair.com) and a host of others.
There are budget bus companies in Europe as well. One that was quick and awesome in Western Europe was Flixbus (www.flixbus.com). They have tickets anywhere from 5 to 50 euro, and the price heavy depends on how early you book it. Trains are a good form of transportation as well, especially if it is in country. Google maps has a great feature now which allows you to pick your path from one place to another, the date, and see all ways to get there and book. This is super helpful in giving you an idea of how much your path will cost.
What to Do Where You Go
This depends on your budget. No matter which range you are at, though, try to book yourself a place at a hostel. We have covered this topic before, but hostels are a great place to meet people, have conversations, get free tickets or buy part of a multi-day ticket from someone who is leaving, etc. There are countless websites online on hostel ratings, and you can easily pick someplace cheap and awesome. Most of them offer private or semi-private rooms as well, so you won’t feel like you are staying in army barracks!
Also, look online for local multi-place pass deals. For example, in Amsterdam, you can get one pass that lets you in to all the museums there for a week, and it’s less than 20 euro. That’s completely worth it, and you can also sell it to someone in your hostel for a few euro when you are done with it. If you aren’t comfortable with the hostel route, try couch surfing. The internet is full of couch surfing sites, and you can land a pretty cheap and nice stay sometimes. We always go hostel, or, if with friends, sometimes grab an AirBnB (www.airbnb.com) spot. Most of them are decent, and the reviews of them are real.
One thing that is pretty ubiquitous in every European country we have traveled in (and we have been a LOT of places) is the bakery. Almost every country has bakeries on the corner, and any hostel or hotel you stay in will be able to tell you exactly where that is. The pastries and breads are as good as you imagine, and are a great start to the day.
For lunch, it is a very European thing to have light lunch specials, food already cooked and ready to serve at a reduced price from the menu. Nearly every restaurant you will find will have a chalkboard of some kind espousing their menu and the cost.
For dinner, if you are on a decent budget, the world is your oyster. If you are trying to save, every hostel we have ever been to has had a bunch of people making a pot luck dinner together nearly every night. Just hit the local supermarket, get some products, and make something from home. You will get to share in so many awesome cuisines it will astound you.
One reason that people backpack across Europe is that it is a pain to carry suitcases all over. By being smart about it, you can travel very easily and simply, and the weight on your back will not be overwhelming. A good backpack has everything you need, but not much you don’t.
Travel-sized toiletries in a resealable baggie is a good option, especially if you fly a lot during your trip. Take a small medical bag, including Band-Aids, sterile gauze, alcohol wipes, tweezers, and anything else you think you need. Pharmacies are all over in Europe, though, so don’t go overboard.
One set of sleeping clothes (no matter how you are normally, in a hostel it isn’t exactly super private!) and three sets of day clothing. You can get a retractable clothes line and get a travel sized clothing detergent, and any sink will do. We also recommend that the clothing you get be high quality, and the sporty type of clothing that wicks away sweat keeps you warm when it’s cool and cool when it’s warm. A side benefit of this type of clothing is it dries super-fast.
Take a tablet, your phone, and for those long bus and train trips, an e-reader. Make sure you have a small travel battery, and if you can find one, a euro plug adapter. England has different plugs, so you will need two. Check your charger to make sure it says 110-220v. If it does, all you need is an adapter, not a converter (and for just about every major phone and tablet maker on the market, this will be the case).
Top it off with a foldable jacket, a pair of sandals strapped to the pack if that is your thing, and you are off! The whole thing shouldn’t weight much more than 12 to 15 pounds, and you should make sure you have about a quarter or more of the pack empty, to take food with you on those train and bus rides. Last but not least, get something like the Bobble (www.waterbobble.com). It allows you to fill your water bottle with any tap water anywhere, and makes it safe and clean to drink. Bottled water, while available everywhere, adds up after a while, and you will be glad you got one!
There Will Never Be a Better Time
With the ability to travel Europe for nearly a month, keeping the cost down to a couple of thousand dollars using the tips listed here, there will never be a better time. It will be an awesome trip, and the verisimilitude of cultures and sights you will see will stay with you forever. It’s travel at its best.
A few words of warning. Don’t be late. Train, plane and bus schedules are very tight, and if you miss it, tough luck.
That being said, the myth of unhelpful travel desk people is just that: a myth. Almost everyone is helpful and pleasant, and all of them speak at least some English. Get out there and go! Europe is waiting!
Have you done any backpack traveling in Europe? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below!