Backpacking across the world (or, at least, through a portion of it) is on a lot of people’s bucket lists. It’s not surprising — it’s an amazing and rewarding lifestyle that allows you to experience a large variety of different places, people, and cultures all within a short span of time. You’ll never experience anything else like it in your life.
But before you buy your ticket to Europe and see the world, here are some things to keep in mind — trust me, because they’re all things I wish I would have known.
1. It will take a toll on your body.
Backpacking isn’t exactly easy on your body, since you’re moving constantly and moving between different climates. Be prepared to feel sore often and tired constantly, and be sure to schedule some time to relax so it doesn’t completely wear you down. But also be aware that constant environmental changes will also take a toll on your body in little ways — you may break out in acne, get headaches, get sick faster than you’re used to or even notice your hair is falling out in clumps.
2. It’s important to know the customs before you get there.
It’s easy to just show up in a new place, but before you travel, be sure you’ve researched each city and country you travel to. In Italy, you’ll get weird looks if you order a Cappuccino after noon; if you go on a date in Sweden, don’t expect the guy to pay. Know what’s considered rude, what’s considered formal and informal, and what’s considered strange and unusual — chances are, they aren’t the same as where you’re from.
3. Not everyone will be able to understand you.
If you’re a native English speaker, you’re pretty privileged — there are quite a few places you’ll be able to travel around to easily without having to speak or know another language. However, even if you’ve heard a certain country is easy to maneuver in English, it’s still important to know basic words and phrases of the places you go, such as “hi,” “bye,” “thank you,” and “where’s the bathroom?” Chances are you’ll have to interact with quite a few people who don’t understand English quite as well as you’d hope they would. Besides, people will probably appreciate the effort if you at least attempt to know and understand parts of their language. At the very least, get good at charades.
4. Tourist traps aren’t always obvious.
Tourist traps aren’t always street salesmen trying to sell you fake bags for high prices — sometimes, it’s a little more nuanced than that. Be sure to research the areas you’re staying to see what prices are considered normal and to see which places you should avoid in general. For instance, food and drink in city centers are usually much more expensive than other places and are generally targeted toward tourists, and if something is considered a “specialty” in that region, you’re going to find plenty of overcharged versions of it.
5. It’s more important to pack responsibly than to pack minimally.
Packing minimally is incredibly important when you’re backpacking, mostly because you’ll be hauling everything on your back for the entirety of the trip. It’s best to bring versatile, light clothing with a lot of variety. However, on the other hand, packing responsibly trumps packing minimally. Be sure to bring sturdy, comfortably shoes over convenient, thin sandals and don’t forget to pack a raincoat and bandaids. Be prepared for any situation that could occur in the environments you’re traveling too, even if it seems unnecessary when you’re packing.
6. Always be sure to have a game plan.
I’m the queen of going with the flow, but that’s not always the best mindset to have when you’re backpacking. Sure, it’s important to take your time and enjoy the experience, but you’ve got a minimal amount of time in each place and it’s best to make the most of it. Be sure to figure out all the places you want to go in advance so that you’re not walking back and forth between the same places just looking for things. It’s also a good idea to check local news outlets to see if any construction or renovations will make it difficult or impossible for you to do certain things you hoped to. And if you figure out the metros and bus routes before you get there, that’s even better.
7. Be aware of how each country deals with currency.
It’s not always the first thing you consider when you travel, but it’s one of the most important. Some places, like Sweden or Denmark, operate nearly solely on credit cards; others, like Czech Republic or Italy, rarely use cards and expect you to have cash to pay for everything. Make sure you know in advance what each country expects from you monetarily and be sure to exchange currency as early on in the trip as you can so you’re not left without a way to pay for anything.
8. Use social media — and even dating apps — as a tool.
No, seriously. You can learn an amazing amount about a country by browsing their Yik Yak or Twitter. Amazingly enough, Tinder was one of the most helpful tools I used while traveling, and I rarely went on dates at all. It’s an easy way to connect with locals to learn about the hidden gems of the city or some cool history you may not have known otherwise. It’s also an interesting way to get to know what people in that area are like. Without Tinder, I would’ve missed some of the coolest things while traveling — and also some of the coolest people.