After backpacking in Europe for 6 weeks, I can say it’s life-changing at the very least. I came back with a desire to travel more, to see every corner of the world, to experience as many cultures as I can. 16 countries in 42 days is no easy feat, but it was a whirlwind of highs and lows. I learned more in those 42 days than I ever thought I’d learn in my lifetime, and although there’s more I’d like to say than I can even put into words, I’ve compiled a short list of tips and insights for you future backpackers, from lodging to food to life:
1. You’ll meet people from all around the world, people who have vastly different experiences than you, people who have been traveling for months, people who have the same itinerary as you. Embrace it. Learn from them and make friends as you go.
2. But you’ll also get lonely. It takes a lot to give up your old life, to leave behind your old friends and pack your entire life into a single backpack. Take time to reconnect with your family once in awhile or to meet up with the ones you love if possible. There is nothing more beautiful than seeing your friend walk towards you in a foreign country.
3. Choose your travel companions wisely. Hint: if you don’t know them that well to begin with, you’ll either end up becoming best friends or wanting to kill each other. And if you do travel with your best friend(s), be aware that spending literally 24/7 with someone is a lot of time.
4. Travel by yourself for a little. It’s comforting to be in a group, to know that someone is there wherever you go. But being by yourself allows you to soak everything up, to leave you alone with your thoughts for awhile, to allow you to take things at your own pace and to marvel at the city as long or as short as you’d like. It’s scary, true, but also something that should be done.
5. Be spontaneous. If you absolutely love a city, stay another night or two. If you hate it, move on. Sites like booking.com allow for free cancellations most of the time, and even if you lose a little money, at least you’re getting the most out of your experience. The EuRail pass is also helpful for hopping on trains as you please, though some countries like Italy require reservations. I had my entire trip planned out to the smallest detail; I had pages and pages of spreadsheets full of information. Did I follow that itinerary? Not at all. I skipped Venice in favor of an extra day in Florence (through I regret it sometimes; after all, Venice is Venice); I skipped Vienna and Budapest to visit my cousins in Sweden and to spend some time in Denmark. Live on the go, adapt to your surroundings, and adjust your plans to how you feel.
6. Give it some time. With most cities, you’ll probably know if you love it or not upon first stepping foot there. With Lisbon, I fell in love as soon as I came above ground from the metro. With Rome, I thought it was ghetto at first, but I walked into the city center and never wanted to leave. You can love parts of a city and hate other parts; you never know until you explore all of it.
7. You’ll never truly know a city until you get lost in it. Wander the streets, go down the side roads, step off of the beaten path, and immerse yourself in the fact that you’re in a new place.
8. If you’re between two hostels & one has free breakfast, go for that one. Free breakfast means one meal you don’t have to worry about, and you can always take food for lunch (another meal you don’t have to worry about).
9. If you’re eating out, eat out for lunch. It’s cheaper.
10. Buy a bottle of beer or wine at the supermarket instead of ordering it with dinner, unless it’s 1) super cheap or 2) a local specialty.
11. You’ll meet a lot of Australians if you travel during the summer (it’s their winter, after all).
12. You’ll wear the same clothes over and over again before washing. The sniff test is the best test- if it doesn’t smell dirty, then it isn’t too dirty.
13. You’ll smell. It’s a fact of life- sweat and dirt builds up a lot over the course of a day. But don’t worry, your travel companions probably smell as well.
14. Try and learn a little bit of the language of each country you visit. A little goes a long way- people always appreciate it when you say “hello,” “please,” and “thank you” in their language (another good phrase to know is “excuse me”).
15. As much as you’d like to go out every night, it’s not possible to sightsee all day and party all night. Sleep is necessary. So plan ahead. On your easier days, go out and dance all night because you’ll have the energy to.
16. That being said, you’ll find that you can live on less sleep than you’d think. You’ll wake up early to catch a train, you’ll sleep on night trains to free up your days, you’ll be up when the sun rises to get the most out of your day.
17. Gelato is a perfectly acceptable meal. It’s cheaper than an actual meal too.
18. Skipping lunch is ok if it means you have more money to go to that monument you always wanted to see.
19. Find out the local cuisine and eat it. Yes, food isn’t cheap. So make your money worth the while. Find a reasonably priced local restaurant and beware of tourist traps. If you have one meal out a day, you can still stay within your budget. Take advantage of cheap cities like Prague, where you can get huge beers for less than $2.
20. Take advantage of the hostel people. They know what they’re doing. Ask them for a map and ask them to circle the hostel location, the main attractions, and the best (local!) places to eat.
21. Check out open air/farmers’ markets. Some of the best food I’ve had was in farmers’ markets, and they tend to be pretty cheap as well. Plus, it’s fun to wander around.
22. Get food to go. Takeaway is cheaper than dining in (plus there’s no service charge!) and it also allows you to take advantage of the outdoors. I’ve eaten salami sandwiches on the steps in Genoa, pizza on the Spanish steps in Rome, Belgian waffles while watching a light show in Brussels, and baguettes with cheese and wine in front of the Eiffel Tower. It’s nice to sit in a foreign city, people watch, and enjoy your food at your own pace.
23. If it’s free, take advantage of it. Free walking tours are the best example of this. They allow you to meet new people and to learn more about the city. They’re a good way to learn the history of the city or just to walk around the most popular attractions if you have limited time there. Of course, they’re not technically free- you’re supposed to tip the guides as you see fit. But for a couple of euros, it’s worth it. Make sure to check with your hostel to get the full list of free things they provide, whether it’s entrance to nightclubs or free meals.
24. You’ll have to decide how valuable your time is. I bought a EuRail pass but still ended up taking 4 intercontinental flights because I didn’t want to waste a whole day on the train. That being said, trains are also a nice way to stop by in cities you’ve always wanted to visit but don’t want to spend a whole day in. Flights are cheap (all of mine were under $85) and will only be 2 hours at most to fly across the continent, but trains are virtually free but will take you anywhere from 5-13 hours.
25. You’ll find that you don’t really need much in life. Living out of a backpack for 6 weeks, I realized that life was simpler when I didn’t have a whole closet of clothes to choose from, that material goods weren’t really necessary to have a good time.
26. Backpacking isn’t something you do, it’s a lifestyle. You’ll realize this from your interactions with the people you meet, with your companions, and with yourself. At the end of your trip, you’ll know how it feels to throw everything into a backpack, hop on a train, and arrive in a completely different country, but integrate yourself seamlessly. You’ll know that you can sleep anywhere and everywhere, that nothing really fazes you anymore, that you’ll forget what city you’re in at times because you’ve been to so many. You’ll constantly be amazed at the sights you see, at the places you’ve been to that some people can only dream of visiting. When you go home, you’ll find that people are awed of what you did, and you’ll find that their way of living is much, much different from the one that you’re used to. You’ll return home to find that you’re itching to go on a new adventure, to leave behind the familiar and to explore the unknown. It’s an addiction, one that you’ve built from your time abroad. And it’s beautiful.