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Backpacking Europe: tips for a successful trip

Trek in National Park Landmannalaugar, Iceland
© Vitalii Matokha / Shutterstock
Backpacking is traveling on your route with a backpack behind your back. It appeared in the '60s of the last century, in the era of hippies. Back then, its adherents were young people who wanted to discover the world and were willing to sacrifice the comfort of ordinary tourist trips. Today this way of travel does not imply any social or age restrictions. Anyone who wants to plunge into another reality and learn this part of the world in a completely new way, without imposing stereotypes of tourist tour can choose backpacking through Europe. All that a beginner traveler needs is a healthy venture, some money, and a few useful tips to get the most vivid impressions without any additional risk.

Advantages of backpacking through Europe

  • A decent budget. This way of traveling allows not to spend money on agents in travel agencies and significantly save on accommodation, transportation, food, and entertainment.
  • Complete freedom of choice. Backpackers plan their route themselves and can change it at any time.
  • Diving into the culture of a foreign country. Travelers actively interact with locals, learn about their mentality, and national traditions.
  • Learn new languages or improve existing skills. Staying in a language environment contributes to this.
  • Traveling without luggage. Everything you need fits in one backpack.
Woman tourist going camping in forest
Autumn nature hiker girl walking in national park © Maridav / Shutterstock

How to plan a backpacking trip through Europe

For a beginner backpacker, creating a route can be very stressful. And his more experienced like-minded people know for sure that the best plan is a flexible one. It should be based on the main idea of the trip. It may be a sightseeing or gastro tour, visiting music festivals, cultural or sporting events, beach vacation or raid on ski resorts, a thorough study of one country or a raid on several — there are many options. Europe is good enough to realize all of them.

Once the idea is defined, it is much easier to choose from which country and city to start building a route. At this stage, experts advise to actively use web services to find cheap tickets for transportation, favorable accommodation options, promotional or free excursions, and much more. It is also important to clarify whether you need a visa to visit the planned countries and, if so, which one. For example, some European countries are not included in the Schengen Area, and others — willingly accept travelers without a visa for 30 to 90 days.

Young girl with backpack
Bridge over d Ill river in Strasbourg © frantic00 / Shutterstock

As for the choice of the season for backpacking, then, from the tourist point of view, there are 3 of them in Europe — low, high, and rainy seasons. The first one lasts from November to March. Its advantages are:

  • no queues at popular attractions;
  • reasonable prices;
  • opportunity to celebrate holidays (Christmas, New Year, Valentine's Day) in a special atmosphere;
  • friendliness and responsiveness of residents, who have had a rest from the crowds of visitors.

But this season has disadvantages:

  • a short light day;
  • whims of the weather;
  • temporarily closed sightseeing and retail outlets;
  • a need to bring more warm clothes.

The high season traditionally comes in the summer months. And these are the advantages of backpacking in June and August:

  • sunny weather;
  • access to a vast number of entertainment, popular history, and natural attractions;
  • the opportunity to attend many festivals, cultural, and sporting events. 

As for the disadvantages, there are a lot of them:

  • endless queues and crowds of tourists;
  • heat;
  • increasing prices;
  • a need to reserve places for accommodation in advance;
  • overcrowded public transport.

The rainy season comes to Europe twice a year, from September to November, and from April to June. And this is the most popular time among experienced travelers for several reasons: 

  • comfortable temperature;
  • beautiful nature;
  • a small flow of tourists;
  • low prices. 

September is a relatively warm month for beach holidays at most resorts. At this time, the metropolises are buzzing with cultural life — new exhibitions, concert programs, and performances are opened, the theater season starts. The beginning and middle of autumn is a great time to go to the wine regions to watch the harvest of grapes and participate in related festivities. If you are well-prepared for the whims of the weather, November is suitable for exploring the museums and getting to know the local cuisine in cozy and warm cafes.

Tourists with backpacks hike on rocky way near river
Sport tourism in Svaneti, Georgia © Dzmitrock / Shutterstock

With the arrival of April, Europe is blooming, literally. It is the ideal time to see the famous Dutch tulips or primeval-covered alpine meadows. The middle of spring is the time of the Easter holidays. They often coincide with the opening of fairs and music festivals. Numerous islands of the Aegean Sea are waiting for those who want to diversify backpacking through Europe by beach vacation at this time of year. By the beginning of May, the water near their coast warms up to +22°C.

What to pack?

The most important item in the backpacker arsenal is a backpack. Experts highlight several essential criteria when choosing a backpack:

  • The proper volume. The optimal variant is 60-70 liters. But at the same time, you should consider that the size of the backpack should be proportional to the growth and constitution of the traveler.
  • The waterproof material.
  • Protection against theft. Reinforced fabric and zipped pockets with two runners, which can be fixed in place with a lock or carabiner.
  • Comfortable shoulder straps. They must be elastic, soft, sewn from a solid cut of material, and easy to adjust.
  • The inner frame is made of carbon fiber or hard plastic.
  • Unloading hip belt. It is ideal when it's wide and soft, with a comfortable buckle that allows you to adjust it to individual body features.
  • Additional loops and straps for external fastening of necessary things. 

The necessary documents (the most important of them is an external passport) and cash and cards should be placed in special wrapping cells. Many experienced tourists prefer to keep all the listed in a waist pack. But it is worth remembering that this is the accessory that pickpockets aim at in the first place.

The standard travel equipment includes:

  • the minimum amount of seasonal clothing, shoes, and underwear;
  • headwear;
  • a pair of towels and personal care products;
  • a sleeping bag and roll mat;
  • first aid kit and repellent (as required);
  • a penknife and a set of plastic dishes;
  • a flashlight, travel adapter, spare batteries;
  • a guidebook, a map, a notebook, and a pen;
  • a cell phone and charger (other electronic devices are optional).

Experienced travelers prefer not to take anything that you can quickly and cheaply buy on the road.

Young female tourist with backpack and hat having fun riding a bicycle
The old city center of Ljubljana in Slovenia © RossHelen / Shutterstock

The travel budget and effective ways to save costs

It is complicated to give an average amount of money that backpacking through Europe will cost. After all, €50 in London and €50, for example, in Prague open absolutely different possibilities. This leads to the conclusion that the budget will directly depend on the route. The eastern part of the Old World is much cheaper than the western one. And visiting small cities is not as expensive as staying in the metropolises.

In any case, the costs can be roughly divided into two categories — related to the preparation and daily expenses during the trip. The first category includes purchasing necessary equipment, payment of insurance policy, reserved tickets, seats in the hostel or camping, registration of foreign passports and visas. As for the last of these expenses, it is the easiest to save on it. To do this, you just need to refuse the mediators' services. However, you can't be stingy during the purchase of tourist insurance because it can guarantee that the traveler will return home alive and well.

Daily expenses (travel by public transport, food, accommodation, entertainment, necessary purchases) in Eastern Europe can be about €40-50 a day and €60-70 in Western Europe. But there are several effective ways to minimize them:

  • do not visit any advertised places. As a rule, they are the most boring, crowded, and expensive. It is much more interesting (and cheaper) to look for interesting places outside the standard tourist routes;
  • use night bus routes to travel long distances as a way to save money on overnight stays;
  • bring your student ID card if you have one. Large European cities are very supportive of young students and provide significant discounts when visiting major cultural attractions;
  • monitor promotions and bonus programs available to tourists at the point of stay and do not hesitate to use them;
  • check online for feedback from other backpackers to find cheap and trendy cafes, fun activities, better currency exchangers, top markets, stores, and more;
  • use the Internet instead of making phone calls by purchasing a local SIM card.
Torres del Paine National Park moutain landscape, Patagonia
Los Kuernos Peak and Salto Grande Waterfall © sharptoyou / Shutterstock
Experts advise putting at least a minimum buffer amount into the budget, which can be used in unexpected circumstances — for example, in case of a sharp change of plans or the need to purchase a lost or damaged part of the equipment.

Los Kuernos Peak and Salto Grande Waterfall

  • Make sure to arrange travel insurance. Its cost depends on the duration of the trip and the risks that the policy will cover. It is necessary to include emergency medical aid, emergency evacuation, and loss or damage to property into the list.
  • Scan the necessary documents and send copies to your personal e-mail. It is important to set the password to the e-mail in English to access it from any computer.
  • Make the most of bank cards by transferring a minimum amount of money to cash.
  • Have an international phone number with you to contact the supporting bank in emergency cases.
  • Examine the laws, rules, and regulations of the countries to be visited.
  • Meet new people, do not discuss topics related to money, and try not to show cash and values you have with you.
  • Travel long distances only by public transport.
Woman hiker with enjoying the view near Wengen resort village
Wengen resort village, Bernese Oberland © Gaspar Janos / Shutterstock
A simple trick — a fake wallet with several canceled bank cards and small bills — will help to avoid significant material losses. It will serve as a great distraction because there is always a risk of theft during the trip.

Things to know about transport

Many people think that the best route for backpacking through Europe is the one that does not include flights. This is because air tickets can become a very significant expense item. It makes sense to give up traveling in high seasons, use advance booking and promotional offers to save money. Lowcost is another alternative.

Train travel will be much cheaper if you buy a single ticket Interrail Global Pass (for Europeans) or Eurail (for citizens of non-European countries). Their use has some nuances that are worth exploring in detail in advance.

International buses are a rather convenient means of transportation. You should look for favorable prices from the industry giants — Megabus, Eurolines, and Flixbus. And Busabout company offers hop-on/hop-off (in and out) routes for trips between European cities.

The most inexpensive way to travel by car is hitchhiking, and many people actively use it. But it is worth remembering about the risks that it hides. It is best to use a safer alternative — the popular service BlaBlaCar — to minimize the danger.

Attractive woman in straw hat, white shirt and orange backpack
Tourist girl walking on old city street © Vitalii Matokha / Shutterstock

Where to stay

Accommodation is another important expense item if you do not learn to save money on it. Experienced backpackers even know how to find absolutely free accommodation. For example, by staying in a monastery cell or by asking to visit a friendly local resident. But there are also more convenient options:

  • Hostels. Accommodation options range from a separate room with a private bathroom to a room where 20 travelers will spend the night. The price changes according to the chosen option. It also depends on the location of the hostel, season, and living conditions. But in any case, the hostel will cost several times cheaper than the hotel. The room rate usually includes a modest breakfast. The staff is always ready to suggest places to visit and inexpensive cafes, where you can have a great lunch. Many places have bars where you can meet other backpackers and have a good time in the company. In high season or on the eve of a popular festival event, it is better to book a hostel in advance.
  • Campsites. It is a perfect option for those who like to spend the night in nature. You can get a tent here for a very reasonable fee and sometimes a place in a small house. The price includes safety and access to facilities in the form of a toilet and shower.
  • CouchSurfing is accommodation as a guest by prior arrangement or exchange of houses. Anyone registered in the community of the same name can find a host, a person who provides hospitality to travelers. This service is especially popular in Europe. Since staying in this type of accommodation is absolutely free, it is considered a good tone to treat the host with dishes of national cuisine, buy food or alcohol for evening meals. The latter is especially welcome because the couch surfing involves active communication and cultural exchange.
Woman enjoying the view of the village and the waterfall
View of the village of Lauterbrunnen © Gaspar Janos / Shutterstock
Some people prefer to sleep in their personal tents while backpacking through Europe. It is comfortable and very economical. However, it is worth remembering that different states with a varying share of loyalty treat wild overnight stays. For example, Greece categorically rejects them, England and Wales treat them with a high degree of suspicion, and Scotland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden are completely welcoming.

Food and alcohol: pleasures within budget

One of the main commandments of a free traveler — never eat in tourist districts. First of all, it will cost 2-3 times more expensive, and secondly — you rarely manage to find genuinely authentic cuisine in such crowded and popular places. It is worth looking for it in small establishments, where there are many locals at tables. But if there is a desire to visit a restaurant, it is better to do it when business lunches are served. The set of dishes will be somewhat limited, but they will cost cheaper.

The self-service tag on the cafe or tapas bar sign means that the prices here are lower due to self-service. These places often have high tables, at which you can quickly eat while standing.

Those who travel as a group may save on food by ordering one dish for two. European institutions (especially German, Czech, and Polish) often serve huge portions. It is a great way to try the most exciting menu items without overpaying.

The farmers' markets are another place to eat well and cheaply. But the best way to save on food while traveling is to cook food by yourself, buying in supermarkets.

Alcohol is a special expense item during a trip. There is its unique type or an unusual cocktail in each country, which is certainly worth a try. The cheapest way to do such experiments is in Eastern Europe. But you can save money everywhere, especially if you don't visit drinking facilities in tourist areas.

Experienced travelers advise buying only locally-produced alcohol. It is much cheaper than the imported ones. It is also worth remembering that compared to a bar, the prices for drinks at the supermarket are much lower.

Pork Belly Bun
Pork Belly Bun © Ploypunsa Nimmit / Shutterstock

How to arrange inexpensive entertainment

Girl with a backpack in the center of the Old Town
Triple Bridge in heart of Ljubljana © Natalia Deriabina / Shutterstock
Beautiful and delicious italian gelato in waffle cone
Italian ice cream in a waffle cone © Natalia Deriabina / Shutterstock

A limited budget is no reason to deny yourself a bright pastime. Of course, visiting most of the popular attractions will be paid, but there are exceptions. Most museums in London, for example, work at the expense of donations and practice free entry. You can learn about economic options for other cities by using a guide to backpacking through Europe.

Buying a City Card is an appropriate option for those who decide to stay in one place for longer than 2-3 days and visit a maximum of tourist attractions. At the same time, it should be remembered that each city will have its pros and cons of using the card. It is also a good idea to study them in advance.

People buying traditional Italian dishes on the square
Piazza Giacomo Matteotti in Sarzana, Italy © iryna1 / Shutterstock

On the other hand, there is always a free alternative for a mass of vivid impressions. A backpacker's advantage over other tourists is in his absolute freedom and active communication with local people. Residents of any city will be happy to tell you where to find the most beautiful views and interesting places, which will not be expensive to visit.

Another option is free walking tours. They are usually conducted by volunteer guides who know their city well. Anyone can join such an excursion. Show of gratitude in the form of a small financial reward is desirable but not obligatory.