Extended travel scares the hell out of most people. I’m not pointing the finger here, I used to be in the same boat. The excuses not to travel are endless (believe me, I’ve used them) – kids, finances, work, danger, the plague, civil war and aunt Thelma’s not doing very well these days and could go at any time. You name a possible excuse and it’s been used. This article isn’t for those people. This article is for people who have already decided to see the rest of the world and need some tips on how to do it intelligently so that they can do it again, and again, and again.
Everyone has their preferences when it comes to travel. Do you go all out or travel on a budget? Do you book hotels, hostels, do you prefer CouchSurfing or, if you’re lucky, do you get to stay with a friend? Whatever your preferences for travel, having a general plan is the best way to ensure you get the most out of your experience and ensures you spend more time enjoying yourself and less time dealing with setbacks.
This article is about backpacking on a relatively modest but flexible budget and will cover basic aspects of backpacking primarily in western Europe. I am writing to inform people who want to experience not only the tourist-centered highlights but also get a feel for some of the local flair that every city, town and village in Europe has to offer. Of course I cannot discuss every area of western Europe but will thoroughly cover the key insights gained on my three week backpacking trip around western Europe.
Credit Cards – For sake of record keeping, safety and simplicity, I recommend using a credit card that gives you airline miles (or points) if you plan on traveling often. There are a lot of cards out there but I use the Capital One card. I also recommend the Southwest Airlines Visa card. It gives you a decent 1.25 miles per dollar spent, 20,000 bonus miles if you spend $2,000 in the first three months you have the card and also allows for purchase erasure where you can use your saved miles to pay for travel expenses after you made the purchase. It is important to get a card that allows you to make foreign transactions (purchases, ATM withdrawls, etc.) without additional fees. Failure to do this will cost you money in the end if you get a card with hidden fees. Most cards that provide zero foreign transaction fees are pretty proud of this feature so it tends to be easy to know if a card offers this or not. I like the customer service I get with the Capital One card as well and the way they organize purchases in your online account. This makes tax preparation and budgeting mind-bogglingly (is this a word?) simple. Whatever you decide to do, in the end, it’s all about selecting the card (if any) that is best for your needs and lifestyle. I am a big proponent of debt free living so please use credit privileges responsibly.
Notify Your Bank and Credit Card company – this is a major step a lot of people overlook and with identify theft concerns on the rise, your bank or credit card company may cancel or deny access to your card if you buy a book in Denver and then try to buy dinner in London a few hours later. Do yourself a big favor and call your bank to notify them of what countries you are going to visit. They will place the note on your account and you can travel with the assurance that your bank issued credit or debit card will work every time. Most credit card companies allow you to inform them of your travel plans in your online account – it’s simple! Just log on and list the countries you’ll be visiting and submit the notification.
Work Related Issues – we all have different work situations, but if you earn a salary like me, it is usually pretty simple to justify your minimum hours worked (if required) in just a couple of days which may help you extend your trip. I have two weeks of vacation available, but am going to be in Europe for three weeks. I have made the arrangement that I will fly out on Tuesday evening which allows me about 4 days in that pay period to get my hours in to fulfill my minimum required work hours for the week. I am returning home on a Wednesday which also gives me four days remaining in that pay period to fulfill this same requirement for the week I return. By packing all of my work into just a couple of days, I am able to use the rest of the week for travel without losing money. Of course this is highly dependent on your work arrangement, your boss and how your job is organized, but I have used this method at every job I’ve had for well over a decade without any problems whatsoever, so hopefully you can arrange this type of situation as well. It allows you to take longer trips while still being paid your normal salary.
Mobile Data Usage – messing up here can cost you big time! Check with your mobile carrier to see what they charge for international data (media and calling) usage. I use Verizon Wireless and their fees have been very reasonable. However, because I was updating my social media pages with so many photos and videos, I racked up considerable charges. Do yourself a favor and make it a point to place your phone setting to deny media use access and instead use Wi-Fi from a local source whenever possible to avoid these charges. They’ll really add up quickly if you use a lot of data on your mobile device.
Plane ticket – secure this well in advance. Tickets for one person are usually going to cost about $1,200-$2,100 depending on time of year and what your itinerary entails. Be sure to get a refundable ticket just in case something major arises that will keep you from being able to take your trip. You should also know what type of bag(s) you will be taking with you. I personally take one carry-on bag with me on all trips. If I find that I need something when I arrive, remember its Europe not the moon – just go to the store and buy it. Buying one or two items (like a light jacket or an umbrella) is much cheaper than checking bags and lugging a large backpack around Europe for three weeks.
EuRail Pass — if you plan on using high-speed rail to get around Europe, the EuRail pass is a must have! I can’t imagine traveling to multiple European countries without it. The EuRail pass gives you first class accommodations which typically includes a food and beverage car. I like to travel by train because it’s quick and I can sleep during the night as I go from place-to-place.
Helpful Tip: Read the directions when you receive your EuRail pass in the mail. Bring the entire document intact, with you. DO NOT bring only the train ticket portion. You’ll need to log your train schedule on the other pages of the EuRail pass and have the train official who comes by to check papers stamp it or this could wind you up in a bind with officials on the train. Be sure to fill out the EuRail ticket portion of the pass right before you get on your first train in Europe or train officials will not be able to tell what date your pass begins and when it expires. In a nutshell, read and follow the directions that come with your EuRail pass. So, as long as you have all the forms associated with your EuRail pass and your passport, you’re good to go!
“Shoulder season” travel – traveling when there are few tourists and Europeans are going about their normal everyday lives is not only the cheapest way to travel, but in my opinion, also the most rewarding. There are three basic travel seasons: Peak season, shoulder season and off season. During off-season, many attractions are not open for the public and the weather is unsuitable for backpacking. Peak season is when you will have long waits to access interesting areas and there will be larger than usual crowds of tourists although there are some benefits to peak season travel. Shoulder season is my preference because it allows for freedom of movement, relaxed travel and great personal interactions with locals. Europeans flee the high temperature cities in the summer and head for the beaches, the mountains or fly off on their own vacations. This is not the best time to see Europe! If you travel at peak times, you’re going to see a lot of people just like yourself wandering around and your chances of meeting really great European friends is greatly reduced. I prefer to travel in western Europe from April – June or Sept – Oct.
Get the city pass when possible – Unless your goal is to pay the most money possible to see the major attractions of a given city, you’ll want to get the city pass for that city. London, Paris, Barcelona and Rome all have these passes as do a number of other European cities. They give you access to more attractions than you could possibly visit in a single lifetime. They may seem expensive when you look at the price online, but you are crazy to spend more than two days in a major city without the city pass. It’ll pay for itself almost instantly if you hope to see more than just two or three major attractions. The best part of these city passes is that you rarely have to stand waiting in line. That’s right, you get a special line that accesses most attractions within seconds. True story – I got into the Louvre in Paris in less than 20 seconds while others had been waiting (in the rain) for more than an hour just to get inside. Get the passes, they’ll save you time and they’ll save you a lot of money.
Don’t plan too much – your goal is to experience the greatness of Europe and to relax, make friends and enjoy life. Planning your trip too rigidly will require you to stick to a very tight itinerary and won’t allow you to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities when they arise. If you meet some great friends on the beach in Barcelona you want to be able to stay another day instead of rushing off to the next dot on the map in order to keep your over-booked schedule. Relax! Getting to Europe and getting back home are the important things. What happens in the middle should be thoughtfully planned, but flexible. Most hotels, hostels and airlines allow for relatively late cancellations if you select these options (which may cost a little extra) up front when initially booking reservations. In the end, you may lose $20 and make a friendship that lasts a lifetime or meet the person of your dreams. Don’t let an overly booked travel itinerary ruin your experience.
Do plan the major stops – you want to have a pretty firm idea of where you will be and when. Not only is this important so your family can locate you in the event of an emergency, but also to ensure you experience the trip you hoped to have. Many times if we plan too rigidly, we miss the great experiences available to us. And, on the other hand, if we don’t plan enough, we end up missing a lot of the main things we wanted to see and do in Europe in the first place. I recommend setting a relatively structured schedule of when and how you are to arrive in the major stops along your journey. For me, I tend to focus on arriving late at night or early in the morning so I can get the most daylight possible to enjoy a given location, but what time of day I arrive is not as important as simply ensuring I get there reasonably close to my initial plan.
See my tentative itinerary below:
May 19 – fly from Tulsa, OK to Washington, DC. Depart for Paris, France
May 20 – land in Paris, France and set up lodging at Beautiful City Hostel (4 nights)
May 24 – train to Barcelona, Spain and set up lodging at AirBnB apartment (3 nights)
May 27 – Fly to Rome, Italy and set up lodging at hotel (4 nights)
May 31 – Train to Cinque Terre, Italy and set up lodging at hotel (2 nights)
June 2 – Train to Zurich, Switzerland and set up lodging at AirBnB house (1 night)
June 3 – Train to Fussen, Germany and stay with my friend (2 nights)
June 5 – Train north to Munich and stay at hotel (2 nights)
June 7 – met a great new friend and crashed with him in Nuremberg, Germany (1 night)
June 8 – Train to Amsterdam, and set up lodging at The Bull Dog hostel (2 nights)
June 10 – Train to Antwerp, Belgium to see a friend and set up lodging at hotel (2 nights)
June 12 – Train to Paris, France to set up hotel (1 night)
June 13 – Depart Paris, France, fly to Chicago, IL then to Tulsa, OK to sleep in my own bed
At this point in time, for backpackers wanting to see Europe at ground-level, hostels, hotels and AirBnB are the way to go! Unlike the movies, hostels tend to be rather nice, well-kept and full of people trying to experience the world just like you. They’re cheap, tend to be in locations where you can get a great sense of the local environment and usually come with most of the comforts of home including private, double or group rooms, free WiFi, lockers for your belongings and common areas to hang out and chat with people. Hostelling International operates tons of locations throughout Europe and they do a nice job of structuring their business much like hotels do with membership options and well run establishments. I prefer independent hostels, however. While there is more variation in quality, the internet allows you to research locations rather simply to see what suits you best.
Here are the typical ways I find the best lodging at the best prices:
- Hotels.com – Easy search hotels in over 60 countries
- Hostelworld – Hotels and hostels all at great prices
- Booking.com – Hotels, villas, apartments, B&Bs and hostels
- AirBnB – Rent a room or rent an apartment or house cheaply
- Couchsurfing – Meet a new friend and crash for free
- Priceline – Great pricing on everything related to travel
- Trip Advisor – Everything you need for great experiences
I do recommend setting two primary reservations in stone. These are the first two days you arrive in Europe and the last two days before leaving Europe, you should have confirmed reservations for lodging. It would be a nightmare to arrive in Paris when there is an international convention for backpackers (I do not think these exist) and have to spend the majority of your first day in Europe trying to secure affordable lodging. Be smart, do it right, book well in advance the first two days of lodging close to the central areas of town that you will be exploring and book the last two days of your trip at locations close enough to the airport to get there if time is running short and you are in a rush.
There are a gazillion opinions on this and mine is just one more added to a long list – but at this point in history, mine is correct. The following is a list of backpacking essentials that will make your trip relaxing and enjoyable while also allowing you the benefit of a light carry-on backpack.
The Right Backpack – I use the Osprey Porter 46. This is a superior bag to almost every other backpacking item for a number of reasons.
- It fits carry-on bag size limitations perfectly! It was designed for this exact reason.
It’s dimensions are 22 inch height x 14 inch width x 9 inch depth. Permitted carry-on bag sizes vary slightly, but at this point in time the major carriers are as follows:
– United Airlines: 22 x 14 x 9 – these are exactly the same dimensions and the Porter 46
– Delta Airlines: 22 x 14 x 9 – once again, the Porter 46 maxes out every inch
– American Airlines: 22 x 14 x 9 – you get the picture. The Porter 46 is a backpacker’s dream
– Southwest Airlines: 24 x 16 x 10 – domestic flights mainly, but the Porter 46 is still idea
– RyanAir (Europe): 21 x 15 x 8 – the Porter 46 will fit*, I’ve done it! Don’t over pack
*if your bag is close to the limit, just get into a really busy line of people checking-in. The attendants will be in a rush and unless you are simply unable to fit your bag into the carry-on measurement box, you will have no problems with your bag. Most attendants are familiar with bag sizes and they’ll see the size of your bag and typically pass you right on through without delay.
Helpful Tip: Also, I recommend you take a nylon duffle bag that fold up about the size of your wallet. They’re so cheap and easy to find. This is perfect for clothing that gets wet or for shoes that get muddy. But the main reason I bring it along is just in case my bag is so stuffed that a stickler airline rep decides to make me pay a fee. All of the airlines allow 1 carry-on and 1 personal item. I simply put a few items into the nylon bag and use it as my personal item allowing my carry-on bag to fit perfectly within size requirement.
- It is built to last!
You could take Osprey Porter Travel Packs anywhere and do anything with it. It is designed to carry heavy loads and is constructed of top-tier materials that make it both light and strong.
- “Straight jacket” technology that gives the Porter 46 strength, flexibility and safety
- A massive primary compartment that will give you maximum storage space
- Great shoulder strap tuck-away compartment allows you to carry it like a brief case
- Locking zippers – a must have for any backpack and the Porter 46 delivers
- Well designed, quick access, top pocket is hidden by the pack’s straight jacket feature
- Double clip synched back gives the pack structure, safety and a sturdy feel on your back
Waist Money Belt
- Backpack in Barcelona long enough without it and you’ll be broke! Get one!
- I use the Victorinox Deluxe Swiss money belt. This model of money belt is the way to go!
- It’s soft, durable and wicks moisture.
- It has compartments for all your essential valuables – money, credit cards, passport etc.
- Do not backpack Europe without this safety item. It’s cheap and I promise you are going to kick yourself if you get pick pocketed.
- You don’t really need to wear a money belt at all times, but when you’re on the move, on trains, boarding airplanes, etc. you need your vital information and money secure and this is the way to go. Once I get to a location and I feel relatively safe about the environment, I’ll put my daily essentials (credit card, Euros, phone, etc) in my pocket and leave my money belt secured in my lockable backpack locked in a hostel locker or in my hotel room.
A Quality Video and Still Image Camera
I carry one of each and both fit perfectly into the Porter 46 with all my clothes and essentials. As you know, I love photography and video and this website requires that I take candid, but high quality images in both areas so I carry the compact, affordable and yet really high-quality Nikon Coolpix Waterproof digital camera and a really exceptional, but low cost Sony digital camera for point and shoot photography. Of course these photos aren’t going to end up in National Geographic, but I’ve seen people carrying around massive cameras and they’ll be the first to admit that it was a mistake.
No need to spend extra money on cameras with more features and options. You’re probably not going to use them for specialized situations. Unless you are hoping to take a lot of photographs on very dark nights, you will do just fine with cameras like this. After years of trial and error, trust me, these two cameras will serve your European backpacking purposes with ease.
I also like a small tripod that can steady both of these cameras for standard shots and is a really essential tool that helps me capture that hard to get selfie when I’m by myself.
Travel Insurance – Yes, it costs money. And yes, it can be tempting to chance a 3 week European trip without travel insurance. My friend, you are smarter than that! Don’t skimp here. Get travel insurance! I personally use Travel Guard. It’s fairly priced, the plans are really comprehensive and the enrollment process is simple. You can add people to the plan and they tailor plans based on time spent abroad and your age – pretty simple and really fair. I’ve never had a challenge with this company and highly recommend using Travel Guard.
Helpful Tip: your current insurance policy may cover international travel medical needs. Call them and discuss this prior to leaving for your trip. I recommend at least a basic level of travel insurance anyway, but it is very comforting knowing your current insurance may have some kind of international coverage.
Locks – Just have a couple with you. If you use a quality backpack, it will have locking zippers. The locks for these tend to be just a couple bucks and can be found just about anywhere. I do recommend combination locks like the TSA Cable Combination Lock. Allow me to explain why. Key locks are really excellent, but if you lose the key(s) you are royally screwed. Be smart and get a couple quality combination locks, they’ll work perfectly and you are never at risk of being unable to open the lock no matter how much German beer you may ingest.
Packing Pointers – pickpockets are smart these days and they’re job is to outsmart you – and they will. Be prepared. Europe is relatively safe, but let’s face it – you’re a tourist and that’s an ideal target for someone wanting to steal something of value. Pickpockets tend to work in groups and are quite good. So when you are in a crowd, anyone touching you could be stealing from you. Stay aware of your surroundings and understand that any touch from someone just might mean you lost an item. Pack valuable items further away from the zippers on your backpack whenever possible. Wearing a money belt is the best case scenario in my opinion and for the low price, you are crazy not to get one.
RFID Blocking wallets and gear – Radio frequency identification wallets and SafeT Sleeves are a life saver! I personally use the Royce Leather RFID Blocking Bifold w/ Double ID Flap. This wallet blocks radio frequency waves used by thieves to steal your personal information off of any credit card or passport that has a magnetic stripe or microchip. Of course these are the technical terms for the dark stripe on the back of your credit cards and the new identification chips placed in USA passports. Thieves are focusing on this type of theft because they don’t even have to touch you to steal all of your information. I met a new friend in Paris (on this trip actually) who had his credit card information stolen and the card maxed out while it was locked inside his backpack. Be smart! RFID Blocking wallets and SafeT Sleeves RFID Protectors (Total of 8 Sleeves) held inside your money belt or pocket will ensure you are protected and go home with your identify intact. I often just put my credit cards into the SafeT Sleeves and put them in my front pocket and head out for the day.
No matter where you’re going, something is going to pop up and surprise you. This could be a good thing and this could be awful. Either way you need to learn to maintain the right perspective. Assuming that your plans are going to change at some point is the best way to deal with any surprise that may present itself. Just assume that something is going to occur that requires more of your time and you’ll set yourself up for dealing with it smoothly instead of allowing it to derail all the fun experiences you’re having.
Surprises can make a good trip to Europe an amazing one if you keep the right mindset while you travel. Embrace changes in your schedule that will allow you to more fully experience the world. I was in Fussen, Germany visiting an old pal I met in New Orleans years earlier. After visiting all the famous castles in Fussen, we headed back to his place and ran into a bunch of other people he knew. Some of their friends from other areas of Germany were in town and we ended up grilling out and drinking beer until the sun came up. The best part of that was I made a really great new friend who invited me to visit his city, Nuremberg and stay at his place while I was in town. What a great and unexpected change of events. Sure, I had to change a couple little things, but by accepting this twist in my plans, it provided me an amazing new experience in a great German city and I came away with a really great new friend who is now planning on coming to the United States to travel. What a great surprise that turned out better than I could have ever imagined!
So there you have it! Of course an article like this could go on and on, but you’ve got the basics and all the essential elements you’ll need to address in order to have the time of your life while staying safe and staying within budget. I hope that no matter how or when you decide to travel that you do decide to do it. Travel will bring you such tremendous appreciation for other cultures, it’ll open your mind to other ways of living and will make you feel grateful for who you are and where you are from. Travel is amazing my friends and I encourage you to do it often and do it intelligently so that you can have the time of your life!
Please connect with me on my social media pages! Just click an image!