Is there anything more exhilarating than the freedom of a European backpacking adventure? Imagine wandering through colorful medieval villages, trekking through verdant alpine meadows, and meandering through European capitals — all with just the pack on your back and not a care in the world. Sure, it’s not quite that easy, but with a little planning we can get you pretty close to full-on footloose and fancy free. To wit, then, check out our 15 tips for backpacking in Europe.
1: Use travel apps for (nearly) everything.
These days, you can make great use of travel apps for backpacking in Europe. They allow you to create and store master itineraries, book local transit tickets, and get local safety information – while also helping you discover off-the-beaten track cultural attractions. For specifics, see our 7 best trip planning apps for 2020.
2: Consider traveling in shoulder seasons.
If you have the flexibility, travel during spring or fall. Not only are the crowds smaller, but flights and accommodations tend to be significantly cheaper — upwards of 30% in some cases.
3: Get travel insurance.
While this may seem like a pricey expense, having a medical emergency overseas or losing your luggage will likely cost more than your insurance premium – potentially a lot more. Believe us, we learned this the hard way. For about $100 a year, you can get decent coverage should you face hazards abroad, or simply suffer from flight delays and cancellations, damaged gear, and more. Check out this article on where to find good travel insurance on a backpacker’s budget.
4: Consider staying in hostels, but do your homework first.
Staying in hostels tends to go hand-in-hand with backpacking in Europe — and for good reason. Hostels tend to be cheaper, are a good way of meeting fellow travelers, and there are lots to choose from. Still, some can be noisy, unsafe, or unsanitary. To find hostels that meet your budget and standards, lean on sites like Hostelworld or Hostelz that provide price and rating info. To save even more, stay out of city centers (opt for a hostel a few blocks away) and get one that includes breakfast. Pro tip: If you want a private room, nix the hostel and book with a discount hotel instead. The latter is actually cheaper.
5: Keep it light.
Our best advice here is to keep the weight of your gear to 10 kg or 22 lbs. This is generally the maximum weight permitted for carryon baggage on European budget airlines (more on that below). Even if you don’t plan to fly once you’ve arrived, 20 lbs. is going to be challenging enough when you’re wandering around looking for your next hostel. For an actual packing list of what to bring, start here.
6: There’s more to internal travel than just getting a Eurail Pass.
When backpacking in Europe, a Global Eurail Pass may be appropriate if your itinerary includes several stops along national train networks and you have a penchant for unlimited or spontaneous travel. Still, prices are not cheap. The cost for a single Global Pass for unlimited travel across 31 European countries starts at €503 ($575).
Other options include one-off, point-to-point rail, bus, and airline tickets. Though not as comfortable as most national train lines, buses tend to be a lot cheaper. Check out Busrader for routes and pricing. Europe also has a handful of budget airlines with point-to-point fares that are often in the low double digits. Head to Kayak for flight schedules and pricing comparisons.
7: Prepare your own meals.
In general, the food available at local European markets tends to be fresh, flavorful, and cheap. If you are staying in a hostel or Airbnb with cooking facilities, buy local and cook at home. If you want to eat out, go out for lunch – meal deals are more common for lunch than dinner.
8: Ask what’s included with your meal.
Before you dig into that restaurant bread basket, make sure it comes gratis with your order. It’s not uncommon in Europe that bread and water cost extra.
9: Go for some of the street food.
Some of our favorite European eats have come from street food vendors. It’s a great way to eat as the locals do and for pennies on the dollar. Be careful, however. Avoid street food in touristy areas (prices will be twice as high) and only eat from vendors that appear to be doing business with residents.
10: When in Italy, enjoy the aperitivos.
From about 7-9pm, many Italians do the civilized thing and sit down for a glass of wine and a few nibbles. In fact, many cafés offer an all-you-can eat buffet of snacks, so long as you order a drink. Just be sure to avoid pricey cocktails (stick with vino or beer) and sip your beverage slowly so you can go up for seconds, and thirds, and …
11: Build museum visits around first and last Sundays of the month.
In many European cities, state museums are often free on the first or last Sunday of the month. Case in point: the Louvre, Musée Rodin, and Musée d’Orsay (among others) in Paris are free on the first Sunday of the month. That’s serious savings right there.
12: Take a free walking tour.
Just about every city has them. And while you’d probably rather sit in a comfy red bus – backpacking can be exhausting – you’ll see more if you walk. Check out this site for a list of well-reviewed free European city walking tours.
13: Bring a valid student ID, if you have one.
If you’re between 18 and 24 and have a valid student ID, bring it. Discounts are often available on everything from food to transportation for those who can show current student status.
14: Avoid public restrooms if you can.
Yes, they’re perfectly clean (most of the time), but they often cost a Euro or two to use. Instead, make use of the restrooms available at eateries like McDonalds or Starbucks. They typically allow free use of restrooms for paying customers and – you were going to get that Caffè Macchiato anyway.
15: Forget the beach; head to the lake.
Sure, everyone wants to post about sipping Champagne on the Med. But frankly, it’s not worth the cost or crowds. We recommend heading inland for a swim and stay at one of the continent’s beautiful alpine lakes. Everything is generally cheaper and you’ll get a better taste for local culture and customs. Check here for a list of some of the best.
If you have any tried-and-true tips on backpacking in Europe, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll add them to the list!