Backpacking in Europe? Listen up!
Tip 1: Have a Basic Itinerary
When you are backpacking in Europe, have a basic itinerary of the important things: namely how to get there; which accommodation to stay in; some interesting places to visit; and where your next transport out is going to be.
For transport, goeuro.com is a good way to start. It will help you estimate and compare the prices, timings and duration of buses, trains, flights and even cars. Do note that the information provided may be slightly outdated, so book as soon as you have decided!
For accommodation, start by locating where the main city area is, and find a place that is relatively near. If you’re backpacking alone or with a friend, look up Hostelworld or booking.com for cheap accommodation in the vicinity. Airbnb could be a good option as well if you’re backpacking in groups of 3 or more. (You can use the airbnb hyperlink I provided to sign up for $30 credit.)
You can then start your basic city itinerary planning using your best friend, Google:
Firstly, you can google the top few places to visit. Usually, these are the main famous tourist attractions such as museum visits or castles. My priority when researching would always be to search up for FREE activities! After all you don’t always have to spend money during backpacking to have fun. (Student Exchange is expensive enough as it is.)
Next, search up for nice food places. I would recommend to start by searching for the city’s traditional or famous food items, followed by finding “budget” or “cheap” areas. Tripadvisor also provides top-rated touristy places for food, though they tend to be restaurants and so a little pricey. Pro Tip: If a restaurant has menus in multiple languages, or that majority of its customers are tourists, chances are it’s not that good.
Lastly, hunt for some interesting places. I would always search for “unique / uncommon / unusual places to visit in XX”. Trust me, you’ll be surprised about the things that you can find. Mark out these places on your maps (Google Maps is extremely useful for their “star” function) so that you don’t lose it, even when without data.
Tip 2: Keep Your Plans Flexible
You might run into all kind of problems while backpacking. Perhaps your train is delayed or you find that your flight has been cancelled. Or maybe that gelato shop you really wanted to visit is closed.
Live with it. Improvise. Plan for more options within the area. Ask your host or hostel staff about interesting places to check out. Speak with locals and ask for advice, they would know about the best places to go to. Just travel with an open mind and don’t be afraid to ask for advice. After all, that’s the spirit of backpacking.
Tip 3: Travel Light
Less is more, especially when you’re lugging your backpack around from city to city for days or even weeks. My theory for packing is: If you’re contemplating about whether you should bring a particular item, you probably don’t need it anyway. I used a 50L backpack and a simple slingbag for pretty much all my travels. A sample packing list for a 4-5 days backpacking trip could be as follows:
- 2-3 sets of clothes
- Tshirt and shorts for sleeping
- Slippers and running shoes
- Passport and a photocopy
- Your E-tickets (bus, trains, flights)
- Travel Adaptor
- Portable + Phone Charger
- Camera + Charger + Battery
- Simple Lock
- Some food / Snacks
- Ear plugs (for light sleepers)
- Basic medication
- Toiletries, including a small towel
- A smaller sling bag / backpack
- Plastic bags
- Tissue paper
- Pen and small notepad
- Water bottle
- Small stash of emergency cash
- Laptop and charger (Only if absolutely necessary)
Tip 4: Download Offline Google Translate and Google Maps
You will probably not have internet throughout your entire day out (unless you apply for roaming data). Prepare a map application with offline mode like Google Maps and star all the attraction spots whenever you have access to Wifi. Although you cannot search for public transport directions on Google Maps when offline, all previously marked and star’d attraction spots are still visible. So if you downloaded the offline map for that city, you can see the streets and buildings to navigate yourself around.
Having an offline Google Translate would also help a lot when you meet people who cannot speak English well. Just be wary if you pass them your phone to type their messages.
Tip 5: Have the Right Currency
Before backpacking anywhere, always check for the local currency. Do you have that currency on hand? Otherwise, bring your activated overseas ATM / Credit card or some other cash you have to exchange for the local currency there.
Rates for SGD are horrible in Europe. Having spare euros or USD would be one of the safest currency to carry along. Always remember to check the exchange rate beforehand and when you are comparing between different money changers, always check both the rates and whether there is any commission charged!
Tip 6: Prepare Your Splitwise Group
How do you usually handle money issues when traveling with your friends? Do you record everything down and later use an excel sheet to calculate? Do you create a common money pool and spend money from there? Stop these cumbersome calculations and listen up. One of the most useful applications I have discovered during my backpacking trips is Splitwise.
It is an extremely useful app for group expenditures. Get your backpacking buddies to download the application and create a group. Next, check the “simplify group debts” checkbox. Now, if somebody forks out for the entire dinner first, get him or her to record the expenditure in the group. How much did he / she spend and how are you guys going to split it? If many people contributed, you can even list the amount paid by each person. Once you have internet access, open the application to synchronise all unsynchronised expenses.
Because you ticked “simplify group debts”, the app will sum up all the various transactions between each person in the group. It will simplify them and state the final amount you need to pay each person to settle all debts. If you used 2 different currencies on this backpacking trip, you can even include an expense in a different currency and they will simplify your debts for the 2 separate currencies.
It is a super convenient app that deserves an honorable mention. A must-have for any group travel.
Tip 7: Skip the Bus. Walk Around and Explore
When you are backpacking to a new location, I would always recommend to explore the place on foot on the first day. Walking around not only saves you money, you would be able to get a sense of the culture and atmosphere of the city. You can even join a free walking tour to learn about the history and culture there (remember to tip!). While walking around, do check out the price of public transport and get a map of the metro system. This will help you plan your transport for Day 2 and onwards.
Pro Tip: Note where you can find some common places like McDonalds so you can tap in whenever you require their free Wi-Fi. (Like to upload that hipster photo you just took on Instagram)
Tip 8: Stay Safe
It is not uncommon to hear stories of pick-pocketing and robberies while traveling. Always take care of your valuables and keep them somewhere safe. Do not carry large amounts of cash and keep an emergency stash somewhere. Wear a money belt if you wish to. Never keep your values in your outer jacket pocket or jeans back pocket. If it’s easy for you to take out, it’s easy for them too.
Always watch out for commotions, scams and even “fake” police. If you’re interested, you may read up on various common ways that tourists have been tricked. Some examples include getting “spot checked” by “policemen” or how a large group would ask you to sign their petition and, using their clipboards, they block your vision before starting to pickpocket you.
There are also various terrorism and shooting cases in recent times, so do always check up on how safe a particular area is first. If you’re from Singapore, you can register on our Ministry of Foreign Affairs website to record information about your travel itinerary abroad. This allows them to contact you to check that you are safe and, if need be, assist you during emergencies (eg natural disasters, civil unrest, etc). Exercise some common sense, take care and you should be fine.
That’s about it. Hopefully these 8 tips would help make your travels easier, better and more enjoyable. Take down notes and snap pictures of your travels so that you have something to remember them by. Stay safe and enjoy yourself, I know I definitely did (:.