There is so much information out there on the internet, and I personally think a lot of it is complete junk. I want this article to be the NUMBER ONE resource when it comes to backpacking through Europe. It will be informative, helpful, and most importantly, NOT junk!
With this guide I want you to have a few ‘aha’ moments or maybe a few ‘that’s a good idea’ moments. I want this to be a valuable resource for other backpackers like myself, or for fledgling backpackers who may be about to start on their very own journey to Europe.
In this guide I’m going to share everything I wish I knew before heading off on my first adventure. Having backpacked Europe a number of times (and having lived there as an expat for a while) I like to think I have a few good pointers that can help you get started.
Because of all of the above, this article is going to be really long, so I will be breaking it down into manageable chunks. Read the whole thing if you’ve got the time, I’ve drawn from and poured as much of my own personal experiences and lessons learned into it as I can. If you are after some specific tips or information in particular, use the links below to jump around the article.
Let’s get on with it.
I thought it might be a good idea to start with a map of Europe. Any decent Europe backpacking guide would be remiss without actually showing you a map of Europe. So here it is!
Open the map in a new window to make it nice and big!
Welcome to Europe. It’s the world’s 6th largest continent and consists of 47 countries (as well as other assorted dependencies, islands and territories). Phew. That’s enough facts for now I think.
So, my first recommendation is to familiarize yourself with this continent! Not only will this build up the anticipation of the trip to come, it’s also a great way to avoid homework and other dull activities. Might I also suggest getting a globe for your room (I have one that is also a lamp and lights up from the inside, it’s AWESOME, so get one of those).
In the planning phase and whilst ticking off your ‘backpacking in Europe checklist’, please don’t forget to organize your passport and the appropriate visas for the countries your are visiting (more on visas in a moment). Don’t leave it to the last minute. Don’t leave it to the last minute. Let me repeat that. Please don’t leave it to the last minute!
There is nothing worse than thinking you have more than enough time to sort and obtain your passport, only to realize the processing time (according to the post office clerk) ‘may take 6-8 weeks, it really depends…’, and you’re sitting there thinking, ‘but I leave in 4 weeks!’.
Then you’re biting and gnashing your nails leading up to the flight date, only to receive it 3 days before you go. IT’S NEEDLESS STRESS, I tell you.
Let me tell you a quick story, when I had to renew my Australian passport, I ran into some troubles due to the fact that I had lost my previous passport (that’s a tale we won’t get into right now) and neither of my parents were born in Australia (my dad is English and my mother is Dutch).
So even though I have an Australian birth certificate and had previously had an Australian passport, there was some obscure government ruling that still applied to me where I had to prove extra things and obtain all sorts of paperwork from my parents because I was applying for a ‘new passport’ instead of ‘renewing my passport’.
The point of this story is to make you go and arrange your passport immediately, because you just have no idea what complications may come up. Give yourself a good 3 months to sort it out, if not more. Enough said on the matter I think. Onwards!
I know I said I was done with passports, but one more final note of importance. If either of your parents are born in a European country, I highly suggest looking into getting a passport from their country. You may well be applicable for one, and it can make travelling Europe a LOT easier, especially if they are from a country within the EU (European Union).
The US and Australian government allow dual citizenship, so you are legally able to hold two passports (I know this is true, as I have two passports myself).
It helps knowing which countries you plan on visiting of course, and US and Australian citizens are often entitled to 30 or 60 days into various European countries without even requiring a visa. So if you are planning a short trip to one country, do a bit of research and see if a visa is even required. For most backpackers however, there is the Schengen Visa.
The Schengen Visa lets you into 25 European countries (including ALL of Western Europe), allowing you a total stay of 90 days in the applicable Schengen countries.
Let me say this however, there is one very popular tourist destination that is not currently on the Schengen Visa, and that is Croatia. So if you plan on going to Croatia, you need to look into whether or not you need to arrange a visa, as having the Schengen Visa will not help you. Citizens of the US, Canada or Australia are not required to have a visa and can stay in Croatia up to 90 days, for example.
‘Oh, you are not allowed into Croatia. You are here illegally’.
So he had to stay on the ferry and go BACK out of Croatia, all because he didn’t realize that his Schengen Visa didn’t cover Croatia. So have a good peruse of the Schengen country list, and if you plan on visiting countries in Europe that are not on the list, you need to investigate whether your passport will allow you to enter that country with or without a visa. Don’t end up stuck on a ferry!
You’re going to need a way to access money overseas. I would recommend a card that has Visa or MasterCard access – with either one of those you will not have trouble getting money out anywhere in Europe.
A big problem is that a lot of banks will give you cards with this access, but will charge you ridiculous fees just to get money out.
It’s pretty absurd and annoying. If you live in Australia, I have a perfect solution for you. I’ve been using this credit card for every trip I’ve been on since I was 18. I have no affiliation whatsoever with this company or this card, it’s just a fantastic product for travelling so I’m recommending it here.
It’s a 28 Degrees MasterCard, there is no annual fee, no cash advance fees and no foreign currency fees. I guess where they make money is that you get charged about 18-20% interest as soon as you withdraw the funds. HOWEVER, used sensibly, this card will save you a bucket load in conversion fees and cash advance fees. The card itself will convert currency at the global MasterCard rate (which is always going to better then your local bank).
If you endeavor to logon and pay off your card via Internet Banking at least once every two weeks, it is one of the cheapest ways to travel and access money back home in my opinion.
It may be a credit card, but I’m not recommending it for you to spend money you don’t have. It’s purely a means of access for me, and not a way of drowning myself in debt, and I suggest you treat it the same way!
If 28 Degrees ever remove these great travelling features off the card, I will be removing this recommendation off my website.
If you don’t live in Australia, you’re going to need to do a little research of companies in your country and what they can offer you in terms of accessing cash abroad. If you can get it, you want something that will not charge you cash advance fees or foreign currency fees, give you an exchange rate based on a standard Visa or MasterCard rate, and preferably one that has no annual fees as well.
A bit hard to find? You betcha!
You will need a passport of course; we’ve covered that off already. But apart from a passport, what are some other useful papers and ID cards to bring along with you on a backpacking trip to Europe?
I have two words for you: Student ID
If you have a valid Student ID card, then DO NOT LEAVE IT AT HOME. You will get discounts on everything in Europe, from museums to cinemas to train tickets. Bringing along your Student ID is an absolute must (I didn’t have one on my last trip since I’m not a student anymore. I hate missing out on all those student savings!).
Other papers that will come in handy:
A final note on papers and ID, it’s always a good idea to leave behind photocopies of your passport and ID with family or friends back home. Trust me, losing your passport is an absolute pain, having a safe photocopy of it may well come in handy at some point.
I’ve used a couple of different travel insurance companies, but have never needed to claim anything (thankfully). So I cannot really take you through the claims process and tell you exactly which company is amazing and perfect, because I haven’t done it myself. I can tell you that if you lose something, report it to the police (and get a receipt for that) as soon as possible if you can. Having a police report for your losses will ALWAYS HELP in an insurance claim.I can also tell you that you should definitely get travel insurance and to do the following things:
Shop around, get a few different quotes, read various reviews, ask friends and family.
So how much does it cost to backpack through europe? Well, it’s a pretty common question, and obviously, it can have a lot of different and varying answers. Let me see if I can help you based on my own experience.
If you are wanting to set a budget and get a rough idea of cost and how much money you will need to bring, there are a few things you need to know about your own trip. How long are you going for? Are you happy to stay in hostels in large mixed dormitories or do you want your own room? Are you happy with cooking your own meals, or do you want to eat out every night? Do you mind flying with the budget airlines and catching buses?
I pretty much pin down costs to four main categories: sleeping, eating, drinking, and transport. Those four things will set you back the most, I absolutely guarantee it. Since this site and this article is about backpacking specifically, I am going to make some assumptions about you:
You don’t want to stay in five star hotels, you would love to eat out – but will do so sparingly and at local haunts (not at Michelin star restaurants), and you are more than happy to pre-drink and socialize at the hostel prior to going out on the town.
Am I right? I hope so, because that’s what I’m about to base these cost estimates on!
On average, a bed in a hostel dorm will set you back about 20 Euros a night (will normally range from 15 – 30 Euros).
If you’re happy eating and cooking at the hostel with food from the local fresh food or supermarket, you can definitely get by on 10 Euros a day for food. Bearing in mind this is on the cheaper end of things, no salmon steaks for you! If you would like to eat out every now and then, perhaps set yourself a budget of 20 Euros a day for food.
The cost of drinks is of course very dependent on the person, some people do not drink at all, and others (Australians seem to have a reputation for this) will drink a lot. Lucky for you, alcohol is relatively cheap in most European countries. Your budget on this, I will leave entirely up to you.
As for transport and tickets for museums and other assorted ‘expenses’ that will just show up (trust me, there will be a few of them) – it’s always a good idea to budget for these as well. A decent museum will generally set you back 6 – 10 Euros. A flight within Europe booked in advance with EasyJet or RyanAir will cost you anywhere from 30 to 80 Euros. Buses will be cheaper then trains, but trains are a lot more comfortable to travel in, so keep that in mind.
For a more comprehensive and in-depth look at the costs involved, have a read of my article:
So what route should I take, where should I go, what should I DO, Tom?
This is the advice I give you. Sit down, and write down every country you want to visit in Europe. List them in order of importance, and listen up, list them in the order of importance FOR YOU PERSONALLY. Don’t put them in an order that you feel is ‘expected’ of you and your trip to Europe.
If you harbor a secret love for German beer and beer is important to YOU, but your friend keeps telling you how amazing Italy was. Guess what? Germany goes above Italy in the order of importance. It doesn’t matter if friends or family or even society might see your reasoning as ‘trivial’. Who cares?
I’ll probably say this throughout the article until I sound like a broken record, but when you backpack you backpack for yourself. You don’t travel for anybody else but you. Keep this in mind at all times.
So using this new little list of European countries that are sorted in order of importance will help you come up with some excellent Europe backpacking trips. So how long are you going for? Using your ‘countries in order of importance list’, print out a map of Europe and start drawing squiggly black lines and writing things like ‘2 weeks in Germany’ or ‘at least 3 weeks in France’. This will help you formulate your thoughts, and already you will probably find you are developing a loose Europe backpacking route in your mind.
The other alternative is that you can just fly into London or Paris and wing it – (in Australian that means make it up as you go along). I did that on my first backpacking adventure when I was 18. I went for 10 months in total, and winging it was definitely fun.
Winging it does have its pros and cons.
Let’s do another one, and these ones come from my own personal backpack story bank:
Winging it opens yourself up to loads of new opportunities, but then again you may get caught out a few times as well. So that’s why I’m now more of a fan of loosely based plans that are open for interpretation.
What I mean here is that I might already KNOW of a festival in Paris or Amsterdam that I want to get to, so I will book the flight in advance and lock in that date for flying from ‘X’ airport. Then I will leave my plans open and meander my way from point A to B going where I please with the knowledge that I need to reach that airport for that flight on that date.
If you plan on travelling in the peak season (which is during the summer months in Europe), then it’s also a good idea to book in advance for hostels as well. Cities like Barcelona and Amsterdam are notorious for completely booking out (I’ve had to stay up all night at the Amsterdam train station once before because I didn’t book in advance), so you are better off locking in your dates when planning to visit those cities.
So when planning your European backpacking route, think about how you want to travel.
Do you want to book everything in advance, or just roll with it and see where you end up? There is no right or wrong way to do it, just do whatever feels comfortable and exciting for you!
Alright then, let me give you a real live sample itinerary for backpacking Europe. These are just for fun, and of course you can use them if you like, but trust me, you’ll have way more fun picking your own countries to visit and making up your own travel plans.
My little sample itineraries won’t tell you how long to stay in one place, that’s completely up to you. Two days as a minimum in each spot (unless you’re positive it’s a stop-over) is always a good way to go. You might want to stay a lot longer in the capital cities where there is a lot to see.
Backpacking Itinerary 1: North Europe – Fly into and out of Amsterdam
Amsterdam: There is a lot more to Amsterdam then the Red Light District and the coffee shops, so make sure you have time to explore this amazing city of canals and all it has to offer.
Berlin: With its absolutely fascinating history, do a walking tour and try and see a few of the 183 museums available. And of course you’ll have to walk the Berlin Wall and see some of the amazing artwork.Dresden: This city turned out to be a favorite of mine in Germany. Make sure you stay in the ‘new city’ as this area is absolutely loaded with cafes, pubs and clubs and a real buzzing and vibrant atmosphere. The irony is the ‘new city’ is in reality the oldest part of Dresden, as the ‘old city’ was completely destroyed during World War II but was rebuilt faithfully according to old plans.
Nuremburg: A good city to see if you haven’t been to Europe before. The old city is wondrous and so European, with a castle overlooking it atop the hill. I enjoyed the museum at the Castle, with suits of armor and old weaponry.
Prague: People often either hate or love Prague. Many people feel it has been completely overrun with tourists and ‘stag’ parties and the like – which they believe has destroyed the city. It’s definitely worth seeing however, and it’s always good to make your own opinions about places whilst backpacking. It has a big castle of course, and lots of other things to see.
Cesky Krumlov: This is quite an enchanting city, and there is a lot to do for backpackers. From water sports to the pub crawl down the river, you will meet lots of people and have heaps of fun.
Vienna: A fantastic city to explore, full of romantic history and brilliant architecture (and of course awesome night life). Lots of decent hostels and camp sites here too!
Salzburg: This city is where they filmed ‘The Sound Of Music’, and is also the birthplace of Mozart. Lots of Baroque architecture, all in all it’s a very beautiful European city.
Munich: Most people will know it as the city of Oktoberfest. I had a blast in Munich when I was there (try the Augustiner beer, I think it’s one of my favorite beers in the whole world, definitely better then Paulaner and the rest!)Luxembourg: The old town of Luxembourg is a UNSECO heritage listed site, and Luxembourg itself is one of Europe’s smallest countries. There are exceptional museums to visit, and lots of culture to experience, it has been named the European Capital of Culture twice now.
Paris: The city of love. It can be an amazing experience, but it’s one of the more expensive locations for backpackers. The food and the wine are stellar, and there are some world class museums (The Louvre, Museum D’Orsay etc). Make sure you have a picnic as the sun sets in front of the Eiffel Tower; you’ll get a dazzling light show (we did it a few days running, and it’s a fantastic cheap night out). Don’t worry; you certainly won’t get bored in Paris.
Bruges: Seen the film In Bruges? This quirky little city in Belgium is so much fun to walk around. Get lost in the magical city of Bruges with all its cafes, pubs, museums and restaurants.
Amsterdam: And you’re back in Amsterdam.
Here are another few quick itineraries you could consider doing.
Backpacking Itinerary 2: South Europe – France and Spain – Fly into and out of Paris
Paris, Lyon, Nice (possible side trips to: Monaco, Cannes and St Tropez), Marseille, Montpellier, Barcelona, Valencia, Madrid, San Sebastian, Bordeaux, and back to Paris.
Backpacking Itinerary 3: East Europe – Fly into and out of Prague
Prague, Bratislava, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Split (island hop through the Croatian Islands to Dubrovnik), Belgrade, Budapest, Krakow, Warsaw (then either back to Prague or head up to Latvia/Estonia).
But those were just for fun! As I said before, it’s much better if you make up your own rough itinerary. There are so many amazing places to see in Europe, from Croatia to the Greek Islands to Slovenia and Italy – you certainly have a lot of options.
When it comes to a Europe backpacking list, number one on the list for me is always a decent stockpile of clean underwear. I’m more than happy to wear the same shirt for a while, and I’ll wear the same pants until I simply have to wash them due to the fact that they are covered in gross food stains. However I simply can’t do without lots of clean jocks! That’s just me though.
I’m going to assume that you know how to pack your own clothes, although I will stipulate that if you’re going for longer than the summer months in Europe you will need a decent jacket. Winter backpacking in Europe will even require a beanie, a scarf and some gloves too!
Bring along a comfortable pair of pants for long train or bus trips. Don’t forget your favorite pair of jeans. Ensure you have shoes that are comfortable when walking for long periods of time. Bring along a pair of flip-flops (in Australia we call them thongs, but this is often awkward for non Australians). I tend to use them in the showers – which is generally good practice especially in large hostels.
A decent money belt is also pretty useful. I know they’re a bit cheesy, strapped around your waist the way they are. I don’t wear mine all of the time when travelling, as a lot of hostels will have lockers. But it’s a good way to keep all of your important items in one safe place (although if you have two different bank cards with you I suggest storing them in different places in case you lose one) especially on night buses or trains.
Here are a few more items that you may not have thought of bringing along that have proved extremely valuable for my trips:
All in all, Europe isn’t exactly ‘behind the times’, so if you do happen to forget to bring anything with you it will certainly be possible to buy it over there.
Please just don’t forget your passport and your means of cash access.
For a more comprehensive article and information on the items you really should bring with you on a backpacking trip, checkout my backpacking essentials article.
There are two big boys of travel tours throughout Europe and they are Contiki and Busabout.
There are differences between what the two companies offer, which I will explain in more detail in a moment. I’ve done one small Busabout tour, which was on a boat that was island hopping in Croatia. It was fun, and I made a few great friends that I am still in touch with – but from what I saw and heard there, people have very mixed experiences.
It can be worth doing, and if you plan on travelling solo and are finding this a bit daunting, doing a guided tour like this can definitely ease you into the travelling experience.
Contiki and Busabout differ slightly in the sense that Contiki offer complete guided tours. They organize everything for you, from accommodation to itineraries to places to eat. It’s a real hand holding guided travel experience, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, that’s just what it is.
Busabout has similar guided tours, but they also offer something else which they call the ‘Hop On Hop Off Loops’. These ‘Loops’ are more open ended and give you more freedom to stay in one place for longer. You choose when to go on to the next destination within the Loop and there are Busabout buses leaving on set days. The premise seems neat, and I have a friend, Sarah, who gave me her thoughts after using Busabout to travel Europe:
As you can see, she touted the main benefits as flexibility of travel and meeting new people and friends.
On a personal note, I tend not to do these types of tours, as I enjoy travelling by myself and leaving things a little more open ended then what these tours offer. Hostels are definitely a great place to meet new people as well, so don’t feel you need to be on a Contiki or Busabout trip just to make friends! That’s just me though, and I can certainly see the appeal for these tours as a solo traveler.
Contiki is also notorious for a lot of heavy drinking and a lot of time spent on the bus – many people claim it is not ‘real’ travelling. As for me, who cares? What IS real travelling? There are too many ways to define that, and everyone will define it a little differently.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, you do not travel for anyone else but yourself. If Contiki or Busabout sounds like your sort of thing, then go nuts!
Check out some of the pictures in the Europe Backpacking Gallery from some of my own backpacking adventures, most of the photos were taken by my lovely girlfriend Trudy (she’s much better with cameras then I am). This should give you a thirst and hunger to get out there and explore Europe.
There is nothing better than discovering a new city for yourself – quirks and all.
Travelling Europe for your first time can be a little bit daunting, and I remember before I left for my first time, I wanted all the advice I could get.
Now this might sound a little silly, but just remember that wherever you go in the world, whatever new countries you visit, the people you meet are STILL people just like back home – you will meet amazing and fantastic people, people who will be more than happy to help you, and yes, some annoying and rude people too.
They might have a slightly different view on life (like the Spanish siesta, or the Dutchman’s ‘tell it how it is’ attitude) – but there are going to be wonderful people in every country you visit. I remember visiting a new country when I first travelled, and having this sense that everyone and everything would be completely different. It’s a comforting fact when you discover that no matter where you are in the world, people still have hopes and dreams and want to meet new people – and in my opinion are mostly kind.
I’m not sure where I was going with those last two paragraphs, but I hope I got what I was trying to say across. Some more advice I would give is:
A lot of female backpackers I meet travel with a friend. Three or four can be a crowd, but backpacking in a pair can be very rewarding – and you can look out for each other and keep each other entertained.
When at a Hostel, if everyone goes out on the town it’s important for you to stay with the group and not get lost, especially if you’ve had a few drinks. Most groups I’ve gone out with will always make sure people are not left behind and are being looked after. Don’t leave your drink unattended at bars.
A lot of hostels I’ve stayed at will have female only dormitories, so if you are a solo traveler and feel more comfortable sleeping in a dorm with other females, this is certainly an option.
Always try to arrive in cities during the daytime, and if you ever feel you are being followed or threatened, duck into the closest shop and talk to the clerk or ask if you can use their phone to call the police.
Using simple common sense can go a long way to enhancing your backpacking experience. You will learn little lessons along the way, and before you know it you will be sharing travel tips and secrets with other backpackers.
I remember catching a bus from Paris to Barcelona once, and a girl on the bus was a little creeped out by one of the me on the bus. He kept asking her to have a drink with him and was giving her lots of unwanted attention. Because we were due to arrive in Barcelona early in the morning, she asked if it would be okay if we walked with her when we arrived.
This is a great way to handle a situation like that, talk to some other travelers and ASK for help. If it’s your safety that feels threatened, there is no room for embarrassment.
Another point to make is to trust your instincts. You were born with instincts and most of the time they work pretty well, so trust them!
I had my girlfriend Trudy look over and contribute to this piece of the article, and it has her seal of approval.
When you backpack Europe, two things are certain. You are going to LOVE some hostels, and you are going to HATE some hostels. It’s a given. I’ve yet to meet a backpacker who either loved every hostel or hated every hostel. Staying in hostels can be a mixed bag (same as hotels too of course).
Some good advice would be to simply TALK to other backpackers. Where they just in Berlin, and you’re about to go to Berlin? Where did they stay, what did they do that was good? And of course, be prepared to share your own experiences with other backpackers too.
The Backpacker Grapevine is an overflowing fruit of abundant information, so get involved and help yourself to it!
The reviews on the online backpacking websites (hostelworld.com or hostelbookers.com are the two biggest at the moment) are also generally a good indicator, but take the reviews with a grain of salt. Some people will be MUCH more picky then you might be, and will leave a bad review for a hostel that you would have found perfectly acceptable and perhaps have met some great people.
There are a couple of hostel ‘types’. There are party hostels, where you may find it quite difficult to sleep if you don’t plan on partying. There are more ‘relaxing’ hostels, where if you are looking to party you may get a little bit bored. It all depends on what you’re after of course. You’ll learn to pick the party hostels and the quiet hostels online based on location and the reviews, but there’s always room for surprises (that’s what makes backpacking fun!).
For more specific hostel advice and tips, check out my two posts:
For more general and various hot tips for backpacking in Europe, take a look at:
Lonely Planet Guidebooks – These guys are the 300 pound gorilla in the room when it comes to guidebooks. They are pretty big for their breeches, BUT I do like their books and I’ll tell you why. It’s not really for hostel recommendations as they can be quickly dated and I get those from other travelers and online mostly, it’s actually to get a feel for a new country that I may be visiting or about to visit.
Lonely planet books have great summaries and introductions for countries and are a good read when you’re on the bus or train. If you can pick one up at a cheap secondhand store that’s always a good option as they can be pretty expensive brand new. Just make sure it’s not so dated that it still refers to currencies other than the Euro.
If you’re traveling with a laptop or the like, and will have regular access to Wifi it’s debatable whether you even need a traditional guidebook anymore with the feast of online resources that are available.
Kathmandu Backpacks – I brought a Kathmandu backpack when I was 18, and it’s still going strong today. There is not a single thing wrong with it. I absolutely love it! So I’m a bit of a fan of that brand in particular when it comes to backpacks (it’s an Australian brand though). I’ll be honest here and say that I haven’t tried any other brands, but the bonus and the point I’m making is that I’ve never needed to.
For a comprehensive guide on my personal recommendations of what to bring Backpacking to Europe, check out:
These are the two big sites for booking hostels online. So which one should you choose to use?
To be honest, it’s either or;
HostelBookers is great because you are not charged any extra fees for booking through them. This is perfect for budget strapped backpackers.
HostelWorld does charge $2 per booking but has a great listing directory and well designed website, with reviews, dashboard features etc. If you plan to travel a lot you can purchase a gold membership for $10 that gives you unlimited free bookings.
If you are just starting out, try both and see which one resonates well with you!
(until the next update!)
This post is a monster at over 7000 words (maybe I should have written an eBook or something? Oh well :D).
I truly hope it’s helped you plan your upcoming adventure backpacking in Europe, if you have any questions at all about the guide please don’t hesitate to ask. I’m always wanting to add to and improve my articles, so if you have any further planning tips or notes that you think should be added in, then please leave a comment here or send me an email at tom [at] activebackpacker.com.