If I had a nickel for every time someone brought up the movie Taken when I told them my friend and I were renting an apartment in Paris – well, I’d probably have about 25 cents, but you get my point.
This past summer we left our home of California to go backpacking in Europe for two months – my first time in Europe and my friend’s second time out of the US. We visited nine countries and over 15 cities. Along the way we met up with other friends to continue the journey.
This kind of trip can easily go wrong in so many ways. To make sure ours went smoothly, we followed these tips.
Don’t be turned off by the price
Yes, traveling is pricey, but there are ways to make it less so. We knew people in a couple cities, so we were able to stay at their houses for free. Otherwise, we mostly stayed in hostels. Each hostel ranged from 20 to 30 euros a night. We also stayed in an Airbnb twice (in London and in Florence) and in a house we found on Couchsurfing.com in Venice.
A word about hostels: a lot of people think hostels are sketchy and are afraid to stay in them, but in our experience hostels are cheap, a great place to meet people and, usually, a lot of fun. We stayed in one hostel in Italy that had a nightclub on the ground floor—enough said.
In terms of eating, we packed a lot of picnics (Eiffel Tower picnics are a fantastic idea, by the way) to save money. We also ended up splitting a lot of pizzas, since frequently that was the cheapest thing on the menu.
Before we left, we set a budget of how much we were willing to spend a day, and throughout each day we either wrote down what we had spent so far or said it out loud to each other so we could keep track. This worked pretty well, and there were no surprises in our bank statements when we got back.
Pick your travel buddies carefully
Everyone’s travel style is different. A travel buddy can make or break a trip, so it’s important to put a lot of thought into who you go with. If you’re the kind of person who likes to plan each day out by the hour, for example, you’ll get frustrated traveling with someone more impulsive.
My friend and I both like going to the local places more than the tourist traps, could spend hours just wandering a city and seeing what we find, and don’t prioritize sleep when we’re traveling, so we got along great. Of course, if you’re planning on traveling by yourself, then this won’t be a problem.
Although we’re both a fan of spontaneity, my friend and I bought all our accommodation and transportation a couple of months before our trip started. This made everything a lot cheaper, since we weren’t buying anything last minute.
Unlike the U.S., it’s really easy (and cheap) to travel throughout Europe. We took Megabus (a budget coachline) or cheap flights almost everywhere, and saved a lot of money doing so. We took an all-night 14 hour Megabus trip from Paris to Barcelona for only 20 pounds, which saved money on a hostel for the night and got us to Spain much more cheaply than other options would have.
Also, the other people on the bus were super friendly. One of the best parts of traveling is the temporary friends you make—the chances you’ll see them again are slim, but it’s fun to meet new people and swap stories.
You’re going to be doing a lot of walking—a lot. Although you can leave your luggage at the hostel while exploring each city, there’s probably going to be a fair amount of walking from the airport or bus stop to each hostel, and that walk is going to be a lot easier if you don’t have 25 pounds of stuff on your back.
Since most of our transportation to and from each city was either by bus or Ryanair flight, we packed according to Ryanair’s carry-on luggage guidelines. They allow a suitcase that weighs 10 kilograms (roughly 22 pounds) and a smaller carry-on bag that measures out to 35 x 20 x 20 centimeters (about 14 inches across). By following these guidelines, we avoided hassle when boarding the airplanes, and also ensured that our luggage wasn’t too heavy to walk around with.
Make a general itinerary
Personally, I don’t like having a strict itinerary. However, I do want to make sure I get to see everything I want to see.
Since I was traveling with a group, before we left I made a Google doc of each city we were going to, and I asked everyone to write down places they wanted to go and sites they wanted to see in each city. Since we only had 48 hours in some cities, doing this ensured that everyone was able to see what they wanted to, even if we had a limited amount of time. We usually woke up around 10, found some breakfast, looked at our list and decided where to start our day.
Print out confirmations
Before I left, I printed out every flight, bus and hotel confirmation email I got. I carried these around in a folder in my backpack. This way, instead of having to find an Internet café or Wifi in every new city, all we had to do was look at what I had printed out.
Of course, every time we got off the bus or plane in a new destination we had to find some Wifi anyway so that we could find out how to get to our hostel, but having everything printed out still helped a lot.
Learn the language
You don’t have to be fluent in the language of every country you’re going to, but knowing a couple phrases helps a lot. I speak Spanish, and my friend speaks Greek, so we were prepared for Spain and Greece.
For the other countries, we bought a phrasebook and made sure we knew how to say “hello,” “thank you,” “please,” “where is the bathroom,” “I’m sorry, I don’t speak [language],” and a few other phrases to get us around smoothly.
Ask for recommendations
Since we don’t care for the touristy places so much, my friend and I relied more on where locals told us to go than we did the tour books. By asking people on the street and at hostels where to go, we found a lot of cool places we may have otherwise missed.
When we were checking in at the hostel in Barcelona, Spain, we asked the person behind the counter what to do that night. It turns out we’d arrived in Barcelona on the first night of the summer solstice, which in Barcelona is called Sant Joan and is a huge deal. People were dancing on the beach and lighting fireworks all night. We befriended some people from France and danced on the sand until 5 a.m.
Know what’s going on
Inform yourself about each country you’re going to before you travel. We went to Greece at the height of their economic crisis, and the ATMs were shut down so that people could only take out 50 euros a day.
Knowing this, before leaving Rome for Greece, we got enough euros out to last us each at least a week. By doing research on what’s going on everywhere you’re going before you’re there, you can be better prepared.
Lastly, and most obviously, take a lot of pictures, keep a travel journal if you’re into that, and have an amazing time!