Backpacking through Europe | How to Plan a Trip

We all have at one point, if not every single day, stared at our cubical walls and day dreamt about backpacking through Europe. You know, the way it’s been portrayed in novels and in cinema. You can picture yourself splitting a bottle of wine in the park at the base of the Eiffel Tower in Paris or wandering through the ruins of ancient Rome. Maybe even partying all night on the beaches of Barcelona or raising your liters of beer for a cheers in Munich. If not find yourself enjoying the vices on the streets of Amsterdam or feeling the energy from a packed soccer stadium in England. All of this seems great to imagine or see on social media, but is it really even possible on a week or two of vacation that we’re given? Most of only get to experience this type of travel if we were fortunate enough to be able to study abroad for a semester. However, I was not able to do something like this while in college, but I was not going to let it stop me from seeing the world! Below are 9 steps that I’ve used to plan all of my backpacking trips that I have taken through Europe, with nothing but my clothes and camera strapped to my back.

*disclaimer* Unavoidable Cost of Airfare and Misconceptions
I won’t begin by sugarcoating, it costs a substantial amount to fly to Europe these days. This is post is not going to discuss the secrets to exploring Europe on a dime or that this is for everyone that wants to travel. There are simply far too many sources out there that explain how to cheaply see a city, which are worth googling. Additionally, backpacking simply is not for everyone because of the inherent lack of convenience and comfort that comes with it. But if you truly want to see the world then you’re starting at the right place, here.

Step 1: Decide the purpose of your trip
It’s human nature to want it all and do it all. But with a limited time schedule and more importantly a limited budget, we have to make certain choices. Start your planning off by deciding what you want out of your backpacking trip. For example, do you want to see as many cities as possible (2 per day)? Do you want to visit as many museums or historical sites as possible? Do you want to sample the best cuisine Europe has to offer? Or do you just want to go with the flow each day and enjoy the spontaneity of a trip?   Some of you might not know that yet, which is fine, it can be figured out as you go. But it’s good to keep this in the back of your head during the next steps when deciding where to go, where to stay, and what to plan.

Step 2: Choosing a Country or Region to Visit
This can be the easiest, and the hardest part of the entire trip. For the sole reason that it is difficult to narrow down the endless possible destinations that you’d like to visit. When trying to narrow down your destination search, I recommend simultaneously searching flights. Tools like www.kayak.com/explore, www.skyscanner.com, and the Hopper App are really helpful to see best destinations to fly to from your airport. This is crucial since you might be surprised the differences in prices between cities depending on the time of year it might be really expensive to fly to Paris, but very cheap to fly into Amsterdam which is only 3 hour train ride away. Obviously, don’t let flight costs drive your decisions, but a cheap flight might lead you to travel into a country or region you never imagined you’d see.

Screen Shot from a Kayak.com/explore search out of New York City

Step 3: Deciding on Route (Connect the dots)
Once you have your starting point, whether it be because you found a cheap flight or dead set on visiting that city, now take out a map. It doesn’t matter if it’s Google Maps or a paper one, as long as you can see how far the cities are from each other to plan out a route. For example, it would make no sense to go from London to Madrid, and then back to Paris. Once in Europe, it is just as easy to travel to an adjacent city 1hr away as it is to visit a city in a different country 10hrs away; but you end up wasting a lot of time traveling if not done efficiently. In most cases, you’ll have three options for routes: A loop, out-and-back, or point-to-point. We did a loop for our Spain trip that allowed us to see 4 cities before returning back to Madrid to fly home. In Iceland, we did an out and back, which meant we chose destinations as far west as possible and driving all the way back on the last day. A point-to-point route is for those who really commit to the backpacking style of travel. This is when you book a return flight from your last city you plan to visit, usually very far from where you started. Now, in order to get home, you need to successfully navigate the means of transportation to your final destination. For our Oktoberfest trip, the first leg was a point to point (AMS to MUC), followed by a loop that started in Munich, went Southwest to Austria, and looped back around the Alps to Munich from the East.

Route map from Amsterdam to Munich

Step 4: Determine Transportation Feasibility

Once you’ve mapped out your route, do some quick checks to see if this is even possible. For example, I’ve looked at seeing cities that were close on a map, but then realized there was a mountain range between the two places. It would’ve required two, +4 hour trains to get around the mountain to reach the city (A.K.A. not worth it). So do your research to see which the best mode of transportation between your destinations are (i.e. train, bus, rental car, walking, or budget airlines). Yes, sometimes flying between two cities, once in Europe, can be more cost and time effective than a train. Look up flights offered by carriers such as RyanAir or EasyJet. A 4 hour train ride might cost you $100, but might only cost $30 to fly there since it’s a one way trip. Use www.GoogleMaps.com or sites like www.Rome2Rio.com to figure out local transportation and train fairs for cost calculations. Make sure your airline carrier flies, both, in and out of your chosen destinations.

Step 5: Buy your plane tickets
This is the only step of the planning that is required (obviously), but has way more of an impact than you might think. Hypothetically, you could head off to your destination with nothing planned and just figure it all out on the way by booking hostel rooms the night of and visiting the train station when you need a change of scenery. However, do not have the patients or nerve to do something like this, so I like to get the logistics out of the way like booking hostel beds and at least planning which trains go where and when they travel. Now that you have your plane ticket, you can commit to more important things, like convincing your friends to join your trip.

Step 6: Planning where to Stay
This obviously is dependent upon your own preferences, but I believe hostels are the only way to truly experience a place while traveling. If not for the possible connections, friendships, and experiences you’ll make with other, like-minded fellow travelers; then the minimal space hostel rooms provide force you to spend time experiencing the city you chose to visit. In my experience, hostel rooms are way nicer than you’d expect. Upon arrival, the rooms are always spotless and resemble a college dorm room (with bunk beds). Another alternative to hostels, to still have a more local experience, would be to find an AirBnB. This has always been my go-to break from too many consecutive nights in a hostel room and snoring roommates.
How do you choose a good hostel? Well that’s easier than you’d think. A one-stop-shop would be to head over to www.HostelWorld.com to find thousands of hostels around the world, and most likely in your destinations. In most cities, a bed in a hostel will only cost you between $15-$25/night (see screenshot below). This includes Wifi, clean sheets, a hot shower, and sometimes even breakfast or dinner. Although, I rarely ever wake up early enough for the breakfasts. I’ve written, at length, in other posts about how some hostels will have a bar or common room in the hostel itself, which makes for a great way to meet people before heading out for a day of exploring or a night of partying.
Will my stuff be safe in a Hostel? Yes. I won’t pretend that theft and other crimes don’t occur in hostels, but just remember that you’re surrounded by people who are also traveling and have the exact same worries and fears regarding their belongings. Most hostels have some form of lockers in each room or behind the hostel desk. And every hostel guest has to show their passport before checking in, so random “strangers” are rarely found inside the hostel who could be up to no good. Another option is to check out Hostel International.

Step 7: Planning your  Daily Itinerary (or not)
This is one of those aspects that can make or break the time you spend a city. There are obvious things in each city that you’ll end up seeing without much effort, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Big Ben in London. As far as the rest of your days go, that’s completely up to your personality. When you head into your nearest big city for the day, whether it be New York City, Philadelphia, Dallas, or San Francisco, do you plan your entire day out or do you show up and figure it out as you go? Well guess what, the same thing applies when abroad! Personally, I like to just show up in cities and wander throughout the streets and find things to do along the way.
There are no shortages of itineraries out there if you check out sites like TripAdvisor or TripHobo. Some of my favorite moments on trips have come from Instagram posts or YouTube videos I’ve seen. But I cannot stress this next piece of advice enough: “Do not try to recreate someone else’s trip!” This can lead to an awful time, especially if you didn’t have the same amount of fun as that person. Traveling is what you make of it, whether it be time you spent in a train station because of a missed train or the night you stayed in your hostel eating meats and cheese while drinking wine out of a water bottle. Make your own memories, and you will have the time of your life.

Step 8: Pre-trip Logistics
Before you head off make sure you take care of a few things:

  • CHECK IF YOU NEED A VISA! Now the EU is requiring Americans to obtain visas.
  • Call your bank/credit cards to notify them of travel plans in the countries you are visiting
  • Wait to withdraw local currency at an ATM when you arrive in the airport. (This will save you $$$ by trying to exchange cash in the states before you leave)
  • After you finish packing, remove half of everything you brought. You will not need 3 outfits per day (your back will thank you).
  • Download Maps.Me for offline Maps that are absolutely incredible for cities and even hiking (I’ve even got my parents to use this).
  • Make copies of all your identification (i.e. passports and license) just in case you’ll need them.
  • Send someone your travel info for where you might be and when you’re expected to get home.

Step 9: Go!

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