So you've made a decision to backpack through Europe. Congratulations! I can tell you first hand this is an experience you will not regret. But where do you start? There are so many things you need to think about, plan, research and buy! Or you can just read this guide and be, like, a million times closer to being ready.
How Much Money Do I Need to Save?
I backpacked Europe for four months and spent about $6,000. I stayed in hostels and went grocery shopping in several places rather than going out. I spent $1,000 on a Eurail three-month train pass, and flew several hopper planes. But I also didn't exactly scrimp every dime. I went on a lot of tours and bar crawls, I bought souvenirs, and I never felt like I couldn't spend money on something I really wanted to do.
I would suggest saving more than you think you're going to need. I saved $10,000 and traveled a total of 5 months. (I also stayed in Bali for a month, and those flights aren't cheap). By the end I came out exactly even, with credit card bill and bank account matching up.
Speaking of credit cards, I highly recommend signing up for the Capitol One VentureOne card. This card was accepted everywhere and they never charge you foreign transaction fees. You get points for every dollar you spend that you can use to then 'erase' eligible purchases. I was able to get a few flights and tours for free this way. They also have a long interest free period, and they usually have deals to get extra points when you first sign up. There are a bunch of other benefits that come along with this card, and I was very happy with the customer service and their app.
Where to Go
Obviously we start here. Where is it you want to visit? What have you always longed to see? Make a list, and then spend a few hours on Google Maps. Plan out your route and write it down. Decide how long you want to spend in each place, and as you research each spot, make a list of the things in that city or country that you really want to go to. Pinterest is awesome for this. Or take a look at my travel guides.
You don't have to pre-plan every city or country, only the first few. Then spend your down time in between places to research the next spot you plan to visit. This is easier than you think. You're going to have down time in airports and on trains or buses, and you're going to want to take naps and rest breaks here and there.
Also, while planning is going to make your trip WAY easier, leave room for spontaneity and adventure. My friend and I planned the first 5 countries, and then booked hostels as we went along. We had a rough outline of the places we wanted to go, but left room for change and went with the flow.
Need some inspiration? I recommend Iceland, Scotland, Croatia, and Switzerland.
What Do I Need?
You've saved the money and you've bought your first one way flight. Now you need to plan what to take with you. I did an insane amount of research when I was looking into packing for my trip. Here are the essentials:
1. The Backpack
Osprey Farpoint 40 Travel Backpack, $160.00
This backpack is perfect for the light traveler. You can take it as a carry-on on any flight and it fits way more than you think. This Osprey model comes in four different sizes so if you think you'll need more room, you can pick from 40, 55, 70 and 80. The 40 features a suitcase-like opening which I found much more convenient than the open top models that some backpacks feature. With the open top it can be difficult to access things on the bottom of your bag, or things that may have fallen. With the suitcase zippers, the Farpoint opens up all the way around the sides creating easy access to any part of you pack, and is also useful when packing and for airport security checks. There is a mesh zippered area in the back section and a smaller one in the front along with a pouch to slide in a laptop. Top that with a ton of little pockets, straps that can be customized to fit your body perfectly and you have the best travel backpack a girl could ask for.
2. The Clothes - For Summer/Fall Weather
I went through a million different options when deciding what to bring with me. In the end I decided on a pretty basic wardrobe with a few key pieces for special occasions. A few tips: Bring way less than you think you need. You can always mail things home if you want to buy a few extra pieces along the way. This worked out perfectly for me several times. Also if you're travelling via train, it's easy to stuff things in a bag and carry them with you to your next destination. Remember to focus on comfort over style. Without further ado, here's what you should pack in your new backpack....
- Two Tees - Think crop and graphic here, to spice up a wardrobe of mostly basics.
- Two Tanks - Black, white, grey, or a muted color here work well. Try H&M Basic Tanks, $5.99
- Two Long Sleeves - Again, keep these simple, a henley and a striped basic are perfect.
- One Sweater - Think warm and comfy here.
- Jeans - Your favorite pair. And yes, just one.
- 2 Pairs of Leggings - These will be your go to. One black pair, and another favorite.
- Shorts - Again, just one. I recommend a comfy pair that aren't too short. Boyfriend cut works best. Try Old Navy Boyfriend Shorts, $24.94
Coat: (yes you will need these)
- One Raincoat - Try Uniqlo's Light Pocketable Long Parka, $49.90
- One Compact-able Down Coat - Try Uniqlo's Ultra Light Down Jacket, $79.90
Undergarments: (you can vary this depending on your preference)
- 7 pairs of your favorite panties - steer clear of anything too lace-y and stick to cotton. You're going for comfort.
- 7 comfy pairs for sleeping- boy shorts work nicely here.
- 1 push-up bra - for special occasions.
- 2 bralettes - for most days (if you have a bigger bust, stick to what you're comfortable with).
- 2 sports bras - for daily wear, or adventuring.
- One Swimsuit - bring your favorite. I would recommend something that is good for lounging but will also stay on when you're swimming in the ocean waves.
- One Maxi Dress - for special occasions, or when you just want to look good in the warmer climates. Try Lulu's Red Print Maxi, $79.00 or Forever 21 Print Maxi, $29.90
I found that these options are what I wore most on my trip. Of course, pick and chose based on your own tastes and comfort but trust me when I say less is more.
3. The Shoes
Sneakers, sandals, and flip-flops are all you need on your journey. Choose them wisely, and for the love of travel break them in before you depart. Bear in mind, however, that no matter what you do you will inevitably procure a few blisters on your journey. I was lucky enough to avoid too much pain in the shoes I chose and I recommend these tried and true brands to you.
Sneakers: Converse All Star - These are the shoes that go with anything. They carried me over many bridges, through hikes to the tops of mountains, over waterfalls, and through airports.
Sandals: Birkenstock Mayari Sandals - These are the shoes that just keep getting better. Mine are totally molded to my feet and are also good for rough terrain in hotter climes, as well as relaxing on the beach. This style is also great for keeping the sandals secure without having to worry about straps.
Flip-flops: For the showers in your hostel, walking around your hostel, or leisurely walks to get coffee or food. Bring your favorite.
4. Hair, Skin, and Nails
Embrace the fact now that you will be sweaty and dirty at many points of your journey. The last thing on your mind when traveling the world is make-up and shaving. With that being said, there are times you will want to get glam and of course every girl needs to keep up with her personal hygiene. Remember, the name of the game here is less is more. You don't need more than two eye shadows (even that is too many) but I understand the struggle. Here are the essentials you need....
Fast Drying, Compact, Antibacterial Microfiber Travel Towel, $19.90 on Amazon
Hair Ties and Bobby Pins - Your life saving hair tools.
Nail File and Clippers - Bring your favorites from home to spruce up chipped nails and keep your fingers looking good.
Facewash and Soap - Everyone has their go to product here but if you're looking to save room try Carley's Natural Soap, 22.99 for 4 bars or $8.00 for one. This soap has always been a favorite of mine, as have numerous products from Carley's. All of their products are small batch, with fresh natural ingredients that do wonders for the skin. On my travels I used this bar for facewash, soap, and even shampoo. It saved me a ton of room and weight and kept me clean.
Razor and Tweezers - I brought a few disposable razors with me for the trip along with my favorite Anastasia Beverly Hills tweezers. These two kept me in good shape throughout my trip. Feel free to skip even bringing a razor and buy disposable ones along the way if you want to save room.
Brush/Comb - Bring your usual brush and comb along with you. You'll be using them everyday.
Make-up - If you feel good going au natural for your trip then go for it. I wore make-up maybe 10 times throughout my whole trip. Of course, I brought way too much with me and next time I'll try to cut down, but I'm not making any promises. If you are a make-up maven like me I recommend:
- A medium coverage concealer and powder. My favorite: Make-up Forever Full Cover Concealer, $34.00 and MUF Pro Finish Powder, $36.00 (a pricey duo, but worth it.)
- A brow pencil. My favorite: NYX Micro Brow Pencil, $10.00
- Bronzer. This doubles as your contour. Try: NYX Matte Bronzer, $9.00
- Mascara. Obviously the go-to staple. My favorite: Make-up Forever Smoky Extravagant, $24.00
- Eyeliner. If winged eyeliner isn't your thing, leave it. My favorite: Kat Von D Tattoo Liner, $19.00
- A neutral shimmer eyeshadow. This doubles as your highlight. My favorite: NYX Prismatic Shadow in Golden Peach, $6.00
- A brown matte eyeshadow. Use it on the bottom lid and in the crease when you're going bold. My favorite: NYX Nude Matte Shadow in Dance the Tides, $4.50
- A neutral lipstick: My favorite: NYX High Voltage Lipstick in Tiara, $6.00
- Aquaphor: This is your chapstick, gloss, brow gel, and dry skin fix. I swear by this stuff. Find it on Amazon or your local drug store.
- Brushes: 1 Eyeshadow, 1 Contour, 1 Face Powder, 1 Beauty Blender and of course you always have your fingers. Bring your favorites.
What not to bring: Hair tools, and too many clothes. A blow-dryer is just going to add unnecessary weight to an already heavy bag. Embrace your natural frizz and learn to french braid. Think of all the clothes you're going to want to buy while abroad and put down the extra pair of jeans.
This might seem obvious, but I think it's something many tend to overlook and then forget. It's always a good idea to make a little DIY first-aid kit to tuck away in a pocket of your bag. This article is great for an in-depth look at making your own kit. I just used a zip lock bag filled with:
- Tylenol (or your preferential pain-killer)
- Cough drops (these you can pick up almost anywhere while traveling)
- Dramamine or a motion sickness medication (this you CANNOT find anywhere so if you get sick on long flights or in cars or buses, etc. make sure to bring enough!)
- Vitamins (daily vitamin c does wonders)
6. Everything Else
Don't forget these essentials!
Converter - These are easy to find online or at Radio Shack. If you are going to multiple countries, check to see if they have different electrical outlets. A converter that you can use anywhere is a great solution and try to get one that has USB ports as well; these come in really handy. Try the World Travel Adapter by Landing Gear, $19.95
Camera - Trust me when I say you will want more than just your phone if you are a photography nerd like me. I looked through a bunch of options and ended up splurging on a GoPro. It was totally worth it. Other cameras to consider: Fujifilm Finepix Rugged Point and Shoot for a cheaper, durable and waterproof option and Fujifilm XT10 if you want quality without the weight and bulky-ness of most D-SLRs. Note: this camera rules, but be advised it is for the advanced photographer. If you don't know much about shutter speed and aperture, a simpler point and shoot is your friend.
Cords - Remember to pack all your chargers: phone, computer, camera and anything else you might be bringing along.
External Charger - These came in super handy. Charge them up at night and never worry about your phone dying during your adventures. Try Anker PowerCore, $9.99
Water Bottle - Essential for any traveller. Many European cities have public water fountains. Stay hydrated! Try Aquabod Collapsible Water Bottle, $11.97
Compressing Bags - These came in handy for packing, and keeping things organized and clean. Plus you can fit more clothes! Try Samsonite 12 Piece Compression Bag Kit, $18.85
Journal - My favorite thing was sitting at a cafe in a foreign city, people watching, and journaling about my day. Save this to buy abroad. Everywhere I went had beautiful empty journals just waiting for me to write and draw in them. A journal is also a great place to put tickets, postcards, etc. for safe-keeping and it will keep you occupied on those long flights or train rides.
After you do all your shopping and figure out what you're going to bring, go through it all one more time and ask yourself 'do I really need 4 crop tops?' Put aside a few more things that you can live without (I know it's painful). Organize all your clothes into your compression bags and see if you can actually fit everything you want to bring into your backpack. As my mother always says, packing is like putting a puzzle together; you may not find the right fit the first time. Move things around and see what works. Utilize all the pockets and compartments that your bag has to offer. Remember to use the straps inside your bag for a tighter fit and to ensure nothing moves around. When all else fails, sit on your bag. I can't even say how many times I did this while packing my bag during my trip.
Keep the important things in a separate smaller bag that you can carry along with your backpack. A small purse is perfect. I recommend getting one you can sling around across your body. This is the bag you'll take with you when you're exploring the streets of whatever city you're in. Make sure it has a good zipper or flap: pick-pocketing is a thing. Try: Lulu's Black Vegan Leather Purse $46.00
I also recommend bringing a simple drawstring backpack for more rigorous adventures like hiking, biking, kayaking, etc. Pop in all the essentials and a snack and you're good to go. These bags fold up nicely and are easy to fit in your pack. Try Liberty Nylon Drawstring Backpack, $5.25
What's the best way to travel from country to country while abroad? The endless argument: planes or trains? I decided to purchase a Eurail pass that was valid for 2 months throughout the European Union. This allowed me to take as many trains as I wanted within my 2 month time period. I have to admit there were a lot of pros and cons to the Eurail pass. The way it works in most countries is you have to go to the train station in your city and secure an actual ticket from the ticket counter for wherever you want to go. Show the clerk your Eurail pass and they will tell you what you need to know. In some places they will simply print out a ticket for you and you show that and your pass to the conductor on the train. In other cities you may need to reserve a seat, and this can cost you a bit extra, usually no more than 20 euros. And in some places they will tell you you can just get on your train and sit wherever you want, you don't even need a ticket, just show your pass. If the train you want to take is already booked, you may not be able to get a ticket. This process can be time-consuming and frustrating, and in the long run I don't think I really saved all that much by purchasing the pass.
On the plus side, European trains are some of the best in the world. It takes away the hassle of airports, which can be even more time-consuming and stressful, and you can watch the beautiful country side roll by you. Traveling by train is especially useful if you are planning to travel to multiple cities within one country. I visited several places in Switzerland by the local train, which my Eurail pass was valid for. From Bern, I could take day trips all over Switzerland, and that was something I will never forget.
As far as planes go, if your timing is right you can save a lot of money. More and more budget airlines are flying in Europe and I took several hopper planes throughout the UK. These flights can cost as little as 20 euros and be as short as half an hour. Definitely worth it. Once you get into mainland Europe, there are definitely still deals, but usually flights hover around 80 dollars and they can go up to 200 dollars for just a one way flight. If you book your flights far enough in advance you can usually get great deals, although this takes away from any spontaneity, which the trains allow.
You will also have countless opportunities and adventures taking buses, boats, bicycles, and cars. There are many cheap buses that run throughout Europe so if you are on an extreme budget this option will save you a ton. Overall, decide what's right for you. Whatever transportation you choose be prepared to be patient, let go of the little things, be aware of your surroundings, and take everything in as part of the journey; you'll save yourself a mountain of stress!
Where to Stay
My travel partner and I stayed in hostels along with one Airbnb in Dubrovnik (which i would highly recommend). Hostels can be both super amazing, and kind of annoying depending on different factors. We used Hostels.com and Hostelworld to book our hostels, and we had a lot of good luck. The pros of staying in hostels: it's cheap, you get to meet people from all over the world, and they are generally situated near the city center with lots of information on tours, city walks, pub crawls, etc. The people at the front desk are always there to answer any questions you may have and a lot of hostels offer free breakfast and discounts so you can save a little more.
The cons: you are always around people, and sometimes people suck. Generally they are awesome, but everyone has their moments. There will be times where you just want to sleep and your roommates want to come back at 3am and have a conversation in front of your bed. Sometimes you will be in a room with seven snoring dudes, or a girl who can't stop coughing and sniffling. And sometimes the free breakfast is white toast and cereal. C'est la vie.
Despite all of these 'sometimes' hostels still proved to be better than they were bad on my trip. I met some amazing people and made memories I'll never forget. If you don't think you could deal with staying in a room with 10 other people, many hostels also offer private rooms for much cheaper rates than a hotel. Another great site of course is Airbnb, where you can book rentals all over the world for a range of prices. You can get some great deals on Airbnb with prices in some cities equal to hostel prices.
My favorite hostels to recommend:
What to Do
Obviously as much as you can! Traveling is all about experiencing different cultures and learning about the rich history of our world as well as making friends from around the globe! In each city, make a rough plan of what you'd like to see. In Paris, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre; in London, Big Ben and the Royal Palace. Hit all the big tourist attractions and leave room for exploring. Take some time to look up things outside the city. Make a trip to the national parks or book a tour that takes you to the coast. There is so much beauty to be seen abroad and so much adventure to be had!
Many cities have an 'old town' section or a river dividing the city into two parts. Be aware of how far away things are and how you're going to get to them; can you walk or do you need to take the metro? I recommend downloading the CityMapsToGo app on your phone. This app is insanely useful. It works offline just like Google Maps so you can see where you are in a specific part of the city and easily find your way around. It also lists all the big attractions, and many restaurants, shopping, and nightlife venues as well.
Two things I took advantage of in almost every city were the free walking tours, (which you can find online or ask about at your hostel) and pub crawls (which almost every hostel has on their events board). These are easy ways to meet people who are also traveling and learn about the history of your current city.
Also take the time to see if there is anything special going on in any of the places you will be in. Festivals, concerts, shows, etc. You might be surprised with what you can find. When we were booking our trip, my friend and I came across something called the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. We had never heard of it before and had no idea what to expect. Little did we know that it's one of the biggest performing arts festivals in the world with thousands of shows being put on everyday! I had some of my favorite moments at The Fringe and am already planning to go back. You never know what you will come across if you put in a little time to look.
Although you don't want to eat out all the time if you're looking to save money, there are some amazing dishes to be tasted while travelling. If you are a foodie, make sure to sample the local cuisine and check TripAdvisor, the internet, and The Unicorn Life's travel guides for the best spots to eat near you.
Whatever it is that you decide to do while traveling is up to you! If this article was helpful to you, please share it and let me know where you are headed in the comments below!