2.06.2014

8 Questions to Answer While Planning a Big Europe Backpacking Trip

I WANT TO GO TO THERE. again.
If you've never done it before, traveling on your own to another country can be exciting and terrifying. A couple of you have asked me for advice on how to get started planning your own monster trip across Europe. The best advice I can give you is to plan to be flexible, because things can/will/should change as you go!

So here it is! A starting-point guide to planning your traditional grubby train-riding backpack-carrying Eurotrip! How do you get started? (And that is a question for all you veteran travelers out there--what did you do to get started?) At the very minimum, here are seven questions that you need to answer for yourself before you hop a plane to gawdnosewhere.

Daleks need tourist visas, too.
1. Getting In: What about Tourist Visas?

Prerequisite to international travel: have a passport that will be valid for the duration of your trip.

Ok, I can't make blanket statements on visa things. If you are a citizen of not-America, I did not do research on your country, but I am sure Google can answer your questions. Americans: just remember you can't just rock up to every single country in the world, and even if you can rock up, you can't stay there forever either. Do your research. Some have fees on arrival, some require visa approval in advance, some require vaccinations. The most useful resource on the planet for understanding visa requirements: A Wikipedia breakdown of visa requirements (for Americans) by country.

Backpacking Europe? You're in luck. You can pretty much rock up and stock up on awesome memories. But don't plan to stay more than three months in Western Europe/Central Europe/Scandinavia/Other. The EU countries, more or less, have an area covered by the Schengen Agreement. It's slightly confusing, but what it means to you is that after you enter the Schengen Area, you won't have to get your passport stamped traveling between Schengen countries. Along with the big downside: you can only spend 90 out of 180 days combined in the whole Schengen Area. So once you've spent 90 days there, you gotta stay out of the zone for three months.

And if you overstay your welcome? I don't know, I assume Europe puts a price on your head.

Hostels: pretty street.
2. Staying in: Hostel territory. 

For the classical Eurotrip, you are going to stay in hostels. They are a great place for making friends with other travelers and backpackers with similar interests (looking at old buildings and going on pub crawls). Most people you will encounter are between 18 and 30, though you can find outliers of that-one-Kiwi-who-was-seventy and twelve-year-old-French-school-groups. Of the people staying in hostels I spoke with, 100% reported they had not been murdered, though .05% reported a stolen laptop. If you are traveling on the cheap, you stay in dorm rooms with between four and thirty people, so you will make friends or enemies quickly. Prices vary by country and city, in general Western Europe is more expensive than Eastern Europe. Go figure. You can book hostels in advance via HostelworldHostelbookers, and probably some other sites. I used Hostelbookers, because they don't have booking fees and their footprint logo perfectly illustrates the dirty hippies that stay in hostels. Kidding.

Hostel tips:
  • On the hostel websites mentioned you can check out hostel ratings and comments so you will know whether to expect lockers in the room or not, kitchen access or not, and mushrooms in the showers or not.
  • If you know for sure you will be in a city (ie flight you aren't changing) you can book your connecting cities in advance so your jetlagged ass can settle in.
  • In general, it worked best for me to book a hostel shortly before I got on the train to the next city so I could load a Google map on wifi and figure out where the hell I was going without stressing.
  • There are random weekends, especially in big cities, everything is booked to hell. If you know where you will be, try to book or plan your weekend accommodation earlier in the week. 
  • Places with a rating above 70-80% tend to be preferable. If you go below 50%, you might find a mouse gnawing through your reusable grocery bag (aside: some places in Europe will charge you for plastic grocery bags).
Things not to pack: Medusa's severed head.
3. What are you packing (backpack)? 

I packed/shopped for a bag that would allow me to fit everything into an airline-carry-on sized backpack, because a) I didn't want to check a bag, and b) I wanted to be able to put everything in one backpack. I went with a 40 liter Osprey thing. It mostly worked, until the end when I decided I had to start stocking up on winter coats in Eastern Europe.
  • DO pack a backpack. Some people swear by wheely bags. They have never met the ubiquitous cobblestones that is Europe. 
  • DO NOT pack a really huge bag. I know you want to put in everything you could possibly need. But instead view packing as carrying the bare minimum. It's going to be on your back for a long time.
  • If you are going camping, you will will need a bigger backpack and have a lot more gear to carry. Good luck with that.
No matter what, your rule is to go as light as possible. You don't need more than five shirts, and you don't need more than two pairs of pants. Above all else, make sure you can walk forever in the shoes you pack, because you will.
Instead of counting dollars, we'll be counting...Euros.
4. How will you access your Money?

Debit cards + ATMs are currently the easiest way to get money around the world. Why? Not every place you go will take credit cards, and credit cards without chips can be problematic. Also, sometimes retail clerks will run the transaction in American dollars, and you will end up with a much worse conversion fees/exchange rates than your bank will give you. This happened a couple times, which was annoying, so I mainly stuck to withdrawing cash from ATMs. Not too much cash. Rumor has it there are pickpockets, but I didn't see any.

DO plan ahead and check out your bank's fees for 1) ATMs in general 2) Overseas ATMS 3) Foreign transaction fees 4) Currency exchange 5) whatever other random fees you have to worry about. I found a lot of charts online about fees and what card to use, but couldn't figure out a clear winner. I ended up using a Capital One 360 Checking Account/Debit card and I didn't seem to end up with any fees ever, so I was happy.

Before you travel, CALL YOUR CREDIT/DEBIT CARD COMPANIES, and tell them you plan to travel between certain dates. Otherwise they may kindly freeze your card to stop the obvious case of identity theft from happening. You should also bring some kind of backup card in case your gets frozen/stolen/broken. Mine didn't. But if you do have issues, dealing with them is highly inconvenient from a foreign country.

Highly important tips:
  • DO plan a budget, and remember to plan for transportation, accommodation, food, attractions, all the beer you are going to drink, etc.
  • DO pack a wallet with a compartment for coins, because a lot are much more valuable than quarters. Remember that.
  • DO NOT mentally equate dollars 1:1 with pounds or euros. Dollar is not strong. 
  • DO watch your wallet. Pickpockets are a thing. I didn't see any, but you should keep your purse close and your passport closer. Or somewhere safe. Whatever. 
Travel via space port.
5. How do you plan to travel once you get there?

Really, you can do whatever you like. Find people to roadtrip with, stick to trains, stay on the cheap with buses, or take budget airlines all over. Within cities, public transportation and walking are your bffs. I used a Eurail pass, and regretted it because I realized that there were opportunities like roadtrips that come up that can be fun.
  • Buses are certainly cheaper than trains. I plan to incorporate much more bus travel on my next trip. 
  • The roadtrip segment of my trip was super fun. Pro tip: remember that the UK drives on the wrong side of the road, and mainland Europe does not.
  • If you decide you want to do a lot of travel by train. If you are You can consider getting Eurail passes which are a 50% like saving you money while letting your schedule be flexible and 50% making you pull out your hair while you try to sort out their reservation fees and caveats. 
Keep in touch. Just don't get stuck there.

6. How are you staying in contact? 

I boycotted the smartphone idea, and brought a tablet instead (and a netbook). It's kind of like bringing a banana to a gunfight, but honestly, it's really all about the Google maps. You'll either pay for the convenience of a phone, or do technical gymnastics to work within the limits of free wifi. It is super useful to bring some kind of device to access the internet, to you know, book hostels and tell your parents/friends that you haven't been murdered yet. Besides, you may well get bored once in a while, and a quick flip through facebook can cure homesickness. 

If your phone is on contract with a US carrier, read up/be prepared for a wide range or roaming and data fees. Better yet, don't be on a contract. With an unlocked phone, you can get plenty of sim cards around Europe. ...And good luck researching that.
  • DO Copy any really important cell numbers onto a paper something, in case you dive into the ocean with your phone in your pocket and find yourself in a bind.
  • Get International Phone Codes, and emergency numbers for whatever country you're visiting.
Mentally, you're never quite coming home.
7. When are you coming home?

If you have a firm deadline and a strong necessity to be home again at a certain time, you can save a lot of money by buying round trip tickets or cheap point to point tickets far in advance. Also, if you are the type that wouldn't save enough money while traveling to afford your return ticket, you're better off investing in a return ticket in advance to avoid getting trapped in gawdnosewhere.

But if you don't have a strong necessity to be home immediately? Maybe don't get a return ticket yet. Sure, there's a limit to how long you can stay in (most of) Europe, but you might want to boomerang off somewhere else. Once you start traveling, you will realize there are a whole lot of places to travel to, and you're going to want to see all of them. (Good luck.)

Long distance travel? Better fly.
8. Do you actually want to do traditional hosteling?

You can really travel however you like. Hostels are a nice way to go to meet other travelers and never be lonely. Making friends to stay with can lead to really amazing experiences with more depth than hostels, which can result in you learning more about your roommates' cultures than the one you are visiting. Not that that's a bad thing.

What kind of trip do you want to take? Some people used Couchsurfing to stay with strangers. A full 90% of Couchsurfers told me about positive experiences, and 100% reported they had not been murdered. If you are traveling not-solo, you might consider private rooms in hostels or Airbnb for apartmenty-places. A few other travelers used alternative travel/work methods like exchanging farm labor for room and board, or working at hostels for room or money. One guy even told me that it was perfectly reasonable to sleep under bridges, but he may have been a troll.

I am not an authority, so, blatant disclaimering: if you find yourself stranded some small town in gawdnosewhere, I am not accepting responsibility. Google thoroughly about the places you are going. Google is your bff resource.
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