It’s the new year, which hopefully means some of you are gearing up for a big adventure, possibly one in Europe! I had such an amazing time on my trip: I got a chance to try new foods, make new friends, and spend some quality time with me, myself and I. It was a wonderful learning experience. Along the way, I picked up a few pieces of information that made backpacking through Europe a whole lot easier!
There are a ton of great tips for backpacking through Europe on the interwebs. Nomadic Matt has a great overall guide. Divine Caroline also has a good one here. And of course, James and Susan of The Savvy Backpacker are unparalleled when it comes to backpacking travel tips! Their Complete Guide (which is startlingly comprehensive) is here. Also, Neverending Voyage has a great guide tobudgeting while traveling!
All that said, here are my two cents’ worth! Check out my tips:
- DO get a Visa Debit card: Don’t worry too much about getting your currency before you arrive. My best advice is to get a Visa Debit card – a debit card that has Visa-type accessibility. Meaning, anywhere they accept Visa, they will accept your debit card. Once you get to your destination, simply hit up the closest ATM, and you’ll have all the local cash you need. Try to take out money in larger amounts if you can so that you can avoid ATM fees! In my experience, all European ATMs have an English language option, so you don’t need to worry about that too much. (Ps. don’t forget to tell your bank you’re leaving the country!)
- DON’T look like a tourist: I never carried a money belt, except for a couple occasions when I was physically in transit (for example, in the airport). If you’re are seen fumbling with your money belt, or walking around with your head in a map, totally distracted, you may become a target for pickpockets. Don’t assume that just because you’re wearing a money belt doesn’t mean you can’t be the victim of theft! You can still be distracted and robbed if you’re not careful. Be discreet when looking at maps – you could even sit down at a cafe or park bench to figure out your route before you go. Keep your wallet in a zippered compartment inside your zippered, ideally cross-body bag, and stay alert and aware.
- DO learn a few key phrases: You will go such a long way if you can say “hello” and “thank you” in the language of the country you are visiting. When you’re backpacking Europe, I think it’s important to show some respect when you visit a new place. A new city might seem like just another exotic locale where you can have fun, but it’s also home to a whole group of people with a culture that you should make an effort to understand or at the very least, acknowledge. Take the time to learn how to greet people! Also, if you have any special needs, learn the words for those too. For example, if you’re a vegetarian, like me, you might want to learn the correct word, so as to avoid awkward situations.
- DON’T worry too much: Incredibly, I very rarely had an issue with language. This is a product of all the tourism that happens in Europe, for better or for worse: everyone seems to speak English. If you visit smaller, less touristy places, you’ll find there is less English, of course, but in that case you can always download the iCOON iPhone app (which is a picture dictionary), use Google Translate if you have wifi, or just gesture wildly (a personal favourite).
- DO pack light: My #1 tip for safety, efficiency and speed!
- DON’T bring books: Maybe you’re not a total book nerd like I am, but reading was one of my favourite activities to do on my trip. Of course since I was travelling with a carry on bag, there was no room for books! Invest in a small e-reader (I traveled with my iPad mini) and download books as you go. If you can’t afford it, then bring one book with you and trade it in at hostels. Most hostels have a small library where you can take a book if you leave one! Bonus tip: if you belong to a library, download the OverDrive app to one of your devices or access your library’s ebook library on the browser of your computer. That way, you can borrow books from the library even if you’re in another country, get to read new things and save a lot of money in the process!
- DO download Ulmon apps! If you have a smartphone, download the Ulmon app whenever you visit a big city. Inside the app you have a fully loaded city map complete with restaurant listings and major sightseeing spots. You can “pin” addresses or locations with bright colourful dots so you can find your way to them later. The best part is, all the information is available offline, when you have no wifi or 3G service. Actually, no, the best part is that you can actually navigate using the app even when you have no wifi or service. That’s right. It can find where you are and act as a compass as you walk towards new sites. Don’t ask me how it does it, but it does, and works wonderfully, and it’s free! Definitely download as many of these as you need.
- DON’T forget to plan ahead: Not every city has an Ulmon app, and even if it does, it won’t be much use to you if you don’t know the address of your hostel. Remember to write down the names and addresses of where you’ll be staying prior to arriving in a new city, as well as instructions on how to find them! One thing I liked to do was research instructions and addresses ahead of time, and then screenshot the page on my phone so I could have all the information for later when I had no wifi or service. Taking photos of important information like door codes, locker numbers or parking spaces can be really helpful.
- DO ask fellow travellers for recommendations: Hostels can be so hit-and-miss, and even though HostelWorld and other booking websites show reviews of people who have stayed there, there’s no substitute for getting a recommendation from a fellow backpacker. I stayed in some of the best hostels based on suggestions from other backpackers, which is really useful in cities like Rome or Paris where there are a hundred hostels to choose from. So if you meet someone who has been somewhere you’re going, get their opinion on where you should stay.
- DON’T forget locks: I’m not going to try and scare you, because I never was stolen from, but I think that bringing your own locks is important. Remember to bring a small suitcase lock and a padlock. The suitcase lock is great not only for your suitcase while in transit or at hostels without lockers, but is also great for lockers whose clasp is too small for a bigger padlock. Also, hostels will charge for locks (and some won’t even have them) so you’ll save money if you bring your own. They don’t weigh much, but they’ll give you some peace of mind if you feel strange about leaving your stuff unattended in a hostel without lockers all day.
And there you have it, my favourite tips for backpacking through Europe. A trip like that is a heck of a ride, and the better prepared you are for it, the more fun you’ll have during it. One last set of do’s and don’ts: do take the leap and plan an adventure + don’t let fear hold you back! Yes it’s scary, but it’s totally worth it.
What are your top travel tips? Are you planning any travel adventures for 2014?