Twenty six days is a long time to travel. I didn’t realize how long it really was when I bought my airline tickets. I just remembered that my last Europe trip, which had only been about 13 days, left me wishing I could stay longer, so this time I did. It was an unforgettable experience, of course, but it was also a rather tiring ones as we learned lots of lessons the hard way. So that you don’t have to, here are 26 lessons I learned in 26 days of backpacking through Europe.
1. Rick Steves Knows All
If you’ve read my daily posts from my recent European backpacking extravaganza, you likely read the name Rick Steves more than a few times. If you are traveling to Europe, go and buy a copy of his book on your destination or check it out from the library. If you have questions about destinations to visit, when to go, or what to do there, Rick Steves has answers to all your questions.
2. Pack Light
This really cannot be stressed enough. Nothing will ruin a trip more than being held back because you thought you needed to pack a different outfit for every day. By packing light you will be able to only bring a single cary-on sized backpack. You will be so grateful for this when you don’t have to check bags or worry about luggage fees. It will also make traveling by trains, subways, and busses (very common in Europe) 10 times easier.
3. Pack LIGHTER
Take the amount of clothing that you thought was the absolute minimum that you could manage, and now pack LESS. Seriously. It amazed both Sam and myself how easy and normal it was to wear the same four or five shirts and two or three pants for our entire trip. We actually both ended up throwing out some clothes that we realized we didn’t need. Seriously, trust me. Pack LIGHT.
One very helpful way to pack light is by dressing in layers. Don’t bring a big jacket. Bring a few different weight t-shirts and a light jacket. Then put on as much as you need depending on how cold/warm it is. On our trip we went freezing cold places like Sweden and the Alps, and burning hot places like Italy and Croatia, all with one small backpack. Layers, people.
5. Don’t Stress About Toiletries
If you are going anywhere even remotely civilized, there will be toiletries there. Bring the three-ounce size allowed by the airlines in carry-on, but if you are gone for a long time, you will totally be able to buy things like shampoo or deodorant when they run out. This is also a good way to save on space.
6. Get Comfortable Shoes
You will be walking a LOT. If you buy anything new for this trip, a pair of comfortable walking shoes should be it. I bought a pair of Nikes for the trip and loved them. (Except if it rained. More on that later.) Don’t forget to break them in before you leave! If you don’t feel like buying new shoes, that’s OK. Sam wore an old, comfy pair of Toms and Chaco sandals.
7. Leave the Frills Behind
I brought a jar of my pomade-type hair product with me, which took up a lot of my toiletry bag space, and guess what? I never used it. Not once. Even Sam agrees with this. She didn’t pack any make-up for the entire 26 day trip, and says that she didn’t miss it one bit. Leave it behind. You don’t need it. Backpacking (and traveling in general) isn’t a fashion show. If you think it is, you might want to re-examine your reasons for traveling.
8. Pack Smart
It you are packing in a backpack, be sure to put light stuff on bottom. Sounds non-sensical, but trust me. The weight ration in a backpack is easier to cary if the lighter stuff is on bottom. Try putting clothes down there, then your toiletries or travel books on top. Speaking of clothes, I recommend putting different kinds of clothes into gallon-sized zip-lock bags. This will let you compress them by pushing the air out of the bags, and keep everything tight and organized.
9. Traveling Spontaneously
Before our trip, Sam and I decided what countries and cities we wanted to visit, and made a list of some top attractions, but that was as far as our planning went. It made for some awesome experiences because we could decide where we wanted to go and when. Several days we would wake up and change our minds about where we would go next, for reasons like weather, special events, or just our moods. It might sound scary not having it all planed out, but it can be a great adventure.
10. Learn Basic Phrases
In most tourist locations, chances are good that people will speak English. But even if they do, their desire to help you will be multiplied if you take the effort to learn a bit of their language. Learn basic phrases like “Where is the bathroom?”, “How much does this cost?” and basic words like “Please”, “Thank You”, “Hello”, “Goodbye”, and “Right”/”Left” (for when they tell you how to find the bathroom).
11. Fight Through Jet Lag
Jet lag is real. But if you want to take full advantage of your trip, you need to just fight through the first day. By the time it’s time to go to bed, you should be so exhausted that you collapse into a coma and sleep soundly, waking up close to the right time.
Don’t forget to take pictures or record videos. Travel journals are also a great idea. I used this blog as my journal and love re-reading what we did, even though it was a few short weeks ago.
13. Don’t Document it Too Much
Put down the cameras and phones and enjoy where you are. Stay in the moment, don’t always be thinking about how many Likes your photo is going to get. This is a great idea for life in general, but is especially important as you are traveling and seeing amazing new places.
14. Use Rail Passes
Europe’s rail systems are efficient and cheap. We managed to get to 7 countries in 3 ½ weeks, and only took one flight. Rail Passes like the Eurail pass will let you take full advantage of the trains. This is an especially good idea if you are traveling spontaneously!
15. Watch the Weather
Some sights are only worth visiting in the right weather. If you are traveling on the off-season, this will be especially important. For example, when we got to Switzerland we saw that every day for the next week was forecast to have rain and clouds. Obviously we wanted to see the Alps, but clouds would ruin it. Because I kept a close watch on the weather, I was able to spot a short 3 hour window of sunshine on Saturday morning, so we changed our plans to be there at the right time. A little effort can go a long way.
16. Cheap Accommodations
There are lots of great ways to get cheap places to sleep. Extreme cheapskates can just bum it in train stations or parks. For the less desperate, hostels and Airbnb can be a great option. Many hotels will give discounts to people who walk in for a same-day room (they would rather fill the room for cheaper than not fill it at all). Perhaps the best way to sleep is with locals, either by finding a friend or using a resource like Couchsurfing. Locals can show you the real, authentic side of the city that you just don’t see from a hotel room.
17. Take Advantage of “Free” Public Transportation
This may not be exactly ethical, but for the traveler on a very tight budget, some cities have public transportations that are very lax on enforcing ticket purchasing. Sometimes you can step onto busses or trams without having to show a ticket. When my debit card didn’t work and we were tight on cash, this saved us.
As a general rule, avoid any restaurant that has a multi-language menu or photos of the food. If there are big posters of the food outside, run away. These are tourist traps, and the food may be good, but it will be way over-priced. Ask locals or the hotel/hostel concierge where they recommend. Or, just start walking down a side street and stop at the first restaurant with a menu you can’t read. My favorite meals were the ones when I just asked for the waiter’s recommendation. For really cheap eating, hit up a grocery store and buy some bread, cheese and lunch meat for a picnic!
19. Free / Discounted Attractions
Most churches are free. Many museums have free days. Many hotels make deals with bicycle rental locations for free rentals. Figure out your options. Obviously the top attractions will charge you to get in, but you can enjoy a city for almost nothing if you know where to look. Also check out tourist cards that will include admission to several museums for a fraction of the price. This can be a good deal if you plan to do lots of museum-ing. And don’t forget about discounts available for students, children, seniors, or groups. Always ask if you qualify for a discount.
20. Laundry by Hand
Obviously if you only bring 5 shirts and you are gone for 26 days, you’ll need to do some wash. Everywhere will charge you to use a machine, so take an hour at night, bust out some soap and scrub it out by hand, then hang it up around the room to dry during the night. It’s not that bad. I did laundry by hand for two years. You can do it for two weeks.
21. Take Breaks
Be sure to take a morning or afternoon every few days to just relax. This can be on a train if you really want to push yourself, but even the most seasoned travelers get fatigued, and taking a few hours break will let you enjoy the rest of the sights more.
22. Don’t be Afraid of Getting Lost
Enjoy the city. Find the back-street restaurants run by a sweet old man and his family. Spend a night hanging out with locals. Step away from the tourist centers and let yourself wander. You’ll discover a city few other tourists get to see.
23. Ignore Pushers
In big cities like Paris, Rome, Venice, etc, you will be bombarded at the top tourist sites by immigrants trying to make a living by selling you stuff you don’t need. As bad as you may feel, the easiest way to not get scammed is to just ignore them. And if one of them comes up to you offering free bracelets, roses, etc, know that no matter how many times they insist that it is a “free gift”, they will expect money from you after as a gift in return.
Sometimes things won’t work out. Keep a good attitude and try to find a creative solution. One day we wanted to sightsee, but it was pouring rain. Neither of us had ponchos, and we had our backpacks with us. So we stepped into a gas station and bought a roll of trash bags, which I covered our backpacks with and even wrapped around my legs to keep my shoes and socks dry. I looked ridiculous, but it turned into a wonderful memory. Just remember that every problem will be a great story when you get home.
25. Forget the Souvenirs
Really just forget them. 99% of souvenirs end up on shelves for about a month and then get forgotten or thrown away. If you are already a collector of something (like magnets, salt shakers, etc,) feel free to add to your collection. But don’t buy the tacky t-shirts, miniature Eiffel Towers, or snow globes.
26. Assume you will Return
You won’t be able to see everything this trip. Accept that. Assume that you will return to see whatever you missed out on this trip. Just enjoy what you do get to visit and don’t worry about the things you might not get to. When my family visited 2 years ago, I was so upset that I didn’t get to climb the dome in Florence, and I thought I’d never return. Well, just two short years later I got the chance. You never know what might happen.