Backpack Travelling in Europe
Thinking of backpacking through Europe? Here’s everything you need to know for planning the perfect trip
Give yourself a few days in each place you visit
One of the most common rookie mistakes when it comes to backpacking in Europe is for eager adventurers to open a map and start drawing geographically-ambitious lines, zipping them from one country to the next without a thought for how long they should stay in each place.
Stop. Don’t do this. Breathe. Know that you can’t see everything at once and know that, ultimately, it’s never fun to treat travelling through countries like a box-ticking exercise.
If you’re interrailing and you have approximately a month to work with - map out six or seven places that you really want to visit and plan exactly what you want to do in each place. On top of that, give yourself the flexibility to spend more time in a place that you like, rather than sticking to a strict schedule that limits you.
Get familiar with local customs and laws
A vitally important one. Always treat the countries and cities that you’re visiting with the fullest respect. Understand that certain jurisdictions will tolerate certain activities, while others will absolutely not.
With that in mind: Remember that even though you’re allowed to drink in public places in Berlin, it’s very much frowned upon to be seen as visibly intoxicated. Similarly, while beer is cheap and plentiful in Czech cities like Prague and Slovakian cities like Bratislava, these countries have the strictest drink-driving laws in Europe; so don’t be tempted to get on a bike after an afternoon at the bar and do not get in a car with someone who’s had even one beer (Trust us, there’s a 0.00% Blood Alcohol Limit law in these countries and the authorities take that law very seriously!)
Oh, and if you’re visiting a ‘coffee shop’ in Amsterdam, don’t be tempted to stuff some excess ‘paraphernalia’ in your backpack and take it across a border to the next place you’re visiting. Just…don’t do it. It’s not worth the risk.
Go out of your way to find the best bars, restaurants, parks, and sites
Backpacking is about escape. It’s about adventure. It’s about doing the things you wouldn’t do on a package holiday with your family or kids.
So, take the time out to find all the hidden gems that you can in the places that you visit. If you learn about an outdoor street food market on the outskirts of Copenhagen and it’s a half-hour cycle away, then make that trip out to it. You might not get the chance to do it again!
Don’t spend all your time in the major cities
OK, let’s say something slightly controversial.
While all the major European cities are obviously jaw-droppingly beautiful and unique in their own right, for the average backpacker who lands in a city centre train station, has a finite travel budget to work with, and has only a few days to explore as much as they can, certain parts of these cities can - dare we say it - start to blend into one.
Let’s face it: There are only so many times you can walk through an Old Town. Or do a bar crawl in a tourist-oriented nightlife district. Or pay silly prices for local food of dubious quality in a tourist-trap restaurant.
So, why not venture beyond city centres to get a fuller experience?
Porto is beautiful and well worth spending a few days in, but a wine tour along the nearby Duoro Valley is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Berlin has endless activities for the energetic backpacker, but Potsdam - located a short train journey away - is a pristinely gorgeous town and perfect for cycling and for swimming in the Templiner Lake.
Meanwhile, the Tatras Mountains in southern Poland are only a few hours away from Krakow - but they feel like a different planet when you’re hiking them and looking over the sweeping Slovakian countryside at the top…
Don’t fall for every tourist trap in the book
If a man in a gorilla suit or an Iron Man costume invites you to take a photo with them at the Champ De Mars in Paris, don’t be surprised when they bully you into forking out 5 euros for the privilege.
If a PR person in Amsterdam’s Red Light district claims that the club they’re outside of is the bustling nucleus of the city’s nightlife, don’t be surprised to pay 20 euro in and then find it empty for the entire evening.
Also, fanny packs and bum bags might be a fashion statement (and we certainly do recommend them for keeping your essentials safe!), but be advised that they’ll make you a target for pickpockets and scammers. Don’t be a mark. Keep your wits about you at all times.
Knowing a handful of words in the local language goes a long, long way
A simple ‘Ce faci?’ in Bucharest, ‘Vd’aka!’ in Prague, or ‘Ich spreche kein Deutsch’ in Munich will see you being treated favorably by locals.
Bear in mind that while, yes, most people working in the customer-facing industries of major European cities speak and understand English, many feel uncomfortable or irritated with it being taken for granted by every tourist who rocks up to a cafe, restaurant, information centre, or bar.
Learning some local words and phrases is a nice way to show people that you’re not ignorant and are actively interested in their culture.
Backpacking doesn’t always mean slumming it in cheap hostels - look for good deals on online travel sites
Hostels are great places to socialize, take part in activities like walking tours or events, and pick up local knowledge from staff - but backpackers should be discerning about a full range of accommodation options in order to have the most rewarding time.
The truth is that, in many big European cities, the nature of hostels has changed in recent years. Some have become more boutique and premium (and therefore more expensive and less authentic), while others have gone the other way and become cheap cash grabs, often hastily constructed, nightmarishly inhospitable, and with amenities amounting to not much more than a bed, a dilapidated bathroom, and some peeling wallpaper…
Backpackers should note that, alongside hostels, you can actually sometimes find very good hotel or B’n’B deals on travel sites like Booking.com or AirBnB (this is especially if you’re travelling as part of a group).
A light, durable bag
As small and compact as you can manage. One piece of advice is that those big, bulky, 20kg hiking backpacks might look cool in sepia-tinted photos when you’re waiting to board a train, but honestly, ask yourself: Do you really need everything you've stuffed into it? The answer is: Probably not.
Planning on bringing half a dozen books for long journeys? Buy an e-reader! Thinking you need 15 t-shirts to have on rotation? Leave 10 of them at home and do a wash every few days. Trust us. Smaller backpacks make your travelling experience much more agile, less stressful, and less burdensome.
A SIM card with good 4G
It might seem like a romantic notion to go backpacking through Europe and leave the online world behind you, but the reality is that if you go down that road, chances are you’ll spend wasted hours in some city centre McDonald’s cribbing free WiFi to plan your next move.
It’s as simple as this: having a good online connection can help you navigate the places you want to visit - and getting a prepaid SIM card with all the internet access that you need can be very cost- and time-effective.
A credit/debit card with good currency exchange options
If you find yourself heading from Prague to Krakow to Bratislava to Budapest, you’ll only be travelling a few 100 miles in total - but you’ll be using four different currencies.
Make sure you’re signed up to a bank which offers good, seamless currency exchange options. Revolut is a preferred choice for many travellers.
As an added tip, don’t always rely on NFC transactions on your phone. Make sure you have a real card that you can put into a chip-and-pin machine or use at an ATM if necessary.
And the rest…
Just in case you haven’t thought of the following things, here’s a quick checklist of essentials to take with you:
A trusted, BPA-free water bottle;
A portable charger (or a small solar charger if you’re really savvy);
A good towel. Tip: Most of those small, ‘travel towels’ that you see in camping stores are basically glorified handkerchiefs, meaning they’re completely useless. We’d advise making room for a proper towel in your backpack to keep you dry.
A litany of travel apps, like CityMapper, Duolingo, TripAdvisor, AAirbnb and - if you’re planning on driving anywhere or campervanning - Park4Night;
All your relevant documents and identifications, including your passport and travel insurance.