Backpacking through Europe is a vacation that has become increasingly popular in recent years. The sights of the Old World combined with travel-friendly countries are attractive to all types of tourists. This could be because backpacking allows for spontaneity and mobility; backpackers have opportunities to see what typical vacations leave out.
Planning this spectacular adventure can be difficult, however, especially for first-time backpackers. But rest assured! Here are eleven easy steps to planning your own unique backpacking adventure.
Planning Backpacking Across Europe
1. Obtain your passport.
The most important key to your trip to Europe is to get your passport. If you've never had a passport before, you need to go apply in person at the local post office. You have to fill out a DS-11 form, bring your birth certificate as proof of your U.S. citizenship, and bring an appropriate photo with you.
All of this information can be found on the U.S. Department of State website along with the photo requirements. If you just need to renew your passport, then you can do so by mail.
2. Research visa requirements.
Most of the countries in Europe allow United States citizens to enter for up to 90 days in a 180-day period without needing a visa. However, to be safe, check before you travel. If you decide on a whim to go visit another country, be aware you may not be allowed to enter without a visa.
Go to the U.S. Depatment of State's website and review the country specific requirements for Americans abroad of all the countries you may want to visit on your European backpacking trip.
3. Buy travel medical insurance which covers backpacking activities.
The U.S. Department of State also recommends all Americans traveling abroad to verify they have coverage outside the U.S. on their primary plan. If your plan does not cover you outside the U.S., a travel medical insurance plan like Atlas Travel insurance should be considered as you backpack across Europe. Make sure the plan you purchase includes coverage for sports activities like backpacking and hiking. Some plans charge extra to cover these types of activities.
4. Decide if you're going alone or with a partner.
This is one of the important decisions that you will have to make. If this is your first backpacking trip, it is probably better to go with someone or with a small group. Going solo is a rewarding experience, but when problems arise it's good to have someone who can help you.
Another benefit to having someone along with you is to split the costs of accommodations. It's also fun to have a travel buddy with whom to share the new experiences you will encounter. There are pros and cons to each situation, so make this decision early in the process.
As a safety step, you and your fellow travelers should sign up for the Smart Traveler program with the U.S. Department of State. The program makes it easier for consular officers in U.S. embassies to contact you or your family if an emergency situation occurs. Best of all, it's free to sign up.
5. Decide where to go.
So now that you've decided whom you're traveling with—if anyone—you need to figure out where to go. It's important to look up what Europe has to offer so you can determine the things you want to see. There is so much art, architecture, and history in Europe that it can be overwhelming.
Visit your local library to borrow guidebooks, and research online to find places and events that interest you. Talk to friends and family who have been to Europe and see if they have any suggestions.
Now that you know a little bit about Europe, it's time to make the most difficult decision: where to go. Try making a list with three columns: places you must see, places you would like to see, and places you don't really care to see this time. It's better to figure this out before you've landed so everyone can have a say in where you go and what you see.
6. Choose a rough route and timeline.
The best timetable to explore Europe is between two weeks and three months. Obviously, you'll get to experience the most if you spend three months there, but you can have a fairly decent overview of the continent in a month if you have a carefully planned itinerary.
The key thing to remember is that you can't do everything. One mistake people commonly make is to try to do too much in too little time.
Be sure to schedule in some down time so you don't get burnt out. Consider alternating between busy days in the cities and slow days in the countryside. Make a rough itinerary.
Fine-tune it by adding or cutting cities or attractions until it fits with your timeline and budget. This will help you stay on track and see everything you want to see.
However, if an opportunity presents itself—say you meet someone on the train who wants to show you an amazing music festival only 30 minutes away—then consider going! This is an adventure, and you may miss out on some of the fun if you're inescapably locked into an itinerary.
The itinerary is a good tool to have, but don't feel like it's set in stone. After all, this is your itinerary, and you get to control it. Besides, once you're on the trip, you may find that you have to tweak things and reconfigure it. This is just a rough outline to aid you in your travels.
7. Buy a plane ticket.
You'll need to select the cities that you fly in and fly out off. It may be easier to choose what used to be called an "open jaw" ticket. This lets you fly in one city and fly out of a different one. Some airlines call this a "multiple destination," "multi-city" or some variation on that. If you do decide to fly in and out of the same city, then plan your route in such a way that you can loop back around without seeing the same things twice.
If you get confused about the tickets or can't figure out how to find the best prices, try consulting a travel agent. Sometimes agencies won't charge a consult fee. Another good thing to remember: always compare prices on many different websites, and don't forget to check the actual airline's website itself. Sometimes the actual website will have deals that aren't listed elsewhere.
8. Figure out local transportation in your destination country.
Now that you have the plane ticket down, decide if you want to rely on public transportation or to rent your own car. Renting a car offers a good deal of flexibility, but it is also expensive and the age restrictions vary by country.
Many backpackers just use the extensive public transportation system in Europe. This is a great resource for travelers and can get you pretty much anywhere you want to go at a very low cost.
Look into buying a rail pass instead of buying individual tickets. There are good deals for students (make sure you bring your valid student ID), as well as multi-day passes and single country passes, if you're only seeing one country.
10. Create a budget.
Figure out how much you want to spend in total, as well as a daily budget. Your daily budget should include things like accommodations, food, sightseeing, tickets, museums, and incidentals. You can find a lot of information online about how much things typically cost, so do your research to find rough estimates.
If things are looking too expensive, consider where you can cut costs. If the hotels are getting pricey, consider staying in a smaller town near Paris instead of in the city proper.
If food is way too much, then see if you can grocery shop and eat sandwiches and salads instead of eating expensive restaurant food all the time. What if you take a self-guided tour of the hiking path instead of paying for a tram ride? There are plenty of ways to save money if you do a little research and are okay with cutting corners on non-essentials.
There are a million packing tips for backpackers, but just remember: don't pack too much! You have to haul your backpack all over the place, and that weight will wear you down. Another good tip is to bring clothing that you normally wear. This trip is not the time to try out new styles. You want to be comfortable and relaxed, so bring clothing that is tried and true.
Don't forget to check the weather as well! You may want to bring some layers so you can be warm enough. Remember, though, you can probably find anything you need in Europe, so if you forget something, don't panic. You can replace it.
You're done! All that's left is to go on your trip and enjoy yourself. All the planning is done, and you're well on your way to enjoying yourself in Europe. Don't forget to take lots of pictures and eat lots of great food. This is an experience of a lifetime, so have fun! Bon Voyage!