Backpacking across Europe is no longer as difficult as it used to be, largely thanks to smartphones and the European Union simplifying travel. Young people in the 21st Century don’t need to be intimidated by the idea of navigating places with foreign languages. If you’re planning a backpacking trip or are simply curious about the work that goes into making one happen, check out our advice for making your trip as smooth as possible.
Grab a Dictionary
Even if you speak some of the language of the countries you’re going to or are sticking to tourist-friendly areas, you’ll inevitably encounter some unknown word or monolingual shopkeeper to whom you need to speak. Physical dictionaries are fine but can be bulky and, sometimes, don’t have a broad range of words in the language you’re trying to speak. Smartphone applications can handle almost any word in any language, but, if your battery is dead or you don’t have internet, you may find yourself in trouble.
A robust smartphone app that can be used offline plus a small pocket dictionary for emergencies make a great team. While there are many paid smartphone dictionaries and apps available, Google Translate works fairly well, and you can download language packs for offline access.
Stay on the Same Page
If you’re travelling in a group, have a plan for making contact with each other and meeting back up if you get separated. It may be as simple as meeting back up at the hostel, but, if you’re en route to your next destination when you get separated, determine ahead of time what your protocol will be. It may be wiser to try to meet up at your destination than to try to backtrack and find each other again, but this needs to be decided in advance. Also, have each member of your party carry itinerary information.
As of 2017, the EU has abolished roaming charges for cell phones. UK travellers should be able to keep in touch with their companions more easily, but it’s good to have a plan B in case of lost or dead phones, or in case of changes after the UK leaves the EU.
Research Laundry and Shower Logistics
Naturally, you’re going to want to book a hostel or hotel that has laundry and shower access, but just because someplace has a shower doesn’t mean it’s usable. Some places charge for laundry, and it’s not unheard of for very low-end hostels to charge for showers. Even if your accommodations claim to have free showers and laundry, check online reviews to see if they work as well as promised. It may be fine to stay at a laundry-less hostel for a night or two, but probably not for five nights!
Taking night trains across the continent to save on accommodation costs may seem like a tempting option, but they obviously make laundry and showering difficult. Before booking any overnight trains, make sure you get a decent hostel for the next night.
Invest in Packing Light
If you don’t already have items like a quick-drying towel and a quality backpack, it’s worth it to buy them before you start the trip. While they may seem like an unnecessary budget item if you’re looking to travel cheaply, the comfort and convenience they can provide are irreplaceable.
If you’re taking an overnight bus or train, look closely at the check-in times and policies for the next day’s accommodations to make sure you won’t be stuck lugging your bags for a terribly long time. Some smaller hostels might have a hard time storing your bags or may simply be too far from your other sightseeing to be worth a trek out to in the middle of the day. It may be worth it to book a more expensive hostel closer to the main parts of the city you’re visiting
Research the Rules
Different countries and cities will have different laws and regulations on everything from alcohol consumption to paying train fare. While some minor breaches of protocol may be forgiven by local police, others can result in hefty fines or even a night in jail.
If you plan on drinking, riding your bike, or vaping on your trip, check and make sure your usual habits don’t run afoul of any local regulations. Your best bet is to consult a reputable website or travel guide written by people from your country who have the same general norms and laws as you. They’ll know what to flag for other tourists.
Leave the Electronics
Unless you need your laptop to work on the go, consider leaving it at home and relying on your smartphone’s Wi-Fi capabilities instead. Laptops are unnecessary weight and can end up damaged. Even if you have a waterproof well-padded lockable case, that may not be enough to deter thieves.
Also, consider leaving the camera behind. Unless you’re looking to profit from the photos you take, or your smartphone camera is horrible, there’s no need to bring a separate camera. If you do decide to bring it, make sure any film or other equipment you bring won’t be damaged by x-ray machines or any other jostling during your adventure.
Bring Rainy Day Activities
Let’s face it: If you’re a stubborn and adventure-loving type, you’re probably reluctant to let a rainy day slow you down. If you have some flexibility in your schedule and can take a day to stay inside during a thunderstorm, though, you’re probably better off doing so.
While socialising with other travellers is always nice, there may be days where you’re too tired to do that, or there’s nobody around to talk to. Planning at least a few backup activities to pass the time during a bad rainstorm is probably a good option. If you’re in a big city during a rainy day, look into nearby museums or other indoor activities instead of just sitting around.
Of course, make sure your hostel or other accommodations are okay with and equipped to handle drinking, vaping, video streaming, or any other activities you’ve brought along. Monopolising the Wi-Fi bandwidth is not the fastest way to make friends, after all!
Plan for Emergencies
Extreme weather, transit accidents, and other crises are rare, but they can leave you stranded and alone if you don’t plan for them. Have a general idea of your local transit options and safe places to go, like police stations or hospitals. Carry your printed copies of your travel documents and hostel information at all times. Place an emergency contact card in your wallet, phone case, and backpack. If you’re going anywhere off the beaten path, it’s wise to let loved ones know your detailed plans just in case you fall in a ditch and end up in a rural hospital.
It’s also good to have a plan in case of theft or misplaced baggage. Memorise police phone numbers for each country you’re going to and try to learn basic words like “theft” and “police” in the local languages you’ll encounter. Consider leaving as much as possible in a safe or locker at the hostel during the day.
Europe is friendly to travellers, but putting your best foot forward is critical if you want to make friends. Always put the effort of planning thoroughly and being responsible and safe—slacking off can cause major misadventures for you and the people around you. If all goes well, you’ll have the trip of a lifetime on a reasonable budget.