In 2013 I took my first-ever backpacking trip. I had no idea where to start, how to plan, or what to do so I began obsessively researching as many travel blogs and forums as my brain could possibly handle. Planning it was both confusing and exciting. I was beyond overwhelmed, yet hopeful that I had “everything figured out.” Lesson Learned: You never have everything all figured out.
Post-trip, several friends reached out asking for advice and help to plan their trips. I typed up a HUGE letter to send to them which I’m including below. Ignore the crazy grammar and just remember that this was written by a newbie traveler so it’s not complicated and only highlights the things I thought were important when first starting out. Since then I’ve picked up plenty of tips and tricks, do’s and don’ts, and things I would do differently, and I’ll include those in green below.
2013 Europe Trip Overview
1 month (September & October 2013)
Around $3,500 per person including ALL costs such as backpacks, clothes, travel insurance, flights, food, accommodations, activities, etc.
Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Munich (Oktoberfest), Fussen, Salzburg/Bavaria, Venice, Split, Corfu, Crete, Santorini, Mykonos, Athens, Katakolon/Ancient Olympia
Sightseeing, Bike Rentals, River Cruise, Underground Caving, Oktoberfest, Exploring Salt Mines, Scooter Rentals, Royal Caribbean Cruise through the Greek Isles, Miscellaneous Tours/Day Trips
- This was written for someone traveling to Europe. This means intercontinental travel such as trains and buses will be different for someone visiting a different part of the world. For those tips, check out each country’s destination guide.
- This was written for someone traveling to a metropolitan area during Autumn months (September & October). This means the attire will include fashionable items as well as coats, scarves, etc. If you are planning a trip that includes outdoor activities or warmer weather, check out each country’s destination guide for packing suggestions.
- This was written for someone traveling during the shoulder season (September & October). This means there will be less crowds, more hostel availability, and potentially cheaper costs.
Excerpts From The Letter
…Basically the first thing I did was research! I searched the web for blogs and forums with backpacking tips, tricks, and anything that I thought could help…
…I originally started with totally different places in mind but as I researched more and learned about traveling between the countries and the cost of living in each of the countries, I ended up choosing these places…
…The first few questions you need to ask yourself are:
- What is your budget? This is the most important thing.
- How long do you want to travel for? The most expensive part is the flight over there so if you can stay longer (and want to) I highly recommend it.
- Are you travel dates flexible? This is important for booking flights at the cheapest price.
- Do you have any “set” events that you want to attend? For example, we wanted to attend the last day of Oktoberfest so we needed to plan strategically so we would get there in time. We also had a cruise booked so we needed to plan ahead for that too. If you do not have any “set” dates then you can leave your plans open and flexible. Hostels are easy to book and easy to cancel so don’t worry too much.
- Do you have any “set” cities that you want to go to NO MATTER WHAT? If so, you’ll need to build the trip around those.
…I am crazy overly detailed and made an excel spreadsheet to track my entire trip– travel dates, flight numbers, train numbers, expected expenses, budget, etc. It was beyond helpful in planning (for me) and keeping an eye on the big picture and total costs…
…I did tons of research about all the cities I wanted to go to and made a rough outline of the whole trip (including costs) WAY BEFORE I booked anything. This was my excel spreadsheet above. After mapping it out, there was a lot that we changed and moved around because trains were too expensive or the dates didn’t work. If you don’t have set dates though, you can be more flexible with transportation and most likely reduce your costs…
…First, I’d map out the cities you want to see. Second, I’ll make sure it fits in your “budget” and timeframe. Third, I’d start planning and booking 🙂 Here are ALL the details I can think of below!…
How Many Days in Each City
This was a quick trip and my first backpacking trip so I wanted to see as much as possible. Now I plan trips differently– I take my time in each city, I relax, I schedule days to do nothing, and I don’t book hostels/transportation ahead of time. For my first trip though, this was great and exactly what I needed! Because of my planning, I felt super confident and organized.
I tried to have 3 FULL days in each city. We would arrive very early in the morning, drop our stuff off at the hostel (in a locker) and try to jump on a free city walking tour. Most of the hostels can point you in the right direction and there are usually 2 tours per day. They are free but you need to tip (no biggie). If you need help, ask the other people in your group what they are tipping. The free walking tours were a great way to get an understanding of the city (geographically and historically) before deciding what to do on the other days. Typically we would ask the tour guide what to do, talk to the people in our group, ask the hostel desk attendants, and ask the other travelers in our room for suggestions.
Days 2 and 3 we would seek out all the places we didn’t see on the tour, the places we wanted to go back to, the small cities outside of the tour that we could get to by train, or a weird activity (like underground caving). We tried to be strategic in what we left for the last day because we needed to check out of the hostel in the morning so if we spent the day getting dirty or smelly, there was no shower to go back to since we already checked out.
We usually left between dinner time and midnight on the 3rd day and took an overnight train (if the next destination was far). If it was close (like 3-4 hours) then we would have a little different schedule. The thing is, you don’t want to get into a town late at night. It’s dark, you don’t know where you are going, you are tired, you are carrying all your stuff, and it’s super easy to get lost. Getting lost in daylight is way less scary. THE BEST THING I DID BEFORE LEAVING was mapquest walking directions from the train station to the hostel. I typed them up and printed them out before we left so as soon as we got into a new city, we were totally prepared. Actually I typed up a huge document with all of our information (flights, train number, hostel reservation numbers, directions, everything we could possibly need) and this was a lifesaver!
Updates! There is an app I swear by called “Maps.Me“– its a game changer. Download the city or country you are visiting ahead of time and then it allows for offline step-by-step navigation once you arrive. It’s amazing! I would also suggest downloading the “Google Translate” app just in case you get lost and need help. You can type your question into the app and show the other person your phone. WIFI LIFE SAVING TIP!!! If you desperately need wifi, hunt for a Starbucks (they always have free wifi that you can connect to while standing outside) or any restaurant that has a wifi symbol in the window. For the restaurants, you may need to go in and order a coffee to get the password, but at least you get wifi.
How To Pick a Hostel
For hostels, I always use Hostelworld. AirBnb and Couchsurfing are also great options for budget travelers. Hostelworld is the only website I recommend for hostels since it is highly respected, well rated, and used by practically everyone. I’ve typed up all the hostel basics, booking tips & tricks, what to look for, do’s & don’ts, and most importantly, instructions for finding the best hostel for you!
→ Check out the post here: How To Find A Good Hostel
Flights & Trains & Buses & BlaBlaCar
If you plan on traveling a lot, consider getting TSA PreCheck or Global Entry (this is what I have). It allows you to join a shorter security line, leave your liquids in your bag, keep your shoes on, and so much more. It also lets you skip the long customs/immigrations lines when you are arriving back into the country. ← This has saved me so much time!
For travel in between European countries, I use a website called Rome2Rio.com (there’s an app too) to find ALL of my possible routes/options. This helps give me a starting point but I always double check on other transportation websites too. After I use Rome2Rio, I check Skyscanner and Kayak for cheap flights, then budget buses and ride sharing services like BlaBlaCar. The Eurail website and Seat61 are great resources for train travel. Seat61 could be the BEST resource for train travel information in Europe. Don’t forget, if you are a student and/or under 26, there are tons of discounts available to you.
There is one issue with the super cheap flights, checked bags are expensive (like $50 a bag which is crazy when the flight may have only cost $39). Note: EasyJet only allows ONE carry on, not a carry on and a personal item. You can pay extra for the personal item or get creative if you need more than just your backpack. A trick I use is to buy food in the airport and store extra stuff in that bag (with the food). The airlines either don’t notice or don’t care and so far its been working. I’ve also worn all of my coats for one flight. And I definitely shoved my iPad and other miscellaneous items into my leggings (under my shirt) to carry more on. I only packed a carry on backpack so I was fine with the baggage, but my issue was liquids. I didn’t want to toss out my toiletries every few stops so I utilized trains a lot more than flights. Here’s how to find the right backpack for you.
Trains are great for traveling overnight and saving money since you don’t need a hostel. Overnight trains will sell you a seat, a couchette, or a bed. I typically bought the seat or couchette. A seat is a normal seat and a couchette is a seat that converts to a TINY bunk bed. All the seats and couchettes are in “rooms” on the train with 6 people. So no matter what, you are sleeping with others, it’s weird. The couchette is a triple decker bunk bed and the seats are 3 people facing 3 people. Seat61 has tons of information and will help you choose which is best for your specific train ride.
Example of a couchette. I am sitting on the lowest bunk bed. My “back” folds up to make the middle bunk bed. And there is one more bed (not pictured) that unfolds to make the top bunk.
No bed kinda sucks.
Reading the train tickets is beyond confusing, especially when they are in another language. Just ask for help! A train only requires you to be there 30 minutes before and there usually isn’t security or anything like that. They won’t post or announce the “gate” (platform) until 10-15 minutes before and the train will pull up for maybe 10 minutes so you better be paying attention and get on. We almost missed a few! You can book individual trips or buy a multi-country pass. I booked individual trips but it’s advised to buy a pass if you are traveling around for a while. The only reason I didn’t is because I knew which days we needed to leave each city in order to make it to Oktoberfest and our cruise so I did the math and it was cheaper to book separately (but that’s just me).
Before you leave, go to your doctor at home and tell him/her that you are traveling long distances and request a sleep aid (if that is something you want/need). I got 10 sleeping pills from my doctor and it was so helpful for the long flights, overnight trains, and nights where I couldn’t fall asleep from someone’s loud snoring. Now that I travel solo, I do not like taking sleeping pills because I want to be aware of what’s going on just in case! An alternative that friends have suggested is over-the-counter “Unisom” but I feel very weird the next day or the traditional “PM” style medications. Of course, this is entirely up to you! A popular all-natural approach to relax and sleep is melatonin.
Your health insurance at home will not work overseas. You will need to purchase international travel insurance to cover things like overseas medical help, travel interruptions/delays and theft. You can pay per week or per month and I highly advise using World Nomads. They are affordable and used by everyone in the US. One of us actually got really sick and we needed to see doctors in several countries and they reimbursed us $200 when we got home. When I went backpacking in 2016, I was hospitalized in Spain and World Nomads reimbursed all my hospital bills as well as any medication I bought as a result of the illness.
Credit Cards, ATMs, Exchanging Money, Cell Phones, and Photos
It will help to have a credit card with no international fees (that’s what I recommend at least). I have the Chase Sapphire Preferred for traveling and so far it’s been great. Check your credit cards to see if there is a fee because they add up fast.
Each time you take out cash, you will be charged by your bank AND possibly by the ATM. This also adds up fast. Check with your bank to see how much they charge or if they have partner banks abroad that do not charge fees. Sometimes you can’t avoid it (I couldn’t) so I just made sure to take out a lot each time so I felt like it was “worth” the $5 charge. Also, be sure to call or go online to tell your bank and credit cards that you are traveling. I used to use Wells Fargo but the fee is expensive and they froze my card on 2 different trips (after I told them I would be there). It was very challenging to get a hold of them on the phone and get it unfrozen. I recently switched to Charles Schwab, the only card with no ATM fees, but I haven’t used it yet. Keep you updated!
If you think those fees are bad, it’s even worse to change money at the airport, train station, or exchange center. Avoid if possible! Don’t take out too much money because changing it back also loses money. These places usually give you a lower exchange rate and charge a fee for the transaction.
I didn’t do anything special with my phone. I turned off roaming and data (in the settings) and then put my phone on airplane mode which means it can only work on wifi. You can clear your “data usage” before your trip so you can see if the number is going up and therefore you are accidentally using data. Just keep it on airplane mode and you will be fine! You can send emails, iMessages, WhatsApp, FaceTime, Skype, etc. WhatsApp and FaceTime audio are also great for calls.
Photos & Backup
Special note about photos! Before I left, I cleared out my phone as much as possible and backed everything up to my computer. I also backed my photos up to the cloud (I use Google Photos, not iCloud). Google Photos is free and has unlimited storage as long as you store your pictures at 16 megapixels or less. It allows you to auto sync new pictures every time you have wifi so just in case you lose, break or someone steals your phone (it happened to me), then all of your photos and memories are not lost. I also backup my notes (where I keep my day-to-day journal and important travel info) to the cloud for the same reason. Apple now has a feature where you can “lock” your notes with a password or thumbprint to protect private data.
If you have a digital camera or are looking to buy one, check to make sure if has Wifi or Bluetooth capabilities so you can easily transfer photos from your camera to your phone or to the cloud. Transferring is even faster with this little device. It’s $29 and well worth every penny. I searched everywhere to find it cheaper but I had no luck. There’s also a SIM card attachment that does the same thing as this cord.
Plan to eat street food– pizza, gyros, etc. We eventually figured out that if we shop in traditional grocery stores, we could purchase a ton of food for a lot cheaper than eating at a restaurant.
Corn on pizza? What?
Street food, yum!
For example, we would pickup deli meats and bread rolls to make sandwiches for lunch, fruit for breakfast, and cookies as a snack.
You still can try the traditional foods and eat out, but shopping at the grocery store allowed us to have more money for sightseeing and going out.
Late night snacks…
If the hostel offered free breakfast, we always ate it and packed some for the rest of the day. We would make Nutella or peanut butter sandwiches at breakfast and bring them in our day bag as snacks. Bring sandwich bags from home. We used a ton! You can cook at most of the hostels and a lot of people do. We didn’t but looking back I totally would’ve.
Set a budget and stick to it! I usually check my excel document to see how much I have allotted for the day and then put that total in my notes. As I purchase things, I write them down and deduct from the total. If I have leftover money, I set it aside and allow it to collect throughout the trip. This comes in handy when there are unexpected expenses such as fines (we got a few tickets) or last-minute activities that you want to do.
For long-term travel or traveling without a plan, I use the PriceOfTravel website to set an estimate per city per day and use that as a guideline.
Pack for 5 days at most. Lies! No one can pack for 5 days! This was easy since my trip was all about layers so basically I could wear the same thing every day as long as I changed my coat or scarf. Its more realistic to pack for 7 days or just pack items that go together. Pick one color scheme and stick with it. Most people “go out” in whatever they wore during the day and you only need 1-2 sets of pajamas, I promise! I re-wore everything at least 1x or 2x before I washed it, especially jeans. Bring underwear for at least 7 days and plan to do laundry while you’re there. Honestly, you may not even need to do laundry if you are only traveling 2-3 weeks (except for undies which I would bring in the shower with me and hand wash, then hang on my bed to dry while I was out for the day).
You can do laundry in some hostels, nearby at laundromats, or have a service do it for you. All of these options are relatively inexpensive and your hostel can point you in the right direction. If you do your laundry at a laundromat, make sure they have soap for the washing machine and wifi while you wait. You will definitely need to hit the dryer button a few times in order to get your clothes dry. Oftentimes, sending my clothes out ended up being cheaper. This time around I am bringing a small laundry bag to wash my delicates in and this will also double as a dirty clothes bag.
Whoops, a little more than 5-7 days! Shockingly, it all fit with my packing cubes and compression bags. This trip had all 4 seasons so packing was tough. → Packing cubes are totally worth it.
Backpacks & Miscellaneous Items
I used a backpack instead of a suitcase. The process for picking a backpack can be a bit confusing. It took me a really long time to figure out which was the “best” backpack. I ended up going with the Osprey Porter 46L and I love it!
→ I’ve typed up all my backpack basics here: How To Pick The Right Backpack For Travel
All of this information was included in the original letter to my friends so definitely click the link! It covers price, quality, size, ratings, reviews, packing tips, and non-negotiable advice for staying safe and keeping your belongings secure.
You will need a day bag. A day bag is what you will take with you every day when you leave the hostel to carry your phone, camera, hostel key, wallet, maps, tickets for events/trains, water, snacks, umbrella, jacket, etc. Backpack or Purse? Get the dirt on day bags here.
You will need locks and a cable. The cable is to tie your backpack to a bedpost when you leave the room if there are no lockers. After a while we didn’t use the cable in the dorms but we did use it when we would fall asleep in a train station and wanted to make sure we didn’t get robbed. You will want two locks, one for your backpack and one for your locker where you will keep your passport, electronics, etc.
You will want a quick dry towel. It was expensive to spend $20-30 on a towel but so worth it. It’s a very odd towel which dries super quickly and can be packed right after your shower just in case you need to pack up then check out (which always happens). Some hostels will rent you a towel (aka “towel for hire”) but those costs add up quickly when you do the math.
This section was originally written in the letter but the thoughts were so chaotic that I decided to re-write it. Other things you may need include: adapter or converter, all chargers and electronics, headphones, external portable charger, selfie stick, glasses and glasses cases, notebook/journal, first aid kit (bandaids for blisters, Neosporin, etc), headache medication, stomach ache medication, cold medication, cough drops, nail file, nail clippers, tweezers, earplugs, eye mask, travel pillow, shampoo, conditioner, soap, razor, deodorant, makeup remover, q-tips, hair brush, toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, body spray, FEBREEZE, hand sanitizer, tissues, wet wipes, vitamins, lotion, makeup, mirror, hand towel, safety pins (they have saved me so many times), hair ties, bug spray (depending on the place), SPF, chapstick, a tide to-go pen, a small sewing kit, tons of ziplock bags, and compression bags (if you have bulky items). Check out the Travel Gear page for more ideas!
How does it all fit? There is so much stuff!
I added tons of medication to this bag and all the things listed above.
Bring a few different types of shoes so your feet don’t die (mine did). I usually pack shower shoes (flip flops), a pair of cute sandals, sneakers, and recently Birkenstocks. I didn’t bring any dressy clothes so no heels or wedges were needed since my backpack and budget didn’t allow for it. No regrets with this decision!
Bring a flashlight or use your phone. This is so helpful when its early in the morning and you need to pack up all your stuff to catch a train and people are sleeping. I now bring headlamp/torch for hiking trips and it comes in handy all the time.
Non-noisy shoe bags are also helpful. First, you don’t want your disgusting shoes touching your clothes. Second, the loud crinkly noise of a plastic bag is horrible while others are sleeping. Don’t be that person.
Bring copies of all important documents (just in case). I bring 2-3 copies and keep them in separate places just in case one gets lost.
3 Weird Tips
Adapter or Converter: An adapter simply allows your plug to fit into the wall, whereas a converter converts the voltage/energy so you don’t fry your electronics.
Knockoff Chargers: If you are using an iPhone or Apple product, I highly advise using the charger/cord that came with the phone. I used a knockoff version from Amazon and it literally exploded and flew out of the wall. I am so thankful my phone was okay.
Selfie Sticks: If you bring a selfie stick, I prefer the ones that have a cord (not bluetooth) so you don’t need to worry about charging it.
This list constantly changes depending on the destination and is certainly not a checklist or a complete list. For example, a waterproof case for your phone might be important to you or maybe you want to bring a hat! Remember, this is your trip and these are merely ideas to get you going.
That was a crazy long letter to my friends! I hope it helped you with planning for your first backpacking trip. Remember, this was a letter drafted based on my 1-month Europe trip during Autumn weather. If you are planning to visit a different place, check out the destination guides for specific things to see and do.
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Do you have any questions? What about suggestions for tips I may have missed? Share them in the comments below!