It's been a few years since my three-month backpacking trip across Europe, but it remains one of the most amazing, life-transforming experiences I have ever had. If you have decided to take this journey, or even if you are just thinking about it, I have put together a list of the seven most important things to have with you, based on my own experiences. Before you go, it's always a good idea to have a good plan and be well-packed and organized. Once you get there, part of the fun will be throwing your plans out the window, but you want to make sure you're prepared for anything, no matter where your travels may take you.
1. A Sturdy, Waterproof Backpack
You can't technically go "backpacking" without a backpack, right? Choosing your pack is one of the most important things you will do when you're getting ready for your big trip. It's very important that you choose a pack that fits you well and is comfortable for you to carry long distances. Sure, you want a pack big enough to fit your needs, but if it's simply too heavy to carry, you will regret getting a pack that is too big. In the long run, it's easier to just pack less than to buy a backpack that's so big it's uncomfortable.
When you go to a sporting goods store to shop for backpacks, a good test is to have them put some weight in the back and strap it on tight. Walk around the store with it for as long as you need to, and even if you might feel stupid, try running in it for a short distance. No doubt you will, at some point, be running to catch a train! Make sure the pack you choose is also waterproof in case you end up stuck in the rain. I personally recommend getting a light internal frame, top loading backpack with a detachable day pack.
2. A Eurail Pass
Unlike most places in the United States, all of Europe is connected by trains. Basically, that's a huge part of why people even CAN backpack there so easily. Individual train fares can really start to add up and can seriously limit your options when the cash starts to run out. A must-have for anyone who is planning to get the most out of the European experience is a Eurail Pass. Eurail offers a lot of different options when it comes to passes. If you know you are only going to be in France or Germany and not planning to travel to many other countries, for example, you can save money by purchasing a one-country pass. Of course, if you do that, it's more like you're backpacking across that country rather than the continent.
Another option is the Eurail Select pass, which allows you to pick 3, 4 or 5 bordering countries for a period of two months. The catch here is that travel is not unlimited. You can only travel a certain number of days within those two months, which can limit your freedom. These passes range in price depending on your age and how many days and countries you want to select.
The best option if you are really hoping for a no-holds-barred freedom experience, is the Eurail Global Pass. This pass allows you unlimited travel between 20 different countries. They offer passes that last anywhere from 15 days to 3 months, depending on how long your trip lasts. I personally chose this pass, and even though I spent a little more upfront, I was so happy I did once I got to Europe. Throughout your travels, you will meet so many new people. Having the options to throw your plans out the window and hop on a train anytime can be one of the most exhilarating parts of your trip. Also, the freedom to take overnight trains can save you money when it comes to spending the night somewhere.
Note: Some countries are not included in the 20, like the Czech Republic, so be sure to figure in costs to any additional countries if you want to travel outside the 20 countries allowed.
3. Phone Cards
You might be thinking now that you won't have time or desire to talk to many people back home while you are on your great adventure. However, once you've been away for a week or two, you might start to change your tune. You might end up hang-gliding in Switzerland and have the sudden urge afterwards to call your parents or one of your best friends and share the experience. It's always a good idea to have a phone card that works internationally just in case. Before you buy or sign up for a phone card plan, make sure to check the rates! You don't want to come home to a $500 phone bill! In order to make sure I didn't overspend on the phone, I purchased a few $50 prepaid phone cards before I left, and then used my minutes sparingly.
When you get to Europe, they will definitely have phone cards there that you can buy, but they are often in another language and it can be hard to figure out the rates and rules. It's just easier to research the best rate cards while you're home and make sure to have them with you before you go.
4. Sheets and a Towel
If you are planning to stay in hostels, which are by far the cheapest way to go in most of Europe, you will want to bring your own sheets and pillowcase, as well as a towel. If you have room in your pack and you don't mind the extra weight, you could bring a sleeping bag instead of sheets, which would lead to better sleep in general I would imagine. When I went to Europe, my backpack was so full, I didn't want to waste space on a huge sleeping bag, so I took an old top sheet, folded it in half lengthwise so that its shape was that of a sleeping bag, and then I sewed the bottom and halfway up the sides. It wasn't padded and as comfy as a sleeping bag, but it saved me a lot of space.
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Most hostels will have sheets and things, but you often have to pay extra to "rent" them. Plus, you never know when you'll end up somewhere that doesn't have any sheets left for the night. You should bring your own towel as well, for the same reason. I recommend a super-absorbent fast-drying travel towel. It won't be soft and fluffy like you're used to from home, but it will dry quickly, meaning you won't have to pack up a wet towel that will seriously start to smell. Just a warning, however. These towels are usually not as big as you would think. A "large" towel, for example, will often not be large enough to wrap around your body like a normal towel you would use at home.
5. Comfortable Shoes (and Conservative Clothes)
I know those flip flops you always wear are your favorites, but when you're heading to Europe, you can bet you'll be doing a ton of walking. You can still take your sandals, flip flops or Brikenstocks for the day trips and outings, but make sure to bring some hiking boots or sturdy walking shoes. There will be days where you might have to walk quite a distance with a very heavy backpack strapped to your body, and the last thing you want is a pair of shoes that hurts or has no support for your ankles. It's a good idea to wear your new shoes a bit before your trip to sort of break them in as well.
While we are on the subject of clothing, let me just sneak in a comment about wardrobe choices. Make sure that you do pack some conservative clothing for your trip. Many churches and museums will have some basic requirements such as no tank tops or bare shoulders. Some places even will not allow you to enter with shorts on, although that is very rare. Keep in mind as well that you will find yourself in many varying cultural situations and you want to be prepared in case you need to be conservative. I am a woman, so naturally I am thinking mostly of women in this case who want to be pretty and look sexy. Sure, it is your right to dress how you want, but just remember that men in some foreign countries might find a different meaning in the way you dress. it's just not worth the harassment, so understand the culture of a city before you make risky clothing choices.
6. A Digital Camera
You might be thinking that you don't want to look too much like a tourist with your camera out all the time, but trust me when I say that you will want some pictures to remember your trip. Also, don't forget that you will surely be meeting lots of new and fun people in your travels. When you get home, it will definitely make you smile to have pictures of all of those people so that you can remember them.
I recommend a digital camera simply because of the potential capacity. If you carry a couple of large memory cards, you can save up to 400 or more pictures. Plus, you can also preview your shot to make sure that you got the perfect view of the Eiffel Tower, instead of getting home and being disappointed that you only got the bottom half by accident. A lighter, smaller camera is a good choice since it will be easy to carry around in your day pack or even your pocket while you're travelling.
7. A Diary
Memories are never as clear years later as you want them to be. Pictures are nice, but you may find yourself wondering, "What was the name of that place again?" Taking a diary so that you can record your daily activities, names of people you met in a certain city, and exciting things you got to see or do, is always a good idea. If you're not much of a writer, just take a small notebook so you can jot down the basics, like "8/23 - Paris - Met Phillip. Louvre." Just taking a couple of minutes before you go to bed or right when you get up in the morning will make a huge difference to you after you are home.
As for me, I filled an entire journal on my trip. You end up on long train rides sometimes, and that's a great time to reflect on your experiences in the last city. It's always neat to go back every once in a while and read what I was thinking back then.
(8. A Partner)
Okay, so I said 7 things, but I have to add this last one! Backpacking Europe alone can have its advantages, sure, but what you gain in advantages, you often lose in safety. I went alone on my trip to Europe, so I can tell you first hand what the advantages are. You can wake up and go anywhere or do anything anytime you want, without having to ask someone what they want to do or where they want to go. You can try things you normally wouldn't try without fear of judgment from someone who knows you. Also, it sort of forces you to meet other people rather than stick by your friend's side and never venture out of your little two-some.
However, for all those advantages, I still wish I had brought a travelling partner with me. Safety needs to be your number one priority on any trip, and having someone with you increases your safety tenfold. Alone, you may find yourself in situations that you cannot handle on your own. Just make sure that you are careful about who you pick to go with you. Don't ask anyone that you argue with a lot, because who wants to argue throughout their trip? Choose someone that shares your ideas of what the trip should be like. If you are the type that loves to meet people and get on a train on the spur of the moment to go to the Love Parade with a group of people you met in Amsterdam, then by all means, do not ask someone to go with you when you know all they want to do is schedule every second of the trip and see each and every museum.
The trip can also get lonely from time to time. Everyone you meet will not be nice or friendly, and after you've been on your own for a few weeks, you will start to wish you had a friend by your side that you can count on. Besides if you end up in a totally unbelievably amazing situation, who will believe you back home unless your friend can vouch for you?
Be Safe and Have the Time of Your Life
I envy you if you are heading to Europe for your first time. I would love to go back, and I hope I get to someday soon. Keep an open mind and don't get too stuck on following a "schedule". Be as prepared as you can be before you leave and the rest should take care of itself. Stay safe and use your best judgment when it comes to going places with people you just met or trying new things. I hope you have the time of your life! I wish you good travels.