Planning a backpacking trip can be a big undertaking, and I think the hardest part is knowing where to start. As I’m currently planning my next trip to Europe, I wanted to share some pointers that helped me along the way.
Know How Long You Want to Visit
While it would be great to spend a year traveling internationally, most of us don’t have that luxury. The average traveler has a limited budget and limited amount of vacation time. While this should never deter you from traveling, it can help you decide how long you can realistically afford to visit a destination, both time-wise and monetarily.
The good news is that most countries in Europe have excellent transportation systems and cheap airfare options (we’ll get to that later), so it’s not unreasonable to visit a few destinations within a week’s time.
Decide Where You Want to Stay
There are so many accommodation options these days that it can be hard to decide where you want to stay. The three main options are:
- Hotels: This is the tried-and-true lodging option, but it can also be one of the most expensive and least unique.
- Hostels: This is a great option for those travelers on a budget or those who are simply looking to meet fellow travelers from around the world. If you haven’t heard of it, check out HostelWorld – a service that’s similar to Expedia, but for Hostels.
- Airbnb: Being the newest option, Airbnb offers a great variety of accommodation options. You can book a shared room to get a similar experience as you would at a hostel, a private room within a family home, or even an entire place to help you feel right at home.
Personally I like to mix it up while I’m traveling, as each accommodation option has it’s advantages. If I’m staying in a party city, I’ll usually book a few nights at a hostel so I can meet some new friends to hang out with. I also like to book a nice hotel room around the middle of the trip so I can have some downtime, take a nice long bath, and get a great night’s sleep on a plush bed.
While I’ve never stayed at an Airbnb in Europe – this year will be the first time – I have used Airbnb in the United States and had nothing but great experiences.
Research How to Get Around
As I mentioned before, it’s pretty easy to get around Europe, especially for Americans who are used to limited train options and expensive flights.
If your destinations are fairly close, within two to five hours, it’s generally easier to take the train. It will also take just as long to fly if you consider the time you spend getting to the airport and checking in. If your destinations are further apart, it usually makes more sense to fly, considering you can probably reach most destinations within a couple of hours.
If you have the time to spare, taking the train is a great way to see some of the European countryside. You can even take an overnight train for longer treks so you reach your destination by morning. There are lot of high-tech trains that offer Internet, onboard entertainment, and food and drink options. There are also some really nice ferries if you’re traveling from the UK or Ireland to the rest of Western Europe.
If you’re more concerned about reaching your destination quickly, then Europe has a number of cheap airline options, such as RyanAir. Be forewarned that the initial fares you pay are usually basic and only allow you to bring one or two small carry-on items. You have to pay extra for everything else, including reserving a seat or checking a bag. However, I think this is a small inconvenience for a short flight considering the more-than-reasonable fares.
Travel Like a Type A or Type B Personality
In my opinion there are three ways to see Europe, and the one you choose will probably depend on your personality.
- Be completely spontaneous. Book your flight to Europe and your flight home and leave everything in between for you to decide when you arrive. This mode of traveling allows you to come and go as you please, to sleep in and stay out as late as you’d like, and to visit whatever cities or countries you can make it to within your allotted time. However, this option can also end up being more expensive, as last-minute hotel rooms and train or place tickets can be more expensive than those booked in advance.
- Spend some time pre-planning your trip. Book your flights both ways, your hostel/hotel/Airbnb rooms, and your train or plane tickets to each destination. While this option requires more time planning and allows for a little less flexibility while on vacation, it also saves a lot of hassle and “what-if” scenarios as you’re traveling. It can also be cheaper in the long run.
- Plan every detail of your vacation. Take option two a step further and plan an itinerary detailing exactly what you’d like to see and do in each city, where you’d like to eat, etc. This option is probably the least fun of all three.
I have traveled through Europe using all three planning methods. Being completely spontaneous was fantastically fun, but I took that trip back in 2008 when sites like Airbnb, Hostelworld, and Expedia didn’t exist – it’s much more expensive to travel this way now.
I most recently traveled around Europe after pre-planning accommodations and train/plane travel. I really enjoyed traveling this way, as it allowed for hassle-free check-ins and transportation, but still left a ton of flexibility in terms of what to do once you reach your destination.
In the coming weeks I’ll post our accommodation and travel itinerary for our upcoming Europe trip so you can see what services we used and what a fleshed-out plan looks like!
Do you have any other tips on how to plan a European backpacking trip? I’d love to hear them!