Backpacking through Europe is a dream for many, but is not always as easy as other destinations. Europe is a unique melting pot of culture, architecture, cuisine, history and heritage, but it can also be expensive and with 44 distinct countries each with their own cultures, norms, rules and regulations, it can be confusing too. So to help you out here are my expert tips for backpacking Europe.
Europe as a backpacker destination may not be as popular as traditional regions such as the Banana Pancake trail in south east Asia or the Gringo Trail in south America, but it isn’t far behind! Romantic notions of spring time in Paris, getting to grips with the sheer amount of unique, empire defining history and heritage, exploring quaint local villages and cosmopolitan cities alike, and then taking the train through majestic mountain ranges one day before sailing around Mediterranean islands the next, Europe is one of the most diverse and epic gap year destinations in the world!
Whether you are doing one long, epic trip through the entire continent or exploring a country or two much more in depth, here are some expert tips for backpacking Europe from an experienced backpacker.
Research Specific Countries Individually.
Europe in general is very easy to get around, and there won’t be much of a culture shock for Western travellers as most countries do have a lot in common, but contrary to popular misconception Europe is not a homogenous whole. There are 44 countries, each one with their own unique culture and norms, so make sure you read up on each of the destinations you want to visit beforehand, and check out my in depth guides to European destinations like Austria, France, Germany, Greece and many more.
Know The Rules.
From 2023 Europe is bringing in a whole new raft of border control rules, passport rules and visas, some of those related to the UK leaving the EU, such as the amount of time UK travellers can spend in the Schengen zone without a visa during any 180-day period, and some not, such as the European Travel Information and Authorisation System, or ETIAS, which is similar to the ESTA permit required for the US, or the new Entry/Exit system (EES). None of the rules are particularly difficult to deal with per se, but some people may just get caught out if they are unaware of the changes, or just as importantly when exactly they are introduced as they keep changing the dates and delaying them.
Choose When You Travel Based On The Seasons.
Europe in general has a high season in the summer, a low season in the winter and two shoulder seasons in the Spring and Autumn. To compound this are the major school holidays such as Easter, Summer and Christmas, as well as several half terms and other holidays through the year. This means that during high season and the holidays prices will skyrocket, it gets extremely crowded as everyone in Europe heads for the exact same holiday spots and everywhere including accommodation and events gets booked solid.
This doesn’t mean you can’t travel during these peak periods, it just means you have to plan your trip accordingly. If you want to hit the major destinations and tourist spots like London, Paris, the Spanish Islands or Italy for example, then try to stick to the shoulder seasons if you can, where everything will be cheaper, the weather a little more tolerable, the islands a lot quieter and the crowds much more manageable, then during the peak season stick to the less popular but equally as awesome destinations such as Slovakia, the Balkans or Romania. for example.
Balance Your Itinerary.
For many of the same reasons as above, it is a good idea to mix up your itinerary to include a few of the major touristy hotspots like Spain or France or especially the UK, which can be extremely expensive if you spend a significant amount of time in them, and some of the more budget friendly countries in Eastern Europe.
Don’t Try To Cover The Whole Continent In One Trip.
Again, contrary to popular misconception, Europe is not a homogenous whole you can just whizz through, and unless you are devoting a number of years to your trip, you will not see everything! And even if you do devote a number of years to it, you still won’t see everything! Remember, there are 44 countries in Europe and countless cities, islands and neighbouring countries to explore, so you are going to need to slow down and narrow it down! Let’s just say you take an average gap year of 12 months, with the average minimum time of one month per country, and one taken away to account for transit time and rest days, that is just 11 countries. Still a hell of a lot, but not everything! There are always other trips.
Take The Train.
Outside of the UK, the best way to explore Europe is undoubtedly by train! Europe has an extensive local and international railway services that run regularly, are relatively good value (especially if you take an overnight train which will save on accommodation costs) and will get you to the heart of any major city or transport hub. There are other options of course, with an extensive bus network and great flight options with budget airlines, and there is no harm with mixing and matching to suit your needs, but at some point you will find trains are your best option for the practicality as well as the experience! From riding the almost literal Hogwarts Express on the West Highland Line in Scotland or the Glacier Express in Switzerland, Europe has some of the most epic, memorable and scenic train journeys in the world, so it is far, far more than just a transport option to get you from place to place. Most countries are accessible with an Interrail Global pass or the equivalent Eurail pass.
Take The Bus.
Whilst not as convenient or as much of an experience as train travel, Europe has an extensive bus and international coach system that is certainly a hell of a lot cheaper! With companies like Flixbus offering international overnight routes from the UK to Paris or Berlin for example for around £30, you really can’t go wrong.
Take A Budget Airline.
Alternatively you can take one of the many budget airlines throughout Europe. Whilst they can sometimes be a bit of a false economy, if you stick to the rules, travel light (so you can keep your pack as carry on and don’t have to pay extra fees) and understand that the cheap, no frills ride is perfectly acceptable for the hour or two it takes to hop over from the UK to Ireland or France to Germany, then you can get around pretty cheaply! Just be aware that most budget airlines land at airports a fair distance away from where you might actually want to be on the continent!
Embrace Hostel Life.
Any extensive trip through Europe is going to be expensive, there is just no getting around that fact, and one of your biggest costs is going to be accommodation. Of course you can splurge on a nice hotel and flashpack from time to time but lets face it, unless you get a sudden lottery win the majority of the time will be spent staying in hostels, especially in the major cities and touristy spots where prices can skyrocket. Guesthouses, B&Bs, Pensions and other types of accommodations give some fantastic mid range options to suit all budget but honestly hostels in general are truly amazing! The quality of many has skyrocketed in the last decade or so thanks to heavy accommodation, the prices mean that you can travel for longer and the social aspects are unbeatable if you want to meet other travellers. Just find a hostel that is perfect for you, abide by the unwritten rules of hostel life, join in on the social events and have a good time!
Try Second City Travel.
There is no doubt that overtourism has become a significant problem in recent years and in major European cities like Venice, Paris or Rome, the crowds of tourists visitors and locals can be a huge problem. Now of course there are just some places that are unmissable and I would never suggest not going, but maybe limit your time there and explore wider afield with second city tourism too.
Second city tourism at it’s simplest and most technical definition means avoiding a country’s capital city, which is often overcrowded, overtouristed and packed, and instead heading to the countries second largest city which is often largely overlooked instead. Try Liverpool instead of London, Lyon instead of Paris, you get the idea.
If you’re looking for Europe’s charm without the crowds, this is the way to do it.
Plan For Busy Sundays.
Whilst Sunday is still a traditional day of rest in most of Europe and most shops or businesses will still shut early, this is not as true as it used to be and many of the major museums and galleries in the biggest European cities have adopted a ‘first Sunday’ rule, where on the first Sunday of every month they are absolutely free! Some do have different days, but in general this holds true for the biggest tourist draws like the Louvre. So if you plan your museum and gallery itinerary around this, you can save a decent chunk of money.
Look For The Freebies.
As well as the museums, most European cities have a ton of free things to see and do, including free walking tours and some of the most iconic European experiences such as hiking mount Olympus, enjoying a sunset on a Mediterranean beach or exploring the magnificent Cathedrals. Check out these guides to the best free things to do in Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Venice and many more just to get you started,.
The last thing you want to be doing is dragging around an oversized backpack, or even worse a suitcase, from hostel to hostel. You’ll have a nightmare of a time, your back won’t be best pleased and you’ll spend a fortune on baggage fees with budget airlines! The best thing to do is pack light and travel carry on only if you can, or at the very least with a full size but not overly full backpack. The truth is, even though you will be packing for multiple climates and different types of changeable weather, you really don’t need all that much. Some good base layers, versatile clothing that can be smart or casual, a good fleece and a waterproof/windproof jacket plus some decent walking shoes/trainers that can double up as smart casual if needed. If you are smart, layer up or down as needed, and make sure all your clothes go with everything else with basic, neutral colours, you’ll be surprised at how few items of clothing you will need for a week or two. You can always wash or launder them along the way.
Get An eSim.
Europe is notorious for high roaming fees and expensive data packages, so instead of the traditional method of buying a local sim when you arrive, simply get an eSim instead.
An eSim is quite simply a virtual sim card. Instead of being a physical piece of plastic that you insert into your phone, it is a software based app that acts like a sim card and gives you data packages by using local networks. This means you get to keep your own phone number, because you are still using your own actual sim card, and use data without any roaming charges because you are using local networks. It really is the best of both worlds. All you have to do is buy a data package for the specific destination you are heading to, or multiple packages if you are planning on visiting multiple countries.
Europe on the whole is very safe. Crime rates are in general pretty low, there is statistically very little violent crime, the majority of places are LGBTQ friendly and the chances of anything bad happening are in general quite low.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take basic common sense safety precautions though. It’s not a good idea to flash a ton of cash or expensive jewellery, keep your pack locked up at all times, using padlocks or even a pacsafe in hostels and on overnight train luggage racks, don’t get so drunk you have zero control, all of these are basic common sense precautions to reduce the potential risk of anything bad happening. Just because that risk is low, doesn’t mean you still can’t be prepared.
There are issues with gangs of professional pickpockets and thieves operating in the major tourist cities like Paris, Barcelona, Rome or London for example, but you shouldn’t be overly worried as long as you keep your wits about you and your eye on your belongings. Having a good head for spotting the typical tourist scams will generally keep you out of trouble too. Other than that there really is not much need to be overly concerned.
Backpacking through Europe is an unforgettable experience no matter what your plans or itinerary! I hope these simple tips make your trip that little bit easier. Have a great trip!
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I’ve been dreaming of Backpacking Europe for years, but Covid put a blocker on that. Some states here in the US are still imposing their in rules, has Europe largely dropped all extractions now?
Yeah, pretty much. There are of course individuals who still choose to mask up etc but in general all the ridiculous mandates and the insane panic attacks have gone.
Some great advice here, especially with the overland train and bus travel, Europe is perfect for overlanding and are often a better option than flying.
It definitely is Natalie, and thank you!
Some good tips here, especially the second city travel. Everyone always seems to stick to the same places.
I know what you mean Kevin, well visited places are great for a reason, but exploring just a little bit outside of them can be just as awesome.