General Question

hTownDude's avatar

What do you wish you knew the first time you backpacked Europe?

Asked by hTownDude (178 points ) December 28th, 2008

To those who have done the whole backpacking thing, what tips do you have? Things that you wish you knew when you did it. What made it difficult? What made it easier? What would you change next time you did it? All advice is welcome.

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27 Answers

andrew's avatar

Every time you try and take a train somewhere, something will go wrong. If you don’t have a delay, then consider that a blessing.

peedub's avatar

Try to bring some (extra) gear/clothing that doesn’t make you look completely like a foreign backpacker.

emilyrose's avatar

I agree with peedub…. can those horrible zip off pants! They are not cool and not worth the space/weight saving ; )

binary's avatar

Look as little like a foreign backpacker as you can, and don’t tread in areas where locals tell you not to go. And if you choose to void that warning, then be sure to well conceal a blade of some sort, but no firearms. Also, try to have no drugs and very little money.

When my uncle backpacked he got robbed twice over the course of a week. He suggested a razor blade duct taped (or some similar adhesive) to the inside of a sleeve or jacket, where you can grab it readily but not very visible.

Don’t get me wrong, most backpackers are fine when it comes to security, but you never know what will go wrong. Other than that unfortunate reality, get a good bag or you’ll regret it later.

wildflower's avatar

Learn the geography and set realistic expectations.
– Denmark is not the capitol of Amsterdam
– If you’re in Berlin, do not expect to do a day-trip to Prague
– You can’t see all of London in one day
...there are others, but you get the point.

PupnTaco's avatar

The cheap gas with the green nozzle isn’t gas, it’s diesel.

TitsMcGhee's avatar

Don’t plan too much and stress yourself out about not being able to get everything done in one day.

If you’re in France:
– The Eiffel Tower has VERY long lines.
– The Louvre is HUGE.
– Definitely see Les Invalides/Napolean’s Tomb.
– Breakfast is EXPENSIVE at restaurants.

If you’re in Amsterdam:
– The red light district is mostly for show.
– Go to the Marijuana museum.
– Go on one of the boat cruises.
– Know that the line at Anne Frank’s house will also be very, very long.

If you’re in Prague:
– If you need the police, find someone who speaks English and Czech. None of the police know English and all police reports are written ONLY in Czech.
– The American embassy is very confusing and not incredibly helpful.
– The castle is beautiful.

Anywhere in Europe:
– Don’t set your bags down on the ground, especially in places like restaurants or park benches, etc. People will come by and just pick them up and go.
– If you’re driving at all, be careful about traffic signs. There are spots similar to speed traps where police try to catch foreigners for quick money.
– When traveling, always arrive early. ALWAYS.
– Research where you’re going and make tentative, generalized plans about what you’re going to do. Especially if you’re traveling alone, leave a copy of any and all travel documents and itineraries with someone at home, as well as contact numbers of hotels/hostels, etc where you’ll be.
– Check with your cell phone provider to make sure that you’ll have service in Europe. Before I went, I did, but my phone never actually found service in the three weeks I was there. If this happens, buy phone cards and check in with people at home to let them know you’re okay.

AlfredaPrufrock's avatar

Buy travelers insurance. The headache of having to try to get medical care without it, or the cost of trying to get home in a medical emergency is not worth saving the $200 up front, and it’s good for a whole year. I always buy it for my daughters when they go, as piece of mind for me. It stems from the first time my children going out of the country, and getting sinus infections on the plane. It cost them each $300 in cash for medical treatment. That was most of their cash.

Take a prepaid cash card like the one offered by AAA. If you lose the card, they courier one to you within 24 hours, at no charge. You can preload the card online from here, which is helpful if you run out of money, and need someone to add cash in an emergency.

janbb's avatar

Trust your gut. If someone seems suspicious, avoid them. If they seem o.k., be cautiously friendly until you know them a little better.

I mer my husband 37 years ago in England when my friend and I were backpacking and he and his friends picked us up! You probably don’t want to hitchhike now most places, but you see the point I’m making.

froggie16's avatar

I went backpacking by myself when I was 22.
I didn’t make to much plans and just lived by the day. Took a medium sized backpack (not too much clothing), and left it at lockers in train stations if I was not staying in the same hostel. . . use common sense and have fun.

Mtl_zack's avatar

Keep your hands in your pockets. There are more pickpockets in Europe.
Don’t sit down in a restaurant unnecessarily. They will charge you to sit down and for water.
Get everywhere early.

b's avatar

I wished I had know about Skyscanner from the start. I discovered it about halfway through my trip and could fly somewhere at 1/3 the cost and time of the train.
Also: don’t drink the tap water in Prague.

Ethan_K's avatar

Maybe this comes handy, a cell phone solution to keep you connected in Europe: http://www.rebelfone.com/Europe_simcards.asp

AlfredaPrufrock's avatar

@Ethan, that’s a great situation. My daughter lost a SIM card while traveling, and didn’t realize it until she got home. Unfortunately, someone found it, and ran up an $800 phone bill against my credit card, which we had to pay.

chicadelplaya's avatar

Try and learn some of the language of the countries you are planning to visit. I think the natives might respond to you a lot better if you can ask them in their language if they speak English. Just what I found. Don’t bring too many valubles or if you can’t avoid it, carry them on you instead of leaving them in your room.

TitsMcGhee's avatar

Chicadelplaya is right about languages; they appreciate your attempts at their language, even if you aren’t that good. This is ESPECIALLY true in France.

Jack79's avatar

I wish I’d known that I needed a visa for Bulgaria and that my friend was at the war in Bosnia at the time so he couldn’t help me. But I don’t think that’s what you mean.

Europe is generally a safe place. But you still have to be careful. Schengen countries (more or less the ones in the EU) are ok, but be extra-careful about the ones outside. As a rule of thumb, start from the west and then move east. Czechia and Slovakia can be fine, but Belarus or Albania are not, and even places like Ukrainia or even Hungary can be tricky. In many places there are corrupt officials, and you may have to bribe people to get your job done. Some places have no embassies, and even if they do, there’s little they can do to help you. So just be careful, and stick around the west coast for starters.

As far as the language is concerned, you’ll always find someone who’ll speak English. Most countries in the EU use the euro, which is slightly more than the dollar. There are good roads and hotels in all EU countries, though again in places like the former USSR things are different.

One thing you must remember if you are American is that people there don’t like you. I’m sorry but I have to prepare you for that. They might like your dollars, but no matter how wonderful you may be as a person, to them you represent the evil agressive imperialist superpower that has been harassing the world for the last 19 years. And it doesn’t matter who you voted for, they’ll still treat you like GWBush. Even in places like Denmark and the UK which are so pro-US. And especially so in places like Greece and Italy, where the anti-NATO sentiment is up to 99%. I know this may mean nothing to you, but these people are very political. So maybe change those dollars in a bank fast and stay low-profile. And try to dress like the locals so you don’t get robbed.

I’d like more details about your exact plans, then maybe I could help you more.

AlfredaPrufrock's avatar

Do not wear American athletic shoes; it’s a beacon that you’re American.

hTownDude's avatar

Jack: I have never been so I only plan on hitting the EU essentials first – Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Germany…the more eastern countries like Turkey and The Ukraine can be visited next time.

Jack79's avatar

In that case you have nothing to worry about. Have fun and try not to spend too much :)

susanc's avatar

Resist accumulating tchotchkes; take photos of interesting things instead.
Best way to “dress like the locals” : buy stuff at secondhand stores as you go. Jettison clothing as the weather changes and replace. Can sometimes sell the shirt off your back at flea markets.
Any foreign clothes you can’t part with become souvenirs.

jo_with_no_space's avatar

Don’t expect many “unspoilt” areas.

MissAnthrope's avatar

- Really think about what you’re packing, rethink everything and whether you think you’ll use it. You’d be surprised how heavy and annoying your backpack can get. I ended up having to send some stuff back home because I really didn’t want to carry it.

- Take advantage of youth hostels. I can’t say enough good things about them. They’re usually an inexpensive alternative and they often have more of a homey, local flavor. You can meet other people there, hang out, and exchange tips and information about where to go, what to see, etc. My trips have only been enhanced by staying in hostels.. I met some really cool people and had a ton of fun, memorable experiences I never would have had otherwise.

- Bring a lightweight bike lock to tether your bag to the bed at the hostel. I never experienced theft personally, but tethering the bag makes it harder for someone to just pick it up and disappear with it.

- Don’t forget a towel.

- If you’re hosteling, you may want to bring a sheet.. some places charge you if you don’t have your own.

- I carried a container of dish soap so I could do laundry in the sink. Laundromats are expensive in Europe, so you may want to wash your own and hang them to dry.

- Keep your valuables on you (not in your room). I know they’re dorky, but a money belt is a great idea. I would also get traveler’s checks and have as little cash on you as possible. That way, if they’re stolen, you get the money back.

- A Eurail pass is the way to go to save money on travel. However, make sure you read the different passes carefully before you buy, to avoid paying for more than you need. Also, keep in mind that your pass does not cover overnight “couchette” trains, you have to pay extra for these.

- Beware of gypsies!!! They exist and they are master thieves. They operate in groups and are so skilled at distraction that you’ll never notice when they lift one of your possessions off of you. My aunt had several talking to her loudly and thrusting a baby at her, while one behind her lifted her wallet out of her bag. Pay careful attention on trains and in train stations; if you need to sleep, keep your things close to you.

susanc's avatar

Not just gypsies. Be especially careful in Barcelona. Great pickpocket culture.

I would quarrel, in a polite way, with the principle of traveler’s checks, because they’re bulky and you pay a little bit to buy them, maybe 1%. If you have a credit card, it’s good,
because the exchange rate at ATM machines is always superior and legal.

Check out couchsurfing.com. Often, though not always, you can find someone glad to meet someone from far away, for a coffee, a drink, a meal, a walk, maybe a bed, maybe a bed for weeks….

MissAnthrope's avatar

I see your point, but personally, the piece of mind provided by traveler’s checks is worth the cost to buy them. Particularly when I was backpacking, didn’t have a credit card, and would have been majorly screwed if my money was stolen. :)

YARNLADY's avatar

Is it too late? Hubby spent hours pouring over all the tourist information he could find online, and we are members of AAA, so he used their resources as well. He had a full itenerary worked out in advance which included plenty of time just walking around soaking up the atmosphere.

He alternated staying in budget hotels, and hostels, and ate in places he found along the way, such as grocery stores and deli’s.

His month-long trip cost under $4,000, and that was mostly airfare over and back.

MissAnthrope's avatar

I just thought of this.. Check out RyanAir and the other small budget airlines operating in Europe. You can find amazing fares (last I got was a $50 roundtrip flight from Milan to Amsterdam) that work out to be cheaper than going by train.

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