So you’re thinking about doing some traveling? Take some advice from a guy who thought he had backpacking and traveling down before leaving but quickly realized how ignorant he was. So because of the misrepresentation I had in my head, I tried to jot down any tip that came to me while abroad to help others along the way.
I’m going to give a quick summary of countries/cities that I have personal experience in so you can have a general idea of where I’m coming from. I arrived in Dublin, Ireland in January to study for a semester and was there until the end of May. During my time in Ireland, I traveled to almost every part of Ireland that public transportation would allow. I also visited Amsterdam, London, and road tripped through Scotland and Wales.
After leaving Ireland I spent a week in Portugal seeing Faro, Lagos, Lisbon, and Sentra. I did a night in Seville, Spain and took a flight to Belgium where I spent a night in Brussels/Ghent and a night in Paris. From Paris I stayed in Berlin, Prague, Budapest, and Austria for 2 to 3 nights a piece. I did ten days in Italy going from Venice to Florence down to Rome. I ended my trip in Spain seeing Barcelona and Madrid. Overall I spent four months in Ireland and a month traveling the rest of Europe.
Here’s my suggestions based on my recent travels.
Planning and pre-departure:
Before you head out on the adventure of a lifetime, get yourself a nice journal or start a blog up. Or both. You’ll want to look back and reminisce on the good times. It’s a pain to write down what you have been up to once or twice a week but you will certainly thank yourself down the road when you want to look back on your travels. You will definitely forget the little things over time, but it is those little things that you tell stories about. A journal is usually personal and you can freely write about whatever you’d like to. If you would like to keep a blog, it’s a good way to keep your friends and family up to date when you’re too busy traveling around. WordPress is a good site to use but you can do a simple Google search and compare on what suites you best.
One mistake that I made, and this is going to sound crazy, is that I planned too much before I arrived. I tried to do all of this research on transportation from country to country and booking hostels and activities so I wouldn’t have to worry about that while traveling. My research lead me to purchase an EUrail pass that allowed me to travel seven times within a month. I paid €360 (about $400) for the pass thinking that it would be all I needed to spend on the major travels, however, there is a ton of hidden fees in the EUrail.
When I went from Paris to Berlin, it costed me an additional €70. Then the rest of the trains I used charged a €9 reservation fee for each booking. Spain and Italy charged addition fees up to €20 on each trip as well. So instead of paying the €360 to get around the countries, I ended up paying upwards of €550.
Another aspect that you might want to wait for is the duration of your stay in a country. If you really are enjoying a city you are at and already have the next hostel booked, it will deter you from extending your stay.
If you’re going to do a backpacking trip for a month or more, it is certainly worth the investment to purchase a nice bag that is at least 40L. I used a 50L bag and it worked out well. I would suggest also having a day pack bag with you so you can leave the hostel and stay out for the whole day with your essentials. While you’re packing for your trip, try to pack clothes that you don’t love. You are going to be re-wearing these clothes for the duration of your trip and they will get a little smelly by the end of it. I don’t recommend taking all of your favorite t-shirts because you will probably throw at least half of them away on your arrival back home. And as far as laundry goes, bringing washing pods for washing your clothes is convenient for the very little space it will take up in your bag. You do not want to jam pack your bag before you leave so you have some extra room for things you want to buy along the way.
Try to decide what you want to do for souvenirs before you go. Some common item are post cards, magnets, bracelets, cigarette box, match box, playing cards, bottle openers, etc. I wouldn’t recommend t-shirts though because they take up a lot of space. Keep in mind you are also going to be carrying all of you belongings you are taking with you so I suggest packing light for that reason as well.
It is a good idea to purchase an external battery for the time abroad. You won’t always find an outlet at the hostels you stay at so a battery is a life saver. Especially if you are taking pictures all day, it will kill your phone battery fairly quickly. You should also do a quick Google search of the adapter you need for each country. Most of Europe is on the same two prong outlet minus a few countries. Another good investment is getting yourself a good pair of sunglasses. Europe’s sun in the summer doesn’t set until at least 9:30 so you’ll thank yourself later for planning ahead. If you have the money you should invest in a nice camera. Phone cameras are getting phenomenal but you don’t know when the next time you’ll be traveling is so having some high quality photos are always a plus.
Another thing to look into is some travel insurance. I realize if you’re trying to penny pinch, insurance is probably one of the first things you will cut out. However, there are some really stellar plans out there for an affordable rate. The last thing you want to happen is to get into an accident and be at a hospital in a country that doesn’t speak English. And while on the topic of injuries, a first aid kit is also a good idea to have as well. Just the basics of band aids, adhesive tape, gauze pads, some antiseptic wipes, some tweezers, and ibuprofen.
There are some very useful apps out there that I would suggest downloading before you start traveling. The first app that is an absolute must is Google Translate. You won’t become fluent in a language using the app, but it will help you greatly for the basic phrases (I’ll get into this app a little more later). For transportation Uber or MyTaxi is definitely the way to go instead of paying the full price of a taxi. If you are trying to get some good deals on entertainment you should check out Vipsy, GuestList, and Groupon. Vipsy and Guestlist are club app deals and Groupon have discounts in all kinds of areas like activities, food, and places to stay. Lastly for places to stay, I would recommend staying in hostels over hotels. Hostel World is an excellent app to compare different hostels. Hostels are a great way to meet other travelers who want to explore the city and absorb the culture just like you are. An average price for a night at a hostel is about €15-20 a night. If you want to go a little nicer with a quieter atmosphere, AirBnb is a great way to go as well. They usually have a washing machine included too.
As far as booking places to sleep, my recommendation is doing hostels for majority of your travels with AirBnb’s thrown in there for a little downtime so you get a real good night sleep. For hostels, the best thing you can do is read the reviews. The reviews will tell you what the hostel is lacking and if it is worth staying at. Keep in mind that you are getting what you pay for. If you are paying less than €20 you’re not going to get anything spectacular. But you don’t need anything great, just a place to sleep, charge your electronics and hop on Wifi. Breakfast is always a perk for a hostel but don’t expect something high end. The usual breakfast is toast, cereal, coffee, and tea. Also, I cannot stress enough how much it is worth it to pay the extra €5/10 per night to be in a solid location. They location of where you stay can truly make or break a city for you.
Finally, when you are booking hostels, pay the extra euro or two and get the flexibility insurance. If you miss a train, decide to stay longer at a destination, or find a better hostel from a traveler’s suggestion; you will have to pay full price for the bed you booked. If you are trying to go as cheap as possible to save money while you are traveling (I get this, I had the same attitude) don’t just get the cheapest place with no flexibility. If you miss one booking, you’ll already have paid the same amount as it would have been to get the insurance for the whole trip.
In terms of money, you are going to have a journey of a lifetime. You don’t know when the next time you’ll be able to have time off, the finances, or the capability to travel. My suggestion is bring at least $600 more than you are hoping to spend. The worst feeling is seeing a restaurant or something that you want to go do and not being able to afford it. “Ball out” a little bit while traveling when appropriate. Do as much as you can but remember you can always come back and do things you weren’t able to do at first.
“Balling on a budget” is a phrase I often used while traveling. To help your wallet out while traveling, make a budget before you leave. Use a notepad app on your phone and write down everything you purchase. It’ll be annoying at first, but if you can get into the habit right off the bat you can have a much better idea of how much you are spending on things. For example, if you budget €50 a day, you can see how well you are doing so you know if you need to cut back on a few things here and there so you have enough money to get back home. Or if you are doing really well and spending less than expected, that means you can maybe rent some mopeds or go on an extra museum tour along the way. But if you do not know how much you’re spending, it’s a lot harder to gauge how much you have at your disposal and can cause some unnecessary stress.
While you’re traveling from country to country, I highly suggest looking into plane tickets a few months before hand. It very well might be cheaper than getting a train ticket. It will certainly save the long train ride traveling time which is totally worth it. Instead of spending €30 on a rail ride that is six hours, you can probably find a flight through RyanAir or a cheaper airline for around the same price that will only be an hour or two flight. Also when you are looking at places to fly into, realize that you will have to pay for the public transportation to reach your destination. For example, I wanted to get into Lisbon from Dublin but the flight was an extra €25. So I decided to fly into Faro since it was the next cheapest. I didn’t take into consideration that I would need to get a bus ticket for the five hour ride to get to Lisbon that cost €30 anyway.
If you decide to go the train route, you will be able to see a great deal of the country but it takes a little while. I suggest having something to pass the time with like cards. This is an excellent time to do write in your journal or blog.
When you are in the city, take a mode of transportation that isn’t a taxi. It is much cheaper and usually will get you fairly close to your destination. You are not above buses or trams. They are much more efficient in Europe than they are in the States generally. If you can purchase a ticket before getting on the tram/bus, do it. Do a quick Google search of suggested modes of transportation because each city is different. Google Maps has an excellent public transport tab (Austria and Germany still need to update their information though). Most of the times you can purchase a ticket on the bus/tram but it will be more expensive. There is an off chance that you won’t be able to buy a ticket, and if there is a police officer onboard, you will get a ticket for at least €30. So it is always worth buying the €2 ticket. Most countries have some form of validating the tickets while you are on board so just watch what everyone else is doing.
Walking around the city:
Get ready to walk. A lot. You’ll come back from your travels and realize that walking twenty minutes to a destination is not a big deal anymore. I walked at least ten miles a day and usually about two with a full pack on traveling days.
When you are walking around the city, majority of the times there are biking lanes and waking lanes. If you hear a bell behind you, it is someone on a bike informing you that you need to move. In countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, the cyclists have the right away before the pedestrians. Also when you are exploring cities, don’t listen to music while you walk the streets. You can always jam out to tunes when you get back, you can’t hear foreign language surrounding you while walking around though.
One of the best pieces of advice that I can give you while walking around is to just straight up ignore street hagglers. Trust me on that one. Don’t say anything because they will reply. You can just put a hand up and keep walking. If they hear that you are a foreigner (especially if you are an American) they will follow you and be persistent to sell you an item.
Get lost. Don’t panic when you do, just gather your bearings and check it out where you’re at. It’s a good way to learn the city and get a feel of landmarks. You tend to find things you wouldn’t normally stumble upon and have an adventure. Now even though I recommend checking out your navigation skills, definitely have a map. Even if you have mobile data you will find yourself without service eventually. That’s why you always have a map. It is also a much better way to learn the city. You will notice very quickly that most cities do not have street signs on poles at intersections. You will have to search the side of corner buildings to find what street you are one.
A little bit of research goes a long way:
It is a good idea to do some research on a new country you’re going to be staying at before arrival. Just a half hour to an hour of Google searching beforehand will prioritize your time in a new country. Before arriving to a city, check out the currency rate, where your hostel is and directions to get there, and top things to see/do. You can look up suggested itineraries that vary on how long you are staying and what your budget is. Any touristy city will have a free walking tour that you can go to every morning as well (free as in it doesn’t cost anything but the tip at the end of the tour). I would recommend this kind of tour because you get a good chunk of history and some local advice on places to eat and visit later.
You should also try to practice the basic phrases of the language before arrival. Some good phrases you should check out is “thank you, please, excuse me, toilet, may I have…, cheers, where is…” If picking up on a language is not easy for you, you should at least get down please and thank you. Trust me it goes a long way and the locals will appreciate you at least trying to speak their language.
For the love of everything that is good, try the local food. Do not get food that you can get on demand back home. You are in a foreign country so ask for some recommendations and try some things that are out of your comfort zone! I would recommend leaving the “touristy area” of the city centres where everything is more expensive. That being stated, you do not need to eat out for every meal. That will break and bank real quickly. A solid recommendation is to go to a bakery for lunch/ snack food. You can carb up for less than €2. For the nights that you decide to stay in, Aldi/Lidl are the stores you want to check out. They have good groceries for very reasonable prices. A heads up though, most grocery stores you go to will make you pay for a bag so it is not a bad idea to buy one and keep it in your bag. Make sure you check to make sure your hostel has a kitchen available for you to use, some do and some do not.
Tips & Tricks:
Another piece of advice that I cannot stress enough is do the things that you want to do even if nobody else wants to do it. Be you. Just because your new friends you’ve met have already done or gone to a location does not mean you can’t do it. It’s your adventure and you should do everything that you can and want to, don’t let other people hold you back.
I recommend only carrying your credit card on you and leave your debit card in your suitcase/bag. If you lose your wallet you will be almost completely out of options for making transactions unless you set it up on your phone.
When I was traveling, I had a tendency to get in my head when I was having down time throughout the day. I would feel guilty that I wasn’t always giving 100% of my time exploring the city. That is a quick way to get exhausted and get into a bad mood. Take a nap if you need to and sit for a while. Towards the end of my journal, I would get up and start exploring by 10:00 and by 3:00 I would find a nice park and take a little cat nap and it did wonders. Something to keep in mind is that there will always be more stuff to do in a city than your allotted time there no matter where you are. It is okay to not do everything all in your first go. Leaving things to do is an excellent reason to come back and revisit. Now even though you can take it easy, you won’t reminisce on the nights that you got a good night of sleep so try and make the most of every chance you can get!
If you are trying to get to the airport via public transit and you are lost, look for people with suitcases and either ask if they are coming to or from the airport.
When adding friends for Facebook use your email. It is much faster to find someone’s profile using an email than just typing your name in. You’re not that unique. Unless it’s my name.
If you are thinking about studying abroad, I would highly recommend studying in the spring semester instead of the fall. You will miss out on more of the fun events such as Halloween, Homecoming, usually better weather, the excitement of moving in if you study in the fall. In the spring semester, it will be more difficult trying to apply for internships for the summer but if you are committed you won’t have a problem.
When you start to think about studying abroad, try to start getting information for a year in advance. Talk to your study abroad office and ask as many questions as you can. Narrow your destinations down to two and have them help you weigh the pros and cons of each location.
APPLY FOR SCHOLARSHIPS! There are so many people and organizations that want to help students fulfill their traveling dreams. Apply to at least five or six scholarships and take some quality time writing essays. Once you write two or three essays you can usually modify them in less than an hour for other similar scholarships out there.
While you are studying abroad, make friends from your local country but try to branch off as well. Make local friends and other foreign friends that are studying abroad. The locals won’t want to explore the country and do the touristy activities since they live there but other people that just arrived like you have the same goals and ambitions as you. Put yourself out there and make lots of friends so you have people that you can travel with. And if you can’t find someone that wants to do a trip with you, go by yourself! You only have so much time in the country and it will be gone before you know it.
Here are some rapid fire things that you might not know about Europe that you should know from most important/shocking to least:
Public bathrooms cost money so strategically plan toilet breaks. Most restaurants will let you use the bathroom if you pay for something. If you are about to take a long train or bus and needed to use the toilet at the station, wait until you are on the transit.
There’s no Walmart. You’ll find “supermarkets” but not to the grand size of Walmart. And with shopping, sales tax is included. As in when you buy a candy bar for €1.75 it is actually €1.75 and not €1.96.
Seeing someone “cracking a cold” one at 11 is not uncommon. The drinking atmosphere in Europe is completely different than in the States. Europe very much so a “going out” culture. When people get out of work, they meet up at a pub for a few before heading home.
There’s very loose open container laws in Europe (minus Latvia). In most European countries you will see people walking around with drinks in their hands and there isn’t a time restraint on when you can purchase alcohol in a store in most European countries. The difference between America and Europe’s drinking is they do it in a social atmosphere and don’t drink to get shithoused.
EVERYONE SMOKES. You’ll notice right away that you will see more people smoking than not smoking. There’s no “smoking prohibited 15 feet from buildings”. In fact, there are designated smoking areas inside of some airports even.
Dinner in Europe is anywhere from 18:00-22:00. Also they use military time for time referencing. People won’t say “let’s meet up after work at 18:30” though, they’ll say 6:30. Just when time is written it’s in the 24 hour clock. And as far as what the date is, it goes day/month/year.
Nobody says “bless you” when you sneeze. It’s just not a thing so don’t be offended when you sneeze and nobody says anything.
I noticed that a majority of Europeans don’t really use deodorant. It just isn’t a necessity like it is in the States.
Use the buddy system, especially at night and certainly if you are a female. I never felt threatened or unsafe throughout my entire travels but that doesn’t mean that will be the case for everyone. Use your head and don’t put yourself in dumb situations.
A philosophy of mine: “what’s the worst that’s gonna happen?” Think about some people outcomes. If it’s not looking safe, maybe not. But if it’s just complimenting a pretty girls tattoo or asking to join someone at a table. Most of the time the worst that is usually going to happen is that they will say no.
Another thing I have integrated into my daily life is utilizing a coin. There have been plenty of times where I couldn’t decide on where I wanted to eat or go and I narrowed it down to two options and then flipped a coin. Incorporate a little chance in your decisions makes things interesting.
This last bit is really important!
On your return, you are going to feel crushed. Nobody tells you how hard it is to leave friends, countries, and the adventures that you just experienced. Give yourself a few days to veg out and adjust to the jetlag but also the withdraws of traveling. If you can, try and start planning your next trip before you’re sucked back into the daily grind of work and the usual activities. Make a goal to purchase plane tickets by a certain date and do some mad research until then. Also, you’ll have so many stories that you’ll want to tell friends back home but they don’t really care. When I came back to the States I kept saying “in Europe this” and “in Europe they don’t do that”. It is a sure fire way to get your friends and coworkers you haven’t seen in a while annoyed with you. Integrate stories periodically when they are appropriate to put into conversations.
Feel free to ask my any questions if you are thinking about traveling!