So you’ve decided to backpack through Europe now that you’re done with college. But are you versed in the ways of European trains? Or know how to find the best hostels? Unless you’ve done it before, you’re going to need a little guidance. It’s a lot to navigate, but never fear. We’re here for you with our ultimate guide to backpacking around Europe, particularly on a graduate’s budget.
Before You Go
Arrange Your Cell Plan
Should you ditch your phone or bring it along? Give your provider a call to find out if they offer any affordable international plans, and if not, consider doing away with the service while you’re abroad. You can always opt for prepaid calling cards, which can be purchased at most supermarkets.
Apply or Renew Your Passport
Apply early for a new passport or renew your old one. According to the U.S. Department of State, your passport should be valid for at least six months after you return home and have at least two blank pages, otherwise certain countries may deny entry.
Call Your Bank & Credit Card Issuers
To prevent your debit and credit cards from being frozen while you’re abroad — something issuers do as a security measure if they suspect foul play — give them a call to let them know your plans. Be sure to store their contact information in a safe place in case your cards are lost or stolen. (Here’s what to do if you lose your credit card.)
Consider Opening a Travel Rewards Card
Travel rewards cards can be a boon to frequent travelers, especially those overseas. You’ll save on foreign transaction fees and earn miles or points for purchases like rail passes, hostels and flights. Just remember to swipe wisely so you don’t lose your rewards to high interest or debt. Here are our picks for the best travel cards of 2017.
Do Your Homework
Always read up on the countries you’re visiting. Find out about visa requirements, local laws, customs and medical care. Likewise, stay informed of travel warnings or alerts for your destination. The website of the U.S. embassy or consulate is helpful, as are the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. The latter can help you determine if you need to get vaccinations and take other health precautions before your trip.
Leave Valuables at Home
Most European countries are safe, but it pays to use common sense. In certain big cities, pickpockets are rampant, and petty criminals won’t hesitate to take advantage of ignorant travelers. To that end, leave anything you care about at home.
Draft a Budget
The key to backpacking through Europe is doing it cheaply, and for that, you’ll need a budget. Some travelers prefer to set daily spending limits, while others set aside a lump sum they monitor closely. Think ahead to determine what might work for you, and consider downloading an app to help with the process. Expense trackers like Trail Wallet (available on the App Store), can take the guesswork out of jotting down daily purchases.
Download a Currency Converter App
A currency converter that works offline will prove indispensable when making purchases. It’ll also help you stay on budget. XE Currency offers free versions of its Apple and Google apps with live proprietary exchange rates.
Wherever you’re traveling in Europe, be sure you have health insurance. If your U.S. health care plan won’t cover you overseas, you may want to buy supplemental insurance. As the U.S. Department of State notes, foreign hospitals often require cash payments, and emergency medical evacuation can cost $100,000.
Make Photocopies of Travel Documents
The U.S. Department of State recommends making two photocopies of all your travel documents in case of emergency. It’s best to leave one with a trusted friend or relative and keep the other on hand as backup.
Why pay for baggage fees, especially if you’ll buy souvenirs along the way? Also keep in mind you’ll be moving around a lot, so don’t add to your load.
Plan in Advance
As a veteran backpacker who made her way from “The Land of Moutarde” (Dijon) to the South of France, I can’t recommend this enough. Book tickets for things like Vatican City well in advance so you spend less time stressing and more time enjoying the trip.
Purchase a Guidebook
Yes, it’s cliché, but travel guidebooks are useful for their maps, recommendations and general know-how. For those who can’t remember whether to tip 10% or 15%, your guidebook has got you.
Share Your Itinerary
Your plan may be to have no plan at all, but friends and relatives should have some idea where you are. Give them a sense of your plans in case of emergency.
Avoid Tourist Scams …
Nothing ruins a trip faster than getting scammed. To avoid pickpocketers, be wary of crowds that attract lots of tourists and always keep an eye on your bag or purse. Don’t set something on the ground and forget about it — that’s a recipe for the old snatch and run. It’s also a good idea to lock your zippers and keep your wallet in your front pocket (never the back, which pickpocketers love).
… And Money Scams
Some restaurants have two menus, one with normal prices and another that charges more. Other restaurants won’t advertise prices at all, and in both cases you should go elsewhere. This rule applies to those who offer to change money on the street or taxi drivers who make unsolicited recommendations (where they may get commission for luring a victim).
Always Pay With Cash or Credit
From ATM skimmers to illegally cloned cards, Europe is a hotbed of high-tech identity theft. Credit fraud is easier to contest (and credit provides more protections) while cash can easily be replaced. Here are some other ways to make yourself less vulnerable to fraud.
Befriend the Locals
Be selective, of course, but don’t hesitate to chat up locals. Chances are they’ll know the best sights to see and be able to provide a better sense of an attraction than any book could.
Consider a Rail Pass
If you plan to visit a cluster of countries or stay somewhere particular, a rail pass, which offers reduced or free fares on certain transportation services like trains, can be a worthy investment. Be sure to research your options, as you don’t want to risk overpaying for a pass you don’t use.
Keep a Journal
This will help you keep track of all sorts of info, from addresses to directions and phone numbers.
Stay in Hostels
Not only are they are great for meeting like-minded backpackers, they cost next to nothing and are often where you want to be. Matthew Ma, co-founder of the travel deals site, The Flight Deal, recommends checking sites like hostelworld.com — “Think of them as the Kayak for hostels,” he says — and Booking.com.
Take Lots of Photos
Stonehenge! The Louvre! The Alps! The wine! Document everything, and relish the moments. Just be careful of where you post it online; identity thieves love nothing more than knowing your whereabouts. (Think you’ve been the victim of identity theft? You can check for signs by viewing two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)