Backpacking Europe!

Hey Everyone! My husband and I are going to be backpacking through Europe this summer. I am incredibly excited, but also a little anxious about all the things that can go wrong. Any advice you guys can provide would be welcome, on anything from what and how to pack to where to stay to how to stay safe while abroad to illnesses to look out for, etc. I figure the more knowledge the better!

How nice! But where to start? I mean, the “what to pack” does rather depend on where you are going.

BTW - I am in Sccotland - is that part of youir itinerary?

I think you’ll find that Europe does not really go in for the big nasty diseases. But naturually investigate medical recommendations for the countries you plan to visit.
You might find Yough Hostels to be useful for accommodation, too.

How are you planning on getting around? Train? Car, Bus? Which countries? Which months? Are you going for urban or countryside? With some more details, I can give you some hints.

Buy a book called “First Time Europe”. It’s one of the Rough Guides, I think. You won’t regret it.

And… have fun! :slight_smile:

We’re going to be going over the beginning of June, and probably staying until the beginning of August. When possible we would like to use the train, but will probably rent a car and walk as well. We are planning on hitting Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, Greece, the Netherlands, and possibly even a little bit of Africa. We would really like to see a variety of urban and country side areas, with a specific focus on food and wine (my husband is just graduating from culinary school). Essentially we’re going to go over there with a certain amount of money and daily budget, and stay until the money is gone so we’re looking for cheap but safe travel and places to stay. We also really want to get into the “heart” of these places, not just the touristy stuff.

If you’re planning on using trains, there is (or at least used to be) a pass you can only buy overseas, which will give you unlimited train travel on a number of days (not necessarily consequtive) for a reasonable price - a lot cheaper than anything you can buy on the spot.

As I said, I’m not sure that it still exists, but when it did it was a good deal.

Trains are in general pretty good. Fast (especially in France, with their TGV), clean and for the most part more-or-less on time.
One thing that would help you immensibly, is to know the local language. Even though most of the people you will encounter as a tourist in (western) Europe speak (some) English, they will be a lot more friendly if you at least try to speak the local lingo. (It is a far too common stereotype in France that Americans are fat lazy people who only speak English - don’t feed that stereotype!)

Another thing to consider during that time of year is the local tourists! Pretty much all of France is on vacation all of August, which means that it’s tricky (but not impossible) to get a hotel on the cote d’azur those weeks.

Get a few guidebooks and read as much as you can beforehand!

If you want ‘cheap,’ you can forget England, Ireland, Germany, etc., or shorten your trip to a couple of weeks. You’ll get more mileage for your dollar in Eastern Europe.

Definitely buy a 1 or 2-month rail pass and just ride the trains around. One of the big advantages to this is that you can sleep on the trains overnight instead of having to rent a hotel room. When you’re not on the train definitely consider staying in convents or monastaries like we did. They are close to free, and always cheaper than any hotel you’ll find, and even throw in some great homemade meals to boot. Try to learn a little about the languages and cultures if you can, because they’re all very different. For instance, Italians will be glad to help you even if you don’t speak any of each other’s language, but good luck getting a Parisian to speak English.

As far as places to visit, definitely try to make it to Cinque Terre in Italy. Also, when you go to France, unless you know the language, I would recommend NOT spending too much time in Paris - but that’s just from my experience…

OK - I know you don’t want only the touristique stuff, but just to start off. For Scotland, this might help ( an international hostel site, also deals with rail passes)

If your journey includes the month of AUgust - big Arts festival in Edinburgh at that time.

OK - no doubt I’ll pop back later.


Well, this is more of an IMHO question, but since it happens to be a subject dear to my heart, here goes…

First of all – don’t worry too much! You probably don’t have to be concerned about illness any more than you would at home (although it depends to some extent on where you’re going – the tap water may be iffy in some eastern European countries, although I drank it in the Czech Republic with no problems).

Safety is also fairly common-sense stuff: pay attention to your surroundings, make sure your valuables are in a secure location at all times, try not to look lost even if you are. The chances that you’ll become a target for a violent crime are very low, but beware of purse snatchers and pickpockets, especially in crowds. Keep some emergency money and ID separate from everything else (an extra credit card and photocopies of the first page of your passports will do fine).

Read the sections of your guidebook that cover public transportation carefully; in particular, find out if you need to get your ticket stamped or otherwise validated when you board, as this can save you a heavy fine. Be polite to anybody in any sort of uniform under all circumstances.

That’s about it for things that can go wrong, really. Most likely nothing will – aside from mundane stuff like missing trains, or wandering into town during a festival and finding all of the hotels full. These things will happen; it helps to look on them as things that were meant to happen, and an opportunity to do something different from what you planned but equally interesting.

Don’t be afraid to change or jettison your itinerary – the whole point of backpacking is flexibility. The only place you have to be on a given date is the place you’re flying out of, and even that is negotiable.

And one last thing which sounds obvious, but is sometimes difficult when you’re traveling as a couple: Talk to people! Other travelers, locals, anybody with whom you have anything vaguely resembling a common language. The fact that you’re traveling is an instant icebreaker, and your best memories from your trip will probably involve people rather than places.

By the way, here are some other useful travel sites with message boards:
Lonely Planet

I went long ago, 12 years, and I wouldn’t give up that trip for anything. I met interesting people and had a blast. I Had the Eurail Pass, which covers most of the trains save Ireland and England. Instead of south to Africa, consider East to Turkey. On the way, island hop in greece. Turkey is worth a visit just for the carpet salesmen alone (bring a large bladder and a taste for tea). Try not to embarass us back home, I saw many examples of obnoxious americans on my trip. Try to blend in, and the locals will treat you nicely. Attempting a poor version of Spanish/German/etc. will often get a response in perfect English. It’s the attempt that matters.

You should probably check the message boards on . This site is mainly intended to young people backpacking in Europe, and you should find plenty of good infos there. There are also links to various other related sites.

More generally, you should check travel board. On , the “europe” message board is extremely active. The posters are usually not backpackers, so you won’t find a lot of advices about say, hostels (much more about luxury hotels) but you could find many infos about transportations, places to visit, etc… is also more intended for backpackers, but the overall tone isn’t always pleasant (there’s a lot of trolling), and it’s generally more useful for people travelling to more uncommon places (Africa, central Asia, middle east, etc…) about which infos are more dificult to find.

There’s also the board on the Usenet…

Wow, looks like I wrote a novel. None of those other posts were there when I started, I swear. One last thing, since you clarified where you were going – ten countries in two months is a LOT. Too much, really, especially when you factor in travel time. You’ll have much more relaxed and rewarding trip if you cut the list in half. (I know it’s difficult, because you want to see everything – but it’s better not to think of this as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Plan as if you’ll be back.)

You might want to look into discount flights as well as rail, especially if you’re determined to get to Greece and back. Also, if you haven’t bought your tickets yet, ask your travel agent if you can fly into one city and out of another. (You’ll want to deal with a human being if you’re doing this; don’t try to book such a flight over the web.) It might be slightly more expensive, but time is valuable too, and it sounds like you’ll need all the time you can get.

Best advice I can offer on staying safe is to not come to europe with the idea that europe is “the old country” and some quaint little harmless backwater :slight_smile:

So many americans who have come to Dublin and been entirely oblivious to the fact that this is a major european city with all that implies. They seemed to be under the impression that the rest of the world was some sort of theme-park :smiley:

Anyhow, try to avoid being an obvious tourist. Keep your money to yourself, keep your camera out of sight when you aren’t using it, don’t wander around gawking, if you need to consult your map, step into a store or a cafe and do it. You don’t need to be paranoid, but do be aware that crime is a possibility, and that you would quite likely be a more interesting target than most.

STA Travel, formerly Council Travel, the travel arm of the Council on International Educational Exchange. CIEE issues Student ID cards (and “under-25” cards for younger non-students that are still quite useful) and is the main seller of Eurail passes in the US.

To me it looks like you have too much on your plate for 2 months of travel. Don’t get into the “if its tuesday this must be Belgium” syndrome of flitting from place to place trying to jam it all in. Europe is “further apart” that you might think… try to hit too many places and you’l spend all your time traveling, no time “seeing.” Just for an example, it takes about 12 hours to get from Madrid to S. France on the train, and another 10 hours to get from southern France to Florence.

Kind of like if someone said, I’m going to be in the US for 2 months, and I want to see New York City, Niagara Falls, Key West, San Francisco, LA, Yellowstone Nat’l Park, Chicago, Las Vegas and Memphis. That’s a lot of car/train travel to cram into 2 months.

The pass (actually passes…there are several of them) you’re refering to is often not a good deal at all as opposed to buying point to point tickets in Europe (or at least ordering them directly from european railway companies using their websites…the official reseller for the US sells tickets way overpriced, as you’ll find out if you visit the travel message boards mentionned in this thread, since it’s one of the most common question/mistake to avoid).
Generally speaking, the passes are only a good deal if one intends to make frequent and long train trips. I doubt it will be the case for the OP, since they apparently intend to take their time, roam in the countryside, etc…There’s a good site which allows you to enter your planned itinerary and tells you what is probably the best deal (a particular pass or point to point tickets) using actual european prices for tickets. I can’t remember it’s exact name right now, but you can easily find it by asking on a travel board (I see it mentionned on fodor’s board several times a week).

The Ugly American Tourist™ is an axiomatic character in our parts. If to locals don’t understand you, it will not help to speak in a louder voice. That said, let’s get down to facts. All of the other posters are right on target.

  • Renting a car can be quite cheap in some countries (Spain, Portugal), where you’ll get a smallish car with unlimited milage for about $100 a week, including insurance. Public tranportation is not so good in some areas and taking a bus over mountains in Spain can be… ahh… breathtaking.
  • The hotel chain Forumel1, is not very personal. Antisceptic might be a better word. But it’s clean, incredibly cheap and everywhere. I’ve bneen going back and forth in Europe for 20 years, using just about every mean of tranportation. Sleeping on trains and youth hostels might be fine. After a while, privacy and a shower takes priority.
  • There are gazillion of small pensions and Hostals all over the place. These are foten mom&pop places, which offer great value for money.
  • Many country have an official rating of hotels. The backpacking crowd couldn’t care less, since many of the things, giving stars have to do with things like TV on the rooms. elevators ASF. Pensions might have the same standard, but you need to blimd three flights of stairs to get to your room. Big deal. A more expensive hotel will not have better beds. In southern Europe, beds are often really, really terrible. Air conditioning is not standard, even in more expensive hotels. You might want to check if the place you’re staying has a safety deposit box. Locksw to the rooms can be picked in less than feive seconds and you don’t want to carry your valuables with you to dinner every night. Not only awkward, but also making you a nice big target for pickpockets.
  • People in southern Europe, who live there, always buy bottled water. It’s not because the tap water is dangerous, but often it tastes really bad. Don’t worry about ice cubes in drinks either. I whince whenever I see Americans fishing them out. It’s not the thirld world here.
  • You can eat anything. There is no food to be wary of during the summer. That’s not saying you can’t get food poisoning, but it could as easily happen in the US. What I mean is, if you do get something bad to eat, it’s a random thing, nothing that happens all the time. Enjoy the food.
  • Try to find places with older men, smoking a lot, watching football (soccer) and flourescent (sp?) tubes in the ceiling. The best food is always in those places.
  • Stay away from any nice looking restaurant, with winebottles hanging from the ceiling or pictures of the diferent dishes in the windows. Tourist traps.
  • Prices may vary. A beer by the counter, inside in the dark, may many times be cheaper, than the same beer, served by a waiter on the plaza outside.
  • DO TIP. You don’t tip as heavily in Europe, as you do in the US. That’s not saying you shouldn’t. Here, as in the US, most restaurant jobs are minimum wage. But you shouldn’t over tip, either. A bill for €78, should be evened out to €80. You shouldn’t think in terms of five or ten %, but rather even out.
  • In Nordic, Germanic countries and the Brirtish Isles, you pay as you go in bars. In latin countries, you pay when you leave.
  • Germany was very slow in adopting international credit crads. It’s much better now, but that quaint little shop in the middle of nowhere might not take MC or VISA. Check beforehand.
  • ATM’s are everywhere. You can safely use your credit crads to withdraw moneys as you need it. Travellers checques are often more trouble than it’s worth. Check with your bank how much they charge for cash withdrawal from ATM’s abroad. The fees can be really bad.
  • Europeans smoke. A lot. If you’re a non-smoker and smoke bothers you, check out the restaurant before you sit down and order. People right next to you might smoke during your whole meal, ruining it. We’re slowly going the same way you guys are. In my country, it’s now the law that restaurants must have non smoking areas.
  • Business hours for shops and restaurants vary from country to country. In rural areas, it’s not uncommon for shops to close for a few ahours during mid day. It might be tough finding a restaurant in Germany that will serve something like lunch after 2p.m. and in Spain to serve it earlier than 2p.m.
  • Many, many people speak English, especially if they have a higher education and you’re in a bigger city or touristy area. Un-educated people over 50 in rural areas will speak little or no English.

This was just from the top of my head. If you have any specifics you want to know about, just tell me.

OK. My mistake. I didn’t read the OP’s second post where s/he states s/he intends to visit a dozen countries in 2 months. Then, they could have some use for a pass. BUT…this is completely contradictory with their idea of taking the time to taste food and wine, visiting not too touristy places, etc…I believe they’ll have to choose between an “express” tour of europe ( Ok…I checked Bruges on the list… What’s next? I can’t remember whether it’s the Eiffel tower or Amsterdam’s canals…hurry up anyway!..we only get 6 hours to get there…)…or leisury vacations…
I mean : ten countries in 2 months : 60 days/10 =6 days/country. Remove one day for travelling from one country to another checking out and in the hostels/hotels/BB/, packing/unpacking, going to/from the airport/train station, etc…It leaves 5 days/country. And that’s assuming you stay only in one place in each country (or else, add some packing/unpacking, checking in/out, etc…). What can you seriously expect to see in a country in 5 days? Do you really believe you’ll have time to go to out-of-the way places? To rent a car and go to some wine-producing region for tasting?

You’ll be rushed, tired, and won’t see much of anything…

Sadly you’re correct.

It used to be a good deal, but nowadays they charge USD615 for 10 days of travel in a two-month period. (here)
For that kind of money you can actually get quite a few ‘normal’ tickets. (Especially considering that the ‘eurail pass’ doesn’t include the seating charges that are becoming more and more mandatory.)

One thing to consider if you have a more-or-less fixed schedule, is to use the booming low-cost airlines. If you book in advance, you can fly across most of europe for as little as USD50 (but you have to book in advance, and there’s no changing. Look for RyanAir and EasyJet.

Might be worthwile if you get a return ticket to London, but want to end the trip in Greece.

  1. DO NOT use the trains. You will see nothing but large cities, tourist areas (high prices, bad food, etc.) and the worser parts of smaller towns.
  2. Rent a car. Take the back roads for sight seeing, the autobahn if you need to get to a certain area quickly. You will see more of the country this way.
  3. Book your car rental from the US. Euopean car rental prices are astronomical. A small car (an Opel Corsa) will do just fine, and gets good mileage. Don’t get talked into renting a large car.
  4. Stay in hotels in smaller suburbs of large cities you want to visit and use public transportation to go downtown to the museums and stuff. The folks in the smaller hotels are usually friendlier, and the prices are lower.
  5. Get a dictionary and/or phrase book for whatever country you are in, and use it. Most folks speak at least a little English, but even the ones who speak English perfectly (of which there are quite a few) will appreciate the effort - and make an effort to pronounce things correctly, that helps to make a good impression. You will also need your dictionaries because the lesser traveled places probably won’t have signs in English telling you, say, the history of the castle you are touring.
  6. Ask the folks who run the hotels and restaurants where they like to go for sight seeing. They’ll likely tell you about something really nifty that you would never have heard of, otherwise.
  7. Breakfast is usually included in the price of a room. Lunch might be, Supper usually isn’t. Find a regular grocery store/bakery/butcher shop to buy stuff to make sandwiches for when you go hiking. Cars come in handy for this, because you can then get out to where the regular folks shop instead of buying things at horridly inflated prices around the train stations and tourist traps. It is also cheaper to make and take sandwiches when driving. Just find a pleasant spot out of traffic and have a picnic - and you might just find that there’s a picnic place convenient along some of the smaller roads.
  8. Buy your road maps and hiking maps locally. They will have more useful information on them than the ones you might be able to bring with you from the US. Even the cheapest road maps over here have things like churches (visit them, too - the architecture is quite amazing soemtimes,) and castles and ruins and even just which stretch of road is particularly nice to drive along. The hiking maps are just as detailed and informative, but with lots more detailed information about their smaller area.
  9. However you decide to travel, pick a spot in an area you would like to see, and then make day trips in the surrounding area. Stay in each area for a while (up to a week.) Packing up and moving everyday will eat into your sightseeing time, and you might find it difficult to locate a new hotel every evening.
  10. Watch for signs for festivals and such. There are lots of littel things like county fairs that run at different times in the spring and summer. Most nearly every small town has something alogn those lines, so keep your eyes open. They can be a lot of fun.
  11. Be friendly. Do not shout at someone when he doesn’t understand - volume does not help.

I know a lot of what I’ve said about travel flies in the face of convention, but it is all born of experience. I’ve lived and worked here in Germany for 15 years now, so I have some experience with these things. My folks rented a house here for six months last year and spent a lot of time rooting around in Germany, and what I’ve said above reflects their experiences as well.

I’ll make put my e-mail address back into my profile, if you want I’d be glad to point you to things in my neck of the woods.