Dear PoP – Advice on Backpacking Europe

by Prince Of Petworth February 24, 2010 at 2:30 pm 40 Comments

Short Final
Photo by PoPville flickr user Rukasu1

“Dear PoP,

I’m guessing some Pop T-shirts have traveled the youth hostel-backpacker-Eurail circuit around Europe much more recently than I have so I’d love to tap the readers for advice. My favorite niece is finishing her masters in education this June and I’m cashing in my flyer miles and advancing her 10 years of birthday presents to send her on the “Grand Tour” for 4-6 weeks.

Times have changed a lot since my own trip (1985, mostly hitchhiking, and ultimately 2 years long.) Do people still prefer backpacks or is a wheeled suitcase/duffel better? (She’s more a city girl and not likely to climb any alps and will have a one-month Eurail pass.) What’s the best credit or ATM card for exchange rates? Does anyone still even use traveler’s cheques? How about phones? On my own recent trips to Europe I found public phones few and far between. (Even with my friends’ mobiles, we sometimes had trouble between the French, Italian and British) Any particular recommendations?

Has anyone had good experiences with “couchsurfing” or “Air bed and breakfast” or other home-stay arrangements?

She also loves to teach and do volunteer work – any info on short-term volunteer opportunities that might give her a better way to get to know people than just the youth hostel experience?

With such a short time, she’ll be doing mostly all the main cities and attractions, but any particular lesser known “don’t miss” places or experiences or festivals she should seek out?”

  • Taken

    Don’t watch the movie Taken

  • Jim

    I’d say don’t make the mistake of focusing on Western Europe and hit at least some of the Balkans, particularly Ljubljana, Sarajevo and Dubrovnik. Much cheaper than Western and Central Europe, people are super friendly, roads are pretty good, public transportation is good, food, wine and beer are awesome.

    ATMs are everywhere. There is absolutely no reason to take travelers checks. If feasible, open a small account in a European based bank (Deutschebank is good) and you may be able to avoid the ridiculous fees american banks charge on every withdrawal to convert currency.

    • M

      bank of america customers can also use Deutschbank.

      • Drewlove

        @M- Not in all countries (e.g. Italy) best to check it out before commiting to an account.

  • Shira

    If she has a bank of america account, she can withdraw from Barclay banks for free.

    I believe HSBC also allows free withdrawels from their ATMs oversears.

  • She MUST visit Molvania! http://www.molvania.com/molvania/

  • Hoodrat

    a couple of thoughts!

    definitely ATMs! it’s cheaper and easier than travellers checks these days.

    also, cellphones have become so ubiquitous that it is hard to do without one now. i know folks that have gotten international SIM cards and international mobile plans to make their personal cellphones work in europe. that is expensive, but easiest for some. much cheaper is to rent a temporary cellphone there which will come with a calling plan or you can buy phonecards. i’m seeing these cellphone rental places popping up in major airports. i’m not sure if they work around multiple EU countries, though. finally, she can buy a prepaid cellphone there; same question about compatibility among countries, though.

    finding good travel books is half the battle. let’s go is too rarely updated but geared specifically for the budget traveller. frommer’s is good on high-end stuff; less good for travelling on the cheap. lonely planet or rick steves are usually my preferences, although sometimes they fail. and it’s a good idea to browse through more interesting options, too.

  • Petworthian

    Start in Amsterdam. Budget at least three days for Rome. The hostels in Salzburg and Florence are awesome (the one in Florence is in a 15th century villa.) Take the train through the Alps during th daytime so you don’t miss the scenery. Recommend the Cinque Terre villages (on Italian coast south of Genoa)

  • Jim

    Travel books– Rough Guides and LP tend to be the best for budget travelers, and are pretty frequently updated.

    captcha: go slippery

    • E-Rich

      Travel books are great, but cumbersome. When I went about five years ago now, I ripped sections out of the books I had, stapled the pages of the countries I planned on visiting together and bound it all with a binder clip. When I left a country, I would leave the packet of information from the book in the common area of the hostel for the next person.

  • Erik

    I highly suggest this backpack:


    Its wheeled luggage that is also a big backpack if needed. On the back, is a detachable “day pack” for going shopping or hiking. The case is made to fit on all carry on luggage for planes.

    I’ve had mine for 3 years. I use it once a month for my business travel, taken it on board an aircraft carrier for a few weeks, used the day pack to hike in Hawaii, and traveled around Western Europe. Couldn’t be happier.

  • 13th&Harvard

    I had a great experience with Air B&B in Paris- better than a hostel and less expensive than a hotel. Rented a studio apartment 10 mins walk to Notre Dame. The only downfall was that I traveled alone so it could be a little lonely. If she likes meeting people, hostels might be a better idea (book rooms with fewer beds ahead of time). I enjoy Frommer’s Day by Day for ideas on how to tackle the bigger cities.
    PNC bank reimburses ATM fees, so I saved some money that way.

  • John

    I suggest using http://www.hostelworld.com for booking hostels as you go.

  • Drew

    The key to backpacking is always making sure to get a Eurorail pass that is good for nonconsecutive days. They let YOU physically write the date of travel on it, so YOU can then alter it and get more days if done right. A 1 is easy to curl into a 2 which is easy to curl into a 3 and then into an 8. You can save a lot of money and see a lot of places if you just get on a train at night and go on a long through the night ride. It doesn’t really matter where as you are just looking for a place to sleep.

    The big thing is not to plan. Never. No, no, no. Volunteer?! Come on. Save that for your thirties. You just need to get out and see where it takes you. The last thing you need on your trip is a schedule. Two scheduled events – plane ride there and the plane ride back.

    I say start in Dublin. It’s cliché for an American to go but stay out in St. James Gate, enjoy a few nights, catch the boat across the Irish sea, and work your way through the Welsh countryside, moving down into London where you quickly catch the train into the continent. Yes, I realize that the Eurorail pass will not be helpful until you get there, probably.

    But the key is don’t have a full on plan. Just some ideas.

  • Hunter

    If she’s going the hostel route (and she should), there’s no need for a cellphone. Every hostel I visited (In Russia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Croatia, Ireland) had computers outfitted with Skype. It’s perfect for checking in with family at home or rendezvousing with other travelers.

    Also, Croatia. I can’t reccomend it enough. Gorgeous, friendly, and cheap. There’s a reason all the Italians vacation there.

    Finally, grab an ISIC card. It gets you discounted or free admission to museums across Europe as well as certain discounts at restaurants.

  • John

    Use hostelworld.com for booking hostels

  • Katie

    I can’t even express how happy I am that TWO people have already mentioned the Balkans. Yes yes yes. Do keep in mind that you may not be able to use a Eurail pass in all Balkan countries but don’t let that kind of thing determine the trip. For a number of reasons I also recommend buses and not trains in the region.

    I lived in Sarajevo for more than two years, teaching English, and it is my favorite city… I am going back soon (and with a PoP t-shirt to represent my new neighborhood here!) to visit. Anyone looking for Balkans travel advice, particularly Sarajevo, can email me at katie_in_dc (at) yahoo dot com.

  • Michael

    I haven’t done it, but you can get free room and board for a week here: http://www.morethanenglish.com/anglos/index.asp

    Sounds like a good time.

  • Elizabeth

    I think Rick Steves books are great, and his website includes lots of travel bag recommendations, railpass info and tours by region/date.
    I spent a college semester in Prague in 2007, using a TD Bank account because they reimburse all ATM fees. I had a pay as you go phone through vodafone which was great, except when I’d forget to buy a new card and go to another country and have no way to add minutes, unless I wanted to buy a new vodafone SIM card for whatever country I was in at that point. I’m probably relatively close to your niece’s age (23) and also more of a city girl myself…I loved Prague, found both Prague and Berlin affordable, and wasn’t that excited by Barcelona, London, Amsterdam or Vienna, aside from the art. I was able to put my friends’ up in nice, cheap hostels in Prague when they came to visit, and stayed in a great hostel in Berlin, I believe through here: http://www.aohostels.com. I used a rolling suitcase and was often wishing I had a backpack because the suitcase can be cumbersome on public transportation, steps, etc.

  • kek

    I’ve found the Rick Steves’ books to only be ok (they are written with his slant but still informative), but you should definitely check out his website. The \plan your trip\ tab takes you to message boards and reader q&a sections that always have really helpful, current info. Rough Guide and Lonely Planet are also great backpacking books.

    I would definitely recommend a backpack over a duffel (or a hybrid like the eagle creek, but make sure it is comfortable to carry on your back as some hybrids aren’t). There are many streets with cobblestones and lots of budget accommodations that still don’t have elevators, so lugging stuff around can be a hassle. Public transit would be especially tough with wheels.

    I would disagree with the previous poster that suggested no plans – I think there are some cities where that would definitely work great, but if she is on a budget during high season she could get stuck paying a lot of money to stay in a decent part of town. After traveling by myself as a woman in my early 20s, there are definitely some areas of town that are safer to stay in/walk around by yourself than others. She can definitely wait to book/plan most until she gets over there and right before she travels though.

    Hostelworld is great, and the flexible eurail pass is a must. Air on the side of fewer travel days than extra. Ryanair and someother budget airlines are great options for jumping countries (some of those trains are LONG) but they usually fly out of smaller secondary airports that can be outside the city.

    I used a credit union check card at ATMs (credit unions usually have lower conversion fees) and didn’t have any problem. I usually take $20-50 worth of traveller’s cheques and just keep them with my passport as a just in case. (For example: there was confusion at my bank once where someone didn’t read the note that the card would be used overseas, and a hold was placed – I was out of money and couldn’t access more until I could call the bank the next day during US business hours.)

  • Global Nomad

    Amen to the anti-rollersuitcase comments. Carry a backpack, preferably one of the many specifically designed for this kind of trip (rather than wilderness trekking). Look for one that can qualify as carry-on luggage. I’m partial to this one, personally: http://www.luggageonline.com/product.cfm?product_ID=9040

    Stay away from backpacks with a zip-off daypack: that’s a useless gimmick that just makes the pack more awkward to carry and easier to steal from. If you need a daypack (and you will), get one of the cheap ones that folds up to pocket size, like this one: http://www.rei.com/product/799600

    And pack light. They do have stores in Europe.

    Finally, I second the recommendation to use a site like hostels.com to book rooms on the fly. Even in the most outrageously expensive cities, you’ll always be able to find a dorm-style bed for under $40 (and under $20 in most other places). But you will absolutely need earplugs and eyeshades to get a good night’s sleep there.

  • Me

    dont rush

    pick a couple of places and really enjoy them

    life is long

  • Auntie

    Thanks all for the helpful input so far – especially about luggage – been reading lots of reviews on wheeled backpacks, so good to hear some specific models. (I agree about the zip-off daypacks being pretty silly.)

    And while I love Prague and Eastern Europe, this first trip will focus on Western Europe. (“There is a reason why the “great cities” are great cities!) London, Paris, Florence, Rome, Venice, Amsterdam and Barcelona will easily take up 5 – 6 weeks – and that still leaves out Brussels, Copenhagen, Berlin. . . yes, it’s a big big world.

    • My .02… that is WAY too ambitious for 5-6 weeks. It’s been many years since my first European adventures (and admittedly, I straight up just moved to Budapest with no idea how that would go, or where I’d end up – I ended up being gone for the better part of 3 years), but I think picking 3 or 4 cities max for 6 weeks, and seeing where the breeze takes you is part of the fun. Maybe you meet a bunch of cool Australians (it’s always Australians… or Finns) in a hostel in Barcelona and they’re headed to Lisbon and invite you to tag along… maybe you’re in Paris and you meet a cute boy headed to Berlin… the important part about your first backpacking/hostelling trip to Europe is the ability to be flexible and not feel obligated to follow some crazy plan you concocted before you ever even arrived. My advice is to pick those 3 or 4 (max) “must sees” for you and then spend time really seeing those places. If you’re on a tight schedule, not only does that preclude any kind of spontaneity, but you lose the ability to enjoy just being in the city. You feel obligated to hit all the tourist highlights and you miss out on so much of the joy of just being where you are and taking it all in, beyond the Eiffel Towers and Colosseums.

  • Anonymous

    In the event hosteling isn’t her thing (and I’ve stayed in both great and horrible hostels in Europe), Priceline is great for booking hotels in European cities if you channel Bill Shatner, start early, and just work up gradually from a lowball price on the “Name Your Own Price” function. You’re not going to get that Old World charm or make friends over breakfast, but you might get a decent hotel room for $50/night in a nice part of town. If she’s traveling with friends at any point and can split costs, 2-3 people can wind up being as cost efficient in a hotel room as in a hostel.

    As for the rest: backpack (rolling bags are for business trips, backpacks are for seeing the world), ATM, and smartphone (can connect to wifi where it is free, just don’t make any calls).

    • auntie

      Yes – definitely hosteling – very gregarious and plenty of dorm experience!

  • Jim

    MUCH better hotel deals than Priceline/Expedia/Orbitz


  • Stuck inside

    I say we collectively start a PoP Fund to fly us all over once a quarter for a kickin’ long weekend party scene in a location chosen by poll selection of possible cool party spots. Group PoPTrekker real time. We need a sister euro group to host us so that we arrive ready to go. We could offer similar service to them….where would we go now? where is the scene in March/April?

    I’ve always wanted to do Amsterdam, up to Copenhagen, to St Petersburg, to Moscow, then back.

    Utrecht Nice

    Hot Tubs in Buryatia?

    Our sister region is Stuttgart?

    PoPhipeurohappenintracker site, Dan needs to head over and do some reconnaissance….

  • Rukasu


  • Park Viewer

    Whatever you do, don’t miss Berlin – it’s one of the lesser-known great cities, because it was only accessible in halves until 20 years ago, but it’s a great city nonetheless. You can’t beat its combination of cutlure, nightlife and amazing history. Plus, it’s a lot cheaper than many western European cities, but has all the conveniences of western Europe (don’t get me wrong, I love eastern Europe, but it can be daunting for a first-time solo traveler) – high levels of English fluency, good infrastructure, amazing museums and a good student discount in many locations.

    If you’re looking for a way to meet locals via homestays, she should definitely check out the Servas. Servas is a 50+ year old organization that links travelers with willing hosts around the globe – unlike couchsurfing (an unmoderated internet-based free short term housing network), Servas members pay a small fee and have an interview to join (it’s really easy), which roots out the super sketchy people. Check out the US organization at usservas org. Through the Servas I have met an amazing variety of people, who welcomed me into their homes and showed me parts of their world not included in a guidebook.

    On cell phones: it sounds like she’s going to be changing countries pretty frequently, so I’d say skip the cell phone and make sure she has a skype account (any internet cafe will have the program on their computers). You can call other Skype users for free and call any number in the US (or most European landlines) for $.02 a minute.

    And again, I can’t emphasize how awesome Berlin is – because it’s still rebuilding itself after reunification, it is a city of constant change. The Berlin of today will not be there in 10 years, but the Louvre will – cut a few days off a classic city and check out Europe reinventing itself after the end of the cold war.

  • Anon5

    I would take a quad-band cell phone with you or buy one when you get there. They are super useful to have. Say for example you make a new friend and want to meet up with them later. Everyone you meet will have a phone and you might want one too.

    Cell phones are much cheaper in Europe than in the States and will work all over the continent. There are no cell phone contracts in Europe and you can do prepaid very easily.

    Last year I bought a Vodafone prepaid SIM while I was in London, and used it in Turkey, the NL, and Croatia. I believe there were no roaming charges over 32 different countries.

  • Jonathan Cabot

    Much of Europe is relatively safe for young Americans these days, and it’s worlds safer than most of D.C., but there are certainly a few dark corners of the continent where you’ll really want to watch your back. I don’t mean to discourage you, but one bad experience being menaced by a crazed hobo from Bulgaria who takes his orders from voices in his head and preys on young tourists can really ruin your whole trip. It could turn out like a Lifetime Original Movie.

    But I would definitely get a Eurail pass.

  • Em

    Since no one has spoken about couchsurfing yet, I’ll vouch for it here. I’ve backpacked Europe twice, once at 23 and once at 26, and did couchsurfing the second trip. I really enjoyed it because hostel crowds can skew young, especially during the summers, and nothing makes a mid-late 20something feel old faster than a dorm room full of drunken sophomores.

    Couchsurfing is a great way to meet residents of your new city and get off the beaten tourist path– that authenticity that every traveler craves, but few actually get to experience when surrounded by American and Australian backpackers. My experiences were uniformly positive– I stayed with a frequent host in Munich who took me on picnics and to watch Euro 2008 games with friends, hiked Cinque Terra with a fellow surfer and met up with locals in Zagreb for a great night on the town. Two years later I’m still in touch with everyone I met through it.

    Don’t bother volunteering/teaching– her trip is too short and she’s traveling in the summer when everyone else is on holiday, anyways. The best places to volunteer are typically in the countryside, picking fruit at farms or tending bar at a local dive, and it sounds like she’s not too interested in that. Since she’s traveling in the summer she should factor the season into her plans: everything in France is closed in August, cities typically empty out of residents while tourist lodgings become more competitive, the usual.

    Other advice: book hostels through hostelworld, buy a cheap local phone and use it only for SMS, make sure everyone back home has Skype accounts, book ahead for big cities. If she’s determined to do Eurail, save the Balkans for another trip– they are wonderful, and deserve to be seen properly. Spend as much time as possible in Berlin, with a local if possible. Take lots of pictures, don’t post the scandalous ones on Facebook, and have a great trip.

  • Irving Streete

    Man — enough of those cities — get out to the countryside! Europe is full of great cities (or “Great Cities”) that are not to be missed but, like cities in the U.S. they are increasingly homogenized and internationalized. In France, where most of my recent experience is from, they have a term for the rural areas: “La France profonde,” “the real France.” The pace different, the sense of otherness much grander and the delights less discovered. You haven’t seen France if you’ve only been to Paris.

    At least every third week, I’d look for an apartment in a small town in Provence (this is a great site http://www.beyond.fr/) or the Tuscan hills or the Black Forrest… and shack up for long enough to get to know it. Rent bicycle or a car, see the countryside, sit in cafes, go to the markets, see the local sights and be the only American there.

    Also: food. Join a site like http://www.donrockwell.com here in DC or egullet.org and find the little towns with great places to eat at every price range. Check out http://www.viamichelin.com for mid-to-upscale restaurants (a picture of the Michelin Man’s head means excellent mid-priced feed), they are French-centric but cover all of Europe, and also point out local landmarks. Learn the local specialties so you can really get to know the countryside.

    Also, and this is hard to do because of weight concerns, but bringing, or buying, reading material that matches the places you’re visiting is fun: Dickens in London; Dumas in France and so on.

    Jeez – can I go too?

    • Gordon Lipshitz

      Wait, isn’t that the point of backpacking? Living like a hobo, hitching rides on the back of a hay wagon in central France, stealing money from tourists for a train ticket to Berlin, dumpster diving for discarded baguettes? If you’re only bringing a little backpack, you aren’t going probably going to be running around in filthy clothes most of the time, anyway. There’s nothing quite like running across the countryside, raving like a deranged Gypsy, taking in all of the wondrous sights and sounds that are glorious Western Europe!

    • victoria

      Sounds great – for a 50 year old who has already seen the world!

      • Irving Streete

        Well, there’s always a lot to be said for the 26 cities in 29 days via motorcoach approach. Spending a brief time in as many places as possible as opposed to stopping every now and again and actually seeing something has much to certainly allows you drop a lot of place-names at parties and spares you the trouble of looking beyond the recommendations stuffed into your Let’s Go!

  • djdc

    Don’t forget Scandinavia.

    • Ronald Rogan

      And Asia. Backpacking across Vietnam would be far more adventurous. And you’re far, far less likely to be surprised in an alleyway by Ivan, the toothless hobo from Belarus who wants to make conversation and take your iPhone.

  • Threadbear

    Thank you! My daughter leaves for a quarter in France and then off to travel for the summer. She told me about couchsurfing. I am not thrilled. I traveled with my thumb and a tent in 1974. We were, for the most part treated well. I learned more that summer than I could have in any year at college. I want her to have a good experience.Getting out of your comfort zone is a good place to be! I am Your responses are encouraging.


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