EricHarlan

How to BackPack Europe on a Medium Budget

My wife and I just finished up a pretty epic whirlwind of a Euro backpacking trip. In two weeks we hit the UK, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg and Belgium. If you’re hard core you could do more, we spent 4 days alone in London, and we could have hit another country if we really wanted to. In my opinion the method we chose to do our initial trip was one that left us asking ourselves a few times, “Where the hell are we again?” and that’s exactly what we wanted out of the trip.
I know a few folks have expressed interest in what we did and how we did it along with what we liked and any lessons learned. So here goes. I’m going to approach this write up from the perspective of people that want to see a lot in a few weeks and who’s budget isn’t super skimpy but they don’t want to spend a ton of money in the process.
First and foremost, we didn’t stay in any hostels at least not technically. You could do things MUCH cheaper if you wanted to, in fact you could do it MUCH MUCH cheaper if you wanted to but the simple fact is I really didn’t have to. We planned our trip with a certain level of comfort involved. However, what you’ll find out very quickly in Europe is that what you find comfortable over here is NOT as comfortable over there.
I called this post backpacking, but the truth of the matter is that we didn’t really backpack. Really what we did was packed our stuff in backpacks and utilized the fact that everything was centrally located on our backs. Technically you could have done what we did with your standard rolling luggage. I wouldn’t advise it though, having all your stuff in one bag, in one place and close to you served us very well while traveling. I’ve backpacked a lot of the Appalachian trail, that was backpacking.
How to get from A to B
First things first you will need to choose your method of travel. Are you REALLY going to WALK across Europe? If so expect to not see that much most of your time will be spent walking, if you’re a college student and you want to go for the whole summer this is certainly up your alley, I’m sure there are plenty of write ups out there on how to do this. This write up is not for you, this is for the professional that unfortunately no matter how much he/she would like to, only has two weeks or less to see as much as possible.
What my wife and I did was strategically plan flights and train rides to start and end the trip. For example, we flew to London where we spent a few days with an old friend, we then flew to Ireland and spent 2 days driving through the southern part of the country from Dublin to Shannon and back. We then flew from Dublin to Venice, from there on out it was only the train for our primary source of transportation.
Now there is this thing called the EuRail, it’s a unified agreement of most of the train companies both private and state owned in Europe. EuRail is expensive and there are a few catches which I’ll highlight. If this was an R rated blog there would be quite a few choice words for Eurail. I was really disappointed in how they worded a lot of the verbiage on their website to make you think that without the EuRail pass you couldn’t ride certain trains. And on top of this, words the packages in a way that gears you toward the most expensive Global Pass. This shit just isn’t freaking true. The real truth is that the EuRail pass really only matters on trains that don’t require reservations. If you want to make the most of your trip, most of the trains you take will require you to pay an ADDITIONAL FEE in order to board. Of the entire trip and 9 train trips we took, only 2 didn’t require some sort of reservation.
Now, that said, do your own research, it really helps if you know which countries specifically you want to visit, the cost goes way down. On top of that I’m not 100% sure that you didn’t in fact need the EuRail pass in order to get a reservation on train. All the ones we booked other than the ones we got discounts on because we had the pass never required us to have the EuRail pass.
So what I’m getting at really is if you know the countries you want to go to you can buy a less expensive regional pass, or even specific tickets on those train companies to get you from A to B.
That said, it does take away from the flexibility of the trip, you are confined to a schedule and if that’s your thing then it works out. If you want to leave your trip totally to the whims of how you feel at any particular trip and only plan your start and end points and dates like we did, then an unlimited pass might be the thing for you. Just research it carefully.
We knew going into our trip that we weren’t really going on vacation, we were going to be more tired than when we left. We knew that we were forcing a lot of our trip, but our trip wasn’t the end. We planned to find out what we liked and where we would want to spend more time in. And come to find out, it worked; we narrowed down the places we liked most and where we felt there was more to offer and what warranted a trip back.
Where to stay
The next step is to decide if you are going to plan out your hotels or leave it to chance. Like our trip we left where we stayed mostly to chance. This worked in our favor most of the time but in other times kind of backfired. A good example of a backfire was when we cruised into Venice, we were tired from the flight and it was getting late. So we found the first hotel we could find and setup shop. Unfortunately for my wallet it was a 340 Euro a night room right on the Grand Canal. Nothing was bad about it but you have to be willing to stay in 55 Euro a night rooms as well as 300+ Euro a night rooms. It’s all in how the cookie crumbles. One of the most disturbing things about Europe is the “Stars Scale” for ranking hotels. You know, “this hotel is a 3 star hotel”. Well let me tell you a little something about Europe Hotels. Stars mean absolutely nothing, seriously you could stay in a 2 star hotel that ends up being the nicest cleanest place you’ve been in or you can stay in a 4 star hotel that you wish you would have never checked into.
The important thing with this is you need to be flexible and leave the preconceived notions back home. You’re leaving things to chance and with chance come less than ideal conditions. Just smile and remember that the journey is sometimes more important than the destination.
One thing to keep in mind that kind of ties the first point and the second point together is that for around the cost of a hotel room you can get screwed a little bit more by EuRail and purchase a sleeper cabin on an overnight train. I liked this idea because you got some sleep for the same cost of a hotel and you got to wake up in the next city. This helps keep your trip moving and keeps you fresh.
Ok now for some lessons learned.
Before I even go down this road, these are things based on my perspective. To any of the folks that read my blog from these places, don’t take anything I say personal, you have to remember I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone who had no expectations going into each country.
General:

It’s expensive over there right now; the exchange rate when we went for Dollars to Euros was 1.6. The dollar to pound was 1.4. The only place we went that was close or less to our own was Switzerland where it was .9 francs to the dollar. Be prepared to spend some money, you’re on vacation, this is the one time in life when you shouldn’t be worried about spending.

Europeans charge for EVERYTHING. Ketchup to Wi-fi, expect to pay for every little thing.

The good thing is that in most countries we found that MOST Burger Kings and McDonalds’ have free wifi. So if you like that crappy kind of food you can eat there and sync up. Or just get something to drink

I’d suggest bringing a small netbook, we brought an Asus EEEpc and it was nice to use when i got tired of trying to pull stuff up on a little phone (a phone that didnt usually work correctly)

If you hate carrying change around, you’re going to hate the currency. With 1-2 euro/pound coins, you can’t toss out these coins and since we already covered that everything cost, you have to keep the coins with you.

Everyone smokes, has smoked or is around someone that smokes. You smell it everywhere all times of day in all places. If you’re not a smoker this might be an issue to work through.

W.C. means wash closet. Wash closet and toilet means bathroom.

“Coke” is a universal word; however “Diet Coke” is “Coke Light”

If you prefer bottled water you will get the option all the time when you order for the type of water you want. “Flat, Natural, and Still” water are all the same. Normal bottled water

Ok this is just a thought, but if places would stop charging for people to use your toilets, then it wouldn’t smell like urine everywhere. I don’t know if folks are just used to it but in some places it’s just over powering. I don’t say that to be mean, but really why is everyone charging to use the toilets?

If it’s hot out or genuinely dry out, and there is a strange out of place puddle or stream of liquid, steer clear.

Try to arrive at the next city you go to in the morning. Oddly enough, every time we arrived into a new city at night and had to make our way to a hotel we didn’t get the feeling we would like the place we were. We found out the next day we liked it very much. We found that when we arrived into a new city in the morning we had a much brighter perspective on the day. Physiological probably but worth mentioning.

Lockers! Lockers at the train stations will be your back’s best friend. In some cases we didn’t stay overnight in some cities, but we still had our backpacks to worry about. Make sure you pack a day bag in your large packs. When you get to the train station, find the large coin lockers and fill your day pack up. For 5-8 euros you could lock up your stuff and not worry about carrying it all day long. We figured this one out really quickly.

They run Jerry Springer and Soaps all day long in Europe. No wonder they can’t stand Americans. They think we’re all doing our cousins and gold digging all day.

UK (London):

London was a fun place; we spent a lot of time walking to the different places. Tower Bridge is not London Bridge. Apparently that mistake gets made a lot.

Fish and Chips recipes vary widely, ask if it’s a thick batter and if the fish is fresh or frozen. It matters. Ideally you’ll want a thin crust with fresh fish. “Jacks” in my opinion had the best we had while there.

There is a TON of Indian influence in London, so if you like Indian food, you’ll love London.

You can’t get any closer than about 50 feet from Stonehenge at its closest point. There is another place about 15 mins northwest called Avebury. It’s not as grand as Stonehenge but you can get right up close to it and it’s just as mysterious.

Overall I’d suggest 3-4 days in London if you go specifically to the UK only. Two days if you’re on a whirl wind.

Ireland (Dublin, Cork, Blarney):

I thought Dublin was going to be just another town, but I had a great time in Dublin, plenty of cool things to see but the atmosphere was just top notch there. Great beer, REALLY nice people and good food!

The Guinness factory is really cool; make sure you have a few hours to go through it especially if you have a healthy love for beer and the technology/history of it. Levels 2-4 are really cool, 5-7 are kind of boring and at that point you just want to get to the sky bar to have a Guinness. There is a taste testing station about half way through. You don’t want to miss that.

There are no cabs that are readily available when you leave the factory and it’s a bit of a walk back to the main part of town, so plan for that. I left most of our trip to fate. My motto was “don’t stress and it works out. We ended up snaking what I think now was someone else’s cab, that the cabbie got tired of waiting for. It worked out for us.

Temple Bar is an area as well as an actual bar. So when you tell the cabbie to take you there, he’ll take you to the edge of the neighborhood, because you can’t drive through.

The town of Cork was kind of sleepy and dare say it, boring. We didn’t end up staying there very long.

Blarney castle was cool, just all around cool and I would recommend anyone to go there. Going up the castle is cooler than the actual stone. Exploring all the nooks of the castle is a lot of fun. Watch out for that murder hole though. LOL

If you want to learn to rally race, but don’t have the appropriate sponsors, I suggest you go to Ireland, rent a small but ballsy car, get full insurance and find the nearest side road; Instant rally racing. To the rental car company, um… sorry about that front driver side fender and the mirror that rock wall just jumped out of nowhere.

Overall I’d suggest a 4-6 day stay in Ireland, you’ll need to remember to slow down your pace and enjoy the landscape and the travels to the various locations more than the actually destination. Two days if you’re on a whirl wind.

Italy (Venice):

Smells of methane pretty much where ever you go, but it was REALLY cool walking through the streets of Venice, make sure you bring a map because it’s really easy to get lost.

Do research on hotels before coming here in order to find one at a good price.

Gondola rides are expensive, 80 Euros for 20 mins! That’s like 110 bucks, in the end it wasn’t worth it to us. But if you do in fact find yourself wanting to do it, do it at night. There are less people staring at you and it’s quainter. In the morning you can see all the detail that you think you missed while on the ride at night. Trust me it’s the way to go.

I would only suggest a 2-3 day stay in Venice, after you see the major stuff and walk through the streets there isn’t much else to do but eat. Only on day if you’re on the whirl wind (you can actually see most of the place in a single day).

Germany (Berlin, Munich):

Munich was my favorite place of the trip, the vibe was awesome, the Hofbrauhouse had a GREAT dunkle which I highly recommend for the beer connoisseur. Litre size of course!

Things are spread out a bit so your best bet, and what we did was buy a “hop on, hop off” all day tour. We rode the tour around in its entirety once (about 1.5 hours). Then we marked where we wanted to go and look around more. This worked perfectly.

Berlin was pretty cool for the historic aspect of things, most of the major tourist spots are in walking distance of the train station. Checkpoint Charlie is a pretty sobering experience.

Overall I’d recommend 5-6 days here if you go specifically to Germany, and 2 days if you’re on the speed through version.

Switzerland (Zurich):

Single gentleman, you’ll want to spend some time in Zurich for sure.

When you pull into the Zurich train station, if it’s night time be ware because it becomes somewhat of a civic center at night. There was an Indian heritage thing going on that night for us with like techno Indian music so the station was packed with glow stick wielding youths. Not the best thing to walk into after a long train ride. Remember what I said above about trying to arrive in the morning.

Swiss Franc’s is the currency in Switzerland, they take Euro’s but they don’t like it, so if you have to take a cab somewhere make sure you get some cash, which by the way was the most colorful currency I’ve ever seen.

If you’re a history buff like me and you REALLY need to see the “Eagles Nest” keep it mind it only runs Monday and Fridays and it takes a full nine hours to do so plan accordingly. I didn’t know this and thus didn’t get to see it and was kind of bummed.

Make sure you take the S10 train from the main Zurich station out to the highest point in Zurich if you go there, it’s pretty cool.

France (Paris):

I have to say it and I hope I don’t offend too much. But Paris was the worst place in the entire trip. It felt very New York-ish. Fast paced, rushed and overall unwelcoming. From what I understand, to experience France you can’t go to Paris, most of the French feel the same way about Paris. Try to get to the coast, or down south. Next time I’ll be going to Normandy (historical aspect) and somewhere around Nice for my stay in France.

The urine smell was the worst here as well. Keep in mind the random puddle rule.

The subway is a freaking rip off, but it’s still the cheapest way to go. You can’t buy an all day pass, and each pass you buy at 1.60 Euro’s is a one way trip that is only good one time for a single one way ride. So if you go from the Louvre to NotreDame, then from Notre Dame to the Eiffel tower then over to the Arc De Triumph, that’s 4 single tickets you need to buy. A scam if you ask me but still cheaper than taking a cab everywhere. There is an option to buy 10 tickets, I passed this by and decided not to but in hindsight, I should have. With 2 people taking 5 subway trips we could have at least saved a LITTLE money, and I do mean little because the discount is like 1 Euro.

Oh and for the record, apparently the Louvre being closed on Tuesdays is common knowledge. This wasn’t to me however and the entire reason we stayed for a second day was specifically to go into the Louvre, so if you find yourself there on a Tuesday, don’t even bother going over that way.

I will say all the architecture was awesome here though, probably top 2 for the trip so it certainly had that going for it.

I recommend 1 day in Paris if that, just to see the major monuments.

Luxembourg (Luxembourg):

Nothing to see, nice country, and nice people, but there really isn’t much to do there. We got to see the other Notre Dame (what? You didn’t know there was more than one?). There are some castles there as well but overall, kind of of sleepy.

I recommend 8 hours – 1 day total

Belgium (Brussels):

I wish very much I would have spent more time in Brussels. Honestly I can’t really offer any good advice about it. The place we stayed at was really nice, it was a renovated building made into really nice suites, that only cost 55 euros. And easily was in the top 2 of the hotels we stayed at. Go figure. Apart Hotel Brussels made through booking.com. We read some reviews saying that the walk from the train station to the hotel was kind of rough. We didn’t notice this at all, it was fine.

Those are the lessons learned; to wrap it all up thought we had a really great time. I’ve said it a few times in this post but the fact of the matter is, the journey for us was just as important as the destinations. Seeing Europe from a train window was just very cool I really hope to be able to do it again for Eastern Europe. I have my eye on Budapest, Prague, Greece, Amsterdam, Austria, Poland and Croatia.

Lastly, I realized one thing about going to all these places. Regardless of which country you’re from, if you wear those huge sunglasses that cover 2/3 of your face, you’ll still look like a goofball.

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