Summer is on the way, and it’s the perfect time for the classic American right of passage: Bumming around Europe. The idea brings to mind college kids, hippies, and the classic American writers of the Lost Generation. Europe is one of the most appealing destinations for many Americans. A lot of us have ancestors who sailed over here a hundred years ago, and the desire to connect with the Old World and its charming cultural history is a strong draw. So what do you do if you’re the romantic type who yearns to soak in all Europe has to offer, but are so poor that the closest you can get to authentic Italian cuisine is a pepperoni Hot Pocket? Why you strap on a backpack with a few changes of underwear in it and book the cheapest flight you can find. This article will be your guide to seeing as much of the continent as you can on the cheap.
A bit of warning before we start. This isn’t a guide to Europe on $100 a day. This is more “Europe on $50 a day”. You might even find yourself looking for a wooded thicket to sleep in. So, serious bohemian-style backpacking. So if you think you’ve got the stones for it, here’s your complete guide to backpacking Europe like a goddamn hippie.
Getting a flight to Europe is going to be the most expensive part of the trip in most cases. Though Europe is only about 6 hours away by plane, the fact that just a few airlines have a lock on this popular route means you can often book flights to Japan from the East Coast for less than a flight to Berlin. There are a few options though, if you’re flexible, to get there for less than $600.
The first thing you’re going to want to do is to be open to a lot of different destinations and flight times. Flights are often most expensive on the weekends and during the day since that is when most people want to fly. Flights to popular locations like Paris or London are almost never going to go for less than a grand. Don’t get hooked on the idea of flying direct. You can often get a much cheaper price by flying to somewhere like Reykjavik and getting a flight to the continent from there. Use some of the budget airlines. Wow is a great choice if you live near Boston or Washington or can get there cheaply. They offer inexpensive fairs to most of Northern Europe from this city. Do your research, and if you can find something for around $500-600, then jump on it. If it means you end up in Amsterdam when you wanted to see Rome, well you can get to Rome a lot cheaper from Amsterdam by plane or train in most cases than you could if you booked a direct ticket there.
Also, by some fluke of capitalism, a one way flight is generally more expensive than a round trip. It’s a weird concept. I can’t think of any other situation where two of something costs less than one, but that’s the way the airlines work. If you can plan your trip to come full circle and fly out from the same city you’ll save a lot by booking a round trip flight.
Generally, you want to pack as lightly as possible. You want everything to fit in a bag small enough to carry onto a plane. This will avoid paying $50 on every flight for the checked bag fee. In addition, you will find as you are traveling that not having to lug a suitcase around will really help. So you want clothes that will do double duty. Generally you want fabrics like smartwool. It dries quickly and will suppress odors. Stay away from cotton if possible. It takes forever to dry and can start to stink. A kindle or e-reader is a great for flights and train rides. A laptop or iPad will help you stay in touch and conduct any necessary business.
Cash is generally exchangeable at banks. Never get money changed at an airport. They will screw you out of a sizable percentage. Pulling money out at an ATM is easier and will save you a lot in fees. Don’t carry too much cash around and consider that in most places your debit or credit card will work just as well.
When selecting a bag, consider that you want to be able to fit everything in there while also fiting the carry on limit. The Osprey Farpoint 40 is a good choice. It has a lot of room and some nifty features. You’ll also want a travel adapter for your electronics. European outlets are pretty weird. Most laptops have a power adapter, so you just need something to adjust for the different outlet. Make sure yours does though, or it might not work.
Nice hotels are expensive. You will not be staying in any. Instead you’re going to be looking at that time honored backpacker tradition: The Hostel. Here’s a search database to them. If you just want to have a roof over your head, and if you’re really lucky some wifi, these are going to be your best bet. Hostels are basically hotels where you stay in barrack style bunks. It’s a great way to meet other young people from all over the world, and one of the cheapest options for accommodations. Hold on to your valuables and you should be fine. A word of advice: be friendly and give people the benefit of the doubt, but always assume that if you leave anything valuable in plain sight you will be relieved of it pretty quickly. The typical price range for a hostel is between $20-$30 a night, which will quickly consume most of your daily allowance but may be unavoidable. In big cities like Paris or London, you really don’t have too many other options. You can also try couchsurfing, where you basically sign up to stay in strangers’ rooms. People do get murdered doing that, but not very often. So if you feel like rolling the dice it can be a good option. There’s also AirBnB, which can often have cheap rooms, but don’t expect them to offer rates much better than a hostel. If you’re visiting more rural areas and have a tenuous definition of personal safety, you might be OK just snagging some z’s under a bush somewhere. Obviously be careful, stay out of sight and away from busy areas, and don’t make a habit of it. Again, you’re rolling the dice here. You might face trespassing charges, robbery, or worse. Use your best judgement about whether an area is safe to sleep in before bedding down for the night. Generally if you’re going this route you want to follow a few rules. You need to be far away from a city, be somewhere without many people, and make yourself an unappealing target. You want to be hidden, and ideally someplace that’s kind of hard to get to. If you look like a filthy bum anyway, no one is going to assume you have much worth taking. If you are wearing nice clothes and have some nice gear, you might attract more interest.
Finally, if you’re going to be traveling by train, you can avoid the cost of a hostel by doing it at night and sleeping in your seat. By that same token, if you’re coming into a city late at night, go ahead and find somewhere to sleep in the airport, if you can stand the light and noise. Most are pretty safe since they are heavily populated and no one has any weapons. Just make sure you tuck your bag under your head and don’t leave anything in your coat pocket.
Europe is famous for it’s fine dining and amazing wine. As a penniless bum, you will find that this is one aspect of Europe you will have to skip out on. On the plus side, there is plenty of delicious cuisine to be sampled in Europe for little money. Here’s a rundown on cheap eats from Rick Steeves. Generally you will find that drinks in bars are expensive. Head to a local market for a cheap bottle of local wine. Like in America, markets will generally have cheaper food than restaurants. Pick up some groceries and keep them in your backpack. If your hostel offers breakfast, stuff yourself, and maybe pocket anything you can for later. Fast food is all over the world, including Europe. You might hate yourself for eating at McDonald’s when you’re in Rome, but it can be a cheap, fast option. Also, local bakeries in Europe are a great place to get a cheap pastry. In the worst case scenario you can stuff yourself with a baguette from a Paris bakery for a Euro. Tighten your belt, drink plenty of water, and you might find yourself coming back to the States a few pounds lighter but laden with great experiences. Generally, food costs about what it does here if not a bit more, so budget accordingly.
European cities have a lot of public transportation. If you can figure out how a metro works, it can be a great option to get around a city for a few Euros. Other areas have good bus systems. Do research before you leave on how public transport works; you might have a hard time navigating it when you don’t speak the language. Here’s a story to illustrate my point. When I was in Iceland I started using the bus because that was really the only way around. It was great. Clean, safe, and convenient. When I got on for the first time I just walked through the door and no one said anything to me. Awesome, I thought, free buses. As it turns out, buses are not free in Iceland. They cost about 4 dollars a trip. I didn’t know that until I saw other people getting on and depositing change. For some reason the bus driver didn’t seem to care if I paid the fare or not. I’m sure had I done a bit of research I could have saved myself a lot of money by getting a regular pass. Obviously I don’t recommend skirting the law, but if there are cheaper ways to get around then you should find out about them. Then, of course, nothing can beat your own feet for seeing a city. Walk as much as you can. It’s good for you, and you’ll experience more of the day-to-day life of Europe. Taxis are always an option, but generally not worth it if you can find any other way to get around.
Europe is renowned for it’s interconnected rail system. Your best option for getting from city to city is going to be at the train system. You can get an unlimited rail pass, or just pay as you go. Depending on your itinerary either could be cheaper. Do your research and if possible book online early for cheaper fares. Expect to spend about $40 to $50 per trip, and if you can get it for less than that be relieved.
Ultimately where you go is up to you. Visit the places that appeal to you. Generally Eastern Europe is cheapest and also has a great amount of history. Invest in a few guidebooks before you go to make the most of your journey. Always be on the lookout for new experiences and opportunities. Embrace the spirit of the vagabond. Keep things loose. The worst thing you can do while traveling is set a rigid schedule. You will constantly be pressured to change your plans as new things develop. If you’re stuck on the idea of keeping to the plan you will quickly find yourself becoming frustrated. What you spend on activities will vary. It doesn’t cost anything to go look at the Eiffel Tower for instance, but to go inside the Louvre will run you fifteen Euros. Generally assume about ten Euros a day and you’ll be fine.
So there you have it everyone. Your guide to backpacking Europe. What do you think? Did I miss something? Do you have any great tips or stories? Let us know in the comments.
Last modified: March 15, 2016