The world is such an awe-inspiring place – it’s such a shame that most people don’t get to see much of it in their lifetime. What’s worse than that though, are the people who don’t even care to see more of it. C’mon, at least be aware of what’s out there!
I personally think that everyone should try backpacking through Europe when they are in their twenties (take advantage of that youth and carefreeness). Europe’s extensive rail system is so well set up you could wake up in Brussels and go to sleep in Paris in one day. There’s also plenty of hostels so you can find accommodations for as little as $15/day. Finally, there’s no shortage of attractions so you know you’ll be a busy backpacker. Not only is backpacking (in Europe) a great way to discover the world around you while you discover yourself, it has all the characteristics of a classic rite of passage – you leave home, you figure out who you are, you overcome ordeals, and then you’re reborn. The Maasai kill lions, the Australian aborigines do a 6 month walkabout, and the tribes on Vanuatu land dive. Americans can backpack through Europe (we should start a movement)!
Truth be told, when I planned my first backpacking trip (yes, I’ve been on multiple ones), I had no idea what I was doing. All I knew was that I had a fixed amount of cash (read: fixed = barely nothing) and a list of countries I really wanted to see. I was willing to stay in hostels, eat bread and butter, and sleep on trains just to witness the changing of the guards, stand under the Eiffel Tower, and walk the piazzas of Venice. Oh, to be young and not care about creature comforts – it really was a blessing.
So how did I start? I bought a backpack and a copy of Let’s Go: Europe, picked out a Eurorail Pass, reserved some rooms in hostels, packed a couple of change of clothes and set out with an equally travel hungry friend.
Here are the 10 lessons I learned while backpacking:
1) Not all hostels are the same. Some rent towels, some don’t. Some have bars (they are great places to meet other travelers – see #2), some don’t. Some only have dorm rooms, some have private rooms. You get the idea.
2) It’s easy to make friends with anyone who speaks English (shout outs to the Brits, Aussies, and Canadians). Don’t believe me? Who else will you talk to when you’re out there if not someone who speaks English?
3) It’s very possible to fall asleep in a train station, airport, or on a park bench while holding all your personal items (this is to make sure no one steals your stuff).
4) You can get through many meals if you buy a baguette and some spread.
5) Packing your own bed sheet and bringing a lock will save you some money (so you don’t have to rent either at the hostel or elsewhere). Also, don’t forget the flip-flops (you’ll thank me when you’re in the communal shower).
6) There’s no such thing as getting lost. You can always find your way back via a taxi or by asking a friendly local.
7) Learning some key phrases in the respective foreign language will get you far. I always make sure to learn “where is…”, “thank you”, “bathroom”, and “how much” whenever I go somewhere foreign – even today.
8) Taking the train around Europe can cost just as much as a flight – but the train will get you to the city center while the airport will be outside of town. Overnight trains are great ways to save on a night of accommodations.
9) While I’m on it, European trains leave ON TIME. Seriously. If you’re even a minute late, you’ll be waiting for the next one (and that’s okay, too).
10) If you have an adventurous spirit and keep an open mind, you will have the time of your life – guaranteed. Backpacking allows you to slow down, see the sights as a local, and interact with locals and fellow travelers. It also means that you’ll have to maneuver the language barriers and incomprehensible signs all while having your cultural sensitivities challenged. But it’s so worth it. You’ll never travel the same again (to this day, I identify with travelers – not vacationers. And yes, there’s a difference.).