It’s summer and if your Facebook feed is anything like mine, it seems like everyone is on an amazing holiday. Avoid having to hide each and every person who is posting photos of them jumping in front of the Eiffel Tower by planning a European adventure of your own!
First of all, you need to choose one or maybe two places that you really want to visit. The absolute must-see country, city, or landmark.
Next, have a look at your budget. If you’re lucky or good with money, you may already have the money saved. If you’re like me, those savings are probably looking a little pathetic. Now for the boring bit: what can you cut out? There’s the obvious; regular takeaway coffee, an ever expanding closet of clothes, all those beers bought last Saturday night. If you can cut those things out and have enough to save for a trip in a year, then do it and don’t turn back. If you know you’re still going to be short, consider drastic changes. Living in a cheaper rental or living with the parents; asking for a raise or finding a second job. Avoid borrowing money, especially for initial stuff such as airfares.
Have a think about when you want to travel. Consider your school schedule, when you’re more likely to get time off work (if you plan on returning to your job) and of course, the weather at your destination.
Now let me sell to you: Europe in winter. I planned my first big backpacking trip in December and January, which meant that it was cold, sometimes raining and sometimes a little bleak. BUT just imagine; no lining up, cheaper hostel rates, mulled wine, and snow! As someone who had never seen snow in her life, snowboarding was top of my list of things to do. Basically, if you want more sightseeing time for less money, go in winter.
Ahem. So hopefully by now, you have an idea of where you want to go, when you want to go and how much money you’re able to save. So let’s start booking!
I usually book flights as soon as I can afford them. This is usually 6 months in advance, which gives me more than enough time to save for the rest of the trip. Once you have an idea of where you want to go, start signing up for e-newsletters for airlines and booking websites so you can get an idea of how much you’d expect to pay and be the first to know when there’s a sale.
I’d recommend flying in and out of different cities to save you a day of travelling to a place you’ve already been to. Play around with different cities to see what comes up with the best and cheapest result. Sometimes it’s worth buying a Round the World ticket so don’t count that out.
Once flights are booked, think about how you’re going to get around. Will you do a tour such as Top Deck or Contiki? I know everyone sneers at these, but everyone I know that’s been on them has had an amazing time. You itinerary is planned out, accommodation is booked, it’s easy to make friends, and you get to see heaps of stuff. If you’re traveling on your own and worried you won’t make friends or will have a hard time navigating the trains, they may be worth your while.
But one of the best things about Europe is its truly amazing rail system. It goes everywhere, every day and you’ll get a chance to see some of the countryside. If you’re not European, get a rail pass which gets will get you almost everywhere. I would completely avoid flying within Europe because between getting to the airport where low cost carriers fly out from, being there two hours in advance, and luggage allowances, you will probably save time and money by catching a train.
I know when you’re planning a trip to Europe, it can be so easy to overbook. There are as many countries in Europe as states in the US, so accept that unless you’re doing a 2 year backpacking trip, you’re not going to see them all (there’s always next time). If you have a look at message boards, you can generally get an idea of how long to spend in each destination. Even if you’re not going on a tour, have a look at what itineraries the tour companies have and consider that they’re taking the extreme, see as many countries as possible approach. By all means, book in for 2 nights at each destination, but remember that you’ll only get a chance to see the really touristy stuff. That’s okay, by the way. You’re a tourist, you’re going to be acting like a tourist (even if you don’t intend to).
Keep in mind travel times. Sometimes it’ll be a two hour train trip, others will take up most of a day. Also factor in rest days because sometimes you want to sleep in, do your laundry and barely leave your hostel. And try to book the occasional private room instead of a dorm to save your sanity – if you do this in cheaper countries, you can still come in under budget.
In the book everything vs book nothing debate, I always err on the side of caution. I once worked at a hostel where during the busiest months, would be fully booked 10 days in advance. That’s a bit extreme so I wouldn’t expect most hostels to be booked out quite that far in advance, but I would recommend always booking before you arrive in a city. Even if it’s just the morning of the day you’re meant to arrive, make sure you have a bed or risk trawling through an unknown city with a heavy pack in the dark.
Finally, on the subject of hostels, this is what I look for; a kitchen, a bar and free wireless – in that order. After travel and accommodation, food will be your biggest expense, and being able to cook your own food will save you a million zillion dollars. A hostel bar is the easiest way to make friends and it’s not like a normal bar – everyone is willing to talk. And wireless is a given when most of us have smart phones and laptops and most hostels in Europe now offer it free.
So hopefully I’ve convinced a few of you. If you’re still undecided, have a look at your savings and budget. Can you afford a plane ticket now or in a few months? If you give up drinking or eating out or shopping can you afford a ticket now or in a few months? If so, do it! What would you prefer; drinking a beer at your local dive or drinking Guinness in an Irish bar (that is actually in Ireland); eating pizza from Dominoes or eating pizza at an Italian café; shopping in Forever 21 or shopping in Paris?
Have any questions? Or do you have any tips for someone wanting to make their step from dreaming about backpacking to actually backpacking? Join us in the comments!
Written by Louise Sandow.