The Complete Guide to Backpacking Europe
Thank you for visiting The Savvy Backpacker. This page provides a comprehensive overview for planning your backpacking Europe trip. It is intended to be a good place to discover all the backpacking Europe articles on The Savvy Backpacker.
The articles on this site are divided into a few different categories — you will find each category in the top menu of this site and they’re listed below:
- Planning: Itinerary planning tips, estimating travel costs, finding cheap airfare to Europe, guide book reviews, financial planning, deciding what time of year to travel, and other planning advice.
- Packing: Packing lists for men and women, how to choose a travel backpack, how to efficiently pack your backpack, untra-light travel advice, how to dress during the winter, and more.
- Hostels and Lodging: Guide to staying in hostels, Couchsurfing tips, short-term vacation apartment rentals, and more.
- Transportation: Guide to train travel in Europe, finding cheap airfare in Europe, using rail passes, surviving Ryanair, traveling by bus, car rentals, and more.
- Travel Tips: Digital cameras for travel guide, simple money saving tips, women’s and men’s European fashion advice, safety and scams, solo travel tips, Contiki travel review, using cell phones and other electronics, and more.
- Travel Product Reviews: Backpack reviews, best travel shoes, best travel underwear, best socks, headphones for travel, travel laptops, and more.
- Travel Photos: A random collection of travel photos that we’ve taken.
- Travel Blog: Our travel tales.
Outline of This Guide
Each section within this article will link to more in-depth articles on the subject so be sure to click around and discover!
- Pre-Departure Paperwork Issues
- Money Matters
- Choosing Which Season to Travel
- Travel Itinerary Planning
- Estimating Your Costs and Budgeting Advice for Planning Your Travels
- Backpacks and Packing Advice
- Using Electronics
- Digital Camera Advice
- Traveling Solo Tips
- Traveling with Friends Guide
- More Great Backpacking Europe Travel Advice
Pre-departure Paperwork Issues for Backpacking Europe
Passport and Visa
It’s a bit of a no-brainer, but you need a passport to travel in Europe. Make sure that you don’t put it off until the last minute because it can sometimes take 4+ weeks to get a passport. As of 2013, a U.S. Passport costs $135, but if you need a passport quickly it will cost an extra $73 for expedited service and overnight delivery.
American, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand citizens don’t need a visa to visit any European country, but the amount of time you can spend in a county will depend on local law. It isn’t too complicated for most travelers. Basically, any American, Canadian, Australian, or New Zealand visitor can stay in a Schengen zone country for a total of 90 days without a visa (New Zealand residents can actually stay longer, so see the laws if you’re a Kiwi). The Schengen zone countries are listed below:
Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
But be aware that once you enter the Schengen zone you’re only allowed to visit for the next 90 days and the time does not reset if you visit a non-Schengen zone country. For example, if you spend 60 days in France, you can only stay in Belgium for another 30 days before needing to leave the Schengen zone. Or if you spend 60 days in France and then you visit the U.K. (which isn’t part of the Schengen zone) for 60 days you will not be able to legally return to any Schengen zone country because you would have first entered a Schengen zone country more than 90 days prior.
You have to wait a full 90 days after the end of your initial 90 day visit before you can enter any Schengen zone country.
The United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland, and N. Ireland) and Ireland are not part of the Schengen zone so they have their own rules. Visitors can stay in the UK for 180 days without a visa and in Ireland for 90 days.
If you are planning on visiting for an extended period of time you need to carefully plan your journey or look into getting a long-stay tourist visa—which can be difficult. For example, if you plan on visiting the U.K. or Ireland, put it at the very start or end of your trip since they are not part of the zone.
Another note: passport checks are not very common when when crossing boarders of Schengen zone countries, and when they do check, they usually don’t check stamps to see when you arrived. Therefore, there is a chance you can overstay your 90 days without anyone knowing. The only place that ever checked my arrival stamp and asked why I was in Europe for over 90 days was in Iceland (I had to show him my French work visa to prove that I could be there). Other than that, I’ve only had people look at my passport photo. But this option is a bit risky, so if you get caught you might get a big fine and you could get expelled from the E.U. for 5 years.
I recommend bringing about 50€ (or whatever the local currency) as it is nice to have a little cash when you arrive. Don’t bring much more than 50€ because you’ll be charged a terrible exchange rate from your local bank to get foreign currency. Also bring a $100 bill (0r whatever your currency) in case you need emergency cash.
The best way to get money while traveling abroad is through an ATM (cashpoint/cash machine). ATMs will give you a much better exchange rate than what you’ll find at a money exchange place or from your local bank back home. The good thing about ATMs in Europe is that they don’t charge you a fee to use their ATM (no matter what bank you use). Your local bank might charge you a fee to use your card in a foreign ATM, so be sure to read up your bank’s policies about using your card abroad. It is best to withdraw bigger chunks of cash than making a lot of smaller withdraws since your bank will probably charge you a fee each time you use the ATM.
You can avoid fees in many cases if you’re a member of a bank that belongs to the Global ATM Alliance and you use a foreign ATM that is also a member of the alliance.
It is best to only use your credit card/debit card when making large purchases since you’ll get charged a fee each time you use it. That’s why I like to use cash for small things and then my card if I need to buy something bigger.
Most people backpack through Europe during the summer, but this is also the high season in Europe. It is understandable that most people want to travel during the summer since the weather is the best, but it will be busy and crowded. Another great option is traveling during the shoulder seasons (spring and fall). The crowds decrease dramatically during the spring and fall and the weather can still be really nice. If you want to skip the crowds travel in the winter. Although, the weather during the winter can range from mild to very cold (depending on where you travel). If you do want to backpack Europe in the winter, I invite you to read our guide to staying warm while traveling in the winter for tips on traveling .
Choosing a well-researched travel itinerary is essential if you want to get the most out of your journey. You don’t have to plan every second of each day, but I believe you should have a good idea of what you want to do/see before you leave.
Personally, I like to first take out a map of Europe to get an overview of all the places I can visit. Then I make a note of all the places that seem interesting. Once I have an idea of where I want to visit, I make a rough itinerary and I make sure the order in which I’m traveling makes sense — don’t waste a lot of time and money by traveling in a haphazard manner. I tend to grab a few travel guides to get an idea of what each city has to offer — read about my favorite guide books and online travel guides here.
One of the biggest mistakes travelers can make is trying to visit too many places. While possible, trying to visit five destinations in 2 weeks will totally wear you out and everything will blend together. Trust me. I recommend spending more time in fewer places because it will give you more time to enjoy traveling. Additionally, traveling to each new destination takes a lot of time, so you’ll spend a large chunk of your time on a train, plane, or bus if you change destinations every two or three days — plus, traveling isn’t cheap so you’ll save money by traveling less.
Backpacking in Europe doesn’t have to be extremely expensive, but it can be pretty costly if you don’t pay attention. Your budget will also depend on your personal travel style and budget restraints, but I assume most people reading this guide are budget conscious travelers.
There are five general areas where you’ll spend money:
- Food and Alcohol
- Public Transportation
- Nonessential Extras
Most budget travelers and backpackers stay in hostels because hostels are usually the cheapest accommodation option. In Western Europe a night in a hostel will cost about 20€-30€ for the cheapest option, but prices drop dramatically in Eastern Europe. If you want a room with less people (or a private room) the price will be higher. The best place to find a good hostel is through Hostelworld (that is who I always use). Want to know more about hostels and what to look for in a perfect hostel — view our guide to hostels in Europe.
If you want to treat yourself, or if you want some privacy, I recommend renting an apartment through AirBnB. I’ve used AirBnB a lot and I’ve really liked it. If you’re traveling with another person, the price per person can be comparable to a hostel. Additionally, I feel much more like a local when I stay in an apartment.
If you want to really save some cash, there is always the option of CouchSurfing. The downside to CouchSurfing is that it can be difficult to secure housing (especially in large cities where hosts are overrun with requests) and you can’t just ‘check-in’ whenever you like since you’re dealing with an individual, not a company. But it can be a great way to discover a city and save money. I’ve written a guide to CouchSurfing and I invite you to read it if you’re interesting in learning more about this option.
Food and Alcohol
Food costs can be a little tricky to estimate because the prices can change a lot depending on where you go. The cheapest option is buying food at a grocery store and making a meal for yourself. It is pretty easy to eat for 10€-15€/day if you choose this option. That said, it isn’t always easy or possible to make all your meals. However, many grocery stores have prepared sandwiches and salads which can be a good budget option. In Paris, I could get a decent sized chicken salad, a bag of chips, and a drink for about 8.50€ from a grocery store (there were cheaper options, too).
Eating at restaurants can become costly, but it is nice to sample the local cuisine — and you’ll get tired of eating ham sandwiches and pasta. You can find cheap pizza and kebabs in pretty much any European city and a full meal from a restaurant will start around 15€. A good way to save some money is to eat at a restaurant during lunch because there are often lunch specials.
Alcohol can bust your budget if you’re not careful. Luckily, good beer and wine is pretty cheap if you buy it from a grocery store. In France (and other wine producing countries), a good bottle of wine starts around 7€ and a 6 pack of Leffe Belgian beer is about 6€ at the store. You can get a few really good specialty Belgian beers for about 1.50€-3€/bottle. In Paris I paid anywhere from 4€-9€ for a beer at a restaurant/bar. Be sure to look for Happy Hour to save some money.
Attractions and Sightseeing
Don’t forget to budget for visiting attractions like museums and monuments. Some cities, like London for example, have a lot of free museums, but most places charge. Museums generally run about 5€-12€ for the normal collection (I suggest looking up the prices for where you’re visiting). If you’re under 26 you might be able to visit for free or at a discounted student rate so be sure to check.
Public transportation in pretty much all of Europe is very good — especially in cities. The price for using public transportation can be really cheap, but in some cities it can be a bit expensive. Just be sure to do a little research before arriving so you know your best option.
One of your biggest expenses will be traveling between destinations. There are a lot of budget airlines which makes long distance travel fairly affordable, if you buy early. You can read our guide to cheap air travel in Europe for more information about flying in Europe. I love train travel, but it can also be pretty expensive. I’ve written a guide about rail travel in Europe that has some tips about finding the best ticket prices and general train travel advice. Additionally, another popular option for traveling by rail is using a rail pass.
A cheap option for backpacking is traveling through Europe by coach. While slow, coach travel is generally the cheapest travel option.
Another backpacking Europe option is traveling by car. If you’re going to just travel between large cities then I would forget about driving. Driving in any large European city is a nightmare. But driving to a tiny little town can be a ton of fun. I rented a car when I explored the Normandy region of France and it was fine (until I had to drive in Paris). Be sure to brush up on your driving a manual transmission skills because automatic cars are much more rare and cost 2x-3x as much to rent. You can read more about renting a car in Europe in our car rental guide.
Don’t forget to budget for those extra things that you can’t anticipate — whether it be good or bad.
Finding the right backpack is important and there are many options available. In general, I recommend buying a backpack that is between 35 liters – 65 liters. This size range is good because it isn’t too small, but it isn’t too big. Also, I personally think a panel loading (front loading) is preferable to a top loading backpack since they are easier to pack and unpack. I think the best all-around backpacks are the Osprey Porter or the Osprey Farpoint but you can read about our top rated travel backpacks for Europe.
Packing Your Backpack
Remember to pack light. This can be tough — even for experienced travelers. Traveling is stressful but it is much more difficult when you’re hauling around a ton of stuff. Remember that no matter how long you travel, the amount of clothes you bring should be about the same since you’ll wash your clothes as you travel. In fact, your clothes comprise the largest bulk of your backpack’s weight, so bringing less clothing will cut your weight by the greatest amount.
The big thing to remember is to bring clothes that you can mix and match. This way you can combine different articles of clothing to build multiple outfits. I think it is best to bring clothes that are black, dark blue, dark green, brown, and other similar colors that hide stains.
How to Pack Your Bag
Living out of a backpack has its challenges, so you’ll want to be organized as possible. If you just throw your clothes in the bag you’ll not only have trouble finding your stuff, but all your clothes will be constantly wrinkled. I like to use packing cubes and packing folders to keep everything organized. The cubes and folders also allow you prevent wrinkles. For a better explanation on how to properly pack a backpack I invite you to read our guide to how to pack a backpack for traveling in Europe.
Backpackers are bringing more and more electronics as they’re backpacking Europe. The main thing you’ll need is an electronic plug adapter. This adapter will convert the plug on your electronic device to the European outlet. This won’t change the voltage that enters the device (Europe uses 220v and N. America uses 120v). I’ve written a guide that explains everything you need to know about using electronics in Europe — from voltage issues and plug adapters to wifi and laptops.
A camera, in my opinion, is the most important item you can bring to Europe — but I love photography. It’s important to remember that the best camera is the one you have with you. That’s why I prefer to bring a small a camera as possible that also takes quality photos. Clunky DSLRs may take amazing photographs, but most people end up leaving it at the hostel because it is too heavy to lug around. If the camera can fit in your pocket then I guarantee you’ll use it more often. Plus, when you’re backpacking through Europe you already have a limited amount of space and a big camera will just become something else you have to pack.
One thing I always recommend when looking for a camera is its low-light performance. Most people look for high megapixles, but low-light performance is much more important and it will make your photos so much better. Also, make sure you bring plenty of memory cards so you don’t have to worry about running out of memory card space.
My first trip backpacking Europe was completely solo. I loved it. I was worried that I would be an outcast and I would be lonely, but I ended up meeting new people every day. Traveling alone gives you the freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want. I was able to change my plans quickly and I didn’t have to argue with my travel partner about anything.
I stayed in hostels and I was able to meet other travelers — both traveling solo and with other people. The worst thing was having to eat alone, but this was just a minor thing. After a while I started to enjoy it.
While I do love traveling alone, I also love backpacking Europe with friends. I’ve done a lot of travel in Europe with my wife, but things can get a bit tense when the stress of travel kicks in. The main tip for success is communication. Make sure everyone in your group voices their opinions before you leave so everyone has an idea of what they want out of traveling.
And don’t be afraid of splitting up. It is nice to have some alone time — even if it is just for an hour. Then everyone can come back together and continue the journey.
Do you have any tips or advice from your time backpacking Europe or do you have questions? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.