Advice for the First-Time Backpacker
Heading to Europe
February 11, 2005
So you’re sitting there in front of your computer, amidst an assortment of travel books and maps that you are using to plan your first big trip overseas. You study a map of Europe with wide eyes and an overwhelming feeling of anticipation. The names on the map never sounded as exotic and wonderful when you first heard them as a child. Paris, London, Berlin, and even that small Czech Republic town you can’t even pronounce now hold possibility for adventure. You want to leave tomorrow; To hop on a plane to Europe with nothing but your basic necessities strapped to your back, leaving behind your worries about mid-terms, bills, and rush hour traffic. Only one slight problem stands between you and the freedom of the open road: you don’t know if you’re ready!
Don’t worry! You're in the same big boat that all travelers find themselves in. As you can probably tell by my site, travel is my religion, so my advice to you might sound a bit religious: You just need to believe that everything will turn out for the best in the end. Have a bit of faith! Now, I'm not saying that you shouldn't be prepared for hardships - backpacking can be a physical, emotional and spiritual roller coaster - but the experience can never be taken from you and you'll never regret the good as well as the bad occurrences. With a little planning, a loose itinerary, and the mindset that anything can happen, you are destined to have an awesome adventure.
The great thing about a trip like the one you’re about to set out on is this: no matter what assurances I or others give you, you're still going to have that big lump in your throat the day you set off. I had it when I left on my 2001 trip - my first time on my own, my first time out of the country - and to tell you the truth, I almost vomited when I arrived in Paris because of the amount of trepidation swimming around inside. And now, three years later - after three major trips through over 20 countries - I still have that feeling the day I leave home. I take this gut feeling as a positive reaction though, for if I was to leave without being anxious about something - Do I have enough money? Will I get pick pocketed? Am I in good enough shape for this? Will I have a job to return to? - the trip wouldn't be worth it. If you want comfort and ease, go with a tour group and stay in 5-star hotels, but I guarantee that your experience would not be as meaningful as a solo backpacking journey would be.
Every backpacker I have met has had anxieties about what they’re getting into. Many wonder if they are planning and going on their first backpacking trip “the right way.” Let me be clear about this: there is no “right way.” However, there are a few things that you might consider doing to make your backpacking trip enjoyable, memorable and possibly even life changing. Here are ten tips that I picked up on my travels that might make your time in Europe more enjoyable:
#1 – Europe is relatively safe.
Especially if you’re an American, don’t worry too much about being harmed while backpacking. If you keep your eyes open, stay alert to your surroundings, use common sense, and don’t flash your money or valuables, you’ll have nothing to worry about. Most Europeans dislike the American government, not the American people.
Eastern Europe is in fact safer today than the United States. The Freedom War of the 90’s is long gone. The locals are slowly-but-surely rebuilding their war torn towns, but are very warm, pleasant people whom have their charm turned up high in hopes to reel back in the tourist’s money that they grew accustomed to receiving in the 80’s.
#2 – Control your itinerary, but don’t let it control you!
Before I go on one of my backpacking adventures, I outline a route I would like to take and constantly refine and mold it while I’m traveling. Do not become too detailed in the planning stages for if they don’t work out, they will just lead to frustrations created by your own doing. You need to be flexible to prepare for anything from a train strike in Italy to clueless cows blocking the tracks in Bosnia.
For my first trip to Europe in 2001, I kept it very simple: travel clockwise around Europe; Start and end in Paris. I divided my 77-day trip into 4 equal parts with a goal to be in Berlin about 15 days into my trip, Sarajevo 15 days after that, Naples yet another 15, and back to Paris a few days before my flight home. While I traveled, I added and subtracted cities – even countries – from my itinerary depending on my current mood, my budget situation, or something as trivial as train departure times. I decided to go to Sarajevo rather than Ljubljana simply because the Sarajevo train departed a few hours earlier. I planned to spend a week in Rome, but while I was traveling I discovered my love for quiet small towns - so I spent most of that time camping on a small Italian beach instead. Near the end of my trip I discovered I was spending too much money too quickly, so I headed to Romania and lived comfortably on $4-5 a day staying with friends. Be flexible and ready for anything.
#3 – Don’t bring great expectations.
When you’re packing for your journey, don’t pack great expectations. If you arrive into a city expecting to be blown away by the beauty, history, beautiful locals, or friendliness that you had heard so much about from others, there’s a much higher chance of being let down than if you had not any expectations at all. Consider the big-budgeted film Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. People around the world anxiously waited for this film to be released. Expectations were so high, some lined up for more than a month just to be the first to see this “destined classic” in the theater. Unfortunately, the only way the film could have lived up to the hype was if Jesus Christ, Elvis, and John Lennon walked off of the screen and into the theater, announced that they had formed a band while they were away, and proceeded to perform their first concert. (Jesus rocks on the drums, BTW.)
The same goes for your first trip to Europe. You know you’ll see some amazing things, but don’t count on it happening. Treat the trip simply as a pleasant break from your everyday life and you’ll do just fine.
#4 – Variety is the spice of life!
If you are planning a multiple-country tour of Europe, try not to spend too much time in one type of setting. If you are planning a week in London, Paris, Berlin, or Rome, try to spend equal amount of time in small towns. If you go from one big city to the next, they will all start looking and feeling the same. Compliment a day in a museum with a day in a park. Plan some time to relax following a day of strenuous exercise. If you’re traveling with others, take a break from them for a day or two and explore on your own. A change of pace brings the possibility for more memorable moments as well as more chances to reflect on the progression of your journey.
#5 – Be extroverted!
Most people ask me if I get lonely while backpacking solo. The truth is that finding solitude from the throngs of other backpackers and tourists is what I yearn for while traveling. But a traveling partner is enjoyable every once in a while and they’re not as hard to find as you might imagine. You’ll see them in countless busses, trains, hostels, and cafés throughout Europe. Armed with the following five universal backpacker questions, you’ll be able to figure out if that backpacker sitting near you is the type you might have fun traveling with for a while:
1- Where are you from?
2- How long did you spend in the last town?
3- How long have you been traveling for?
4- How much longer do you plan on traveling for?
5- Where do you plan on heading next?
By starting the conversation with these questions, I’ve meet some interesting people while traveling throughout Europe. Some of them simply offered a chance to chat in English for a while, but a few became friends-for-life whom I still keep in touch even after years since traveling with them. If the feelings aren’t mutual, don’t tag along at their heels like a homeless dog. Always consider that they might not want to travel with you. After all, even if you share traveling styles, they still might just want to travel alone.
#6 – Traveling is condensed life.
You will be amazed on how much will happen to you in a single day of traveling. Not only will you be seeing so many new and exciting places, it is likely that you will be feeling, learning, and experiencing more in just a few hours than during a week at home or in school. The people you meet and spend time with will soon feel like old friends or loved relatives. Your feet might tread on two cities – or even two countries – between nightly slumber. You might enter a country not even knowing what language is spoken; yet leave a week later knowing how to hold a basic conversation with a local.
#7 – Record your journey.
Bring a journal or even a small tape recorder on your journey. I don’t keep a journal while I’m at home, but on the road I always try to keep a detailed account of my journey. But don’t simply record where you are followed by a list of superlatives. Record something that makes your journey unique and memorable. Add that which might spark memories later on in your life. Record your feelings, attitude, and health. Talk about the details of a building, what the area smells like, what the locals are wearing. Make notes on the weather – the color of the leaves on the trees, the type of clouds in the sky, if it is windy, a slight breeze, or stillness in the air. At night, try to spend 10 minutes sitting near an open window and make a list of all that you hear. These things will make you more aware of yourself and your surroundings while you travel. Later on in life, when you are old and grey, you can pull out your dusty journal and tell your grandkids stories about what it was like to see Europe during the turn of the century!
#8 – Take music but don’t bring it.
I never bring music on a trip. Not only do the headphones make me less approachable by locals and other backpackers, I would miss out on the sounds of my surroundings. I like to listen for songs in the ambiance of places. When I return home, I search for the songs I liked and burn them onto a CD as a “Europe Trip Mix,” where every song has a personal meaning to me. For instance, I'll never hear Phil Collins' “(Can Feel It) In the Air Tonight” without remembering when I heard it outside the Zagreb train station.
#9 – Concentrate on every photograph.
I spend a moment before or after I snap off a photograph to take in the scene. I listen, smell, and hear the scene of the photograph, for the photo can only capture what I see (and even that is limited). When I look at the photo at home, I can recall the scene more for what it was and not just for what the photo captured. And no matter if I am using digital or not, if I do not believe the shot is going to have some personal value to me, I won't take it.
#10 – Take problems in stride.
Try not to let bad experiences ruin your trip. In fact, the bad experiences make my journeys more interesting to talk about when I get home.
I hope these tips help you on your upcoming journey through Europe. You’re about to take a big step into a way of travel that is as exciting as it is rewarding. Ok, now get ready for the travel quote to end this article...
The rewards of the journey far outweigh the risk of leaving the harbor.
This story is also published on TheGreenRabbit.ca
You'll meet all kinds of people while backpacking.
Single-serving friends in Austria.
Roman students protesting the war in Afghanistan.
Hiking towards the setting Italian sun.
If you can't stand the crowds..
...head for a secluded beach!
Taking time to adjust the itinerary.
A friend in the forests of Romania.
Don't let guns alarm you. They are a common sight in Eastern Europe.
Backpacking beside a river in Germany.
Enjoying a sunset in Pompeii, Italy.
Not all travel companions are human!
Showing my belly above the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro.
A Eastern European bookstore employee and now a pen pal.
Travel can be a laugh with a little company.
Finding solitude in a Croatian forest.
Fellow backpackers seem like old friends after a night of partying.
Maybe you too will find romance on your trip.