One year ago today, I was eye-level with the clouds. I watched Michigan shrink away as my airplane carried me to fulfill one of my life dreams: to backpack Europe. Looking back a year later, I’m recalling some of those “Oh, crap” moments and laughing at the things I wish I would have known before my journey. So to all you future adventurers out there, here’s my list of things I wish I would have known before backpacking Europe. I made these mistakes so you don’t have to! You’re welcome.
1. Remember those really cool travel apps you downloaded?
You know, the ones with the language translations, simple navigation maps, and nifty historic and scenic site guides that are GPS-enabled? Doesn’t work without a proper overseas data plan or wifi connection. For all the impressive technology features available, they’re useless if you intend to keep your phone on “airplane mode” like I did. Research data solutions before you leave. *Note: For all you tech-savvy geeks mocking my ignorance, in my defense, my smart phone experience boasted a whopping total of 4 days prior to departure. I had never owned a smartphone before this European backpacking adventure!
2. Wifi is not ubiquitous.
During the trip I intended to rely on wifi for everything – flight details, hostel information, maps, travel resources, research tools to help define the itinerary, blog updating… Once I realized that my wifi access was mostly restricted to the hostels, I began relentlessly taking screenshots on my phone of maps, information, flight itineraries. I would recommend a backup of all imperative details, or see #1 – look into an overseas data plan. Regardless, if your phone were stolen, it is handy to keep a printout of everything hidden in your backpack.
3. There is no such thing as a free lunch – or free walking tour.
“Free” walking tours organized via hostels are very informative and offer a great opportunity to meet fellow travelers and hear a local’s perspective of the area. I highly recommend it. However, something not advertised is the expected tip that the guide will ask for at the end of the tour. And don’t skimp out and leave early to avoid tipping – that’s just bad travel karma. The guides are often independent people who take time out of their day to give the tour, plan the tour, research background history, and promote themselves. In my experience, tipping ranged between 5-10 euro per person, depending on the tour quality. The first time I went on a tour I felt extremely awkward with the smallest bill in my money belt as a 50… and some change. Bring singles and small bills so you can leave a tip for your “free” tour.
4. You can easily cut costs by limiting your food budget. NOT.
Sure many hostels offer complimentary breakfast (toast & jam, wow!). Sure you could fuel off of snacks throughout the day (baguette & Nutella… okay). No. No. No. DO NOT fall victim to this misconception that a food budget is worth cutting. Food is culture. Sure I could grab a crepe from Good Girls Go To Paris any day, but I can’t always visit a street vendor creperie while walking through the rainy Parisian streets after a long trek from Sacre Coeur. A “pancake” in Amsterdam is like nothing I’ve seen in the states. The tomatoes taste sweeter in Capri. You can’t get tapas on every street corner back home like you do in Barcelona. Do yourself a favor – eat and savor. Be generous with your food budget.
5. That $3 alarm clock probably won’t be reliable.
If you intend to be scheduled, invest in a decent alarm system that works. And a backup. Have two alarms. A $3 clock that doesn’t keep time quite right is going to be a real thorn when you wake up late and miss your flight to Rome.
6. These 3 possessions will make you a desirable victim:
Cash, iPhone, Canon DSLR. I had all three. I was advised on a walking tour that all of these items are sought after by pickpockets. In this case, don’t flaunt it if you got it – especially all 3 at the same time. I made sure my DSLR was always secure around my neck, money belt safe under my clothes, and iPhone in a zipped pocket in my satchel. After that warning I became much more conscious of where I stored my possessions and how I used them.
7. Your Student ID Card is your Golden Ticket. BRING IT!
The biggest regret of the trip was not bringing our student ID cards. There were countless incidents where discounts (or freebies) were offered to people with a valid student ID.
8. Save time by preordering museum tickets.
When in Florence, after waiting in line for a looooong time, we discovered that we could have preordered our tickets for a specific time and bypass the queue. If you’re aware of which museums you want to visit, see if they offer preordered tickets. Also make sure that they will be open – those obscure holidays and strange hours of operation may twist your plans.
9. Forgetting your towel was smarter than you thought.
You know that dreaded nervous feeling you get the moment you lock your door behind you and get ready to take that first step on your journey? And you stop and touch all your bags and run through your mental checklist? And the entire time you travel you think, “What did I forget? I know I forgot something… Oh gosh, what am I missing?” For me, it was my towel. My first reaction was that this was going to be horrible; I’m never going to shower again. In retrospect I think it was rather fortuitous. Towels are huge space-hogs for limited backpack space. Most hostels offer towels for a deposit or small fee – but do advanced research if you know where you’re staying. I borrowed my travel companion’s oversized washcloth which was perfectly adequate for the trip. Not having a towel saved so much space. Also, it isn’t fun to pack up a damp towel. It stays damp and you won’t do laundry as often as you think. Skip the towel and bring a large washcloth instead. Unless community hostel towels gross you out, in which I’ll retort – then why are you staying in a hostel?
10. Oh, you want secure bag storage? Here, just toss your backpack in this community closet!
Just because a hostel said it had “lockers” or “secure bag storage” doesn’t mean it really does. There were a few occasions when I had to store my backpack in a community closet that everyone shared. There were other times when the hostel offered no real locker at all and I would cover my backpack with linens, lock it to the bunk post (really ineffective) and keep my fingers crossed that my stuff would be untouched when I returned. Sometimes the lockers were so small that the entire backpack wouldn’t fit – I’d just have to lock up the valuables. If security is important and you’re preplanning your trip, I would recommend contacting the hostel for a detailed description of “secure bag storage.” And if you find yourself in the unexpected situation that your bag isn’t going to be secure, keep everything valuable with yourself.
11. Your hostel may turn into a pumpkin at midnight.
Alright Cinderella – you’ve had a late night on the town and the last thing you need is to return to a locked hostel with a full bladder. Some hostels may not advertise a curfew – so ask. OR if they don’t have a 24-hour security guard established it could be logical to assume that at one point the guard will go home and lock the hostel entrance. Check out the hostel website and reviews before booking and ask again upon arrival. Getting locked out is only funny after you fruitlessly attempt to bang down the door, decide to surrender and sleep on the stoop until someone decides to investigate the noise and relieve you to your never-been-comfier hostel bed.
Some days I wish that I would have read these discoveries somewhere in a “Things Every Backpacker Should Know” forum before my departure. But then I wouldn’t have great stories to share. Have you ever traveled abroad and returned with a list of things you wish you would have known? Any backpacking tips? Some of the best travel stories stem from “If only I knew…” Please comment below if you do!