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Backpacking Europe

I did a European backpacking trip for 10 weeks and wanted to share some recommendations for what to pack and how to travel. It’s poorly organized right now — sorry.

The Main Stuff

  • Tortuga Setout Travel Backpack ($199)
    Pretty much the greatest travel backpack in existence. There are better reviews online, but a summary:

    • Easy to access clothing
    • Doesn’t look too touristy
    • Comfortable
    • Sturdy, well made
    • Lots of space
    • Just the right amount of organizational pockets
  • Packing Cubes ($23)
    Offers much better organization for all your clothing than just throwing it in the bag.
  • Travel memory foam pillow ($25)
    I like sleeping. Some people like the neck pillows better.
  • Large 24×48″ microfiber towel ($12)
    This dries quickly and is perfect for travel. Needs washing every 3-4 days.
  • 2 large wet/dry bags ($11)
    Use one for dirty clothing and one for moist things like bathing suits or towels. Be careful — the zippers will break if you over stuff them.
  • Larq Bottle ($99)
    Self-cleaning water bottle which kills all the bacteria for you. Fill up right from your sketchy tap and don’t worry about regularly cleaning the water bottle. You won’t get sick. Insulated to keep it cold. Battery lasts about a month, and recharges by usb.
  • Assorted zip-lock bags
    Seriously cannot recommend this enough. Just keep a bunch in your bag. You will use them.
  • Luggage Locks (2 for $15)
    Great for locking your backpack zippers and for locking hostel lockers which don’t include a lock.
  • 3 Pens, Small Notebook
  • Passport belt ($15)
    Keep your passport, important papers, and extra money with you at all times, but well hidden and away from pickpockets.

Laundry

Tons of travel blogs recommend laundry soap bars and sink stoppers and the like so you can wash clothes in the sink. Don’t do that — it’s a waste of backpack space and time. Every non-shitty hostel has laundry services for like $6. Just do that every few days.

When you do laundry at the hostel, do all your clothes together and make sure to set the temperature to cold (30-40°C, 80-100°F) so the colors don’t bleed. If something is really dirty, wash it separately with warmer water.

Outfits

Pack outfits which can be mixed and matched very easily! I packed:

  • 1 pair navy chinos
  • 1 pair khaki shorts
  • 1 pair (stretchy) dark blue jeans
  • 1 pair basketball shorts
  • 1 pair pajama pants
  • 3 plain t-shirts
  • 2 henleys
  • 2 short sleeve button-downs
  • 1 long sleeve button-down
  • 1 hoodie
  • 1 pair sneakers
  • 1 travel rain jacket ($99)
    REI has some nice ones. The key here is that you can pack it into a small bag in your day pack. Also make sure it’s actually waterproof — many of the travel “rain jackets” are just water resistant — they leak and are completely worthless crap.
  • Smartwool socks ($18 x 8 = $144)
    “Holy shit so expensive”. Yeah but they’re extremely comfortable and if you air them out at night then you can get 3-4 days out of them between washing, which means less stuff you need to keep in your backpack. They also last forever.

Liquids

  • Quart sized bag (2 for $13.99)
    The maximum sized bag you are permitted to put liquids and creams in for your carry on. Unfortunately, many airports (e.g. Heathrow) don’t accept these bags so don’t actually use them for that purpose (seriously, just check your bag, it’s easier). However, they are nice for holding all your charging cables or small liquids containers.
  • Travel Bottles ($12.99)
  • American Crew Forming Creme ($18 x 4 = $72)
    I haven’t found any other hair product I like and I was worried I wouldn’t find it in Europe, so I stocked up. Don’t get this on Amazon – the one they sell is fake!
  • Blaviar Sigma After-Shave Balm ($25)
    Smells nice and keeps my stubble soft. I needed to put this is some smaller 100mL travel bottles.
  • Cologne ($80)
    Gotta smell good, right?

Other Toiletries

  • All Purpose Gillette Styler ($20)
    It’s not what I use at home (that honor goes to the Philips Norelco Series 5100) but this is so tiny, just needs a AAA battery, and does a very good job with maintaining my stubble. It just takes a little bit longer.
  • Immodium ($14)
    Because when you get the shits in the middle of a hiking trip in the Alps, you’re gonna really wish you’d brought these. It’s one of the few medications where you can’t just tough it out for a couple of hours until you can get to a pharmacy. Keep it in your day pack.
  • Shower wipes ($10)
    In case you can’t get to a shower
  • Deodorant
  • Portable tissues
  • Shampoo, conditioner, body wash (don’t use bar soap), face wash

Phone Service

You have a few options for getting phone service abroad.

Google Fi ($20/month for 0GB, $80/month for 15GB data, lower fees the less data you use)

I can’t recommend Google Fi enough. You transfer your regular number to it, and the plan just works in 170 countries. If you don’t want to transfer your number and just want to use Fi for your trip, then you can order service with a new number and just cancel it at the end of your trip. I switched from Verizon to Fi completely and haven’t looked back. The service in the US is slightly worse than Verizon, but Fi is so much better in every other way that it makes up for it.

You have to pay about $0.10/minute for calls, but if you call over data using the Google Hangouts app then they’re free! The major downside is that it only works on a handful of phones (get the Google Pixel 2 or 3). You can even add another SIM card to a Pixel at the same time and flip back and forth in the settings — I use this in Ukraine because locals have exorbitant fees when calling American numbers. If you don’t expect to be calling local numbers much then don’t worry about that.

Update: Fi is now available for iPhones, though it needs some manual setup, and the voicemail app doesn’t work correctly (though you can still use voicemail).

I really recommend this route for most people because it’s so nice to just walk off the plane and have service, without worrying about exorbitant fees or sketchy local phone companies you know nothing about.

Local SIM (About $40 extra/month)

Buy a phone plan in the country you land in. Any plan purchased in the EU will work in any other EU country (but keep in mind that all European countries are not in the EU!) There are often expensive fees for international calls, so it’s best to use Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or similar to avoid these. Make sure your phone is unlocked before you leave your home country, otherwise it will not accept international SIM cards. Get in touch with your phone company to find out. You will also not have service when you first land, so combine this with “Pay international fees” for emergencies.

Pay international fees (About $10 extra/day – $310 extra/month)

Most companies charge about $10/day for each day you use your plan abroad. This is great for emergencies or short trips, but will cost an absurd amount for long trips. Make sure in advance that your phone plan supports this. Also be aware that if data doesn’t work when you land, you may need to turn data roaming on in your settings.

Some people also just leave their phone on airplane mode with wifi, and only use their phone plan in emergencies. This is a great way to save money, but it can make life difficult sometimes without maps, uber, etc. Wifi can also be super spotty outside of big cities. I don’t recommend doing this.

Electronics

  • Huge portable battery ($40)
    You won’t always have an outlet. This is a lifesaver. You can charge your phone about 4 times with it before it needs to be recharged.
  • Universal adapter kit ($9)
    Converts any plug to any other plug. Note that THESE DO NOT CONVERT VOLTAGE. Most phone and laptop chargers accept multiple voltages (they’ll say 100-240V or similar on them). Hair straighteners, blow dryers, and the like usually do not. It’s typically much easier to just buy these things in Europe than to lug around a voltage transformer with you.
    Note that the British Isles and the rest of the Europe use different plugs. All of Europe uses 220V electricity. North America uses 110V.
  • USB Charger ($36)
    Provides 3 USB ports and 1 USB-C port. Convenient cord length and can charge the new MacBooks too.
  • MacBook Pro 2016 ($$$)
    I thought about getting a shit laptop for the trip, but ended up deciding to bring my nice one because, well, I didn’t pay for it to sit in a closet, and it’s really nice to have a decent laptop for when you’re planning your trip and excursions. For some peace of mind, I just bought an insurance policy for it which covers most types of damage and theft.
  • Glass Phone Screen Protector ($8)
    Getting a glass phone screen protector is a great way to prevent your screen from cracking on your trip, while not feeling like one of those crappy cheap plastic ones. The last thing you want is to be dealing with a cracked phone screen while travelling. I like the brand amFilm.

Booking Hostels

Use hostelworld.com to find a nice hostel. Then, check the hostel’s website to see if they offer a better price! Also, this is not the time to try to save 5 quid. Spend a little bit extra and it will pay for itself. A nice hostel makes or breaks your experience — you’ll sleep more comfortably, get a nice bathroom, have laundry facilities, be close to the city centre, etc. Skimp out and you’ll find yourself with wobbly beds, bugs, cold showers, and a $20 uber into town each day. It’s not worth it. I usually aim for at least 8.7 stars or so. Expect to pay in the ballpark of $30-40/night, though prices vary considerably by location.

Tours and Activities

I recommend planning the countries and cities yourself, but within a country tours are a great way to see some of the more obscure sights over the course of a few days! Some people like doing tours which bring you from country to country too — I can’t speak from experience here, but from what I’ve heard the experience tends to be more cursory, and you have fewer opportunities to meet new people or do random things on your own!

Other Apps

  • TripAdvisor
    Use this to find great restaurants in your area
  • Skiplagged and KAYAK
    Compare flights
  • Rome2rio
    Find transportation
  • Flixbus
    Private bussing company with nice busses
  • Visit a City
    Find great itineraries for popular attractions
  • Google Photos
    Take tons of photos, back them up online, and delete them off your phone to save storage
  • Google Maps
    It has an offline mode now! Learn how to use it!
  • Google Translate
    You can take photos to translate! Learn how to use it!
  • Uber
  • Airbnb
    If travelling with multiple people this can be cheaper than a hostel.
  • Booking.com
    If you also want to look at hotels
  • Where is Public Toilet
    Exactly what it sounds like

Couchsurfing?

I didn’t have a super positive experience with it. You meet plenty of people in hostels and don’t get stuck with some weirdo for the weekend that way. But maybe you’ll have better luck! I know some people who like it.

Cash

Keep a couple hundred USD in your passport pouch which can be converted in an emergency. Use cash machines in big cities. Don’t expect cards to be accepted in rural areas, and don’t expect cash machines to work in rural areas. Most cash machines will charge you a small fee.

Keep in mind that most European public toilets require about 1€ cash to enter. Many don’t accept bills. So, seriously, keep a few coins in your pouch for emergencies.

Credit

Get a credit card without international fees. I’m a big fan of the Amazon prime credit card — 5% cash back on all Amazon purchases, 1% on everything else, and no international fees. Canadians, I know this card isn’t available to you so I can’t make a recommendation – just try Google :).

Trains, Planes, and Automobiles

Planes

With airplanes there is a serious chance of lost luggage, and if you’re backpacking that can be a nightmare to get resolved. Pay extra for a decent airline if you’re going to be checking your luggage – skytraxratings.com/airlines is a good place to check. Also be aware of the maximum carry-on luggage weight, because it’s usually less than you think.

Anecdote: LOT lost my luggage twice – both on my outgoing and return flight. My luggage had my suit in it as well as ski equipment, and replacing everything cost me about $900 and an enormous hassle. They refunded me $76.34 because most of my purchases weren’t necessities. Why don’t you go skiing without ski pants and prove to me they aren’t necessary?? Fuck LOT.

Trains

Trains are a great way to travel around and see Europe, plus the views can be amazing! They’re also generally much cheaper than airplanes, more comfortable, and they won’t lose your luggage. You generally want to look up the website for the trains in whatever country you’re trip will be starting in. Also buy tickets at least a week or two in advance, as the prices can skyrocket right before your trip.

Busses

FlixBus is popular in Europe, especially in Central Europe. It’s a private company and the busses are often nicer than trains, although the routes might not be as scenic and they don’t have dining on the bus, unlike long-haul trains. Many cities also don’t have great train routes between them and need like 4 transfers – FlixBus can be faster than trains in these situations.

Travel Passes

  • Eurail Global Pass ($1300 for 3 months, unlimited travel)
    Gets you free travel on most trains and ferries in the EU (except in Great Britain), and discounted on almost all the other ones. See all the benefits. It’s often not worth it — do the math for your trip. I ended up spending more on the pass than I would have had I just bought tickets, especially since many trains require you to purchase a seat reservation separately from the ticket. Also, many of the benefits are a hassle to claim, like discounted ferry tickets which I could only claim in person rather than buying online, which meant I couldn’t reserve my seat in advance since I wasn’t going to travel to the docks a week in advance just to buy a ticket. I ended up just paying the full price.

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