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Planning a trip backpacking Europe to see some of the amazing sights it has to offer? It’s often hard to know what to bring when you will be in many different cultures and countries, and will be away for a while with just a small bag on your back. The lifestyle that comes with backpacking, hostel life, and saving money on the road is definitely unlike any other way of living, and requires certain supplies and knowledge to not only survive, but thrive!
Here are some of my best tips, advice, hacks, and essentials for backpacking in Europe, and some of the best ways to pinch those much-needed pennies so you can stay on the road longer!
Essentials for Backpacking Europe: What to Bring, and What Not To Bring
I swear by my earplugs.. I never leave home without them. If you’re a light sleeper like me or fall victim (like all of us have) to the one loud snorer in the populated hostel room, ear plugs can be life (and sleep!) savers.
If you have a face mask (the things that cover your eyes when you sleep… Is that what they’re called?) and earplugs, you’re basically guaranteed to sleep, no matter what the people in the hostel room are doing. They also prevent the morning light from rudely pulling you out of your slumber after late nights out, because Europeans never go home early.
Currency Converter App
With so much changing of currency, it’s often really hard to know what you’re paying in different countries. There are many currency converter apps (I use XE) that keep up to date with the current exchange rate, so an easy way to always know what you’re paying while backpacking Europe is to plug in the amount and calculate what it is in your home currency. It’s easier than trying to do all sorts of math in your head and only takes a few seconds!
I always thought people looked so silly with these stupid things, until I bought one myself. Life: changed. No more sore necks or incredibly awkward sleeping positions on busses, trains, or planes. Mine is the greatest because it’s inflatable, and it folds back down into nothing when I am done using it and isn’t cumbersome to carry.No need for an expensive one, I highly recommend getting one of these basic cheap ones. 🙂
Expanding Toiletry Bag
The first time I backpacked Europe, I took separate little plastic bags of each kind of toiletry I had, and kept them at the top of my backpack. This worked, but I have since found something that works way better- a hanging, compartmentalized toiletry bag that fits at the top of my backpack in the same way. You can easily find them at most department stores/Marshalls/TJ Maxx or on amazon right here. This way, everything is conveniently in one place. I like to have at least 4 compartments; I have separate portions for my shower stuff, makeup supplies, hair and face necessities/random stuff, and my drugs/first aid (see below).
Ok, so obviously not THAT kind of drugs (crossing international borders? No thank you) but for lack of a better term, the basic kind that you need when you get everyday aches or illnesses. I always keep some ibuprofen/Tylenol in case of a headache or minor hurts, some Tums/Gas-X in case my body doesn’t agree with the foreign food it’s been ingesting while backpacking europe, some cough drops, chapstick, and maybe some melatonin to assist in those nights I just can’t sleep. If you want to be extra careful, bring some antibiotics, constipation relief, maybe immodium, or anything else just in case of emergncy. Band Aids are always good in case of accidents, and Neosporin as well. It’s always good to carry these things with you to be safe rather than having to buy them in a foreign language!
Munich, Germany for Oktoberfest! Read my Guide to Oktoberfest here.
Unlike hotels, hostels don’t have little shampoos and conditioners for you to use. Sadly. So, bring your own in little bottles (find them at stores like Walmart, or fill old hotel bottles) along with some lotion, face wash, and body wash. For the ladies, definitely have some headbands and hair ties for bad hair days; basic makeup is of course important, but remember it is normal when backpackers look a little messy sometimes 😉
These are very important for a few reasons! First of all, many hostels will have lockers for you to use, but will not provide you with a lock. Bringing your own lock is vital to keeping your belongings safe while backpacking Europe! You can also use combination locks to lock your backpack shut when it is not with you (planes, busses, etc) or to lock a tent shut if you ever find yourself camping or at a festival. Most supermarkets, hardware stores, and travel stores will have them, (I have this one here) and you can set your own memorable combination and not have to worry about keeping track of a key (do NOT get a key lock – too much hassle!).
“Quick drying” is the operative word here. I got a nice cheap thin towel initially, thinking that being thin it would dry quickly, and oh was I wrong. There’s nothing worse than pulling a crumpled up mildew-smelling towel out of your backpack even after hanging it out over your hostel bed all day… Spend the extra effort to find a real quick drying towel, it will be worth it!
I have this one right here – not gonna lie, these microfiber towels aren’t the most amazing things to dry yourself off with, but they’re still a million times better than having a wet mildewy one. Trust the person who had one for two months before switching the one linked above. Or decide for yourself with this guide to the best quick dry towels for backpacking!
Backpack – Not a Rolling Suitcase (especially for traveling at a fast pace)
Another important piece of advice I can give is to invest in a backpacking backpack, especially if you will be traveling many places in a short amount of time. If you have a rolling suitcase and all your travel buddies have backpacks, you will turn into THAT friend when you’re struggling to lug it up the stairs when you’re late for your flight, and they’re all just walking normally with their belongings conveniently situated on their backs. Check out these best travel backpacks for women to help you choose!
My first time traveling I brought heels with me. Worst idea ever. Ladies, they are REALLY not that important. And they’re heavy.
Tallinn, Estonia – Read about Spending One Day in Estonia Here!
Thin Shell Raincoat
Many places in Europe have very variable weather, and can break out in random showers at any time of the year. So even if you’re going in summer, remember a little umbrella or some form of warmer jacket for these kinds of days! I have a thin waterproof jacket that rolls up very small, and it works perfectly for backpacking Europe.
Phrase Books/ Translator Apps
In order to not be treated too much like a tourist, it is best to try not to act like one. I always like to try and learn some basic phrases of the language of the country I am in before I go; Definitely ‘hello,’ ‘how are you,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘goodbye,’ and maybe how to order food, to ask where the restroom is, or basic directions. And I always learn ‘cheers’ in the language of places I visit! Of course it is very hard to speak in a new language, but many countries/cities at least appreciate the effort from backpackers in Europe. Knowing basic words can also help you find your way in airports and train stations!
Shoes – COMFORTABLE
Another unfortunate mistake people make is bringing uncomfortable shoes traveling, or buying new shoes before they go and having said shoes turn out to be very difficult to break in. It will be a life saver to break your shoes in before you travel or make sure your shoes are comfortable to walk in, because when backpacking Europe you inherently have to walk a LOT and it is much better to have comfortable shoes! Check out the best travel shoes for women if you’re a gal trying to decide what to pack.
They have the same plug in most of Europe, except for England and Ireland (where the plugs are annoying and bulky…). So, bring one or two adapters of each kind or a universal power adaptor so you can always charge your phone, computer, etc. If you are a lady with a need to curl/straighten your hair, make sure you get a voltage converting adapter if you don’t want it’s fuse to blow on your first day abroad.
Music and Games to Pass the Time
Essential for long train rides or basically any journey, music is always an great companion to help you pass the time. Make sure to update or just throw some good songs onto your phone/Spotify before you leave, and make sure you have some fun game apps (I play Doodle Jump all the time on the tube in London – I’m addicted again) to play too!
I almost didn’t include this because it definitely goes without saying, and most phones have completely adequate cameras these days. But don’t forget to bring at least something to document your amazing adventures backpacking Europe!
You will go on a lot of day excursions, and of course not want to bring your entire bag with you! This is why it’s important to have one smaller backpack to hold all your things for shorter excursions. Some people prefer to have a day bag that they wear on their front when their backpack is on their back ( I do this), and others like a thin foldable backpack that they can take out only when they need it. I bought this foldable backpack before my last backpacking trip, and although very thin and lightweight, it held up for the entire two months. This one has a lot more pockets and compartments than many others on the market, and folds up to the size of a pair of shorts. Highly recommended!
It’s always a good idea to keep a tag on your luggage/backpack while backpacking Europe just in case anything happens to it on a plane, train, bus, or in a hostel. Check out the different types of’/best luggage tags to see which one works for you.
Stari Grad, Hvar Island, Croatia. Read my Tour Guide’s Super-Guide to Croatia Here!
Where in Europe are You Going?
Make sure to check out some of my guides & posts about European cities - some of which I have listed below!
Tips, Hacks, & Advice for Backpacking Europe
Know Differing Train Station Rules
Different countries have very different rules when it comes to trains. In some, you put your ticket though a machine. In some, you just have to have your ticket when the person comes to check, and in some (cough cough Italy), you must stamp your ticket with the time and date before you board the train, otherwise you could be in biiiiig trouble and get fined. We don’t want that. So make sure you find out the different systems between counties to be safe!
There are also lots of train booking apps and journey planners that you can use in this day and age to make sure your journey goes smoothly.
Busses Can Save Lots of Money
Planes and trains are faster, but Europe has tons of bus services (Eurolines, National Express, Megabus to name a few) that can get you to from point A to point B for less than half the cost. This also allows you to see more of the countryside, which you can’t do on planes, which is nice if you ask me. If you don’t mind a long ride, busses are a great way to save $$$ (and the same goes for city busses!). Read here for some more transport saving tips!
Research Events Before Going
It’s a sad day when you get to a country and realize that they had a national holiday… Yesterday. Before going to a country or city, perhaps a few months in advance, test out your googling skills to see if they have anything cool going on- festivals, holidays, shows, etc. I always check to see if there’s anything noteworthy I might want to see before I officially plan out my dates in a certain place, so I can possibly rearrange if I do find something. When I got to Paris last year the day after Bastille Day I vowed to always do my research! I met some people in Hvar, Croatia who had tickets to leave the island the day before Ultra Beach… they were very sad, and could have prevented their dilemma by doing some research and getting tickets in advance!
Lake Bohinj, Slovenia
Safety – Zip Bags/Being Alert
One thing can ruin it all for you while traveling, and that one thing is a pickpocket. If you bring a bag that’s more difficult to open, or keep your passport/money/etc within an inside zipped pocket of your bag/money belt, you should be much safer. Always be on your guard and wear your bag on the front of your body in crowded areas just to be safe! They can strike at any time – in Berlin I once had an old gypsy lady give my friend a card to read (making me lean over to see it) and try and have her young son drop his hat on top of my phone while I was sitting in the park. My phone may have been gone if I wasn’t on my guard and if her son didn’t mess up her plan! Try to keep things safe at all times, even when it seems you don’t need to.
Cash and Credit Cards
European credit cards (pretty much) all have chips (as do most US/other international cards these days). Most credit card machines are programmed for these kinds of cards. This is important to know because if you don’t have a chip, it will usually explain why your card does’t work in certain train station machines or stores (and save a lot of hassle and confusion). Most American cards have chips within the past few years, but you should still apply for a travel card before you go. It will definitely come with a chip, and will help you solve many problems that arise by not having a chipped card in Europe. You should also always have at least some cash on you, because its is not abnormal here for stores and especially eateries to be cash-only. Even if a place takes credit card, many have a minimum charge you must meet to use it.
Packing Clothes for Backpacking Europe
Depending on the season, the clothes you must bring will obviously be different. But, my best advice is to PACK LIGHT and bring a nice mixture of a lot of solid colors and some patterns that will all mix and match with each other. Bring some solid colored tops that can go with different patterned and solid bottoms, and vice versa. You really can’t go wrong sticking with basic blacks, greys, blues, greens, etc, with some creams, patterns, and other colors mixed in.
Try laying your items out on the floor before packing and asking yourself if each top goes with each bottom, along with shoes, cardigans, and jackets. No more than one or two of each item is fine – jeans, comfy pants, tanks, tees, jacket. And wear the bulkiest ones on the plane! Limiting shoes will also be a great idea – running/walking shoes, sandals, and maybe one nicer pair are really all you need (if that!). Scarves are also always good to bring and can easily spice up an outfit.
Clothing for Backpacking Europe
Different cities have different general practices regarding clothing. Some are more religious than others, and may require some more covering up. You always need to be covered up (covered legs and shoulders) if you are going into a church or cathedral, and this goes for many countries. Europe is definitely a more everyday fashionable place (at least than America) and most people put at least some effort into looking nice each day. This doesn’t mean you have to go crazy with outfits; it just pretty much means you will stick out as a tourist if you wear workout clothes everywhere everyday!
Organization – Packing Cubes/Plastic Bags
In the past I have always used those enormous ziplock bags to organize my stuff while backpacking. Depending on the size of backpack, I could fit either two or three snugly inside, splitting my stuff between bottoms, tops, and undergarments/socks. They easily slide in and out of my backpack, and you can save tons of space by rolling things up, fastening them with a rubber band, and basically making each bag into a game of Tetris to try and fit things in the most efficient way.
But, as an update, for my last few years on the road I finally bought these packing cubes from Amazon after wanting to try packing cubes for a long time. I put all my tops in one large packing cube, all my bottoms in the other large packing cube, and my undies, swim stuff, and socks in the small one. These three cubes fit pretty nicely side by side in my backpack, and its SO nice to be able to unzip them the whole way around rather than fish for things from the top like I did with ziplock bags. I still roll all my clothes up inside the cubes, and Tetris them around to fit. I love my packing cubes and they’re definitely worth the $20!
Depending on how much traveling you will be doing, it may be worthwhile for you to get a Eurail pass, which gives you better deals on train travel throughout the EU. I haven’t gotten one but I know many people who loved the freedom and savings they got from having one. They also have all kinds of different deals for singe and multiple countries and weeks/days.
Annoying Airline Bag Restrictions
If you are taking cheap airlines, always be aware of the crazy rules they have on baggage. First, don’t try to carry your backpack on if it is bigger than the carry-on size – they WILL find out! When they do, they WILL charge you twice as much to put it in the hold at the airport as they would have done if you selected to check your bag online. Prices that would’ve been about 25 euro online to check a bag can be up to 60 if they make you check it at the airport. Yuck. They also have weight restrictions, so knowing how much your bag weighs (and just generally keeping the weight of your bag down – pack light!) will be helpful.
Some smaller backpacking backpacks, maybe 30-35L, can fit into the carry-on bag sizer, and this will save you loads of money! Secondly, they may make you put ALL of your belongings into your one bag before you board the plane. RyanAir has made my stuff even my tiny purse into my bag before getting on the plane, because when they say one carry-on, they really mean one! These types of airlines will try to squeeze more money out of you in any way they can, so knowing this beforehand will be helpful!
Accommodation for Backpacking in Europe – Hostels and More
If you are like me and trying to save money during your travels, you will probably be staying in hostels. Depending on your price range and comfort levels being in close proximity to strangers, you can find hostels with 20 beds in a room for very cheap. Or you can get private rooms in hostels, or cheap hotels as well. I love hostels and how great they are for meeting like-minded people. Interestingly enough, I have found that smaller hostels are much better for meeting people than larger ones, because everyone seems to do their own thing in large hostels whereas in smaller ones it is much easier to meet the others staying around you. Check out 17 Life Lessons you Learn Staying in Hostels to motivate you for your trip!
I have always used HostelWorld to book my hostels. On there, you can see photos, read reviews, sort by price, and see a map of hostels, so you always know what you are getting into. You can also book hotels and apartments on hostelworld, and they have an app that makes it even easier! Another thing I have recently opened up to is Couchsurfing. It may initially seem sketchy, but in reality Couchsurfing is an amazing traveler-helping-traveler community. It’s a great way to see a city through the eyes of a real local with a different point of view than travelers in a hostel. People have photos, bios, and reviews on couch surfing, so you can read about and talk with people before you stay with them.CHECK HOSTELWORLD
Another new things that has afforded many trustworthy travelers to stay on the road longer is Trusted Housesitters. Basically, once you sign up to this site and become verified, you can housesit and petsit all over the world and in return you can stay for free. How cool is that?
Day Tours and Trips from Cities
One of the best and easiest ways to see more remote locations and points of interest while backpacking Europe is by taking day tours from cities. Nearly all cities will have day trips to surrounding points of interest, i.e. Stonehenge from London, Tuscany from Florence, or Blue Caves & Vis Island from Split. I use Get Your Guide to find and book day trips to places I want to see from any city – they have everything on there and reputable tour companies!