I Backpacked Solo Across Europe for 3 Months — Here’s What I Learned
Time most certainly does fly. I’m sitting here with my laptop at the airport in Dublin right now waiting for my plane to arrive. After 8 short hours or so, I’ll touch down in New York to settle down and start my new job working over at Squarespace. It will be my first time back home on American soil this year. How did I get here?
I recently graduated from university and shortly after, bought a one-way plane ticket and embarked on a solo backpacking trip across Europe. This was all very new to me. I hadn’t been out of the country since I was a kid. Hell, I didn’t even have a passport til a few weeks before I left.
It’s been a pretty incredible experience and I’m coming away from it knowing that I learned a lot. This post is my way of sharing these observations, insights, and recommendations with you.
Some details about my trip
As you can see in the picture below, I made it to quite a few places over my time abroad. I started things off in Iceland for a short stay before I moved to Germany, followed by the Czech Republic and Austria. From there, I went down to Greece and Italy for nearly 3 weeks. I moved up back into Germany again and over to Hungary and Poland before I caught a flight to London. I went to Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris for a bit and eventually made my way down to Spain where I ended up staying for over two weeks. Wrapping things up, I went over to Portugal and then spent some time in Ireland.
I planned out little to none of this in advance. I spent the majority of my trip on my own. I carried everything I needed in a 55L backpack. I stayed primarily at hostels with a couple of hotels, couches, and apartments sprinkled in here and there. I stuck mostly to grocery stores, fast food, and took advantage of any free or cheap meals offered by my accommodations.
I definitely could have been more frugal, but I kept things pretty light. All things considered, my total expenses came out to roughly $2,000/month or $70/day including airfare and everything else.
I also worked remotely with the team at DataCamp for several hours a week, designing an online interview preparation course. As you might imagine, I moved around pretty frequently. By the numbers, my trip looked like this:
In order to keep my schedule flexible, I usually booked flights about a week in advance, buses or trains a few days in advance, and hostels anywhere from 2 to 6 days ahead of time depending on the place.
Some quick math tells me that I averaged around 4.2 days per city. This sounds right, though this number varied greatly depending on how I was feeling about the place. For instance, I spent over 10 days in Barcelona but only a couple of nights in Frankfurt. But I won’t get too far into the weeds just yet, let’s get to what I learned.
Everyone should solo travel at least once
I had heard about the benefits of solo travel over and over again. I wanted to see what all the hype was about, and it really did live up to my expectations. Being able to wander around and explore, to do whatever you please and not make any compromises — it’s pretty awesome stuff.
Perhaps more importantly though, you come back from your trip more confident than you came into it. Knowing that you can be dropped off in a foreign country, make friends, experience something unbelievable, and be perfectly okay, even better off afterward, is a cool feeling.
And the real beauty of it is that once you go on one solo trip, it opens up all sorts of doors for you when it comes to future travel. Next time you have some time off work you won’t have to wait for your schedule to sync up with a friend (hint: it probably won’t). You’ll simply just go.
Things are different
I’m not going to lie — there was definitely a culture shock when I first got over here. Everything seems just a little different. Even something as simple as going to the bathroom can be an adventure if you aren’t accustomed to the various options. French fries might not be fries and dumplings might not be dumplings. Don’t get me starting on tipping. Oh yeah, it’s not 3:00 pm anymore, it’s 15:00 instead. There are a million little things that add up to a general feeling that something is just a bit off.
But also largely the same
With that being said, things aren’t as different as you might think. Sure there are these little cultural differences everywhere, but when it comes to the people —it’s consistent with what you already know. Everyone is generally friendly with a couple of bad apples mixed in. You’ll still see the same mannerisms when you order a cup of coffee, drop something while walking, or make a new friend at the pub. Just because the language and culture change doesn’t necessarily mean that everything else does too.
More journaling, fewer pictures
I spoke a bit about this in my last post on travel. If you’re into photography then do your thing, but there’s something to be said for living in the moment and not living to relive. Put the phone down and experience the present moment once in a while.
Journaling is an excellent tool for this. It will not only help you remember your trip and document it for looking back, but it’s also awesome for yourpersonal growth. I do my best to write a short journal entry every day. Some days I forget, but when I do sit down and take the time, I always thank myself afterward. My journaling app of choice is DayOne but there’s a bunch out there that do the job, including pen and paper.
Travel fatigue is a real thing
I have to admit something. As I’m writing this, I couldn’t be happier to be heading home. It’s tough to say that because I’ve loved my time over here and I couldn’t be more grateful for it, but it’s true. The reality is that travel fatigue exists on long-term trips. Exploring, sightseeing, meeting new people, and trying new things every day takes a toll on you.
I strongly believe that every once in a while, you just have to take a break. I felt this same way around the half-way point of my trip. I was over it. I felt like coming home. So I took two days and just relaxed. I wrote, read, and just laid back and chilled. After this, I felt re-energized to go explore some more.
There’s so much history
Coming from the United States, I didn’t have a full realization of just how young our country is relative to countries in Europe. Monuments that I viewed as old back home don’t come close to buildings that you see just walking down the street over here. Locals pass these pieces of history every morning as they grab a cup of coffee — it’s completely casual and amazing all at the same time.
Pretty much everyone speaks English
Like I said earlier, the language barrier will come up. I knew this coming in, but I anticipated it would be much, much worse than it was. The reality is that no matter what major city in Europe you go to, there will be someone that speaks English nearby. Accents can be difficult to deal with and you’ll learn to enunciate more than usual, but you’re going to be fine. And when things go wrong? My go-to strategy of hand-gestures still hasn’t failed me yet.
There are ways to travel cheap
There are a million guides out there on how to travel for cheap, so I won’t drone on for too long here. With that being said, I can lay out some of the things that helped me keep my expenses down. First off, I generally avoided hotels and Airbnbs. By sticking to hostels, couches, and friend’s apartments, I was able to cut a lot of costs (especially in more expensive cities). Hostels were my first choice and depending on the location ran me anywhere from $8/night in Krakow up to $40/night in Amsterdam.
Another thing that helped me was getting a travel credit card before I left. I landed on my card after some research, but really any points-based card with no foreign transaction fee works. With the account opening bonus and the points I accumulated over the course of my trip, I was able to pay for my flight back with nothing out of pocket.
Tips on handling money
While I’m on the topic, I’ll share how I managed my money over here — since I really didn’t know what I was doing at first. Basically, when I got somewhere with a new currency I would go to an ATM and take out a reasonable amount, normally whatever the equivalent of $100 is for 4–5 days. The fee was never that bad and I didn’t encounter anything sketchy. If an establishment only took cash, then I would use that.
Otherwise, I would always use my credit card, ideally with Apple Pay for convenience. If I had some cash left over when I was leaving, I used a technique I got from Kevin Kelly and Recommendo where you basically just throw it on a Starbucks gift card to avoid exchange fees.
Most useful travel apps
There was a bunch of mobile apps that helped me immensely on my trip. I’ll list them out and give a short description for each below and you can pick and choose the ones that you think are worthwhile.
There’s a bunch here, but the big one is Google Maps. Use the Offline Maps feature to download a map of the city once you arrive. This way you can navigate yourself without needing any data or wifi.
Citymapper isn’t functional for every place you go, but for bigger cities, it’s the best. It maps your most efficient route including trains, buses, metro, walking, and more. It even includes Uber and taxi rates as well.
Whenever I was planning my trip to the next city, I started with Rome2Rio and went from there. It aggregates trains, buses, and flights so you can get a feel for what your best option will be. Once that was done, I used Skyscanner to find cheap flights and then Omio to book trains around Europe.
Like I said earlier, hostels were my go-to place to crash. I used the HostelWorld mobile app to book them and always made sure to check the reviews. If you want to go even cheaper, Couchsurfing is another viable option to check out.
For currency exchange rates, there’s a bunch out there but I used XE Currency and didn’t have any problems. Google Translate came in handy once or twice (and may have saved me from a bad haircut). WhatsApp is essential to message anyone that you meet in Europe. TripAdvisor is usually pretty helpful when planning things out. I would also set up and use Apple Pay if you don’t have a contactless card to save some hassle. Bonus: not a mobile app, but I would always read up on a city at Wikitravel before I got there.
Working remotely can be hard
I hadn’t done much remote work prior to this experience with DataCamp. Through this process, I learned that it can be extremely fulfilling and also more difficult than expected. I didn’t realize how much I relied on a schedule before when I did my work. At first, I really struggled to make time to work and when I did, I felt rushed or distracted.
To cope with this, I started blocking off my schedule for work days like I would in a more traditional job. This worked for me, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Working remotely gives you the opportunity to find a schedule that works for you. Once you find that, commit to it.
You’ll have more free time — pick up a book
When you’re moving around, you naturally have a little more free time. I used this time to read more than I probably ever had before. I got through the following books and highly recommend any of them if you’re looking for something to pick up.
Packing light is easier than you think
I watched a lot of videos on Youtube and did plenty of research on packing prior to my trip. I mentioned earlier that I fit everything into a 55L backpack.My backpack of choice was the Osprey Farpoint and I had no issues with it. I brought about 7 shirts, 3 pants, 2 shorts, 3 shoes (including sandals), 5 socks, and 7 pairs of underwear. Everything fit pretty comfortably with room for 3 jackets of varying thickness.
Packing light gave me a few advantages. It made flying easy, as I normally didn’t have to check my bag depending on the airline. More importantly, it gave me more options getting from point A to point B than if I had a huge carry on bag. This leads to my next point…
Walking places is just better
I used the fact that I was traveling light to walk lots of places. If a walk was under an hour and I didn’t have any place to be, I would just do it. This didn’t happen immediately. My threshold started out at about 30 minutes at first and slowly grew to over an hour of comfortable walking.
Like anything, I learned to enjoy it. Some of my favorite memories are arriving in a city and walking 60+ minutes to where I was staying, all while looking around and taking in the environment. There’s really not much better than wandering around and getting lost somewhere new.
I’ll see you out there
I think it’s pretty clear that experiences created by travel carry so much more than weight material things. I don’t have to tell you that. We also all know that travel can be affordable. That leaves one last hurdle, a pretty big one: time.
It can be tough to find time to travel, but it can be done. Weekend getaways, local trips, working remotely, putting in extra hours, saving vacation days, and taking time off in between jobs are just a couple of viable options. Ultimately you find what works for you and you capitalize on the opportunity to read another page. And when you do, I’ll see you out there.