A year ago, with one month off between my work contracts, I knew I needed to finally take my European adventure. Completely clueless about backpacking, hostels, and just travelling in general, I ignored my jittery nerves and decided that I was just going to jump in head first. So I booked a flight landing in London and flying out of Rome. And pretty much nothing else in the middle. I’m completely a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, do whatever feels right, and make decisions as I go along type of person in my personal life, so I opted not to book hostels, trains or make any concrete plans on what city I was going to be in, or what route I was going to take.
Thinking back on how unprepared I was for my European backpacking trip, I wanted to share some benefits to travelling alone, and tips that I have learned along the way.
- Do whatever you want on your schedule. The great thing about not travelling with a specific person is that you won’t feel obligated to join anyone if they are going to a museum, restaurant, etc that you don’t feel like going to. You have the opportunity to set your own schedule without considering anyone else.
- Alone but never lonely. It is incredibly easy to make travel friends. So many people are backpacking through Europe and taking similar routes so it’s really easy to make some new friends. The great thing about not having a set agenda was that I was flexible enough to spend an extra day in a city if I found people I really liked, or even changed my route so I could see another city with them. A few places that were great for meeting people were hostels (particularly the hostel bars), walking tours and pub crawls.
- Hostels are awesome. Use hostelworld to find hostels in the area and make sure you read the ratings. I stuck to staying in places with a minimum of 80% and had nothing but amazing experiences. If you are planning your trip in advance, consider using airBnB to stay at a local’s house. I used airbnb for a Montreal trip and had an AMAZING experience.
- My travel pillow saved my neck. The inflatable pillows from MEC was the best for long bus rides and train rides. They are lightly stuffed and are way more comfortable than the usual inflatable pillow, plus they are super easy to pack.
- A smartphone to use wifi is essential for on-the-fly travelers. Since I didn’t have a set schedule for what country I wanted to go to and when, I often had to book hostels the day of. You can usually find wifi in Mcdonalds, or in hotel/hostel lobbies. If you’re planning on stopping in Venice, or Cinque Terre, there is very limited wifi so I’d recommend booking a place before getting into the city. I also downloaded some calling apps on my smart phone that let me call landlines for free over wifi. Those phone calls helped my mom keep her sanity. I listed a few apps that I used every day during my trip at the bottom of this post. That being said, it’s really freeing to just turn off your phone. So shut it off and just go explore.
- It’s worth paying for a really great meal in every city. Look up reviews (I used trip advisor) and try going to one of the top 20 in the city. Or ask people at the front desk about hidden gems outside of the tourist areas.
- Don’t pack anything you would be miserable if you lost. Everything is replaceable. Don’t let losing something spoil your trip. I’m a pretty easy going girl and packed 3 shirts and 2 pairs of pants. I bought insurance for my camera and brought several memory cards that I would switch out every few days. This way if my camera was stolen, I wouldn’t lose all my pictures. My friend Rach had her backpack stolen at the train station in Barcelona, and we were almost pick pocketed at the train station in Paris. Don’t leave important things in your jeans/jacket/shirt pockets or on the outside pockets of your backpack.
- If something doesn’t feel right, then go with your gut and get out of there.
- Locals appreciate when you make an effort to speak the native language. Learn key words like Hi, Bye, Thank-you, Please. There are a lot of great language apps that teach you the most common phrases.
- Sometimes if you are really really really really sick. It’s worth wasting a day being sick, rather than pushing yourself so hard only to make yourself sicker and then having to miss out on way more.
- Learn how to read a map. Unless you’re one of the lucky ones that can afford to use the data on your phone, you will probably have to rely on paper map to find your way around. I can’t even tell you the countless times I’ve “explored aimlessly” because I had no idea where I was or how to get where I’m going. TripAdvisor has this great app that loads the whole map onto your phone. You don’t have to use data to use the map and you can use the gps on your phone to figure out where you are.
- Learn to be easy going and flexible. On more than one occasion, we’ve missed our train, found out that the hostel didn’t have any rooms for us, walked around for hours because we were lost, had things stolen, have your credit cards not work, etc. The key for me was to try to keep things in perspective and remember how lucky I was to even have the chance to travel. So suck it up, and find a way to solve your problem.
Here are a few apps that were incredibly useful during my trip
Tripadvisor - You can download maps and use your gps to navigate around without using data. They also have a great list of must eat restaurants in every city.
Nettalk – Let’s you call north american land lines.
Whatsapp – a lot of my new travel friends had whatsapp and it was a great way to keep in touch and send pictures during our travels
In the next few postings, I’m going to go into a little bit more depth about the cities I visited, the hostels I stayed in, and tips I learned specific to the city.