It’s been a year since my Europe adventure and I figured it was time to start putting together this scrap book that I’ve been putting off for too long. In the process, I thought I’d share some tips, memories, thoughts, and of course, photos of the trip that gave me the incurable travel bug.
I landed in Heathrow full of jittery nerves. An old collegue had graciously offered to let me crash at his place but he wasn’t available until late in the evening so I grabbed a map and figured out what metro line I needed to take to get into the centre of the action. Coming from Toronto with only 2 subway lines, looking the underground lines were a little over whelming at first. I picked up an oyster card and made my way to Piccadilly circus. It only took walking around for an hour before I realized that I had to do something with the giant backback that I was carrying. I popped into a museum and checked in my backpack, hoping that it would be ok for a few hours. I’m not sure if maybe people don’t leave their giant backpacks there often, or maybe I have a very distinct face, but the guys at the counter recognized me immediately when I came back hours later to pick it up.
My first 5 days in Europe was quite the start to my adventure. Here are some highlights, lowlights, and lessons learned from London.
London is an easy place to start if you’re nervous about travelling on your own. Everyone speaks English so you don’t have to worry about the language barrier as you try to figure out how to get from point a to point b. The metro system is very easy to use and they have some great apps that help you map out the most efficient route (Just search the “London underground tube map” in the app store). I was there for 5 days so I opted to get the oyster card for reduced fares.
Check the temperature before going. I don’t know why I assumed it would be warm there. The nights were 0 degrees and my friends flat was so cold that I had to sleep with hot water bottles as to not freeze to death.
Pubs close early and stop serving food really early. I was hungry so many nights and I typically like to grab some food while at a pub drinking.. but turns out many of them stop serving food quite early so plan on having a snack before going out.
I do not fare well with jet leg. I slept in until 11 almost every day for 4 days…and then wouldn’t be able to get to sleep until 5am. FORCE yourself to walk up early so that you’re exhausted and fall asleep that night. I wasted many mornings sleeping in.
Camden market is a great place to get little trinkets and souvenirs for people. Though if London is your first stop, remember that whatever you buy here, you will have to lug with you throughout the rest of your trip.
The overnight bus to Amsterdam is terrible. Unless you’re super fond of bus rides, avoid taking this bus! If you book your train in advance, you can get a really decent fare from London to Paris or Amsterdam. Since I left this all to the last minute the train was crazy expensive so I had to resort to the longest bus ride of my life. One of my besties, Rachel, met up with me in London on my last day there and we decided to head to Amsterdam next. Maybe we’re just incredibly unlucky when we’re together, but this ride…so it’s only 13 hours.. but on a bumpy bus that was cold and was full to the max… makes 13 hours feel like forever.We sat in the back row on either end of these two bigger men. It was freezing and the bus was really rocky. As we started to fall asleep, we were woken up to go through customs. And then woken up again to go on the ferry. This ferry… seemed so peaceful. We found this nice quiet bench and laid down and stretch our legs out… and it seemed like bliss.. for 30 seconds until the whole floor filled with more french students than I have ever seen in my life. And they were LOUD! It felt like I was inside of a vacuum. But somehow.. we managed to fall asleep on this ferry.. only to be woken up when one little french student got shoved by another and fell into me. All of a sudden, I’m in the middle of the cat fight with all these French students yelling out things that I don’t understand. And then after all that, we get off the ferry, to get back on our bus to drive for a few more hours. The whole experience was surreal and left me seriously sleep deprived.
The brits make some seriously good pot pie.
There is a lot of free wifi available everywhere so you can be fairly connected if you want to be.
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.