Article and photos by our wonderful receptionist Lee John Whittington
Travelling can be a daunting, but hugely rewarding experience. The best thing about travelling around Europe is that you don’t have to go far from place to place to learn about, meet, and take part in, vastly different customs, culture, architecture, climates, histories, and people. After a recent long trip travelling around Europe, here are some of my tips and tricks for backpacking around Europe on a budget.
Planning and Transport when Backpacking Around Europe
The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, but that doesn’t mean that some attempt to plan is a bad idea. At the beginning of what become nearly a seven month trip around Europe, I planned out a route that went out of the window as soon as I hit Berlin (only my fourth stop), after which my “planning” mostly consisted of looking for the next nearest capital city and booking a train/bus. However, there are good reasons to plan some parts of your route to avoid particularly long bus journeys (my longest was a 19 hour bus journey that I wouldn’t care to repeat any time soon).
If you’re going north, have a rough idea how to get back south. If going east, have a rough idea of how to get back west, preferably without repeating yourself (unless you really, really like a place – I ended up in Berlin three times with no regrets).
Flying is the ultimate sign of bad planning, and should be avoided as much as possible both for convenience and environmental reasons. If your trip involves going from Budapest, to Barcelona, then all the way back to Vienna, then you’ve planned poorly, missing out a lot of interesting places in between, and have just gone up several shoe sizes with that carbon footprint. Europe has so many wonderful sights and if you’re only seeing those sights from 40,000ft, then you’re doing it wrong. Furthermore, airports are hellish places of queues, too many bright lights, horrid “muzak”, and a good way of catching a cold through all that recycled air.
Speaking of transport, buses are often the cheapest and most convenient means of travelling about. Flixbus for Western and Central Europe provides excellent service, with WiFi, onboard toilets, and fairly spacious and comfortable seats. In the Baltic states, Ecolines offers an equivalent if slightly less reliable service. In the Balkans, you might just have to get inventive, but most hostels will help you out with transportation plans. Don’t be surprised if a guy turns up in a car to take you to your next destination. In some cases in Eastern Europe, the bus services are both quicker, and less crowded than the train alternatives. But if you happen to find a particularly picturesque train journey it might be worth shelling out the extra money.
If you are travelling on a budget, hostels are a must. If you’re not travelling on a budget, hostels are still recommended. They are the best place to meet others, get inside info about the places you are staying, and the staff are often friendlier, and are invested more about your welfare and enjoyment than you would ever receive at a hotel, or air BnB. All at a lower cost, with the sacrifice of sharing a bedroom and bathroom.
The key to having a good hostel experience really depends on what you want out of your stay. Party hostels are wild places, but don’t expect the same amount of cleanliness, privacy, or even a good night’s sleep if you decide to stay at one. As with other things in life, it’s often a case of you get what you pay for, but it’s often a good idea to shell out an extra euro or two per night to ensure you won’t have a disappointing experience.
Things to look out for universally are shared kitchen/common areas/bar (for reasons below), friendly staff, and if you are a female traveler, female only bedrooms if you want them. Be willing to use ear plugs/night masks in shared rooms. If need be, tell other people to quiet down if they are being too noisy after 23:00. Be considerate to your fellow travelers, but also expect some consideration from them. Most will abide by the rules (written or unwritten), or will respond to polite requests.
Overall, the benefits of staying in hostels far outweigh any possible drawbacks. At their best, they are a place of community, storytelling, and fun. Even at their worst, they are usually cheaper than the alternatives and you will still often have a good conversation and a half decent bed for the night.
There is a morbid phrase that goes as follows: “Those who eat alone, die alone.” Although the occasional meal by yourself probably won’t result in a solitary life, cooking together, sharing food, and, of course, drinking together, is probably the best way to get to know other people on your trip. Lots of hostels will provide communal kitchens, and sometimes their own bar, which are often a hub of social activity and the beginnings of friendships. A simple offer to buy a drink for someone in a hostel bar Berlin resulted in some excellent travelling companions around Budapest and Croatia, and a bit of cooking and sharing food in Bratislava and Belgrade turned into some free accommodation and birthday party invites months later back in Germany.
Some hostels will also provide group activities (often centred around a lot of drinking). If that’s your kind of thing, then make sure that when searching for hostels to stay in that they put on those kinds of activities (usually you can tell by scanning through reviews).
Whether facilitated by a hostel, or from your own endeavors, making new friends in new places is one of the most rewarding parts of travelling. Experiencing castles, catacombs, monuments, and museums as a shared experience adds different perspectives, makes for new conversations, and brings us all closer together.
Western Europe, from the gorgeous spires of Edinburgh, the sprawl of London town, the beauty of Paris, and the madness of Berlin nightlife, has so much to offer, but if you’re on a budget and want to experience a different side of Europe, then head eastwards as soon as you can.
My picks for eastern European locations are the Balkan states. The Balkans offer a rich mix of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Ottoman influences to varying degrees depending on the places you visit, and have played an pivotal and tragic role in the history that has affected the entire continent over the last hundred years. Belgrade has a nightlife that rivals that of any of the far larger West European Cities, with clubs and bars (and even hostels) floating on the intersection of the Sava and Danube rivers. Bosnia and Herzegovina boasts some of the most glorious countryside, best viewed from the train journey that runs twice a day between Sarajevo and Mostar. Bosnia and Herzegovina now has a place as my favourite location in the entirety of Europe. Sarajevo provided a mixture of delight in the shisha cafes, and local music scene, to the surreal experience of walking down an abandoned bobsleigh track coated in graffiti and engulfed by forest, a remnant of the 1984 Winter Olympics, to horror at the well documented atrocities committed in the city and the country during the Bosnian War and the Siege of Sarajevo between 1992-1995, a recent history that marks itself on the very architecture in the form of bullet holes and tank shelled houses in and around the city. Mostar gave me the single most magical moment of the trip. Walking with friends through the Ottoman style, dimly lit, cobbled streets, the staggered music of evening prayers from the mosques reverberating off the walls, it was hard not to think you had stepped into a dream, or some kind of film reality, where the magic of the world flows over and through you.
It would take too long to go through everything beautiful, wonderful, and bizarre you can find in the Balkans. From the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, to massive statues of Alexander in Skopje, each capital has something worth seeing, and the countryside between cities is a eclectic mix of forests, lakes, rivers and mountains in the north, to rolling hills and vineyards in the more Mediterranean climes to the south. I traveled for more than a month in the area, and spent around 400 Euros for the pleasure, which included numerous nights out and being well fed. More than a bargain for the experience.
When budget backpacking, it can sometimes be difficult to do the standard “touristy stuff” due to cost associated with going to those attractions. Furthermore, such places are often what might be described as “tourist traps” – they cost too much for what they actually offer. To overcome this, I can’t recommend the website Atlas Obscura enough. The site provides some of the more unusual attractions and sites around cities and the wider country, which are often free or at the very least far cheaper than the other more famous places to visit.
Remember, there are plenty of free things to do in most cities. Some hostels provide free tours of the city with local residents, which is a fantastic way of learning about the culture and lives of ordinary people living in the city, as well as the history of the place. Again, if this is your kind of thing, make sure to keep an eye out for these kinds of activities on the hostel page. It’s also another way of meeting new people, and if you’re lucky with the guide, they might be willing to spend some social time with you providing a whole different experience of the nightlife of a city. Same goes for the local hostel staff.
Outside of tours and specific place to go, try not to rely on Google maps too much. Having your face planted against a screen means you will miss out on many of the quirks of architecture, independent shops, and otherwise strange and interesting sights and sounds that the world has to offer. Getting a little bit lost is perfectly fine, and relying on your intuitions and trusting your gut often delivers a great feeling of satisfaction in that you’ve learned how to navigate a small part of a foreign place, even if there is a little bit of luck involved. If worst comes to worst, there is always the Google in your pocket.
In his science fiction novel ‘The Algebraist’ the Scottish author Iain M. Banks introduces the
concept of “swim”:
“Swim” said Fassin. “You know; when your head kind of seems to swim because you suddenly think: “Hey, I’m a human being, but I’m twenty thousand light years from home and we’re all living in the midst of mad aliens and super weapons and the whole bizarre insane swirl of galactic history and politics! That; isn’t that weird?”
You’ll never be twenty thousand light years from home surrounded by aliens (yet), but you probably will at some point have the feeling of ‘what the f**k am I doing?!?!’ at certain points on your trip, and that’s travelling ‘swim’. Such a moment happened to me when arriving on the outskirts of a Romanian town, in the middle of the night with very little idea of what direction I was facing or how to get to any accommodation.
What’s important is that this feeling is entirely normal, and the best remedy is to take a moment to sit down, take some deep breaths, collect yourself and your thoughts, and try to calmly decide what the best course of action is, asking for help if needed. Often just taking a moment out for some philosophical reflection is enough to get you pushing forward again. Having the occasional moment of doubt and/or despair is part of what it means to have a healthy human mind and emerging from those moments all the more confident is a pleasure in itself.
Where ever you choose to go, the thing that really makes backpacking rewarding is the people you meet, both fellow travelers, but more importantly the local people that live and work in the hostel and city. With a bit of kindness, courtesy, open mindedness, and a willingness to share a story or two, you can learn more, experience more, and have a lot more fun, through this sharing than you would ever achieve in a week in a swanky hotel. You’ll probably save a lot more money too!