Backpacking for the First Time? Follow These 15 Tips

Backpacking for the First Time? Follow These 15 Tips
I had the most amazing trip of a lifetime this past summer when I backpacked through Europe. Not only did I get to spend ~18 days with one of my best childhood friends, Brianna, but I got to explore eight cities in five countries. We backpacked through Amsterdam, London, Paris, Barcelona, Alquerías del Niño Perdido (Spain), Rome, Florence and Nijmegen (Holland). There were quite a few lessons and words of wisdom that I’d love to share. Here’s my advice:
  1. Keep organized with a shared spreadsheet in Google Drive

    I recommend this because as you book flights, hostels and excursions, it can get confusing. The best way to stay sane is to document everything.

  2. Use Hostel World to find the perfect place to stay

    With thousands of reviews and various ways to refine your search, Hostel World is the best place to do it. You can even book your stay via the website. It made things super simple when I was researching hostels.

  3. Research the weather

    My mindset was that July and August = HOT. I live in the snowiest city in the U.S., so there’s no way these cities could be cold in the summer, right? Wrong. If I had seen that London and Paris shared the same latitude line with Canada, maybe I would have packed more carefully. I almost didn’t bring jeans and boy, that would have been a mistake. London, Paris and Amsterdam were in the mid 60’s to low 70’s, whereas Spain and Italy were (of course) super hot.

  4. Make sure you have the appropriate clothing for dress policies

    Many churches and other places of worship in Europe require that you have certain areas of your body covered. The amount of people that stood in the sun in Vatican City for an hour to be turned away at the doors of St. Peter’s Basilica was surprising. Unfortunately, saying “I didn’t know” is not going to work in situations like this. Do your research ahead of time and pack accordingly.

  5. Know your hostel location in relation to public transportation and tourist sites

    When I was doing my research (which I did a lot of), the one thing I overlooked was how far each hostel was from the city center. For some hostels, you can either walk 20 minutes to everything or walk 5 minutes to a metro stop. Unfortunately, this was not the case in Paris. We stayed at Vintage Hostel Gare du Nord (which was a great hostel), but from the Eiffel Tower, it was about a 15 minute walk to the closest metro station. Even after a few stops, we had another 10 minute walk to our hostel on a road that wasn’t lit all that well at night.

  6. Always have more cash on you than you plan

    This is not to say bring all your money with you when you leave the hostel. I brought €1300 in cash and kept the majority of it locked up in our room. But I would recommend bringing €100-200 with you if you plan to go on excursions/do touristy things throughout the day. This came in handy when Brianna and I were going to the Colosseum in Rome. We were approached about a tour, and although we were very skeptical at first we ended up purchasing it and loved it. If I hadn’t brought an extra €50, we wouldn’t have had enough cash between us to afford it. Moral of the story — you never know when you’re going to need that extra dough.

  7. Know where airports are actually located

    This may sound silly, but an airport located in “Paris” can be deceiving. Of course, many airports are located outside of a city, but our experience once we landed in Beauvais–Tillé Airport was somewhat scary. Our flight landed at 9:30 p.m. and when Brianna looked on Google Maps for public transportation to Paris, it showed between eight and ten hours to get there. Transportation would stop half way through the night and we would end up sleeping on a bench in some station. Thankfully, we walked outside and saw a line of people next to what appeared to be a bus station. There was only one bus going to Paris that night and thankfully there was just enough room for us to squeeze on. But it was a really close call. The ride was almost an hour and a half — clearly we were not near Paris.  

  8. Always be aware of your surroundings

    I’m not trying to sh$t on Paris here, but some of the streets surrounding the Eiffel Tower were eerily dead. And I mean no one in sight for a couple blocks. One night when we were walking to a metro station located about 15 mins away and I guy literally walked out of the bushes and followed us for a few minutes before turning around. Talk about scary.

  9. Be conscious of transportation time

    It can be so easy to start planning out your backpacking adventure and try to cram as many cities in two or three weeks as possible. When booking flights, you have to be aware of a) how far away your hostel is from the airport, b) if your hostel provides transportation or if you have to walk to a metro/train station, and c) the time it takes to get out of the airport upon arrival. Sometimes traveling can take half a day, so keep that in mind.

  10. Take the underground train between London and Paris

    Going off of the last point, we had NO idea that this existed. We flew from Paris to London and because our flight was delayed, it turned into a 12-hour exhausting endeavor. Never again.

  11. Be aware of pickpocketers

    You will literally hear that statement at least several times when you use the metro to get around Europe. In places like Italy, it is no joke. These are trained and skilled people. I personally made sure to have the side of my bag with the outside zipper facing in towards my body. I also saw others that would wear a jacket or cardigan over their bag, which is a good idea as well.

  12. Find a friend

    When you stay in hostel dorm rooms, you meet people from different cultures all over the world. There were a lot of girls from Australia and New Zealand on our travels and it was nice to chat with them about where they had been and where they were going next. We even met a girl from Brazil in Rome, who came out with us one of the nights we were there. The next day, we met a few guys from Florida and ended up exploring Rome with them. It makes your experiences even more memorable when you meet and connect with others.

  13. Plan ahead

    You don’t need to have every single hour mapped out, you should sit down with your friend(s) and decide how you generally want each day in a city to unfold. We found that listing no more than three or four excursions/sights per day helped, as well as food prep. Most of the time we were on the go, but every now and then, we would map out what our dinner plans were. The perfect time to do this is when you’re waiting in the airport, when you first get to the hostel, or before you go to bed.

  14. You don’t need to buy bus/metro tickets for use within a city ahead of time

    These are things you can typically get once you arrive. The only exception from my experience was the Oyster card in London — this took a while to get due to long lines.

  15. Know which excursions require tickets beforehand and what time of day is best

    Do the research to figure out if a ticket is needed beforehand. The worst thing is to fly hours somewhere and not be able to see the one thing that brought you to that city in the first place. Here are my personal recommendations from when I was in Europe in July and August:

    1. Places to get a ticket beforehand:
      1. Anne Frank House (Amsterdam) – purchase 2 months in advance
      2. Park Güell (Barcelona)
      3. La Sagrada Familia (Barcelona)
      4. Eiffel Tower (Paris) – we stood in line for an hour
      5. Warner Brothers Studio Harry Potter (London)
      6. Palace of Versailles (Versailles, France)
      7. Colosseum (Rome) – you’ll want to do a skip-the-line ticket in the summer
    2. Places you don’t need to get a ticket beforehand:
      1. Picasso Museum (Barcelona) – go early
      2. Boat tour (Amsterdam)
      3. Lourve (Paris)
      4. St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican City, Italy)
      5. The Vatican (Vatican City, Italy)
      6. Galleria dell’Accademia (Florence, Italy)

What are your favorite words of wisdom for backpackers? Leave a comment below!

Author: Lauren Taylar

Lauren Taylar is a digital marketer and blogger. She is a graduate of the State University of New York at Oswego, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in public relations. When she’s not volunteering her time with Make-A-Wish, you can find her reading a travel magazine and sipping a glass of hard cider or wine.

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