What I learned from Backpacking in Europe

This summer I went on a backpacking adventure through Europe. I had never traveled without my parents before, and all I had was a backpack, limited Spanish, and my friend. The two of us took on multiple means of transportation, major cities, tiny towns, and proved to our families and ourselves that two, 20-year-old female college students with zero traveling experience can navigate, finance, and travel through Europe.

How to Pack

I took my brother’s camping backpack with me, which had about seven pockets, 13 zippers, and towered above my head. I sifted through numerous travel blogs before leaving on my trip, trying to find out what I needed for six weeks abroad and how I could carry it all with me. One of the best pieces of advice I found out there is to make sure every article of clothing you bring goes with everything else in your bag. In other words, if you have a shirt that is so cute but only looks good with one specific pair of jeans, don’t bring it. You’re going to be so short on luggage room, only bring items you wear often, are comfortable in, and go with each other. Also, bring little travel bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and whatever shower necessities you like. We stayed in hostels, (even tents) and discount places won’t provide essentials like these. Finally, invest in a super comfortable, durable pair of hiking sandals! I used a cheaper version of Birk’s and they worked perfectly for me. The last thing you want is to be crawling through Rome because your feet are blistered.

How to Budget

Financing your own travels as a broke college student is hard, but not impossible! We primarily used hostels.com to book our lodgings, which turned out really well. However, if you’re going to travel on the cheap, you have to truly commit yourself to it. Both my friend and I were ready to be uncomfortable, do anything to save money, and were focused on using our money to see more places rather than stay in luxurious hotels. To some people, staying over night in Paris in a tiny tent on the ground with an outdoor bathroom sounds terrible! And that’s ok. Be honest with yourself about what you want, because otherwise being less comfortable than you had intended will ruin your trip. You can also save on museums and tours by researching before you get there, to find out student discounts. In Europe, many places give discounts to under-26-year-olds. For food, we splurged on a big, authentic meal once a day. We’d eat cheap breakfasts, like fruit and bread (typical European breakfast) and then go all out for lunch or dinner. That way, we’d get a taste of every country without spending $20 three times a day on meals. You will spend the most money on transportation and lodging. Research hostel prices and determine how many nights you can afford to stay in a city, and plan accordingly with travel expenses. Flying between European countries is often cheaper (and faster) than trains, and staying in hostels outside of the city is cheaper than staying in the heart of it.

You Can’t Plan Everything

You can’t, we tried. Do plan out as much as you can control, but be ok with the fact that some of your plans are going to fall through and you will be met with obstacles. Backpacking or traveling on your own is different than a vacation; it takes some effort, planning, and you will learn as much about traveling as you do about yourself. We had some transportation issues. In Italy especially, buses and trains are usually late, and this caused as a few schedule complications. But as you go, you’ll learn to adapt to challenges and fix problems quickly. Traveling with the mindset of, “I will do the research and do my best to prevent problems for myself, but understand they will arise anyway” is the best way to go.

You Can Do It

You really can! Don’t be afraid! Our parent and friends thought we were crazy. I promise, we had absolutely ZERO traveling experience, but we were able to travel by ferry, car, bus, train, and plane. We visited seven countries. We saw historical marvels of the world, tasted authentic cuisine, played tourist and immersed ourselves with locals. I’m also someone who, before this trip, couldn’t read a map. Now, I’m confident in my abilities to get myself anywhere. It will be scary, stressful, and hard at times, but those are the times you will learn and grow the most. Our ongoing joke was that we were forced to learn “hello,” “excuse me,” and “exit,” in every language we encountered, mostly taught to us by navigating our way through the underground metros. Traveling transformed my worldview, confidence, and capabilities. It can change yours too 🙂

 

More Stories from Rome!

The Pantheon is incredible. It is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, and its absolutely spectacular inside. There are lines to get in, but they didn’t take too long to get through. Once inside you will see sculptures, artwork, and, of course, the intricately designed dome ceiling. We left the Pantheon full of culture—but empty of food, and so we made our way to a nearby restaurant. Almost everywhere you go to eat will have pasta, wine, bread, salad, and pizza. It is not hard to find an authentic Italian meal in Rome, which is great because the food is delicious!

 

That night we were staying at a campground (camping for the second time this trip). However, this experience was totally different than Paris. The Parisian campsite was fun, a little different, and was in a prime location. Having that as our only European communal camping experience made this Roman campsite look like a resort. Our “tent” was a canvas room, with bunk beds and a sliding, LOCKING door. The campground was equipped with an actively used pool, even more actively used bar, and dining and grocery shopping needs. It was huge. We had been a bit uneasy at the thought of camping again, just because we had become accustomed to sleeping in beds, but this campground blew away all of our preconceived notions of camping. Everything was clean, functional, and downright luxurious!

Our last stop before saying goodbye to Rome was Vatican City. Did you know that Vatican City is actually its own country? It is, and the smallest in the world. It also takes about two hours to get into Vatican City because of lines, and since we didn’t have the time for that we opted for a paid-for guided tour that let us skip the queue.

The Vatican is amazing, as I’m sure you would have guessed. My favorite part was the Sistine Chapel and its beautiful ceiling. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed in the Chapel. Also, you’ll have to wear clothes that cover your shoulders and aren’t too short. The chapel is a scene of breathtaking beauty that provokes you to wonder in amazement at how something so detailed and gorgeous could have ever even been created. I could have stood and stared at that ceiling for hours and still not memorized every figure, color, and scene captured. I recommend a tour if you’re in a rush or are interested in learning about what you’re seeing. We went through almost the whole Vatican until we had to catch our next bus. We ended up running through part of it, just so we could make sure to see the Sistine Chapel before we had to leave—which was totally worth it!

Rome is a memorizing place of history, culture, and beautiful art. I would love to go back. Next stop, and last of the backpacking, is Pisa, Italy.

Venice!!! In all its glory

Venice is beautiful. And unique. And touristy. The first two are better than the latter, but with the delicious food, multi-colored buildings, arching bridges, and countless boats gliding scenically on the water, it’s not hard to see why so many people go there. We walked around Venice all day, arriving around noon by bus and departing around midnight by bus, with our big packs. That’s the beauty of Venice. There are probably tours you could take, definitely gondola rides you could pay for, but the best way to experience Venice is just to walk through it. Each building is different to its neighbor. No two bridges look the same. The city is full of brightly painted shutters and walls, absolutely looming over the water, with nothing but a thin sliver of pavement to separate them. Venice truly is the floating city.

There are a few good things to know before going to Venice, especially if you are traveling to Europe for the first time or if this is the first touristy destination you visit. First, get gelato here—but don’t spend more than two euros! You can actually find it for less. We walked around to all of the shops and restaurants, and you’ll find good deals in the front but the back is less crowded. Don’t bother eating in St. Mark’s Square unless you’re willing to spend a pretty penny (more on St. Mark’s later). The best gelato I had in Italy was in Venice; it was absolutely wonderful. Nothing like American ice cream. The food in Venice, holistically, is really yummy, and if you walk around a bit like we did you’ll be able to find something affordable. We didn’t buy the three course meals; we opted for two dishes of pasta (which we shared), a glass of wine, and saved the rest for gelato. Our pasta was delicious; we ate right on the Grand Canal, and spent around eleven euros each. Best pesto I’ve ever had was in Venice, and usually prefer my own!

One thing to be wary of, and this is specifically for St. Mark’s Square, are the “vendors”. I don’t call them real vendors because they aren’t really selling anything, just trying to bully you into giving away your money. We got caught in the middle of the Square by two men who randomly came up to us and poured dried pasta into our hands. We were then swarmed by flock of pigeons that flew onto our arms, gripping their tiny talons onto our wrists, and digging their little beaks into our hands full of feed. The pigeons kept coming, some flying overhead and perching on our shoulders and backpacks. Pretty soon, we were feeding about twenty pigeons, as the “vendor” kept filling our hands with feed. We continued to refuse, until the pigeons just became too much and we dropped the noodles on the floor and started to walk away. This is when the men became angry, demanding money for their “service.” We had gotten some good pictures with the pigeons, so I reached into my money belt to give him the only coin I had, a 50-cent. The man then complained loudly that I had a five-euro bill—which I did—which his “business” deserved and that 50 p was not enough. This ended it for me and I left him with nothing. They had never asked us if we wanted to feed the birds, didn’t “sell” the noodles to us, and continue to force them into our hands even while we refused. This is not a business. Be wary of people like this; I had already dealt with the numerous merchants who will pester you with goods, or beggars asking for money, but this sneaky method was new to us.

Besides that, Venice was beautiful and safe. My favorite part was eating dinner on the Grand Canal. We were so close that when big boats, like the water taxi, would drive by we’d have to pick up our feet a little to avoid an incoming wave that rolled over some of the pavement. Sitting outside adjacent to the colorfully reflective canal, watching slow boats motor tourists through the floating city, with a glass of white wine illuminated by only a candle at our table, was the perfect way to end the day.

Paris to Venice

From Paris to Venice: AKA the flight from hell and an unexpected night in Milan

You can plan, and pre-plan, and post-plan, and check that very detail fits over and over again, but you still cannot control everything. This was something I learned on my way to Venice. We had booked a flight leaving Paris in the evening to which we would land in Milan around midnight, catch a pre-booked bus, and get to Venice at 6 am the next morning. It wasn’t pretty, but it was cheap. What we hadn’t foreseen (and couldn’t have) was that our Ryanair flight to Milan would end up being delayed and late, getting us into the city too late to catch our bus. Relying only on wifi from the airport, we had to quickly reach out to support back home and arrange a place to stay the night in Milan and a new bus to Venice the next day. Thanks to help from my travel buddy’s family, we didn’t have to spend the night in the airport with the worst airline ever!

Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating. But I’m hesitant to book a Ryanair flight again, although they are cheap. Their setup at the airport in Paris was a disaster. They send you to about five different people before you can check in, charge 45 euros to check a bag of any size, and their size standards for carry-on luggage are tiny because the plane was very small. Also, if I can help it, I will never fly over the Alps again. That flight was the scariest, bumpiest, loudest flight I have ever been on. The weather, turbulence, and praying/ crying Italians made it seem like our trip was coming to an abrupt close. But, thankfully, we landed safely. I don’t love this airline because of their lack of professionalism in the airports, failure to even inform us that our flight would be almost two hours delayed, the insane luggage fee—and the crying flight attendants who shakily whispered not a word of English over the intercom as we all thought we faced inevitable doom didn’t help either.

This was just a bump in the road of what I now realize traveling is. It’s never perfect. Especially when you are on your own, in a new country, and using transportation companies you have no experience with. Self-guided traveling is full of ups and downs. Ecstatic highs when you’ve mastered the metro or gotten to your bus station on time, and frantic stress when you’re lost again. It’s unavoidable. But I’m thankful for stressful experiences like these because they teach you how to handle unexpected curveballs and how to problem solve quickly—sometimes in another language. All in all, we eventually arrived to Venice and though we were shaken from the bad flight, I now feel confident in knowing there’s always a way to fix things when seemingly perfect plans go astray.

PS- BUT, the bus ride from Milan to Venice was the most beautiful ride of my trip. The Italian countryside is gorgeous, and I highly recommend bussing or riding a train through it rather than flying so you can see the hills, quaint homes, and radiant shades of blue and green.

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Italian Countryside

London to Paris

Arriving in London is usually the cheapest destination in Europe. And you can easily travel from the UK to the European continent, by bus! We took a 10-hour bus ride from London right into the heart of Paris. Arriving at about 10pm (our bus came in late) we checked into our campsite (more about that later) and struggled to maneuver around a city for which we did not fluently speak the language. Despite this—Paris is brilliant. Forget what you’ve heard about French people! We were worried our American nationality and English speaking would turn people off—as it is commonly thought in the states. But quite the opposite. Parisians went out of their way to stop us on the street, whether we were looking at a map or buying a metro pass, to ask us if we needed help. In English! I know what you’re thinking, and we never even came close to being pick-pocketed. Usually you’ve got to watch out for these “helpers” who target lost tourists as means to a new phone or wallet. But none of these locals approached us in this way, they were genuinely trying to be helpful and we felt very safe.

Something that entranced me from the start, and all the way through Europe, was the architecture. Normal buildings, apartments, shops—even McDonalds—are built inside the most beautifully crafted historical architecture. Simply walking around the streets is the best way to fully absorb Paris and its beauty.

For the day that we were there we had three objectives: Eiffel Tower, Catacombs, and the Louver. A piece of advice is know where you want to go, how far away they are from each other, and what method of transportation is best. The metro was perfect for us and our plans because it made each spot accessible and was wonderfully easy to maneuver. I recommend getting the one or however many day pass that you plan to spend there, it’s a way to spend money and know you’ve got a secure way of getting around. Second, get out early. You’ll be waiting in lines for everything. We got up around 7, ate breakfast, and were at the Eiffel before 9. This was lucky because the Tower didn’t open up until after 9, so we got a good spot in line and didn’t have to wait long. One forewarning: PARIS IS NOT BACKPACK FRIENDLY. At least not for traditional backpacking size, where you’ve got a 40-lb pack with you at all times, which we had that day. We almost didn’t get into the Eiffel because of our large backpacks, small purses are fine, but large bags must be checked for security reasons and they were hesitant to even let us through. Therefore, I’d recommend staying in a place in Paris where you can securely leave your bags while you’re out, or renting a locker. Once inside, you have to pay for a ticket for the elevator up to the top, or a cheaper ticket to climb the stairs. We climbed as high as is allowed (with our packs) and then took the elevator up the rest of the way. You don’t have to pay for another ticket at the second level, nor to get down. I highly recommend going all the way to the top, the third level. The elevator is cramped and a bit sketchy—if you have a fear for that sort of thing. But it’s a short ride and well worth it. The view of Paris is spectacular. And the Tower itself is magnificent. Much bigger than I’d expected!

After the Eiffel we made our way back to the Catacombs, which is in the center of the city and can be a bit hard to locate. Every sign and person will direct you to a triangular strip in the middle of an intersection. You’ve got to walk around the perimeter of it until you’ll see a small wall with little letters saying Catacombs. Of course, you could always just follow the line. We waited two hours in a massive hoard of people; some friends of mine who went a few weeks later waited four. Allow for this kind of waiting time in your schedule. The Catacombs were awesome. I thoroughly enjoyed them and all their creepiness. It’s literally stacks and stacks of ancient bones, and eerie old signs written in French (“mort” was all I could understand). Again our backpacks were a problem, but here they’ll let you store your pack in a room and you can wander below freely. However, you’ll have to find your way back to the entrance to retrieve your bag, because the end of the displayed tunnel spits you out a few blocks down. It’s truly amazing how far those Catacombs reach. They cover nearly the entire city. We didn’t opt for a tour; you can learn on your own by reading informative signs—and maybe secretly trailing a tour group or two.

The Louver unfortunately did not happen. Security wouldn’t let us in with our bags, and they had no lockers or rooms to store them. Disappointing. But I’ve heard exploring the whole museum takes many hours. Also some nights and days of the week offer free student admission to limited exhibits and there are many discounts you can take advantage of by checking their website. I’ll be back to Paris undoubtedly, and the Mona Lisa will be waiting for me.

Our hostel situation was a different, but good, experience. We stayed in a campground in the garden of a discontinued hospital that was now used to house low-income passerby’s and locals. The check-in lady described it as a place for artists, starving musicians, and travelers to stay and be welcomed. The price reflected this! We stayed in a teeny tent atop some wooden planks and had close neighbors. Besides the audible next-door snoring and slight panic at a spider inside our tent—the place was great. I’d recommend it to people who are looking for a unique experience; it’s not for those who prefer luxury. We showered outside under a pull-down tent, used outdoor sink and toilet facilities, and yoga mats to sleep on (plus other rentable equipment) were provided. All in all, it was a positive experience.

Paris is an incredible city that needs to be explored. You definitely can’t do everything in one or two days, so plan accordingly to get to the things that are most important to you. And remember not to carry around a backpack! We didn’t feel comfortable leaving our packs in our unlocked tent, so the only thing I’d do differently is sleep somewhere secure as to leave our bags there. From Paris it was time to fly to Milan where we could catch a bus to Venice and arrive by morning. Or so we thought…

Short Stop (And Interesting Hike) in Victoria, Canada

The Port Angeles Ferry ride dropped us off on time at our next stop—Victoria, Canada. From there we’d be boarding our plane and jetting off across Canada all the way to London. Quick travel tip! If you’re planning a trip to Europe (or anywhere—it is always worth trying this) fly out of Canada! Our flight to London was under three hundred dollars. While my peers were paying close to one thousand departing from California, we were flying out of Canada to England for ust over two hundred, along with a cheap ferry and free train ride (Amtrak miles!). I cannot stress this enough. If you’re looking for a MAJOR MONEY SAVER fly out on a slightly uncomfortable trip from Canada. Slightly uncomfortable because we had to take four flights, each around two hours, literally across the country and then across the Atlantic Ocean. This was less than ideal and took almost an entire day. However, if you’re a student or an adventurer on a budget, this is a wallet-saving option! Canada was beautiful, for the short time that we visited. Food and drink is relatively cheap in Victoria, people are very friendly and helpful (as stereotypically expected), and it was a great place to start out our journey. One note, change your U.S. dollars to Canadian cash as quickly as you can. Most stores and restaurants accept cards, but you will need coins to board public transportation. ATMs can be hard to come by and many stores begin to close around 10, so do not wait until the last minute to change your currency! Like we did…

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Parliament building Victoria, Canada

We had just boarded the bus on our way to the airport (after scouring the streets to find the last liquor store open at which we could exchange our currency). Our flight would be taking off at 6 am and it was about midnight. Our plan was to get to the airport around 1 and sleep there until our flight. Our “fool-proof” plan consisted of two buses and a minor walk to the airport. MINOR. Or so we thought.

 The second bus ended up not taking us as far as the route had been displayed online, but the driver assured us it was a safe, 20 minute walk through a residential town to the isolated airport. So, knowing it was our only option since we did not have cell phone service to phone a cab, we began the trek. Then turned back. To our horror the road to the airport was lined with forest and unlit homes, and was completely dark. No street lights, house lights, absolutely no light lit the path. It took us a few tries at mustering courage to walk the 20 minutes, in complete darkness, in a foreign country, down an unknown street, at 2 in the morning. I can now admit that I was more scared than I let on, but thankfully we eventually reached the light of the airport and found our way inside. At first we thought the airport was closed and that the night would further decay into us having to sleep outside. However, the Canadians showed their prized hospitality and let us in to sleep with the other flyers. In the British Columbian, Canadian airport, they have rooms where you can sleep in over night! This would have been something worth making sure of. But don’t discount it out of misinformation; save your money by sleeping at the airport if you only have a few hours until your flight. Do not, however, belittle the walking distance (or circumstantial distance) of a walk in the dark.