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Help me prepare for a month backpacking in Europe
October 27, 2010 12:26 PM   Subscribe

Please help me plan a month long backpacking trip through Europe. I've never done this sort of this before for this long and I need even the most basic tips as regards travel of this nature.

I need specific advice and general tips regarding traveling like this. I've been through London, Paris, and Barcelona, but never by myself and never for this amount of time. My plan currently is to get a monthlong Eurail Pass, fly into Paris, visit with some friends, and then head east to Budapest, from there loop back around into Italy, and then back to Paris. This schedule will be adjusted as I start to plan the particulars. I need lots of general questions answered, however:

- I'm still pretty confused as to how exactly a Eurail pass works. Is it worth it? I'm planning on doing a lot of rail travel, so it seems like it, and I currently have no idea how to price out individual tickets. What's my best bet for planning and reserving train tickets? Any general tips for long term train travel and avoiding things like robbery and organ harvesting?

- What's the best way to research and reserve hostels?

- What's the best way to keep in touch with people at home? I've got an iphone, so I'm planning on using Skype when I've got a wireless connection and in emergencies, but should I pick up a cellphone when I'm there?

- After looking at several travel threads, it seems I should get a sleep sack and a travel towel, two things I didn't know existed. Are there brands and features that people swear by? The choices at this point are a little overwhelming. I've got myself a clothesline too, a good backpack, comfortable shoes, and a money belt. Is there anything else that Mefi travelers swear by? Should I invest in a decent multitool?

- I'd like to carry one comprehensive guidebook with me. Is there any that you guys really love?

- I'm a half decent cook. What are some group pleasing recipes I could use to make friends with my fellow hostel people?

Any other tips or advice from people who have done similar things would be really appreciated. Thanks!
posted by deafmute to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, when I did a Eurail pass, you couldn't use it in the country that you purchased it, so if you plan on doing a lot of trains in France, maybe fly into Amsterdam (or another place that has cheap flights that is small/you won't be travelling around a lot in), and then buy the ticket there, and use it everywhere else.
posted by Grither at 12:31 PM on October 27, 2010


Lonely Planet is a fantastic resource for budget travel in Europe.
posted by bearwife at 12:52 PM on October 27, 2010


I got my travel towel at REI, where I'm sure it was overpriced, but as it works great and folds small, I'll live. Other things I'd recommend thinking about: Raincoat/poncho that can be smushed up really small, a tiny flashlight, soap flakes, something to stopper a sink with, something that can be used as an alarm clock (I'm guessing the iPhone will work, but I dunno how it is at syncing with no data service), a compression bag to put dirty clothes in, any adapters and/or converters you need (the two are not the same), and ziploc bags (they're handy for a ton of things).

I've found hostelworld.com works fine for hostels, but it does charge you something like a $2 booking fee. I've used hostelz before, with varying degrees of success, and Lonely Planet tends to be pretty accurate as far as locations and prices. The best way, usually, is to find a place you like by one of the above methods, then see if they have their own web site, so you can skip any booking fees and maybe get a lower rate. The major criteria I've found is that the hostel's location is convenient to public transportation, has wifi or is near an internet cafe, and that one every week or two has laundry facilities. More than a half mile away or so, and you run the risk of having to take a slog through unknown neighborhoods at night with your stuff. (I'm actually talking more about the annoyance factor of being tired and carrying a bag, but there could be safety concerns, as well.)

The Moon travel guides tend to be okay in all other respects, but they are absolutely crap at labeling street names/leaving entire streets off the map for some reason, so I will never buy one again. I have had good success with LP, and the Let's Go ones look okay, but I've never used one abroad. Do not get the Fodor's or anything else that focuses on 3-4 star food and hotels. Those usually fail to mention the good budget hotels and hostels entirely.

The one time I got a month long train pass, it turns out it wasn't worth it, after pricing out tickets afterward, when taking into account that you could use local trains/commuter trains/second class trains for much cheaper. That's really hard to tell you without a lot of calculating and looking up ticket prices for the various options in various countries. I have never felt in danger of organ harvesting or even robbery when using overnight trains. Just don't leave your passport and money unattended *ever*, and sleep with them under your pillow or on your body. Maybe the iphone, too. Everything else is fairly easily replaceable, if it comes to the worst case scenario. (I'm assuming you'll be taking the 4-6 person overnight cars and not paying for a private one.)

Good luck! You can memail me with questions if you want.
posted by wending my way at 1:10 PM on October 27, 2010


- I'm still pretty confused as to how exactly a Eurail pass works. Is it worth it? I'm planning on doing a lot of rail travel, so it seems like it, and I currently have no idea how to price out individual tickets. What's my best bet for planning and reserving train tickets? Any general tips for long term train travel and avoiding things like robbery and organ harvesting?

I don't know how much Eurail costs, but you should go onto the site of each national train operator and look at how much each journey costs. France uses SNCF, Spain is Renfe, Germany is Bahn, Italy is TrenItalia. I have no idea about Hungary, but you might be able to get it from Germany. If it's more than the Eurail pass, do it that way, if not, don't. You should look into e-tickets or collection at a major hub (this will likely require the credit card you booked with). Otherwise, buy the tickets and have them posted to your friends, or transfer money to your friends and ask them to buy for you.

Also, try and organise your travel times so that it's off-peak, as otherwise you'll be a slightly lost foreigner in a crush of impatient locals with your huge bag. Travelling so that you depart and arrive off-peak is a nicer experience.

- What's the best way to research and reserve hostels?

I tend to stick with Hostelling International, unless I get a great recommendation from a friend or a guidebook.

- What's the best way to keep in touch with people at home? I've got an iphone, so I'm planning on using Skype when I've got a wireless connection and in emergencies, but should I pick up a cellphone when I'm there?

Depends on how long you're planning on staying really, and how often you'll need to use your phone. Remember also that whilst there is great network interoperability in Europe (i.e. buy a phone in France, will still work in wherever on whatever network), it will cost you a ton on that phone when you leave the country of purchase (same principle as using a US phone in Europe). I would rely on the ubiquitous WiFi, and email loads. Turn off data, compose offline, email via WiFi.

- After looking at several travel threads, it seems I should get a sleep sack and a travel towel, two things I didn't know existed. Are there brands and features that people swear by? The choices at this point are a little overwhelming. I've got myself a clothesline too, a good backpack, comfortable shoes, and a money belt. Is there anything else that Mefi travelers swear by? Should I invest in a decent multitool?

- I'd like to carry one comprehensive guidebook with me. Is there any that you guys really love?

Lonely Planet guide to Europe will be good.

- I'm a half decent cook. What are some group pleasing recipes I could use to make friends with my fellow hostel people?

Depends if you can cook in the hostel! Often, the hostel provides a dinner for you. If not, I always fall back on risotto or something pasta-based - you don't know if you'll have access to an oven, and some people don't eat lots of foods. It's also more likely a few of you will decide to go and eat out together (think: grab some pizza/pasta) than cook.

Feel free to ask any followup questions, or MeMail me. I'm based in Paris myself right now.
posted by djgh at 1:25 PM on October 27, 2010


Oh, also check out these videos (more in the box on the right) from a Guardian reporter travelling from London to Istanbul by train. And don't forget The Man in Seat 61 as a great train resource.
posted by djgh at 1:27 PM on October 27, 2010


If you do find more than one guidebook you like (I like Fodors/Frommers for their non-lodging info), you could try something I've done twice (and it may have been recommended here, I forget):
- Figure out what you'll need from each guidebook - there's usually whole sections I have no need for
- Go to Kinko's/FedEx with your guidebooks marked (I use post-its) for the sections you want to keep. Tip: Keep the index for each guidbook
- Have them rip 'em apart
- Put the sections in order, by guidebook (including index) and have them spiral bind it with a flexible vinyl cover

You end up with a guidebook that doesn't look like one, that opens flat, and is tougher than the others - and lighter/less bulky than all three combined.

For a phone, you may want to consider buying a phone with a pre-paid plan once you're there. They are ubiquitous in most countries and can found fairly cheaply. I bought one in Ireland 8 years ago and have used it on three trips so far.
posted by dbmcd at 1:55 PM on October 27, 2010


I recommend Couchsurfing over hostels, because you'll meet locals.

The best hostels I've stayed in have not been Hostelling International. There are probably websites devoted to this sort of information, but I suppose you could do worse than asking on the green about specific cities, as everyone surely has their own special favorite hostels. (Ask me about Utrecht, Hamburg, Berlin.)
posted by the_blizz at 2:02 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Seconding dbmcd on liking Fodors/Frommers for food and other non lodging info. The spiral bind approach sounds like a great idea. (We generally cart 3-4 guidebooks, but we travel via car, so bulkiness would be a problem if you didn't use the clever spiral bind trick.)
posted by bearwife at 2:15 PM on October 27, 2010


The best hostels I've stayed in have not been Hostelling International.

Yeah, for sure, as I said - recommendations from friends or guidebooks are best. But if there aren't any, you tend to know what you're getting with an HI hostel, and you can easily get info and book online.
posted by djgh at 2:22 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Plan, plan, plan your route in advance. Right now your schedule is full of holes. You're going to beeline from Paris to Budapest? That takes you though Germany, the Czech Republic, and Austria. Aren't you interested in seeing Munich, Vienna, and Prague? I'm pretty sure they're on your way.

Don't worry so much about cooking and socializing with hostel mates instead of seeing the sights. You'll be surprised how few chances you'll get to take a trip like this. Take advantage.

Consider overnight trains for some routes, but be careful. Half of the fun of Europe is seeing the countryside, so you miss out on that with overnight trips.

I'm pretty sure most hostels take bookings online, or connect to a service that does so. I took my trip 8 years ago so I'm sure a lot has changed since then, but for the better.
posted by hiteleven at 3:34 PM on October 27, 2010


What do you want in a hostel? Hostelling International ones will universally be clean, orderly, and boring. There will be a couple of party hostels in each major city, which will be cleanish, have a bar, and which will guarantee nightlife and a lack of sleep. Then there are the smaller independent ones that vary from amazing value and good fun through to dodgy, dirty, and expensive.

As for the various tools and gimmicks and things that people bring- very few of them will mean more than a small inconvenience if you don't have them. Yes, a washing line is handy, but you can always hang things on beds and windowsills. Yes, a sleep sack is handy, but you can always rent linen for not much money. A money belt offers some protection against theft, but not as much as simply being aware of where your goods are and who's around you. No one has ever had a trip ruined because they didn't bring the collapsible waterproof bag on sale at the airport.

(That being said, I swear by duct tape and alligator straps - infinitely useful things)

As for food, a half decent meal offered to people will always be welcome. Pasta, curries, soups, and anything that can be made in bulk using one or two pots are great. You don't want to rely on having a fully stocked kitchen with a food processor and thirteen varying pans available.

Finally, enjoy it! Everything you forget can be purchased over there.
posted by twirlypen at 4:13 PM on October 27, 2010


I should mention that I took a three-month tour through Europe without ever booking once at an HI hostel. There really are a lot of options out there. Read reviews to find out what's best.
posted by hiteleven at 4:30 PM on October 27, 2010


I just returned from a month in Italy and Spain. I HATED the HI hostels. They were soulless, institutional, and felt like prisons. The two I stayed in were the two worst nights of my trip. Definitely go with independent hostels. Check hostel world for reviews. Depending how long your trip is/how many different places you're planning on staying, it may be worth it to buy a Hostel World membership... its 10 bucks or something like that, and you don't have to pay booking fees afterwards. If you have an ipod touch, I'd recommend downloading your tour books onto there... less weight in your pack, and you don't necessarily look like a tourist when you stop in the street to look at it. Definitely compare individual tickets to a Eurail pass... where I was traveling, it was actually cheaper to buy single tickets.
posted by bluloo at 6:56 PM on October 27, 2010


You don't need a sleepsack. Hostels these days either provide sheets or you can rent them for a few euros.

If you think you'll need to call home frequently, you might choose to get a cellphone, but you could get by with Skype and the international roaming plan for your iPhone. You could spend 20 Euro (almost $30) on a cheap prepaid cellphone with some credit on it. Or, the AT&T international plan is $5.99 a month and minutes are ~$0.99 in most of Europe. If you only need it for a few 3-minute calls here and there, it'd be cheaper and easier to use the iPhone for the emergencies and use Skype when you have wifi access (i.e. in most hostels).

Believe everyone who tells you that you can buy it there if you forget it. You really can.
posted by cabingirl at 7:16 PM on October 27, 2010


I haven't backpacked around Europe (yet!), though it's something I've half-way planned on and off for a few years now. And I have backpacked some other places. Some answers to your questions:

- hostelworld.com for your hostel finding needs.

- I would not buy a phone (or unlock/get a sim for your iphone) for a month's travels. Unless you will need to be in constant verbal contact with your friends in Paris. I've spent months backpacking through far less developed countries without a phone, and it's not been a problem.

- re travel gadgets: remember that you will largely be traveling through highly developed countries, and mostly in the city. I would bring a corkscrew before I brought a multitool. I have found that many hostels provide towels, so you may not need a travel towel. Maybe do research on hostelworld to see what they provide? I've not used a sleep sack, either, but I get a sense that it's the done thing in European hostels.

- a Lonely Planet or Rick Steve's Europe On A Shoestring (or whatever they're calling themselves these days) might help, but honestly I find those books to be way too heavy, weight-wise, and way too light on the details unless you only want to visit the most popular places and do the most touristy things. If I were you, traveling to France (where you have friends), Italy (which is a fairly well-touristed country), and Hungary, I'd buy a guidebook to Hungary and play the rest by ear. You can always pick up a Lonely Planet on the road if you're confused or bored or whatever.
posted by Sara C. at 7:29 PM on October 27, 2010


something to stopper a sink with

Unless you are averse to wearing socks, you are already good to go on this. I have never understood Rick Steve's obsession with sink stoppers. Maybe he doesn't wear socks.

Or underwear, for that matter - a pair of briefs will stop up a sink if you've already washed all your socks.
posted by Sara C. at 7:32 PM on October 27, 2010


I've always used hostelworld.com, and then googled the hostel to see what everyone else is saying about it. They are reliable in terms of your booking getting through to the actual hostel, though. Lonely Planet is awesome, but their maps are more like general guides. I'd take everything in the map section with a grain of salt.

Have fun!
posted by carryon at 7:39 PM on October 27, 2010


A good option if you can fit it it your budget is a kindle. The 3G version lets you download books pretty much anyway, and it means you can have as many travel books and fiction as you can afford to download. You can also get on the internet with it for free in most of Europe. Barring that, buy the travel books on the kindle app on your iphone, but beware the cost of roaming data.
posted by kjs4 at 9:23 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Totally agree with the Kindle. I'm not sure I'd buy one just for the trip, but if you have one already (or were thinking about buying an eBook reader), they're definitely great to have.

I liked mine a lot as a strategy for getting my nose out of the guidebook - I was a little concerned about flaunting electronics around the streets of Cuzco, so I'd usually open the guidebook in my kindle at breakfast, make notes about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, and then put the kindle away and play it by ear from there.
posted by Sara C. at 9:02 AM on October 28, 2010


Some people don't like the shamwow feel of most travel towels. If this may be in an issue for you, shop around for one that has a terry feel to it.

Hostels - The best hostels I stayed in where based on recommendations from other backpackers, which ones had good breakfast, etc. This was possible, because I didn't always book ahead more than a couple days. I would just use a payphone and book a room.
posted by Gor-ella at 10:17 AM on October 28, 2010


Re: accommodations, I found that the best combination of planning vs freedom to do as you please, compile a list of accommodations in your price range (I found the rick steves recommendations for europe was the best) and rather than making reservations, when you decide to head to a given city, just call the places on your list and see who's got room.
posted by felspar at 11:50 PM on October 28, 2010


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