Europe has it all: sprawling cities and quaint villages; boulevards, promenades and railways; mountains, beaches and lakes. Some places will be exactly how you imagined: Venice is everything it’s cracked up to be; springtime in Paris has even hardened cynics melting with the romance of it all; Oxford’s colleges really are like Harry Potter film sets. Others will surprise, with their under-the-radar nature or statement-making modern architecture.
Whether you’re planning to see it all or explore the hidden corners of the continent, these are our top 12 tips for backpacking through Europe, taken from our latest Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget.
1. Pick your season wisely
If you decide to travel during the peak summer season, try heading east – the Balkan coastline, the Slovenian mountains and Baltic cities are all fantastic places for making the most of your money. When tourist traffic dies down as autumn approaches, head to the Med. The famous coastlines and islands of southern Europe are quieter at this time of year, and the cities of Spain and Italy begin to look their best. Wintertime brings world-class skiing and epic New Year parties. Come spring it’s worth heading north to the Netherlands, Scandinavia, France and the British Isles, where you’ll find beautifully long days and relatively affordable prices.
2. Take the train
Getting around by train is still the best option, and you’ll appreciate the diversity of Europe best at ground level. Plus, if you make your longest journeys overnight and sleep on the train, you’ll forego accommodation costs for the night. Most countries are accessible with an Interrail Global pass or the equivalent Eurail pass. Depending on your time and budget, choose one corner of the continent then consider a budget flight for that unmissable experience elsewhere. Make sure you check out our tips for travelling by train in Europe.
3. Be savvy about accommodation
Although accommodation is one of the key costs to consider when planning your trip, it needn’t be a stumbling block to a budget-conscious tour of Europe. Indeed, even in Europe’s pricier destinations the hostel system means there is always an affordable place to stay – and some are truly fantastic. Homestays will often give you better value for money than most hotels so they are also worth considering. If you’re prepared to camp, you can get by on very little while staying at some excellently equipped sites. Come summer, university accommodation can be a cheap option in some countries. Be sure to book in advance regardless of your budget during the peak summer months.
4. Plan your trip around a festival
There’s always some event or other happening in Europe, and the bigger shindigs can be reason enough for visiting a place. Be warned, though, that you need to plan well in advance. Some of the most spectacular extravaganzas include: St Patrick’s Day in Ireland, when Dublin becomes the epicentre of the shamrock-strewn, Guinness-fuelled fun; Roskilde in Denmark, Glastonbury’s Scandinavian rival with a mass naked run thrown in for good measure; and Italy’s bizarre battle of the oranges in Ivrea.
5. Eat like a local
You’ll come across some of the world’s greatest cuisines on a trip to Europe, so make sure to savour them. A backpacking budget needn’t be a hindrance either. If you shun tourist traps to eat and drink with the locals, you’ll find plenty of foodie experiences that won’t break the bank. Treat yourself to small portions but big flavours with a tapas dish or two in Spain; relish the world’s favourite cuisine at an Italian trattoria; or discover the art form of the open sandwich with smørrebrød in Denmark. Don’t skip breakfast, either – an oven-fresh croissant or calorie-jammed “full English” are not to be missed.
6. Find the freebies
Being on a budget doesn’t mean you should miss out, even in some of the world’s most sophisticated cities. Many iconic European experiences are mercifully light on the pocket: look out for free city walking tours, try the great Italian tradition of aperitivo in Rome, make the most of the free museums in London and try cooking with local ingredients rather than eating out. We’ve got lists of the top free things to do in Paris, Barcelona, London, Dublin and Berlin to get you started.
7. Get outdoors
It can be tempting to focus backpacking through Europe on a succession of capital cities – but you’d be missing out on a lot. Europe offers a host of outdoor pursuits that animate its wide open spaces, too, from horseriding in Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains and surfing on Portugal’s gnarled Alentejo coast to cross-country skiing in Norway and watching Mother Nature’s greatest show in Swedish Lapland.
8. Allow yourself the odd splurge
One advantage of budget travel is that it makes splurging all the sweeter – and for a little “flashpacking” guidance, we include Treat Yourself tips throughout our latest Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. If you’re mostly staying in dorms, splash out on the odd private hostel room or boutique hotel; swing by a speakeasy for cocktails in Paris; gorge yourself on pasta in Rome; and allow yourself a day of watersports in Croatia.
9. Stay up late
Whether it’s Berlin and London’s hipster dives, flamenco in Seville, Budapest’s ruin bars, or the enotecas that celebrate Italy’s rejuvenated wine industry, there are countless reasons to stay up till sunrise. Europe lives for the wee hours and you’ll be following in some famous footsteps. Think about ordering a knee-buckling Duvel beer at Brussels’ historic La Fleur en Papier Doré, a time-worn café once the favourite hunt of Surrealist painter Magritte and Tintin creator Hergé, or sipping a pint in one of Oxford’s historic pubs, like the Eagle and Child, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s old haunt.
10. Hit the beach
Clubbed and pubbed out? It’s time to hit the beach. If you’re looking for heat, Formentera’s beaches are quieter and wilder than on neighbouring Ibiza, while Croatia and Italy have a slew of beautiful stretches of sand. If you want to head off the beaten track, consider Mogren in Montenegro, part of the so-called “Budva Riviera” that stretches either side of Montenegro’s party town par excellence.
11. Go under the radar
If you’re looking for Europe’s charm without the crowds, you’ll want to consider straying from the well-worn routes. Some of our favourite under-the-radar towns include Olomouc in the Czech Republic, a pint-sized Prague with less people and more charm (and cobblestones), and Berat, a gorgeous Albanian town where row after row of Ottoman buildings loom down at you from the sides of a steep valley.
12. Stay safe
Take some basic precautions to stay safe. It’s not a good idea to walk around flashing an obviously expensive camera or smartphone, and keep your eyes (and hands if necessary) on your bags at all times. Exercise caution in hostels and on trains; padlocking your bags to the luggage rack if you’re on an overnight train increases the likelihood that they’ll still be there in the morning. It’s also a good idea to take a photocopy of your passport and keep it safe somewhere online.
For a complete guide to backpacking through Europe, check out our latest Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Compare flights, book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Header image via Agustin Rafael Reyes/Flickr.