So you want to backpack around Europe? Sounds pretty great, but how do you begin to plan something like that? There are a lot of things you will need to know to successfully plan a trip to Europe. However, if you follow this planning guide step-by-step, you should be ready for your dream trip before you know it. I have broken down planning your trip into nine simple steps:
1.Give yourself some time
2.Understand Visas and Schengen Countries
3.Plan a route
4.Get a valid passport
5.Get a plane ticket
6.Get a train ticket
7.Organize all your equipment
8.Purchase traveler’s Insurance
9. Book your first hostel and train rides
1. Give Yourself Some Time
It is easy to get ahead of yourself when starting to think about a trip to Europe. Once you get it in your head that you want to go to Europe it can be hard to resist the urge to just buy a ticket and go. However, if you want your trip to be everything you hoped for, a little planning can go a long way. By planning ahead you will save money and maximize your time. I would say at the very least, you should start planning a trip to Europe a month in advance. If you do not travel a lot or have never been to Europe, I would recommend a two month buffer. For my most recent backpacking excursion, my planning began about a month and a half before my expected departure date. Trust me, a month or two will fly by as you begin to compile everything you will need for a successful journey. Now that you have a realistic timeline in mind, we can move on to the real meat of the planning process!
2. Understanding Visas and Schengen Countries
Before you leave, you are going to want to understand the limits of a trip through Europe. One important aspect of a trip through Europe is understanding Schengen and non-Schengen countries. The Schengen countries are a large group of countries within Europe, most European Union countries are apart of the Schengen zone. This includes all the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
What are non-Schengen countries?
Non-Schengen countries, as the name implies, are countries that are not included within the Schengen union. Non- Schengen countries include Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Cyprus, Georgia, Ireland, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Romani, San Marino, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine, The United Kingdom, Vatican City. The two non-Schengen countries that are most popular to visit are the U.K. and Croatia.
Visas in Schengen countries
When you get your passport stamped into a Schengen country, you will get a travelers visa which will last you for 90 days within a 180 day period. This means that if you stay for 90 days, you need to leave for another 90 days before you can come back. Basically, the day you first step foot in a Schengen country a 180 day countdown starts, within which you can stay 90 days. You could stay for 30 days at three different times or 90 straight days within a 180 day period, but once you hit that magic 90 day number, you cannot come back until your initial 180 day countdown has finished.
Schengen countries are very particular about their 90 day visa, so do NOT overstay your welcome or you will encounter a lot of problems. I try to leave a 3-5 day buffer on long backpacking trips so I never go over my 90 day limit. If you are traveling for less than three months and are not planning on coming back within 180 days, you should not have to worry about this. The nice thing about Schengen countries is that you will not have to go through repeated border control when crossing from one Schengen country to the next. For more information about Schengen countries, visit their website here.
Visas in non-Schengen countries
In non-Schengen countries, visas will work a little differently depending on each countries laws. For instance, in the U.K you can stay for 180 days and in Croatia you can stay for 90 days. Typically, non-Schengen countries will have a 90 day visa but some might have fees associated with their visas or different stay times. If you are going to a non-Schengen country different from the U.K or Croatia, the Schengen visa informational site should offer exactly the protocol for each country you wish to visit.
How do Schengen and non-Schengen countries affect me?
If you are traveling for a short time throughout Europe, the Schengen countries will likely not have any affect on your travel. However, if you are traveling for an extended period of time or multiple times throughout a 180 day period, it is helpful to know that you can stay in Europe for over 90 days if you mix Schengen and non-Schengen countries. This might mean spending a week or two in London or in Zagreb (Croatia) to extend you time in Europe without breaking Schengen zone policies.
3. Plan a Route
Now for the fun part, planning a route! There are so many amazing cities in Europe that it can be a challenge (pretty much impossible) to see everything you want. I think it is important to consider quality over quantity. It is much more enjoyable to spend the proper amount of time in one or a couple of cities rather than spending a day hopping from one place to the next. With that in mind, you can coordinate where you would like to go in your timeframe. For reference, I will show you the exact route I take on a long (3 month) trip through Europe. I begin in London, then go to Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Krakow, Vienna, Budapest, Zagreb, Ljubljana, Venice, Milan, Zurich, Lyon, Paris, and back out through London. Also, if you would like to have a map of your route just like the one shown below, click here.
Why start in London?
I recommend starting in the London for three reasons: The U.K is not a Schengen country, meaning starting in London will add a couple of days to your trip. They speak English, so you will get a hold of train travel, hostels, etc. without having to worry about a language barrier. Most importantly, London is one of the most beautiful cities in the world! Additionally, London is probably the easiest country to fly in and out of.
Picking your route
This is the real difficult part! There are so many amazing places to go within Europe and so little time to see everything. My recommendation is to plot a course that does a circle through Europe (as I did). This will allow you to see as much of Europe (geographically) in a given period of time. It will also allow for more spontaneity because you will be close to almost every major city. If you decide you want to go somewhere not on your itinerary, you are never too far away. I also recommend making a list of all the countries/cities you would like to visit, then narrowing your list down the number of places you could spend at least 4 days. This means if you are traveling for 20 days you should (at the most) go to 5 cities; 40 days and 10 cities, etc. However, the longer you are traveling, the more I recommend staying longer than 4 days in each spot. For the above route through Europe, I spend 97 days through 12 countries and 14 cities. That comes out to roughly one week per city. I would also leave room for spontaneity. The route you plan a month or two in advance should be your tentative route, with enough wiggle room to change and go somewhere new if you want. Obviously, you can stick to your route too but sometimes the things you don’t plan are the most fun.
What is the right amount of time for each city?
It can be very difficult to feel like you have seen enough of Europe. However, I highly recommend limiting the number of cities you visit or you will leave feeling like there is so much more you could have done in that city. The bottom line is, you will not get bored in world-class cities like Paris, London, Amsterdam and even lesser known cities (to non Europeans) like Ljubljana and Zagreb. Also, there will always be opportunities for day trips if you feel you have seen everything in a city in under 4 days. With that said, I still think if you have the time, spending a week in each location you visit is the best way to get a sense of the city.
4. Get a Valid Passport
If you plan on traveling to Europe (or anywhere for that matter) you will need a valid passport. Getting a new passport can take a long time, so plan ahead. Typically applying for a new passport will take 4-6 weeks. You can expedite this process if you are in a crisis, possibly getting a passport in 2-3 weeks or 8 days if you can go directly to an agency, but I would highly recommend not doing this and just getting your passport well in advance. Expediting your passport will cost you an extra $60 dollars on top of the $145 price tag for a new passport. Additionally, you may not be able to expedite your passport without a solid reason. Typically, you can only get you a passport in 8 days if you have a life or death emergency. Get your passport in advance and don’t let this be a problem. For more information about passports, the U.S State Department’s website does a good job of explaining everything you need to know.
5. Get a Plane Ticket
Now that you have planned a route, figured out how long you can stay, and have a valid passport, it is time to make your first big purchase, a plane ticket. Again, I recommend flying into London. A good resource to get you starting on your plane ticket search is google flights. Google flights will give you an estimate of all the different airlines and prices you could fly during a given time. A couple of things to consider before purchasing your flight: do you have frequent flyer miles through an airline? If so, you may want to go through that airline even if the price is slightly higher. Make sure you are aware of timezones and layovers. Consider the season and day you are traveling. If you fly during low season, which would be anytime between November and March, plane tickets will be less expensive. Also, know that plane tickets could be cheaper or more expensive depending on the day you leave, typically Tuesdays and Wednesdays will be the cheapest travel days and Mondays and Fridays will be the most expensive.
What are some good airlines and prices?
Once you have searched google flights for a rough idea of flight prices, you can could choose to purchase a ticket directly through google flight’s link or go directly to the airline’s website. If you are worried that you might have to change plans or want to make sure you maximize your frequent flyer miles, I would recommend purchasing your ticket directly on your given airline’s website. Sometimes it can be difficult to know what a good deal on a flight is and what airlines are best. Here is a list of some of my favorite airlines as well as good prices according to the season of travel:
Best airlines for Europe:
Lufthansa– can be expensive but high quality.
Virgin Atlantic– Dependable and can get good deals. Make sure you are searching Virgin Atlantic and not Virgin American- they are different.
KLM– Dutch airline, also high quality.
Good Plane Prices:
High Season (mid-June through August): You are going to pay a premium for traveling during high season. If you can get a roundtrip ticket for $1000 you are doing pretty well. If you are pushing $1500 you may want to look for a different airline or departure date.
Shoulder Seasons (April through mid-June)(September through October): A good price for shoulder season traveling is anything under $1000. I recently found a roundtrip ticket to London for $866 leaving in mid-September and returning in December. I would avoid paying over $1200.
Low Season (November through March): In low season you are going to find your best deals. Try to find a flight under $900 and do not fly on anything over $1100.
6. Get a Train Ticket
Train travel in Europe, in my opinion, is the ultimate way to get around Europe. It is fast, it is easy, and you often go through incredibly scenic parts of Europe. In reality, you have two options when it comes to train travel within Europe: buy a Eurail Pass or buy individual train tickets.
Advantages and disadvantages of a Eurail Pass
A Eurail Pass is the best way to travel if you value flexibility, ease of travel, and you’re traveling alone. If you are under the age of 26, Eurail drastically discounts the price of a Eurail Pass, making it an attractive option for young people. With a Eurail Pass, you will not have to worry about planning each leg of your trip but can focus on going where you please, when you please.
The only real disadvantage of a Eurail Pass may be cost. A Eurail Pass may cost you more than individual tickets. Additionally, having a Eurail Pass does not mean you can just hop on any train you please. On many trains (and definitely on high speed-trains and overnight trains) you must reserve a seat, which could cost extra money depending on the train.
Advantages and disadvantages of buying individual tickets
The main advantage of buying individual tickets is cost. If you choose to buy individual ticket you will likely save a couple bucks, especially if you are comfortable with European train travel and know your way around the system.
Unfortunately, if you choose to buy individual train tickets, you will lose much of the flexibility you have with a Eurail Pass. In order to get good deals on train travel, you will have to book them in advance and many are non-refundable.
Unless you are a seasoned traveler and you know exactly where you want to go, buying individual tickets is probably not worth it. That is why (for non-European citizens) I strongly recommend buying the Eurail Pass. European citizens can use an Interrail Pass. What you lose in cost, you will more than make up for in spontaneous experiences and ease of travel. To buy a Eurail Pass, you can go to Eurail’s website. For a complete, detailed rundown of traveling in Europe, please read my full article on Transportation.
7. Organize All Your Equipment
Once you have purchased your plane and train tickets, you are nearly done with making your trip a reality. Only a few steps remain. Making sure you are prepared and have all the necessary equipment for your travels, is one of the most important steps. Pack light to maximize your flexibility and ease of travel. I highly recommend bringing only ONE travel backpack that contains all your necessities for however long you plan to travel. There are some items you should buy before you leave. I will describe those essential items and include my recommendations:
Travel Backpack– Minaal Travel bag 2.0
Travel Packable Daypack- Tortuga Setout Packable Daypack
Valuables Bag– Pacsafe Anti-Theft Crossbody Bag
Packable Jacket- Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody
High Quality Socks- Darn Tough Socks
Microfiber Towel- PackTowl Personal Microfiber towel
Plug Adapter- Skross World Travel Adapter 3
Portable Charger- Anker PowerCore 20100
If you want complete details on every item you will need and how to pack your travel backpack, read my article on Packing and One Bag Travel.
8. Purchase Traveler’s Insurance
It is unwise to go overseas (especially if you are traveling alone) with absolutely no safety-net. That is why traveler’s insurance is a must for those of you traveling for any extended period of time. Traveler’s insurance can be a bit confusing but below are the main items travel insurance will cover.
Travel insurance will cover medical emergencies and emergency evacuation. Usually, medical emergencies will be covered up to $100,000 and emergency evacuation protection will cover somewhere between $300,000 and $500,000 depending on what plan you get. Hopefully (and most likely), this will not have to be used, but in the event that it does, you will be glad to be covered and to be safe.
Trip Cancellation/ Delay
If for some reason you had to cancel your trip, travel insurance covers the cost of prepaid expenses. This include things such as plane tickets, train tickets, and prepaid accommodations. Also, if your trip is delayed and you miss a flight, often times travel insurance will compensate you for the cost of your missed flight. Read your insurance policy for details. Trip cancellation and delay is covered from $5,000 to $20,000 depending on your plan.
Stolen or damaged luggage
Stolen or damaged luggage is the most common use for travel insurance and therefore has the most disparity in coverage based on your plan. A standard insurance plan will cover $1,000 in stolen items while a premium plan will cover $3,000. If you are bringing a lot of expensive electronics or are especially clumsy/ susceptible to thieves, consider upgrading for the extra protection.
How to get your claim money
If you do have to use your travel insurance, making a claim can be a big frustration. The most important tip I can give you is to document everything you have before you leave. Take pictures of every item you are bringing. For expensive items, take a photo of the SKU or product number to show the exact product that you are using. This will help you out tremendously when the time comes to make a claim.
What Travel Insurance provider do I recommend?
I recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance. They offer the most coverage for a very fair price. Also, World Nomads are one of the easiest travel insurance companies to make a claim through. There website will walk you through the claim process, click here to see. To get your World Nomads Travel insurance right now, sign up below.
9. Book Your First Hostel and Train Rides
Before you arrive at your first destination, you will want to have a few things figured out. One, where are you staying the night you get in. Two, how you are getting to you second destination. This is why I always recommend booking your first hostel and train ride before you leave. This is especially important if you are using a Eurail pass and starting in London because you will have to buy a separate train ticket to get from the U.K to the rest of Europe. You can book this train ride through the Eurostar website which will allow you to book trains to France or the Netherlands (amongst other places) out of London. This is because the U.K is not a part of the Eurail system.
Additionally, you will want to book your first hostel before you go so you are not scrambling to find a place to stay while simultaneously being jet lagged and otherwise discombobulated. Once you get in a routine of travel you do not need to be quite as forward thinking, especially because some hostels will offer a day-of discounts to fill beds; but, I would not start off with such a risky move. I use the HostelWorld app on my phone to find and book my hostels.
Done With Planning!
If you have followed these 9 steps, you’re ready to travel Europe! For more information about budgeting and packing, click here.