Travel Planning

Backpacking Europe: Planning Your Trip

Greetings all! Tomorrow I will be setting off  with a friend on a two week trek to London, Amsterdam, Geneva, Barcelona and Paris as part of my Easter break from school and I am ecstatic about it! Now planning this trip was no simple task since we did everything from booking planes and trains to researching hostels and attractions without any sort of professional help and while going to grad school full-time. Below are the steps we took to make this trip possible on a tight budget while still hitting the places we really wanted to see.

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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

The first decision we made when planning our trip was what mode of transit we wanted to use. Originally, we had intended to purchase an Interrail Pass, which is like a Eurail pass but for those based in Europe, and travel mainly by train, but due to some complications we ended up booking our trip later than planned and did not have time to order the passes and make necessary reservations. The Interrail pass or Eurail pass is ideal for travelers intending to travel to multiple countries and possibly as often as every 2-3 days. The bonus of traveling by train is not having to worry about baggage weight limits and other restrictions, but the downside is train travel can take up a large chunk of time if you are traveling longer distances.
Once we ruled out Interrail passes, due to timing of booking, we briefly toyed with the idea of travel by bus, but, while inexpensive, it seemed more suited for traveling extensively within one country rather than to multiple countries. From their we settled on budget airline travel, with flights on both EasyJet and Ryanair, as well as using trains to get from where we live in Manchester to London and back at the end of the trip and the train from Paris back to London as it was the same price and at a more ideal time than the flight we would have taken.
How did we go about finding our flights? My current preferred tool is Google Flights because it shows all major and budget airlines and even trains where possible, which is how we knew to take the train back from Paris. Google flights let me play around with various travel dates and different cities I was considering until I pieced together the ideal itinerary. The most important thing was for me to be flexible about dates and even places. I sat down at my computer with a list of places we were interested in and the dates we planned to leave and return and just plugged in different cities and dates until I got the cheapest airfare options and ideal lengths of time in each city. The only major issue I encountered was that I waited too long to book a flight and the cost went up significantly so my advise is that if you find a cheap flight that you know works with your itinerary, book it immediately or risk paying more.

Where should we sleep?

Once we knew which cities we were visiting over what dates, it was time to book our accommodations. Neither myself nor my friend have any firsthand knowledge of hostels in any of the cities we are visiting so it was time for us to read up on reviews and ask friends for advice. Hostelworld is easily the best site I have found for researching and booking hostels and they don’t charge a booking fee! You simply type in the city, the dates, and number of people and a massive list of available hostels, hotels, and other accommodation types is generated. You can then narrow by type (e.g. hostels only, no campgrounds, etc.), by price, and even looking at the map view to select based on proximity to public transit or certain attractions.
Hostelworld also contains countless reviews and photos of each place that can give you a good idea of what you can expect if you select that place. Depending on the city, the time of week, and the length of your stay, Hostels can range from really cheap($10 a night in Barcelona) to rather pricey($50 a night on average in Amsterdam). We got unlucky with our Amsterdam hostel because our last night is the Friday of Easter weekend so the cost for that night was more than double the next most expensive night so be wary of holidays when you are booking your trip, but our $10 a night hostel in Barcelona evens it all out.
On average, you can expect hostels to run you around $20-25 a night with some outliers on either side. The perks of hostels include the chance to meet other young travelers, the low cost, and they usually offer things like free wifi, walking tours and the people that work at them generally have great insights into the best things to do in the city you are visiting. If money is not your primary concern, then you can also stay in hotels, or even alternate between hotels and hostels as a way to Treat yo’self for a few days on your trip. An alternative to Hostels or hotels is Airbnb  which I highly recommend if you are looking for a more authentic local experience or if you are traveling in a larger group and want to rent out a whole apartment for your stay. You can also become an Airbnb Host if you have a spare room and want to earn some money and meet interesting new people! If you sign up using this link you can even earn a $20 credit towards your first stay!

Other Considerations

Other things that are important to consider during the planning stage are things like transport to and from airports and train stations, luggage restrictions on the airlines you book with, and what you plan to do in each city. For our trip, my friend and I have looked up public transport options to each of our hostels from the airports because we decided that will be cheaper than cabs, but taxis are definitely an option.
As for luggage restrictions, I will be posting a more detailed post later today about packing, but we have elected to go carry-on only because of the strict bag rules and fees on the airlines we are traveling with. As for activities in each city, we did preliminary research on things we definitely want to see, but have decided to mostly go with the flow and do what we feel like each day. I prefer to not have a strict schedule and to leave things open because that always leaves room for unexpected opportunities.

Tips and Tricks

My most useful piece of advice is to stay organized! I personally have a love affair with Microsoft Excel and choose to keep everything in spreadsheets, with cost, itinerary and whether or not it has been booked yet all in one place so its easy to track. Another option is any word processing software or writing everything down in a notebook. I also placed all the confirmation emails I received in a special folder so its easier to access them. Other than staying organizing I recommend staying open to visiting all kind of places. Geneva was not on our original list of place to visit, but I say a $20 flight there from Amsterdam and decided that after 4 years of College Model United Nations, it might be cool to see the the UN in Geneva, plus who can so no to Swiss chocolate?
Remember, keep an open mind and keep calm in your planning stage! And remember, planning a trip like this means you get to look forward to the trip and count down the days until you depart!
From one misguided millennial to the world, this has been my take on trip planning. Stay tuned for confessions of a chronic over-packer and updates on the trip itself!

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