HOW TO TRAVEL EUROPE FOR THE BEGINNING BACKPACKER: Your Ultimate Guide to Transportation in Europe

I’ve had message upon message about this topic, all saying the same thing: I want to travel Europe, but I’m clueless about how to get around! 

So, I’m here to tell you the unfiltered pros and cons of travel in Europe. I’ve lived through the ups and downs. I’ve slept on buses and trains. I’ve ran to catch a train two minutes before departure. I’ve missed connections. I’ve lost items, accidentally spent unnecessary money, and sweat through all my clothes after a 30+ hours of travel. SO, read on if all that sounds like fun! (Just kidding, mostly….)

(Beware: this post will be significantly longer than others, so feel free to skim to the parts you want to read!)

First things first, you need to know a couple things about backpacking.

1.) You can’t bring a lot with you.

Most planes, trains, buses, and boats have luggage restrictions. Sometimes the restrictions are STRICT–and I’m talking maybe a free personal item, but then there’s a $100 fee for even a carry-on. So: travel light.

2.) Be flexible.

Probably a little over half the time, my train/bus/taxi/plane is late. That means a lot of standing around, sometimes for hours in stations without heat or A/C or benches or anything to eat besides a Kinder bar from a vending machine. That means spending extra money on food while you wait because you get hungry. That means missing your connecting train/bus/etc and having to figure out how to get a refund with a company that doesn’t have an English-speaking representative in the city you’re in, or you don’t get an email response until over a month later, or sometimes you’re just fucked and there’s nothing you can do but buy a new ticket. That means using international calling rates to contact your hostel to let them know you’ll be later than your ETA. Essentially, expect the unexpected. So: be positive and be flexible.

OKAY, now that we have that out of the way….

The ultimate guide on how to get around Europe!

Each option listed below has pros and cons, like most things about travel. All have the possibility of delays, mechanical problems, and unforeseen issues. Before traveling, it’s necessary to have a feel for how much money you’re willing to spend, especially on things like comfort and length of time traveling. (For example: are you willing to sleep on a shitty reclining train seat for twelve hours with five other people sleeping up against you like sardines? Can you sit on a bus for over 24 hours? Yes, I’ve done the former, and I’m planning to do the latter.) So, buckle up, and let’s plan your trip!

 

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If you’re flexible, use the app GoEuro. I’ve never used it personally because I have a train pass, but this fantastic program searches the cheapest, quickest, and easiest routes between two cities. They search through buses, flights, and trains, and it’s a great resource, especially for budget travelers! Once my rail pass expires, I’ll definitely be using this fantastic app.

1.) Take the train.

This is probably the most popular among foreign travelers in Europe. For non-EU citizens, you would want to purchase a Eurail Pass (EU citizens can purchase the Interrail Pass). This is an economical option if you are planning to take more than 2-3 long-distance trains. Without the pass, tickets can be very expensive (my 30 euro ticket from Paris to London would’ve been 250).

The Eurail Pass has a lot of different options for purchase. You can buy 1-, 2-, or 3- month unlimited passes, you can buy a certain number of stops in a certain number of days, you can buy access to trains just one, two, or a few countries. Essentially, you want to have an idea of where you’ll probably be going.

I purchased 10 stops (aka 10 24-hour travel days) in 2 months, and I *really* wish I’d purchased the unlimited pass. I’m traveling a lot more than I anticipated, and I’m spending extra money on other modes of transportation. But live and learn, I suppose!

On my pass, I write the date I’m traveling and all the connections in between (ex: London –> Brussels –> Amsterdam counts as one travel day as long as you’re traveling within 24 hours, but you still have to write all the connections in between). Once I’m on the train, the train manager will come around and check everyone’s passes/tickets/etc and stamp them with the date.

The Pass also has first and second class. There are obvious differences between the two classes: first obviously has comfier, bigger seats; it’s probably quieter; sometimes there’s free Wifi if it’s not offered to the entire train; and sometimes there’s food/drink service for free or for discounted purchase. While I did consider purchasing a first class ticket because the prices aren’t that much higher, I’m glad I didn’t. My impression of first class is that it’s mostly for citizens traveling for business. I haven’t met any other backpackers who purchased the first class pass. Second class is just fine, and is actually pretty luxurious. (Especially to us Americans who have most likely never traveled via train before–I was surprised at the quality of most of the trains I’ve taken!) And remember: if you have the first class pass, you’ll also have to pay more for a first-class ticket on a train (unless you want to take second-class, which of course is allowed). Also, if you find others to travel with, it’s unlikely they’ll have the first-class pass.

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An example of a train in Eastern Europe.

I have the Rail Planner App that comes free with a Eurail purchase, and it’s so ridiculously easy to use. You just type in the city you’re departing from, the destination city, and the date/time you’re hoping to leave. The app will then spit out a range of different routes, connections, and times. It’ll tell you right there if a reservation is required and for what trains. It sounds complicated, but it’s so easy.

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An example of a Thalys train, a company that works in Western Europe.

Big train stations are a lot like airports, fully equipped with cafes and shopping centers and a board reading all the departure times and the platform number the train will be at, as well as the sops along the way (most of the time). If you get confused, there’s always an information desk or phone, where you can speak with someone about your train and get all the info. This makes train travel really accessible and comfortable, even for rail newbies.

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Train station in Budapest.

Pros:

  • Comfort. Trains have seats that are larger and more spacious than airplane seats, and sometimes there’s a little desk in front of you (not like airplane desks–this is like a little table, sort of).
  • You get to see the parts of Europe not always discovered–from the countryside to the Alps to the tiny train stations in the middle of nowhere.
  • Speed. Some trains are high-speed (Paris to London was 2.5 hours for 453 km), others are slow (my train from Budapest to Prague on Wednesday morning was be 6.5 hours for 525 km).
  • You can take overnight trains to avoid paying for accommodation for one night. I’ve done this a couple times! Just make sure you’re taking an overnight train (you can see this if you expand the details in the Rail Planner App). I once had a four-hour layover from 1-5 am, and I planned to sleep at the station… except the station closed from midnight to five am and I was stuck with either sleeping outside or paying for a hotel room.
  • Luggage: you can bring on two large bags and a personal item, I believe. I’ve never had an issue with my 40L backpack, duffle bag, and large purse.
  • There are often restaurants on trains to purchase food and drinks on long-haul trips.
eurostar-pininfarina-redesign-criticised-nick-vinson-lisa-armstrong-_dezeen_1568_0
Seats in a Eurostar, a train company based in the UK. Photo credit: https://www.dezeen.com/2014/11/13/eurostar-launches-new-fleet-pininfarina-redesign-20th-anniversary/

Cons:

  • If you lose your physical pass, you’re fucked. You don’t get another one.
  • It’s the most expensive mode of transportation.
  • You still have to buy train tickets sometimes.
    • Your pass gives you a hefty discount (see above with my ticket from Paris to London), but sometimes you still have to pay a bit, especially with high-speed trains. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly how much train tickets cost without the pass, but I know the pass is worth it if you want to travel via train. I’ve paid anywhere from 356 Serbian diners (less than $4) and as much as 45 euros ($60).
    • You oftentimes have to make a reservation. You can do this on the Eurail app for some trains, and other trains must be reserved at the station. It’ll tell you on the app if you can make the reservation right there. If you’re planning more than like two months in advance, I believe you can call to reserve your train and they’ll send you a paper ticket in the mail, but I wouldn’t recommend this because it doesn’t give you the flexibility of just traveling on a whim. I extended my stay in Munich because I liked it, for example–I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I had planned so far in advance! I usually make a reservation anywhere from 4 days before I plan to take a train up until the day of, typically reserving it the day prior.
    • Many trains, especially in Eastern Europe, are free with the pass and you can just hop on without a reservation. I’ve taken plenty of trains like that.
  • Sometimes, you have to take like five trains over a period of like 18-24 hours. It’s just the way it is.
  • If you don’t leave your luggage by your seat, there’s the possibility that you could get robbed. This can easily be solved by purchasing a small lock for your zippers and a lock with a long neck to attach your items to the shelves they rest on, however.

2.) Fly.

To be honest, I haven’t flown in Europe, so this is all based on research and what other travelers have shared with me.

Flying by plane in Europe can be massively cheap. I’ve seen tickets for as low as 10 euros, and that’s not even really uncommon. A common airline is Ryanair (Europe’s version of Spirit Airlines, for my fellow Americans). I use the app Skyscanner when I want to find a cheap flight.

Pros:

  • Can be very cheap.
  • Quickest mode of transport, especially to countries that are a bit out of the way, like Denmark, Norway, Turkey, Greece, etc.
  • Familiarity. We are used to flying! It’s comfortable and we know how to do it easily, especially as foreigners.
  • There’s also almost always public transportation to airports, and many hostels will provide airport transport for a fee.
  • Employees of airlines and airports most likely speak English, so it’s a bit easier to get around.

Cons:

  • BAG RESTRICTIONS. You cannot fly with lots of luggage in Europe for cheap. It just can’t be done unless you have some kind of crazy miles racked up or something. On the flight, you might get a backpack for free. I’m talking like a literal backpack (not like a nice backpacking backpack, but like a school backpack). You must be a super-minimalist, stringent backpacker to fly through Europe, or you’ll be paying a lot at the gate.
  • While tickets to fly in Europe are cheat as dirt, you’re paying for basically nothing. When I flew from New York to Barcelona, I paid $189, but I didn’t even get water on the flight, and I was slapped with a $65 fee for a bag (see point above).
  • Sometimes if you don’t check-in online prior to arrival at the airport, you have to pay a fee just to check-in in person.

Basically, if you’re going to fly, you better be good at researching requirements prior to airport arrival and bag restrictions. Bring your own food and water onto the plane.

3.) Take buses.

I’ve done this a few times now, and I plan to keep doing it! A very popular company used by locals and backpackers alike is called Flixbus. They go all over (excluding islands–obviously–and a few select countries). I use their app to quickly see connections, and I’ve been pretty pleased so far. Flixbus is also an eco-conscious company, and when booking a ticket, you have the option to help pay for the CO2 emissions.

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The view from my Flixbus from Florence to Rome, taken on my iPhone.

Pros:

  • Similar to trains: you can see the countryside! When I took a Flixbus from Florence to Rome, we drove through the hills of Tuscany at sunset and it was literally. breathtaking.
  • I find them more comfortable than trains, but I’m also small. Trains have more legroom, but Flixbus seats themselves are more designed for the human body, imo.
  • Price. Flixbuses (and buses in general) are hella cheap. The longest bus I’ve taken so far was around 8.5 hours, and I believe I paid 12 euros. I’ve seen more expensive prices (anywhere from 40-100 euros) only on long buses over 12ish+ hours.
  • Ease of booking: you can book your bus right on the free app, and you can save your e-ticket to your smartphone wallet or iBooks, if you have an iPhone.
  • Luggage: I can easily store my duffle bag and backpack under the bus, and bring on my large purse with me. Once, when traveling to Serbia, I had to pay 1 euro for my bags (God forbid!).
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The bathroom on a Flixbus.

Cons:

  • Obviously, you’ll be on a bus for several hours at once. While the bus stops every few hours at a convenience store to allow time for stretching, use of bathroom (although there is one on every bus), you’re still on a cramped bus for several hours.
  • On a train, if it’s loud in your car, you can go sit in another one if there are empty seats. Trains also often have designated cars for families (i.e. screaming babies and children bored out of their minds). On a bus, you’re stuck with the screaming baby and bored-shitless children.

4.) Rent a car.

I’ve also never done this, mostly because of my age (21) and the price (similar to other options listed above). I’ve met a couple people who did rent cars either internationally or domestically in one country, to provide them with more freedom. Many cities have cheap car rentals for 12 or 24 hours, but if you fancy having your own car for the duration of your trip, here are some things to consider (research sources: The Savvy Backpacker, stories I’ve heard while traveling).

Pros:

  • Freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want. Everything is on your own schedule.
  • American licenses often work to rent a car in Europe.
  • More luggage space.
  • Privacy! You don’t have to share your space with people, and it’s as loud or as quiet as you want.
  • There’s also the rosy idea of road-tripping that somehow makes long car rides worth it, ya know?

Cons:

  • You have to find hostels or hotels with parking (I’ve only stayed in one hostel with parking, and I was pretty far out of the city centre).
  • You have to pay for parking and gas, not to mention tolls, in addition to the cost of renting the car.
  • You have to be at least 25 years old to rent a car without additional fees (as it is in the US, as well).
  • Driving in Europe varies as much as it does in the States with regard to aggression, traffic laws, etc. Also, remember: sometimes people drive on the other side of the road in certain countries!

Like I said above, I’ve never rented a car, in America or abroad. I’m not yet 25 years old, I want to meet people, it’s not environmental-friendly, etc. However, this might be a great option for you! If you are interested in learning more about this, here are some great resources:

The Savvy Backpacker

Rick Stevens

The Budget-Minded Traveler

AutoEurope

OKAY, we’ve covered all the ways to get around Europe like a pro! While it might seem a bit complicated, I promise you: it’s not. Most of the time. There are English-speakers pretty much everywhere, especially the employees of train stations. Other passengers are always willing to help you.

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Happy backpacking!!

tess (1)

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