How I backpacked comfortably across Western Europe for 50 days in under 3,500 USD/3100 Euros — inclusive flight tickets

It was my childhood dream to backpack across Europe and I am glad I finally got around doing it this summer (2019). The trip took 15–20 days of planning (30–45 minutes/day)

The Plan

On the planning side, I had 3 things set in stone. The rest of it was left to how the trip panned out, people I met along the way and recommendations on the day.

The 3 things I had planned were-

  1. My flight into Europe and out of Europe (I flew into Athens and flew out of Amsterdam)
  2. My route(Athens-Santorini-Napoli-Rome-Florence-Cinque Terre-Paris-Nice-Porto-Lisbon-Seville-Granada-Madrid-Barcelona-Amsterdam)
  3. My stay (mostly in hostels-They went beyond my expectations-more on this, below)

Visa

Visa- Since it was the first time that I was applying for the Schengen and that too for approximately 2 months, I had to be extra careful. I have detailed my Schengen visa application experience, here.

Route

There’s way too many countries and cities in Europe. You can never see all that there is and that is comforting enough in choosing the few cities that are a part of YOUR itinerary. I’ve always wanted to go to a few cities and there are always the cities that you must go to (Rome, for example).

I didn’t overthink this- spent 2–3 hours researching and selected the route after running it past a couple of friends.

Time of travel-

I was traveling from end of April-mid June. This is referred to as the shoulder season- a season that’s just before the peak touristy season( July-Septmeber).

It’s not summer so the water was still inaccessible but the weather was at sweet 20s. Also, things would generally cost lesser than they would in the touristy season (July-Sep). Crowds are lesser too. Win-win-win.

Tickets-

I was flying into Athens and flying out of Amsterdam. I had both those tickets booked way before I applied for my visa. (Also- Since I was sure about my dates, I booked a non-flexi ticket since it saved me a couple of thousands).

I used Skyscanner, Momodo and Makemytrip to check for fares. Skyscanner helped me find the cheapest fare. (round trip for INR 43K)

Accomodation and the hostel experience-

I had heard a lot about European hostels and their efficiency in making travel more enjoyable and affordable. I wasn’t disappointed. 90% of my stay was in hostels.

Here’s a thing about hostels- they are not about a dodgy bunkbed in a random corner of the city with rude staff and dirty bathrooms. If you do your research well enough on www.booking.com and www.hostelworld.com, (I used the former) you’ll find some really good hostels.

Good hostels did not only win on hygiene but they also gave me the backpacking experience that I thought was only a thing of the movies.

I met with people from different countries, cultures and careers. I had the most unique conversations with the most interesting people. For example-

  1. I met 2 guys from Togo, an underdeveloped African nation, who are software engineers in one of the biggest software companies now settled in Paris. They send back 10% of their monthly income to their parents in Togo which is enough for them to live a lavish life.
  2. I also remember my conversation with a retired granddad from Canada who wanted to start hostels back in his city. He was staying 2–3 days in the big cities of Italy as a part of him primary research and data gathering.
  3. I spoke in length with a 23 year old freelance nurse who lives in a caravan and tours hospitals and care centers in North Carolina tending to patients and earning more than enough to rent a swanky house but likes her caravan life way too much to let it go.

I did not stay at a hotel or airbnb (save Barcelona where I was joined by my friends and we decided to splurge on a woodhouse with a pool and multiple rooms)

I used www.booking.com (the other great aggregator for hostels which is equally good is www.hostelworld.com. For me, personally, booking.com was easier on the eye and more user-friendly)

How I chose my hostels

I would look at www.booking.com with overall ratings of 8.5+

From these, I would read reviews and pick hostels that were

  1. High in cleanliness- This was priority since I was traveling for a long time. Hygeine was the last thing I wanted to compromise on,
  2. Located in city center- You might pay 3–5 euros more per night for hostels in the center of the city but it’s worth the premium. Hostels in the center are usually safe, well positioned that you can walk to most tourist attractions (money saved that you’d have otherwise spent on Ubers), are very close to the best/highly recommended restaurants.
  3. Characterized by friendly staff- Hostel receptions and staff are your best friends. They give you the lower bed if you ask sweetly, they are mostly locals who know the best places in town. Most of my days would involve walking to the reception of the hostel asking them to help me plan my day. The kind of recommendations I get from staff in minutes is something I would have not gotten even if I spent hours on the internet. Above all, everyone likes to be treated well. Courteous staff is a definite criteria.

I have put down the names of the hostels I stayed in every city, here

Couchsurfing

For the more intrepid travelers, couchsurfing is a must try. It’s free. Hosts agree to host you for the sheer love of supporting affordable travel and learning about a new culture and country from their guest.

I couchsurfed in Paris with a local and loved it. I got shown around the best places, avoided tourist traps and got smart very quickly about the Parisian culture.

Hanging out with a local and seeing the city in their company elevates the experience and shows you the good and bad parts of the city. The risk here is that you may not be comfortable staying in a random dude’s house who seemed fine on the internet but turned out to be a creep in person.

However, if you do your research and ensure that you read ALL reviews before confirming on a host (maybe even have a chat with them on whatsapp and look for all positive signals), you should be good. Even if I read one review that was negative, I passed at the reaching out. 100% positive reviews. That’s a necessary filter. You don’t want to end up with a creep just to save a few euros.

Packing

I carried a 70L backpack and a carry on for my day outings. That’s it.

Clothes for 2 weeks is what I took with me.

What exactly did I take with me-

A jacket, 8 t-shirts, 2 shirts, 2 comfortable pants, 1 pair of jeans, 7 sets of briefs, 6 pairs of socks, 5 face napkins, a full bathroom kit, flip-flops, shoes, a portable charger, laptop, shades, kindle, a journal and 2 physical books to read.

The thing about backpacking/long period of travel is that it doesn’t matter if you are traveling for 20/30/40 or 50 days. You’d still take clothes for 2 weeks.

Most hostels have laundry rooms (3–5 euros for one load of washing and drying) which I would do every 10 days. If the hostels do not have laundry rooms, you’d have a bunch of them around the hostel. Nothing to worry about.

Budget and spending

Be wary about the initial excitement spending– The beginning of a trip is where I spent the most. I was more excited and thought I had more money than I actually did (oops). I realized soon enough and ended up being mindful of my daily expenses. I would not spend more than 45–50 euros (including accommodation) in big cities and 35–40 euros in smaller cities.

Mix cities -It helps to have a mix of big expensive cities with a few affordable ones as well to average the daily spend out to a decent amount. For example, I spent a lot in Paris and Amsterdam while I spent a third of that amount in Porto and Lisbon (the more south you go, the cheaper it is, in Western Europe-most cases). Porto si also called the 5 Euro city — most things-a meal, museum entry, a ride etc. is 5 euros or lesser 😀

Book Inter-city travel in advance- Booking train and bus tickets for intercity travel in advance helps save a few 10s of dollars. For example, I got a bus ticket from Paris to Nice at 10 Euros when I booked a month and half in advance. The on-spot rate for the ticket was 30 euros. Trenitalia (app) is the best app for travel within Italy. ‘Omio’ (app) gives you all the possible routes (train, bus, flight) from point A to point B in one single screen

Track your expenses daily– Spendee is a cool app that I used to track my expenses on a day to day basis (I would enter all that I spend on then and there- took me 5 seconds). Spendee’s interface allows for easy categorization of expenses and also gives you an analysis of where most of your money is going.

Phone/Carrier-

I picked up a Vodafone sim with 30 days validity right when I landed into Athens (at the airport) Vodafone, from my research was the most reliable network. Roaming is free within the EU. However, their data plans can be tricky.

Best to understand if the allowance for data (2/4/6 GB) is within the country of purchase or across the EU. Data was a lifesaver in looking for restaurants, google maps etc.

How I would spend my days-

  1. Free walking tours– Most hostels have a tie up with tour guides which offer free walking tours. Helpful to book a day in advance and it’s one of the most economical and better ways to get a download on the history and see the very important and historic sites.
  2. Food– I would also spend a good amount of time and effort on food-delicacies, must visit restaurants etc.. Most of my money went on food and I have no regrets.
  3. Read and write– After a point, all the churches started to look the same and so did the museums ( I did my share of geeking out and have nothing against museums but I realized that I enjoy the arts in doses). I am more a nature kind of person so I seeked out open parks, amphi theaters and spots by the water that allowed me to read and journal while snacking and sipping on the side.
  4. Run-. I thought it was a great Another thing I did was run in every city that I visited (it’s been a dream to run a 5k in every country of the world and with this trip, I just got started). The first thing I would try to do in each city that I reached was drop my bag off and go run (preferably find a spot close to the water/lake/ocean)With all the sugar and fat that I was eating, the running helped me avoid being sluggish and kept me at a decent level of fitness and enthusiasm to make every day memorable.

What I learnt-

  1. Limit the planning to big expenses (flights, inter city travel and accommodation)- It’s impossible and also a bad idea to plan every day of the travel. Also, it takes away the fun of serendipitious encounters, tagging along with fellow backpackers and just having the necessary ‘me time’
  2. Travel light– Most things we take in our bags can be done without. It’s helpful to make a list of the ‘absolutely necessary’ and not approach packing with the ‘what if I need this’ approach. It’s dangerous. If you are carrying more than 15 kilos, you need to repack!
  3. More days, less cities– If I had to do this all over again, I would lose 2–3 cities from my plan and instead spend more time in fewer cities. The first 2 days always go in doing the touristy stuff. You start feeling the vibe, character and authenticity of the city in day 3 and 4 and it doubles up to be more intense in the days after. I remember spending 5 days in Napoli and I loved it! 3 days in Paris was a RUSH.

Informative and useful links/apps-

For flight bookings-

www.skyscanner.com

www.momodo.com

For best route through multiple channels (flight, train or bus)-

www.omio.cm

Cheap bus tickets in Europe-

Flixbus (app)

Train travel in Italy

Trenitalia (App)

Expense tracker-

Spendee (App)

Hostel bookings-

www.booking.com

www.hostelworld.com

Perpetually beta. More at www.ashwinchhabria.com

Perpetually beta. More at www.ashwinchhabria.com