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A Guide to Backpacking Europe

December 29, 2023

I spent the last four months doing an exchange term in Scotland. Because I only had classes 3 days a week, I spent the other 4 days traveling across Europe.

This turned into a chaotic, fun, life-changing term. I visited over 30 cities and 1/4 of the countries in Europe. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to travel this much.


Every country I visited on exchange, roughly 25% of the continent.

In this guide, I’ll show you everything I’ve learned about effectively backpacking through Europe. This includes advice on transportation, accommodation, planning trips, and packing effectively.

My goal is to show you how to have the best travel experience possible without overspending. The less you spend per trip, the more trips you can take, and the more places you can explore.


Transportation, along with accommodation, is going to be one of the biggest costs of your travel. Your three main options are flights, trains, and buses. If you pack light, flights are usually more comfortable, faster, and less expensive for large distances. If you’re just traveling between nearby cities, buses and trains are better options.


I mostly travelled on Ryanair and easyJet. On average, I was paying ~$50 per flight and the least expensive flight I booked was $18 (from Edinburgh to Dublin). The best way to find flights is through Google Flights.

The biggest tip I can give is to book flights as early as possible. In my experience, prices will pretty much never drop in the future, so book as soon as you know you want to go. At the start of the term, I made a list of all the places I wanted to visit and then scheduled them based on the flight prices.

Flying every week made me weirdly comfortable at airports. I started learning all my favorite spots at the Edinburgh airport and knew exactly when specific areas would get busy. I even started getting recognized by a border agent, who would ask me about my trips and share his travel stories.

Trains and Buses

I booked all my trains using RailEurope, since it shows you train options for almost every country. Before booking trains, I would also check bus websites like FlixBus to see if there were any better options. From my experience, not every trip has a bus route available, but when there is one, it’s usually a better deal.

For example, in Portugal, we missed our first FlixBus from Porto to Lisbon because of delays. So, we had to buy a second ticket and wait for another bus. The cost of both these tickets combined was still less expensive than the train, and the route was just as fast.


Another way to optimize your flights is to travel with just a backpack. This is because budget airlines allow just a personal item, and then charge for extra luggage. Often, each extra piece of baggage is more expensive than your total fare. Traveling light helps you get around this. It’s also easier to travel around with fewer bags, especially if you plan on taking a lot of trains between cities.

I found the idea of doing this uncomfortable at first, but you’ll be surprised at how easily you can fit four days worth of stuff in a single bag. I was able to just about snugly fit everything (clothes, laptop, toiletries, etc.) in a 28L backpack. Some of my friends had much larger backpacks and used packing cubes, but I didn’t find that necessary.

The way to pack everything effectively is to use the KonMari Fold for your clothes. This helps you fit them in half the space. I also recommend bringing along some sort of fanny pack to hold your passport, boarding pass, and anything else you can’t fit into your bag, saving more space.

On most trips, this is what I would bring along with me:

The longest I went with just a backpack was an 11 day mega trip across Portugal, Italy, and Spain. It was fine, except I had to stop at a laundromat every couple of days, which meant I skipped a few things. It wasn’t end of the world, but I’d probably bring more luggage on trips any longer than that.

Packing becomes easier the more trips you take, it’s just a matter of practice and finding what works for you. Everyone is different, so it’s ok if you can’t fit everything into a backpack, but it’s worth a shot!


On every trip, I stayed in either a hostel or an Airbnb. You should pick based on what you feel the most comfortable doing. I never stayed in a hotel because Airbnbs/hostels were always more convenient, but it’s always good to double-check that as an option as well (Google Hotels is your friend).


Hostels are often less comfortable, but more exciting since you meet new people. I’m still in touch with some people that I met in hostels and got great travel recommendations from them.

Some hostels can be adventurous. I stayed at one in the Scottish Highlands that was also a horse farm, and we woke up every morning to a view of mountains and horses. It was pretty amazing.


Hostel on a horse farm in Northern Scotland

The best place to find and book hostels is HostelWorld. Most hostels I stayed in cost somewhere between $20-$80 a night. Sometimes, if you book a hostel on an external site, the booking doesn’t go through, so always call the hostel to confirm you’re good to go.

You can often get private rooms for free in hostels if you travel with enough people. If you’re traveling with 5 people and each buy a bed in a 5-person room, they might just give you your own room, effectively turning your hostel into a hotel room for a fraction of the cost. This always worked for me when I booked with Meninger or Sleep By Stay.


In large groups (5 or more people), an Airbnb tends to have the same cost per person as a hostel. It’s also much more comfortable than hostels and a more fun way to travel with your friends.

I mostly lived in Airbnbs in Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy. You can probably also find great options in Prague and Vienna, although I never looked. I would avoid Airbnb in cities like Amsterdam, where they’re way more expensive than hostels.

My favorite Airbnb we stayed at was this one in Porto. It was a huge, 6 bedroom apartment for 7 of us. Hanging out there at night with all my friends was one of my favorite memories from exchange.

Planning Trips

I was really lucky to have a lot of my friends in Europe at the same time as me. Most of my trips were done with 5-10 people and, because of this, we tried to plan things in advance. Someone would be responsible for planning each trip, and would typically fill out a spreadsheet like this:

Our plan for our trip to Portugal My trip plan for Portugal

We booked most of our activities (tours, cruises, etc) on GetYourGuide. For some activities (like museums and historical sites) we booked directly on their website. There are often student deals that let you visit places for free, so keep an eye out for those.

Occasionally, we would also use Airbnb Online Experiences to book some more uncommon things (such as a perfume-making class in London and a Pasta & Tiramisu making class in Rome).

One things I would strongly recommend is doing a walking tour. It’s a great way to get a sense of the major landmarks, history, and culture of the city you’re in. You can either find walking tours on GetYourGuide or use Rick Steve’s Walking Tours, a free app that contains detailed audio tours of most major European cities.

You don’t have to plan things in this much detail for all your trips, it just makes things easier, especially if you’re going in large groups. On smaller trips (such as in Dublin, Glasgow, and Vienna), we just made a list of things we wanted to do and then played it by ear throughout the day, and that was more than enough. Even in more densely packed trips, we would often add some free time just to explore, since you never know what you’ll discover!

Just make sure that you book famous attractions in advance or they might be sold out, and add enough buffer time to travel between activities.

Travel Recommendations

I would highly recommend creating a tier list of places you want to go and prioritizing those. If you’re on exchange, it might be better to start with local areas.

One tip I have is to coordinate your destinations with your friends early. Before our exchange term, all my friends and I listed all the places we wanted to go, and we tried our best to intersect on common trips. I’m not a huge fan of solo trips, and a highlight of the term for me was doing everything with friends.

I’ll make all my travel itineraries public sometime soon. In the meantime, the cities I absolutely recommend visiting are Edinburgh, Prague, Vienna, Rome, Florence, Amsterdam, and Paris.

That’s everything I have to share for now, I had a ton of fun this term. I highly recommend traveling through Europe if you get the chance, you won’t regret it. If you can, try to convince your friends to come with you, it makes things a lot more fun.

If you have any questions or want more specific advice on your trips, I’m happy to help, just reach out. Safe travels!