Whether you're retired or taking a vacation, travel is always a wise investment. It's the best way to broaden your cultural horizons, experience different parts of the world and appreciate other ways of living. Europe is just the right size for a backpacking trip. It's big enough that you could spend a whole lifetime exploring it, but it's small enough that a train trip a few hours in any direction will introduce you to a whole new culture. This guide includes all of the information Baby Boomers need to backpack through Europe. This includes how to plan your trip, what clothes to bring, what kind of backpack to carry, how to manage multiple currencies in one journey and how to stay safe.[Total: 2 Average: 2.5]
Planning Your Trip
Decide Which Parts of Europe to SeeEurope is full of great places to visit. With so many choices, you might struggle to narrow a compact itinerary. If that's the case, check out this great set of trips that Margo at The Overseas Escape(www.theoverseasescape.com) has put together. All of her travel plans are doable in just seven days, which is the perfect amount of time to see plenty of Europe and kick back and relax a bit, too. If you plan to stay longer, just stack one itinerary on top of the other. Here are some classic trips you can do in a week. Hallstatt, Salzburg and Munich Get a healthy dose of the Bavarian and Austrian Alps with this group. The lakeside village of Hallstatt is perfect for nature lovers. You can venture from there toward Salzburg by train, enjoying more gorgeous natural sights. Take in the architecture and cuisine in Munich — and if you're there in the fall, celebrate Oktoberfest. Monaco, Provence and Nice Take in this classical route along the French Riviera by making your first stop Nice. There's a major airport there, so you can land and head straight to its many beaches. Continue on by train or even by foot into the Provence countryside and Monaco. This region of the Mediterranean is full of one-of-a-kind views. Amsterdam, Bruges and Paris Train connections among France, Belgium and the Netherlands make this trip a breeze. Start in the French capital, where you can get lost for days just eating delicious pastries, staring in awe at the Eiffel Tower and walking the charming streets. There are daily trains from Paris, via Brussels, to Bruges, a beautiful Medieval city known for its architecture and canals. Finish your week in Amsterdam, its famous nightlife and museums. If you plan to jump between countries or spend considerable time in just one country, you need a plan of action. Longtime traveler Rick Steves(www.ricksteves.com) suggests that you stick to the following guidelines:
- Plan exactly where you want to go ahead of time; use a map to figure out how long it will take you to get there.
- Consider flying from one city to another, which Steves notes "is usually more efficient than booking a round-trip flight."
- Create your own itinerary, but leave it somewhat flexible in case you decide to change it. Firm it up as the trip progresses.
- Porto, Portugal, is full of wine cellars, street art, colorful and creative buildings, and boutique shops.
- Italy's Piedmont region is another must-see destination for wine lovers. The region's capital, Turin, has a great Egyptian Museum that just re-opened, too.
- Malaga, Spain, feels like heaven with its wealth of delicious, freshly caught seafood and shimmering, picturesque beaches.
Make Sure You Have Proper Clothing and Footwear
Finding Suitable Walking ShoesAs a backpacker, you'll be doing lots of walking across a variety of terrain. Although you may have athletic shoes in your closet already, if these are at all old and worn, you should get a replacement pair before your trip. Wear them around the house or outside for a bit to break them in so they're as comfortable as possible when you leave. If you're searching for new shoes, Amber King of Outdoor Gear Lab can help you make an informed decision. Her post (which is addressed to women, but these tips are helpful for everyone) covers the various types of shoes, the difference between walking and running, the features you need in a walking shoe, measuring your feet, and how to efficiently shop for shoes online. Here are some of her most important tips:
- Check the shoe's touch points against your foot. The ankle collar at the back should not create friction against your socks or your skin, and the toe box at the front should never feel constricted or uncomfortable (that's how you get blisters).
- Measure your feet before you go to the store with some measuring tape, a pencil and paper. Start by putting the paper on the floor and taping it down. Outline the shape of your on the paper and then use measuring tape to get exact dimensions.
- Use those measurements if you're shopping online, and compare them to the measurements from the shoe manufacturer. Shoe sizes can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.
- Bring the same style of socks with you when trying on your shoes that you plan to wear while backpacking. Thinner or thicker socks can alter the fit of your shoes, which can cause blisters.
- Check whether your shoes allow some motion near the ball of your foot. If it's rendered immobile, you may want to go a size up.
- Wait until after work or physical activity to shop. Walking around all day flattens your foot out, and sometimes that can mean the difference in a half or full size.
Planning Your WardrobeJust because you're backpacking doesn't mean you have to give up your sense of style. Une femme d'un certain age(http://unefemme.net/2015/04/3-week-travel-wardrobe.html) has the perfect guide for women who want to look chic but still feel comfortable while traveling. And if you will be traveling during the colder months, take the advice from Jessie Beck of Packsmith - blog.tortugabackpacks.com, a blog for backpackers. Beck says you don't have to abandon slim jeans in the winter when you can wear long johns or thermal leggings underneath. Here is some more of her advice:
- Bring lightweight winter socks. Brands such as Smartwool will keep you warm without all the weight.
- Stick to black. Black is a basic color that matches anything and can go from casual to classy instantly. You can also get away with re-wearing black pieces without it being very obvious.
- Pack the basics. You don't want to go without a few scarves, gloves, mittens, hats and a coat.
- Lightweight if you're doing light activity, mid-weight if it's colder outside and heavyweight if it's very cold;
- Made of wool or synthetic materials (i.e. not cotton) to move any sweat away from the skin;
- Moderately tight but not uncomfortably so.
- Fleece keeps sweat away and lets air move to keep you warm. Try a fleece jacket or a sweatshirt.
- Hardshell fleece is even more durable than regular fleece, but it doesn't let air flow as easily. It also weighs more.
- Synthetic fill is great for keeping you toasty even if you get wet. However, not as much air cannot get through.
- Down fill should not get wet or else you'll be cold for a long time because it takes a while to dry out. When dry, though, it's the warmest material you can find of the four.
- Consider a down-filled coat for visiting mountainous regions.
- Make sure your coat is a bit bigger than your true size so that layering isn't uncomfortable or tight when wearing a thicker sweater.
- Double-check that your coat is waterproof.
Traveling LightBeck also has some advice for how to stay warm while packing light. While your first inclination may be to bring a few sweaters in the autumn or winter, she says you should forego this and just grab one heavy sweatshirt or bulky sweater instead. This takes up less room in your luggage. Fred Perrotta, who also writes for Packsmith, created a definitive list(http://blog.tortugabackpacks.com/carry-on-packing-list/) of recommended carry-on items. He suggests that you have the following ready in your bags before you head for Europe:
- Clothes (including shirts, pants, shorts, underwear and other undergarments, outerwear and shoes).
- Electronics (which will be covered below).
- Paperwork (a printed version of your itinerary, your boarding pass, some identification such as a driver's license and your passport).
- Travel gear like a book to read, a journal, an eye mask, a water bottle or another beverage and earplugs.
Carry-On Backpacks Only?Smaller backpacks can actually be carried on the plane as hand luggage. This can be a convenient way to travel, but it requires a pretty minimalist approach (and a small backpack). Irene Butler at Europe Up Close(europeupclose.com) decided to be daring and limit her travel items to all that would fit in a single carry-on bag. She's a seasoned traveler who often spends months away from home at a time, so she definitely knows how to pack efficiently. She mentions that there are a slew of benefits to limiting your luggage to a carry-on, including:
- You can get around faster and catch trains and taxis without difficulty.
- You don't have to wait for your luggage to show up on the carousel at the airport.
- You don't have to worry about losing your luggage because it's right with you.
- You don't have to stress about your items being broken or mishandled because you're responsible for everything in the carry-on.
- You don't have to wait for the airline attendants to check your baggage and may not have to pay extra charges for that service.
- Bring just a few of your favorite shirts and pants. Don't be afraid to re-wear these a few times during your trip.
- If you buy new clothes during the trip, throw old items away so you don't take up extra space in your carry-on.
- In the case of delicate clothing that can crease or wrinkle, look for crush-resistant garments.
- Pack lightweight clothing only.
- Wear heavier items like sweaters and outerwear with you on the plane, and then wear them again when you head home. This prevents you from having to actually pack these heavy clothes.
What to Bring with You and What to Buy When You ArriveTo maximize the room in your backpack, you should pick and choose which items to bring with you and which to buy upon arrival. The Grazie Girl at Clapway(clapway.com) writes that there are five items that you shouldn't go without when traveling out of the country.
- Your smartphone plus a tablet or laptop.
- Disinfectant wipes.
- Bottles. This way, you can bring reasonable sizes of your shampoo, conditioner, lotion and other such essentials. The Grazie Girl recommends using a bit of plastic wrap at the opening of the bottle before capping it.
- Plastic bags. Leaks happen, so it's best to isolate each container of liquid material in its own bag. Don't be afraid to double-bag and put those bottles in a plastic grocery bag.
- Photocopies of your passport and driver's license.
- Prices must be declared in your home country, which could then decide to add the tax back on. Naturally, you have to pay it.
- The quality of the goods can vary, so be thorough with your purchases.
- Be aware of exchange rates, which determine how much that the currency is worth. This can change the prices of items from one country to another.
Backpack BasicsBecause your backpack will be with you throughout your entire trip through Europe, it's important that you have the best backpack possible for your needs. If you're stumped on where to start shopping for your backpack, Where's Sharon?(www.wheressharon.com), a travel blog about seeing the world with children, has a guide that should serve as your starting point.
Types of BackpacksGoBackpacking(http://gobackpacking.com/4-popular-backpacks/) writes that there are a few common types of backpacks, which vary depending on purpose.
- Business backpacks are compact and meant for easy traveling to hotels, conference halls and other buildings in major cities. They typically include a storage compartment just for your tablet or laptop. Wheels make it easy to drag this from one room to another.
- Standard backpacks may be used for students at school, families visiting the beach for the day or just basic travel. These backpacks are meant to store your essentials such as sunscreen, a water bottle, sunglasses, your smartphone, clothes, hats and even shoes.
- Adventurer backpacks are probably what you are looking for. If you plan on hiking, seeing the tops of mountainous summits or skiing during your European vacation, an adventurer backpack is ideal for you. These are designed to prevent back stress and pain but can still hold plenty of objects and items. They may include extra hip straps with padding, plenty of zippers and an overall durable and lasting design.
Backpack FramesMore robust backpacks have frames to keep them more rigid. The Where's Sharon? guide notes that backpacks have a few options regarding frames.
- Internal frames don't weigh much. These types of backpacks are perfect for those planning on doing a lot of traveling.
- External frames have visible poles for support. It's generally advised to avoid these because those poles add too much bulk, but for heavier travels these may be worth it.
- You don't have to pass on buying a backpack just because it doesn't have any frames. Frameless backpacks are just intended for lighter use.
Backpack MaterialThe material for a backpack can vary, but make sure that it's not too heavy. The material shouldn't be cheap or flimsy because your backpack could tear easily. Also, make sure your backpack is waterproof. Even if you don't cross any brooks or small bodies of water, this is useful in case you get caught in the rain.
Backpack SizeWhile your first inclination might be to search for the biggest backpack so that it can store the most materials, Sharon reminds you to think twice. "It's really REALLY important that you pick a backpack that you can carry comfortably," she writes. Don't be afraid to try on your backpack at the store. Walk around the aisles to assess how comfortable it feels against your back. It's also advisable then that you do your shopping at a brick-and-mortar shop instead of online, where you can't gauge the backpack's size or fit accurately.
StrapsThere's more to a backpack than shoulder straps. The best backpacks also have these straps:
- A carry strap. While this isn't a mandatory feature, it does make it easier to transport your backpack if your shoulders get tired.
- A chest strap. This strap hooks across the front to prevent your back from carrying all of the backpack's weight.
- A hip strap. Similar to a chest strap, this connects across the front to keep back pain at bay.
Features to Look ForStephen at A Backpackers Tale(www.abackpackerstale.com) has some more backpack features that you should insist on when doing your shopping.
- Zippers that lock. If you bring any valuable items with you at all, you should probably have a lockable zipper. If you have to leave your bag out — by your feet at an outdoor cafe, for example — the lock at least dissuades opportunistic pickpockets.
- Padding. Stephen also reiterates how crucial it is to make sure that all straps, including the ones that cross your hips, chest and shoulders, are padded. If you plan on being out all day, padding lets you carry your backpack comfortably without any chafing.
- Compartments. When shopping for a backpack, make sure you open it up and dig around inside it. Look for compartments such as hidden zippers and pockets where you can store items. The more compartments, the better organized you'll be.
Recommended BackpacksThere is no one backpack we can recommend because personal preferences vary so greatly. Among travel bloggers, two backpack brands stand out: Osprey(ospreyeurope.com) and Kelty(www.kelty.com). Stefan Around the World shares a few of his own picks for the best travel backpack for Europe(http://www.stefanrtw.com/best-travel-backpack-for-europe/). That list includes:
- The Gregory Mountain Z55 because of its hidden pockets and protective top panel.
- The Osprey Farpoint 55 because it is lightweight and comfortable.
- The Kelty Redwing 50 because it looks as good as it is useful.
- The Osprey Atmos 50 because it is spacious and comfortable.
- The Osprey Kestrel 48 because it features a removable sleeping bag, pockets with zippers, a harness for easier carrying and a protective rain cover.
Adapters and Converters for Your ElectronicsYour smartphone and laptop chargers might not be compatible with the outlets of your destination countries. Note that outlets in Continental Europe differ from those in the UK and Ireland (where there are also special Shavers Only outlets). This means you'll need adapters and converters for your electronics. Greg Garcia at TravelSmith(www.travelsmith.com) breaks down the differences between the two beautifully.
- Converters affect items that use voltage, such as your hairdryer or even an electric razor. Garcia notes that you should only run your converter in spurts of 10 minutes (15 minutes at the most) and not use these for your smartphone, laptop, tablet or other major technology.
- Adapters allow you to use outlets by modifying the plug. Choose from a two-pin non-grounded plug or a three-pin grounded plug; neither affect the voltage. You can use an adapter in conjunction with a converter if necessary.
- Single-voltage items require a converter; as Garcia explains, this allows you to "step-down the 220-250 volt current in the country you are visiting to the 110-125 volt US current."
- Dual-voltage items should have 110v/250v somewhere on the power cord, typically on a switch. You do not need to convert these items.
Using Your Phone in Another CountryOverseas telecommunications can be frustrating, and finding a solution for you could depend on your budget or your willingness to put up with technical issues. Let's start with the technical. In order to know whether or not your phone will even work in another country, you first have to understand the difference between GSM and CDMA networks. According to American telecoms provider Ting, GSM networks are more common, and any GSM devices are probably OK to use in Europe. CDMA networks are less common, but there are a couple of American telecoms providers — Verizon and Sprint — that use the network. If your phone is only compatible with CDMA networks, you might not be able to use it in Europe. Contact your service provider if you are unsure. Nomadic Matt writes that CDMA-only device owners will likely have to invest in a cheap European phone for their travels. Otherwise, CDMA phone owners can look into unlocking their phones. This lets you take an iPhone 5, for example, on a CDMA network and connect to European networks. You'll need to purchase a local SIM card to make this work, which is explained below. Be aware that some providers will refuse to unlock your phone. In that case, you can buy unlocking codes or you can find technology shops that will take care of it for you (this could nullify any warranty you have on the device, however). You have a few other options for using a smartphone or tablet in Europe, Nomadic Matt writes.
- You can just surf WiFi connections wherever you are and use Skype when online to make phone calls.
- You can get a portable hotspot, which is a piece of hardware that receives a cellular data signal and converts it to WiFi.
- You can rent a phone if you don't want to buy a new one. Most of the time, you can find rental companies right at the airport.
- You can check with your service provider to see how expensive overseas roaming and data packages are. Be aware, this option can get very expensive very quickly.
How to Avoid Spending a Fortune on an International Data PlanIf you do go with an international data plan from the provider in your home country, you'll want to change your phone habits to keep that bill from getting out of control. Easier said than done, right? If you are in the habit of sending photos to friends and family members, that will be your first instinct when you see a beautiful sunset over the Alps. That will also be an expensive photo share. Here are three things you can do to keep your phone bill manageable. Use WiFi as Much as Possible A WiFi connection is typically free (some airports and hotels might charge for access), so you don't need to rely on cellular data to use your phone when you're connected. The downside is you have to be near the WiFi router. When you are at a hotel or hostel, or even when you're out at a cafe, just ask a staff member whether there is an available WiFi connection. If you need to text or call friends or loved ones during your trip, Mackensie Graham at The Next Web(thenextweb.com) suggests a few apps that let you send messages and make voice calls over a WiFi connection:
- Skype — By far the most popular and well-known in terms of video chatting apps, you can also call and send instant messages to your contacts on Skype.
- WhatsApp — This instant messaging app doesn't let you make calls, but you can send text messages for free as long as you're using Wi-Fi.
- Google+ Hangouts — While you do need a Google+ account to use Hangouts, registration is free. You can set up a voice chat or a video call with up to 10 of your closest friends and family members.
- Facebook Messenger — Much like WhatsApp, you may already have Facebook Messenger downloaded if you regularly use the Facebook app to send and receive messages.
- Line — You can make calls through Line, send messages and send photos, all for free on a WiFi connection.
- Viber — This app pulls all of your friends' and family members' phone information right from your contact list once you give it permission to do so. You don't need to pay to send texts or make calls.
- Put your phone on airplane mode, which kills any Internet connectivity, email, apps and other forms of data usage, thus preventing roaming charges.
- For iPhone users, send all messages as a text instead of an iMessage, as you need Internet connectivity to send iMessages.
- Get rid of automatic downloads by going into the phone settings and then selecting "Fetch New Data." Instead of letting this run automatically, turn it to "Manual" so you choose when you get new downloads.
- Reset your data usage statistics so you can keep accurate measurements of how much data you use and whether you're exceeding your plan.
- Turn off cellular data for each app by going into the settings.
- Disable cellular data in general, which you can also do in the settings.
- Go into settings, then "Cellular," and then make sure that roaming is disabled for the duration of your trip.
Buying and Using a Prepaid SIM CardIf your phone is compatible with European networks, it's much cheaper to buy and install a local prepaid SIM card. This will give you a local phone number and access to local cellular networks. Tom Myers of Eurocheapo(eurocheapo.com) visited France and tried out a few different SIM card options, which he found easy to navigate. Myers found SIM cards widely available at carrier shops, electronic stores and newsstands. Just ask the salesperson at any of these shops for a SIM card that will fit your phone. Once you have the card, you'll need to install it. Here is how:
- Turn off your phone.
- Find the compartment on the back or side that holds the SIM card. (On an iPhone, for example, you can identify the compartment by its needle-sized hole.)
- Open this compartment. (On an iPhone, you can do this by straightening a paper clip and inserting it firmly into the hole. The compartment will pop out.)
- Take the SIM card out and put it away for safekeeping.
- Insert the new SIM card and reboot your phone.
- Input the activation number, which should come with the new SIM card, and begin using your phone as usual.
Hostels and HotelsDepending on how long you plan to stay, lodging can be quite expensive. You may choose to stay in a hotel for some parts of your travels and a hostel for others to save money. However, if you've never stayed in a hostel before, you may have some questions or some preconceived notions about the experience. Cristina, the owner of traveling blog Chasing Travel(www.chasingtravel.com), can clear up any confusion. Hostels have a reputation as places for college students looking to party. While this may be the case in some instances, it isn't always. Some hostels have rules about noise after a certain hour (typically midnight) so that everyone can get a good night's sleep. However, if you believe that this may be too much of an issue for you, there are always hotels. Cristina also notes that hostels are a safe option, and you can choose to stay in a same-gender room if you prefer. If you do decide that hostels are for you, Rick Steves has some tips for finding a great hostel for your trip.
- Try something different. Steves notes that some hostels are repurposed manor houses from Medieval England (like Wilderhope Manor), villas in Italy, alpine chalets in Switzerland and even castles in Germany.
- Reserve ahead. Treat a hostel booking as you would a hotel booking, especially during popular travel times. Book in advance.
- Be aware of the rules. If these aren't readily apparent, ask the hostel owner or manager about any specific rules, which may include limited access during certain hours or curfews.
- Ask about food. Some hostels may even offer breakfasts in the morning. Others may have meals all day at a cost. If you want to save on food, this may be a good option for a few days during your stay.
- Not all hostels are the same. Just as not all hotels are the same, hostels differ depending on whether they're independent or affiliated with an organization. Some may have more rules than others.
Saving Money on MealsYour next big budgetary concern will be food. Of course, when visiting Europe culinary wonders are around every corner. However, you don't want to drop a lot of money unnecessarily on food. Check out Kelby Hartson Carr's post at Transitions Abroad(transitionsabroad.com) to see how you can still enjoy Europe's best food without blowing your budget. Here are a few of her tips:
- Go for cafes and bistros instead of restaurants. European restaurants in general can be quite costly.
- Try the street food. Some countries have very popular street scenes with vendors of all kinds. Don't discount street vendors just because of their locations. Just be choosy to ensure the best quality. These foods are often from cafes or restaurants but are cheaper because they're sold on the streets.
- Head for the produce markets. Carr calls produce markets in Europe "a downright bacchanalia of tastes, colors, and lively social interaction." Grab cheeses, breads, vegetables and fruits here, and then cook them yourself if your accommodation has a kitchen.
- Check out pastry shops and bakeries. Pastries are the norm for breakfast in many European countries. Try heavier fare such as quiches compared to croissants if you want to stay full for a few hours until lunchtime. These dishes can even serve as a lighter lunch.
- Look at the food being served at outdoor restaurants to get a good idea of the quality and portion size. It's recommended that you be as natural / not creepy about this as possible.
- Some establishments have menus that are outside for passersby to peruse. Take advantage of these.
- Take a look at the people at the restaurant or establishment. If most look like tourists, you'll probably have a better experience here.
- Ask locals about the best places to eat.
- Go to the street markets in London. The Southbank Market near the Thames River has a variety of street carts that serve all sorts of cuisine, from Mexican to Asian. These are some of the most affordable dishes in town.
- Have breakfast at a cafe in Paris. Start your morning off right with some fuel in the form of espresso and a croissant or two.
- Get a doner kebab in Germany. One of the German Turkish community's greatest gifts to Europe was the doner kebab, a handheld meal of rotisserie-grilled meats and vegetables served on pita bread. There are now 17,000-plus kebab shops around Germany, each offering its own take on the dish.
Different Currencies Used in EuropeDepending on which country in Europe that you're visiting, the currency will be different. While plenty use the euro, not all of them do. Here are some other currencies you should familiarize yourself with, courtesy of Pete Barden at Airport Parking & Hotels or APH:
- Albania — the lek
- Denmark — the krone
- Turkey — the lira
- Poland — the zloty
- Norway — the krone
- Sweden — the krona
- Ukraine — the hryvnia
- Russia — the ruble
- Czech Republic — the koruna
- Macedonia — the denar
- The United Kingdom — the pound
- Switzerland — the Swiss franc
How Much Money You Should BringLet your itinerary help determine how much money you should bring. While it's better to have more cash than not enough, even if you're a light spender, Joe Bindloss of Lonely Planet suggests never carrying all of your money in one place, even if that's your wallet or purse. Instead, use a hidden pocket in your backpack or luggage as a bank. Then, take from there an amount of money each day that you think you'll need. You will want to bring your debit card or credit card with you, as well. This prevents you from having wads of money on hand that could be stolen or lost. If you plan on bringing a card with you, it's best that you let your bank know that you'll be traveling out of the country. The bank employee may recommend that you try a prepaid card instead of bringing your primary card, which could also be misplaced. That would be far more dire than losing a bit of cash.
How to Exchange Your Money for Local CurrenciesTim Parker at finance site Investopedia offers a few different and easy options for getting local cash:
- Use a credit card or debit card as a method of payment. The banks will handle the exchange rates, but will charge you a premium for doing so.
- Exchange some money at your home bank before you go. You can always get more later.
- Get a cash passport card. (Parker recommends Travelex.) This is a card that has various currencies and lets you switch from US dollars to euros as needed.
- Use a forex desk or a bureau de change, which you will find at any airport and throughout most cities. Parker suggests you use this option only if you absolutely cannot exchange money any other way because these places sometimes charge a premium of up to 25 percent for their services.
How to Exchange Your Money BackTravelex will buy back your leftover euros or other European currency once you're ready to go back home. Your best bet is to find a Travelex store (there are more than 200) and make the buy-back there. You can also contact your bank once you're home to ask about exchanging the foreign money.
Backpacking Safety TipsHealthline offers a basic overview of what you have to keep in mind when backpacking through any wild, forested or rural parts of Europe. They recommend you have the following items:
- A signaling device in case you get lost or stuck somewhere.
- A rope if you need to climb up or down a rocky surface.
- A water filtration system to purify river water or other undrinkable sources of water.
- Insect repellant.
- Drinkable water
- A knife
- A poncho or raincoat
- A first aid kit
- A flashlight or headlamp
- A change of clothes
- Sunscreen and/or sunglasses
- A compass and/or a map
- Have pepper spray on you at all times, and learn how to use it ahead of time so you're ready if necessary. Pepper spray can come in a tiny container that you can attach to your keychain or belt buckle, so there's no reason not to have it.
- Be wary of going out at night alone, especially if you're on a train or a bus. It takes time to orient yourself to a new place, and doing so at night in the dark just makes it harder and possibly more confusing.
- Stick to populated, well-lit places such as popular streets, major trails, etc. This is especially true when hiking or going off the beaten path because you don't want to get lost or stranded.
- Keep track of your belongings at all times, especially when in a populated area.
- Always keep your eyes peeled and listen to your intuition. If something or someone seems sketchy, remove yourself from the situation.
- Watch out for scams; Devon said she encountered several:
- People offering roses to men to give to their girlfriends and then charging for them.
- Cashiers short-changing you because you don't understand the currency.
- People putting friendship bracelets on you and then asking for money.
Culture Shock and IntegrationInternational telecoms service provider Flexiroam brings up a very interesting phenomenon that you will probably experience when you arrive to your European country of choice: Culture shock. This is totally normal and natural, so don't feel bad. The Flexiroam blog has some tips on how to prepare ahead of time to reduce culture shock.
- Learn as much of the language as possible. You don't have to speak or understand it fluently, but a basic understanding is best.
- Keep an open mind and welcome new experiences.
- Read up as much as you can about the country you plan to visit before your trip so you have a rough idea of what to expect.
- Spend time with the locals if possible.
- Have faith that you can acclimate to another culture. Rasmussen underscores the importance of confidence: "Having and growing cultural intelligence … requires that you don't become discouraged when you're challenged."
- Use actions instead of words to show your appreciation and acceptance of other cultures, acting as they act.
- Again, learn as much as you can beforehand, but look for an entry point, a similar behavior or a shared interest that can help you better immerse yourself into the culture during your trip.
Keeping Your Money and Valuables SafeYour money, even if it's now a different currency, is important to you. If you're planning to be active during your travels, Manouk at Bunch of Backpackers(bunchofbackpackers.com) has some simple but smart traveling suggestions. She recommends that you always have some cash in your pocket so you don't have to pull your your wallet. She also recommends getting a clip to lock your bag's zipper in place. It's a small deterrent, but even a two-step process to open your bag might be enough to dissuade a pickpocket. The editors at The Active Times(www.theactivetimes.com) remind you to make the most of your hotel safe. Store money there when you're not in your room. It's always best to take as many precautions as possible. Christy Woodrow at Ordinary Traveler(ordinarytraveler.com) mentions how you need to keep your wits about you when faced with a potential scam. She recounted that during her travels she'd notice strangers who would ask if they could help passengers move their luggage to or from a bus or train. These people would linger around train stations. If you hand over your possessions, it's likely these scammers will dig through your bags and take what they want.
Apps to Use for Safe TravelsBoth the Centers for Disease Control and the National Education Association in the US offer some useful apps you should download to your smartphone, tablet or other mobile device before you embark on your trip. Here are a few to get you started:
- bSafe – If you ever feel you're in a dangerous situation, the bSafe app offers GPS tracking so you always know where you are, and, if you press the SOS button, it immediately begins to record any voices in the area. It can also record video.
- Can I Eat This? (iOS / Android) – This CDC app is pretty self-explanatory. Just choose your country, input some basic information about what you're drinking or eating, and the app lets you know whether the edible item is safe to consume.
- AroundMe – Especially useful when traveling in a new country, find the closest ATM, restaurant, pharmacy, hotel or any other service by using AroundMe. The app picks up your location and then offers suggestions. It's free.
- TravWel ( iOS / Android) – Another CDC app, this allows you to track immunizations and medications before and during your vacation, pack in a healthy way, keep mobile travel documents such as your passport, and even read through a convenient travel checklist so that you don't forget anything while packing.
- XE Currency – Although we covered currency exchange rates above, if you need a refresher, make sure that you download XE Currency to have all that information right at your fingertips. The app even works if you aren't connected to the Internet, and it's free.
Using your GPS for Walking or Driving AroundMost smartphones include GPS capabilities, but to save battery life, data and money on your phone bill, it's highly recommended that you bring your own separate GPS device with you to Europe. REI outlines some basics about this piece of hard you should know. For example, you have to update the device often in order for it to have the most recent maps available. The GPS must also communicate with a satellite to access the maps and get you where you need to go. To get the best satellite reception anywhere at anytime, REI suggests that you try these tips.
- Initialize the device so that it can find your current location. Its original location may be set to the country where it was manufactured.
- Try to use your GPS in an unobstructed area free of many overhead items and barriers. The fewer of these, the easier it is to connect.
- If your GPS uses batteries, make sure you put in fresh ones before the trip. Always have a pack or two of spares.
- Either carry your GPS in your hand if you're walking or attach it to the strap of your backpack. It's best to minimize back-and-forth motion with the a GPS so you don't interrupt its ability to read satellite information.
- If you know that you'll have a tough time picking up a signal, consider using the satellite lock function before you head into that area.