Many students want to backpack Europe in college, but think it’s unattainable for them unless they study abroad. I’m here to tell you taht with some preparation, research, and a bit of cash set aside, you can certainly do it too.
In 2016, I backpacked Europe for two months on less than $5,000. This included airfare, gear, and everything else I needed.
Packing & Preparation
Purchases for the trip:
- Kelty Coyote 60-105 Liter Backpack, Men’s and Women’s Travel Backpack – $250
- 3 travel Van Heusen Travel Stretch Dress Fit T Shirts– $150
- Padlock (for Hostel lockers)- $8
- 3 Vacuum bags– $20 (highly recommended for space and also to store dirty laundry)
- Backpack flashlight– $9
Flights I paid for during the trip:
- Boston to Reykjavik to London (Gatwick) $297
- Venice to Frankfurt- $51
- Amsterdam to Prague- $114 (holiday flight)
- Stuttgart to Manchester- $57
- London (Gatwick) to Boston $228
- Norwegian Air: Incredibly cheap airline for overseas travel. I flew London to Boston for under $250.
- IcelandAir: Cheap and relatively comfortable for overseas travel. Flies through Reykjavic, so not usually direct.
- Ryanair: Very affordable airline service for going to different countries in Europe. They will nickel and dime you with other things if you aren’t careful with bag sizes and check-in process, but you won’t find cheaper flights.
- Easyjet: Slightly more expensive than Ryanair, also a great airline for affordable flights.
- Hopper: An app for finding the cheapest flights to popular destinations. I was using this before Europe and still use it now. It keeps track of your favorite routes and tells you when prices are getting low.
Cities and Experiences
I traveled through 15 cities in 52 days. Here’s a list of the cities I visited in Europe:
My first and favorite stop of the trip, London has become a special place for me. In fact, there’s a good chance that I will live there at some point in my life. From getting to visit the stadium of my boyhood club Chelsea FC, to riding the tube all over the city, to bar hopping in Fulham, to getting to visit Warner Bros. Studio Harry Potter world on the final day, London was fast-paced and enjoyable the entire time.
My only regret about London was not being there longer. It’s a huge city with a ton to see, so I’d recommend going into it with a list of 10-12 places you want to see. Next time I’m in the UK, I would like to explore more of the British countryside and places outside of London.
Having never even seen a picture of Nice before going there, my reasoning for buying a bus ticket was the good weather and rich history. The weather did not disappoint, as it was 75 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of December during the 4 days I was there.
I sat on the beach and read, walked along the promenade, and drank beers with friends I met in Marseille the previous weekend on the beach during an epic sunset. The hostel I stayed in was more like a hotel, which allowed for productivity with my work. An immediate goal of mine is to visit Nice again in the summertime.
I stayed with a friend of a friend in Kaiserslautern (“K-Town” to locals) over the Christmas holiday. K-Town is home to the U.S. Air Force base and more than 50,000 U.S. residents, which gave it a very modern-American feel. Although I probably wouldn’t have visited this small town if I didn’t know someone there, I had a ton of fun hanging out with new friends while there.
The nightlife was pretty wild for a small town and the people were very friendly.
Prague, Czech Republic
If you want to feel like you live in medieval times, go to Prague. The city itself is picturesque and is made to look like a literal fairy-tale. The only city that came close to matching Prague’s aesthetic qualities was Paris.
I spent New Year’s Eve in Prague and bought a ticket to a club that had at least 1,600 people in it. Memories of that night include watching strangers shoot fireworks at buildings, walking home in 10-degree snowy weather with no coat, and witnessing a bouncer spray a drunk guy with mace and then kick him in the head.
Poland is an underrated country in general, but Krakow was really pretty and laid out well. With the USD exchange rate, it’s also incredibly cheap. I ate out almost every night and never spent more than $12 for an exorbitant amount of food (pierogis anyone?). The markets were large and the people were, generally speaking, the nicest of anywhere I went in Europe.
- 36 pierogis for less than $15 USD
It was freezing cold (single digit temperatures) but that’s what you get for going to Poland in January. I also hit the low point of my trip here when I got the stomach flu.
Maybe strange to put this in tier 1, but seeing the Auschwitz concentration camp was a life-changing experience. I would recommend anyone that ever has the opportunity go to it. It only cost $39 to get an English speaking tour guide, and she was a direct relative (as all guides are) to a victim of the holocaust. It was a chilling but solemnly mesmerizing experience.
The vibe in Munich was exactly what I expected. A lot of people, beer halls, good food and fun times. One of the highlights was visiting the English Garden (“Englischer Garten”), as seen above. A really quiet park in the middle of the city with nice walking trails that I can see being a lot of fun in the summer months with a pint of beer in your hand.
My final night in Munich I was upgraded to a single dorm and went to sleep around 5 pm, not waking up until 8:30 am the next morning. The hostel I stayed at, Wombats Hostel Munich, are located all throughout Europe. I would recommend checking them out.
My favorite part about Marseille was the hostel I stayed in. If I could go back and do my trip again, I’d have stayed in more rag-tag backpacker hostels simply to meet people like the ones I met in Marseille. We ate dinner together as a group, had a few drinks and all went out to the bars together. I only spent 2 nights in Marseille but have fond memories of the experience.
Marseille as a city is your typical port city, full of boats and the hub of attention surrounding the Port Vieux. The nightlife was fun and a lot of people were out. And because it’s France, the food was also really enjoyable.
Milan is a city with a large financial district and many working people. A week before Christmas the city was decked out in lights and trees, so that was a positive.
The metro was kind of dirty and I had a sketchy encounter when I first arrived with some guy following me for money. Though this happened in a few cities, this particular encounter lasted longer than it should have.
We did go to an amazing wine bar in Milan that was one of the highlights of my trip and I had the best meal of my life in Milan for under $50. The food alone is reason enough to go back to Italy, but I’d like to see somewhere other than Milan next time.
Frankfurt is a very industrial city that didn’t seem like it had a ton to do. There was one larger strip of bars, but it was pretty dead while we were there other than the Christmas markets. The gluhwein and food at the markets were, however, worth the effort of making it to Germany during the holidays.
It didn’t help that we had a rather strange hostel experience while in Frankfurt either.
I was a little disappointed with Amsterdam, quite honestly. It was always a place on my list that I felt like I had to go based on what I’d heard about it. The city itself has a funky vibe to it and plenty to see. The weather was awfully foggy while we were there which may have had something to do with a mediocre experience.
We went on a boat festival light show and checked out the only 3D virtual reality movie theater in Europe, which was cool. The red light district was worth walking through just to say we did it.
Paris? In tier 3!? This must be some kind of mistake! At least for my experience, it’s not. I was really excited about going to Paris, but my time there did not go how I expected it to.
While Paris is a beautiful city- like something out of a painting, honestly- the truth is it it’s also pretty sketchy. That can be said of any city, but I really saw that side of it during my 5-day stay. Between almost getting robbed and constantly being approached by strangers for money, it wasn’t an ideal place to be wandering around alone in.
My negative experience of Paris has encouraged me to learn French so that my second experience is better.
Something I didn’t know about Paris is that they often make the metro free during the winter months so fewer people will drive to work and decrease pollution. It was free during my entire stay, so I really played tourist my last two days there, taking the train all over the city to see hotspots like L’Arc De Triomphe and The Louvre.
This may not be fair to do, but my experience of Manchester was ruined by the hostel I stayed in. It was by far the most disgusting and uncomfortable setting that I’ve ever called home. England is not known for being cheap by any means, but the fact that this cesspool of a hostel cost more than almost all the others that I stayed in didn’t sit well with me.
The nightlife in the Northern Quarter seemed to be popping, but I had 4 days left in Europe at this point and was not with friends, so I opted to not go crazy.
Set the scene- you and I are going to take a train from Milan to Venice and arrive at 5 pm on a Sunday night. No one around? Okay, not a big deal I guess. Now, we’re going to take an hour boat ride to get to the hostel. It’s dark out and freezing cold? Okay, this is a little weird- but whatever. Wait, why is there no one outside?
Enter the Generator Venice hostel and rejoice. ~20 people from all over the world looking to party. Drink all night. Wake up at 7 am and rush to catch a 10:30 am flight to Germany. See NONE of Venice, and look like this on your boat ride to the bus station:
Venice, I’m sorry. Poor planning and lots of partying led to me seeing none of you. I will be back.
I walked around Stuttgart for a night waiting for a flight to Manchester. It’s a small city with a German feel to it- industrial, people out and about, etc. I’m pretty sure I ate dinner at the grocery store near my hostel and went to bed at 10 pm.
If you are on a budget, hostels are going to be your best friend.
I used the Hostelworld app my entire trip and never had any issues. You have the option of putting a 10 percent deposit down on the room you are booking to reserve a bed and then can pay an extra euro to protect your deposit in case you cancel your reservation. Be sure to read the reviews of the hostels before you book. The only hostel I stayed in that was gross and that I would not recommend was Hatters on Newton Street in Manchester, England.
As far as price goes, I paid anywhere from $7.47 per night in Krakow to $60 per night in Amsterdam right after Christmas. The median average of my hostel accommodation was about $22 per night. Some rooms were cheaper because of winter.
The way I ate in Europe probably saved me more money than anything else I did. I spent less than $30 per day on food most days other than the occasional (1-2 per week) splurge on a high-end meal. Knowing full well that I eat more food than most people, I tried to approach my travels with a plan for meals. I encourage you to do the same based on your needs. My general approach each day went like this:
For breakfast, I would either:
- Eat breakfast and get coffee at the hostel- ranging from free to 8 euro per morning.
- Eat something leftover from the night before or a bar/fruit on the go.
- Skip it altogether.
I then would only eat one of my remaining meals for the day out. My other meal would be a combination of cheap goods from a grocery store that I tried to stockpile in my bag. In general, you will save more money if you prepare your own food. Dinner tends to cost more than lunch.
Grocery store staples included:
- Baguettes ($.25-.50 for a whole loaf of bread)
- Salami, ham, or prosciutto
- Hard cheeses in assorted packs
- Canned sardines
- Apples and oranges
- Pre-packaged salads
- Chocolate bars
I got used to my combination of bread, cheese, and meat with a salad and fruit and probably ate this for 20 to 25 meals.
Getting Money out of ATMs
This is something people told me about constantly before I left, yet I didn’t fully listen or comprehend it until I got over there. Every time you take money out of an ATM, you are going to be charged a service fee. These fees add up, and some banks will charge even more to convert the amount you’re taking out into the currency of the country you are in.
It’s probably a good idea to look at how long you’ll be in the country/countries that accept the currency you are withdrawing. For example, if you are going to spend 5 days in London, you don’t want to take out so much money in pounds that you’ll have to get it converted to euros on your way out. That’s more money out of your pocket.
Look at your rough budget (ex. $50 a day) and multiply it by the number of days in that area. That’s probably a good baseline number to withdraw to limit your ATM transactions.
Ex. $50 per day for the next 5 days + a little extra = Between $250-300.
I never walked around with more than the equivalent of $300 to play it safe. I needed to take out money probably ever 5 days. This will cost you more in the long run, but if something happens and you lose a lot of money, that will also be a problem.
Pro tip: avoid exchanging money in the airport if you can, even though it’s convenient. The exchange rates are lower and you’ll pay more in service fees to get less cash.
While trains are probably more convenient (and quicker), if you’re on a budget, take a bus. If you have some flexibility, consider taking a bus for anything under a 5-hour trip, and booking a train or flight for anything else.
You will save a lot of money by using the bus. For example, a 3-hour train from Nice to Milan would’ve cost me 80 euros, but I found a bus ticket for less than 10. All of the bus companies I used had free wifi, though some had a limit for how long you could use them.
These are the companies I would recommend using and/or downloading apps for:
I took 11 busses (and missed only 1) during my travels.
Don’t go into your trip thinking you will live off a robotic daily budget. Things will happen, you’ll see stuff you want to do, and you’ll get sick of eating the same food over and over again. The good news is that travel tends to ebb and flow naturally, so you’ll probably spend like $100 in one night and then take it easy for the next day or two.
I’d recommend you set aside something like $500 (depends on how long you plan to travel) solely for splurging on meals and fun experiences. You’re going to do it anyway, so you might as well budget for it.
Here were my biggest unaccounted for purchases:
- 1 ticket for Warner Bros Studio Harry Potter World in London-$45
- Fish and chips dinner and alcohol in Hammersmith- $22
- Pizza and drinks in Paris- $25
- Wine bar and all-you-can-eat buffet in Milan-$35
- Giant 4 course meal in Milan- $30
- Partying in Kaiserslautern- ~$100
- Ticket to nightclub in Prague- $42
- Light show in Amsterdam- $25
- 3D virtual movie theater in Amsterdam- $12
- Eating out in Krakow- $50
- Tour of Auschwitz concentration camps- $39
- A new winter coat and 2 new pairs of clothes in Munich- $130 total
Things like new shampoo and soap, medicine, water bottles once you lose your Nalgene, books to read on the train, etc. $3 here and there adds up after a while.
Which leads me to another inexpensive-yet-frequent purchase: coffee. Lots of it. Coffee in Europe is outstanding almost anywhere you go. If you don’t want to go outside of what’s comfortable, there wasn’t a city I went to that didn’t have a Starbucks. A French man joked with me that while all of Europe hates that we “gave” them McDonald’s, no one complains about Starbucks.
I was in a coffee shop probably 5 out of 7 days each week either working or using their wifi. Sometimes twice in a day. It’s a cheaper alternative to using your data and also a good way to explore little corners of cities you wouldn’t otherwise.
You may find that Starbucks (and Costa in the UK) are the main places that feature filtered drip coffee as the primary product like we do in America. In France and Italy especially, espresso was the primary option. The closest you’ll get some places is an Americano, which is 2 shots of espresso mixed with hot water and cream/sugar if you so choose.
Estimated “Other” Purchases Total: $300
Getting to backpack Europe in collegewas a life-changing experience that is difficult to put a price tag on. In hindsight, it was a journey I needed to help launch me into a new phase of life and to remind me why it’s worth it to work hard and serve others.
That said, it’s going to cost you if you want to do it. Broken down by category, here is my total output for my preparation, transportation, and exploration of 52 days in Europe:
- Flights- $747
- Gear- $466
- Accommodations- $946
- Meals- $1,560
- Transportation in Europe- $344
- ATM Fees- $75
- “Splurges”- $555
- “Other” Purchases- $300
My hope is that this experience gives you the tools, motivation or proof you need to put on a backpack and go. If I learned anything during my travels, it’s that everyone’s approach to travel is going to be a little bit different. There is no one-size-fits-all approach and, above all, the journey is the destination. The moments where you question what you’re doing, if you’re doing it right, and why you’re doing it in the first place are what change you the most and create the sweetest memories.
So if I could leave you with one piece of advice above all, it’s this: set sail now. Take off as soon as you can, and don’t think about it too much, because everything will work out like it’s supposed to. There’s a big world out there waiting for you, and I hope you are also able to backpack Europe in college. Bon voyage!