10 Lessons Learned From My 3 Month Europe Trip
If I had known everything from the start of my 3 month Europe trip, I wouldn’t have insect bite scars all over my body, wouldn’t be ~$1,000 poorer than I am, and that just wouldn’t be me! Thanks to my firsthand experiences while traveling solo in Europe this summer, I am now equipped with so many learnings that I hope to share with others.
That’s where this post comes in handy– to help you guys avoid the same mistakes I unknowingly made during my first extended trip. Take these learnings and keep them in mind when you embark on your own travels! Here are the top 10 learnings from my Europe backpacking trip in 2018:
1. Travel days are annoying. Slow down.
Before you go and book a long-term adventure where you spend no more than 3 days in each city and aim to cross off 20 countries in one trip, please keep in mind that moving from place to place is time consuming, tiring, and boring (unless you like taking buses, trains, taxis, etc. and walking around town with all of your luggage) not to mention, can really add up the costs. You don’t actually realize how much time you spend packing up until you’ve done it for the umpteenth time and realize that an hour has gone by and you’re still folding clothes and stuffing things back into your backpack. You could be enjoying the sunset or grabbing a drink with friends during that precious time! Anytime I had chosen a destination and stayed for less than 3 nights, I kicked myself in the butt for it and always thought “ugh, I have to take stuff out of my pack now, and then re-pack everything in just 2 days??”
Instead, I would recommend slowing down and spending more time in a city and considering it your home base. Perhaps 5-7 days is too long in purely one city for some people. Totally okay. What about adding day trips to other nearby towns from your base city? For example, say you want to go to Lisbon, Portugal. If you make Lisbon your home base for 5 days, you could spend 3 days in Lisbon, 1 day in Sintra, and 1 day in Cascais. Three amazing towns experienced, a lot less of a hassle than lugging everything around with you to just the major cities in Portugal. Bottom line: Europe will always be there, slow down and spend more time in one region enjoying the destination with your senses rather than allocating the time to packing and being on the move for hours.
2. Night trains are an awesome form of transportation.
Before this trip, I had never considered night trains. My friends were appalled at the idea of sleeping on a train, I was apprehensive. Images of uncomfortable, noisy, chug-a-chugging conditions popped into my head. But no, night trains are actually amazing. In my experiences traveling in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland, I was provided with cozy slippers, ear plugs, free bottled waters, and free breakfast in some cases. The light rocking of the train put me right to sleep and I didn’t wake up very frequently during the night.
A huge added benefit is that it’s the most time-efficient and cost-efficient option. Not only are you traveling during your unconscious hours of the day, you’re not paying for a room. Spend your waking moments exploring, not sitting uncomfortably on a bus, airport terminal, or plane! One huge reminder: In the case that you cross country borders, some trains require you to have a printed copy of your ticket. I was scolded and told that I might be woken up in the middle of the night by border control since the conductor wasn’t able to show proof of purchase or something to the border control people. Nothing of the sort actually happened to me, but to be safe, just print everything out.
3. I wish I had familiarized myself with how to deal with… bedbugs.
Yes, it happened. Yes, I was itchy and disgusted and mentally scarred at the sight of bedbugs on my pillow in the wee hours of the morning. I’ll spare you the details. I wish I had believed how common bed bugs were. I talked to about 10 people about my bites and 2 others (these two people were also traveling for over 6 weeks) said they got bedbugs during their travels as well.
Do your research on how to check for bedbugs BEFORE putting your belongs and BEFORE throwing your sacred body onto the bed. Do know that if you get bitten by bedbugs (ie you woke up with inexplicable bites on your body that turn into itchy welts a few days after), you are eligible for a refund for your stay. The hostel/hotel should also pay for you to do all your laundry. Wash everything on HOT, you gotta kill those nasty bugs and eggs so you don’t continuously get bitten or worse, bring them back to your own home.
4. Trim the fat (of the belongings you’re packing).
Honestly, you’ll need a lot less than you think. In my situation, I had brought 2 clubbing outfits “just in case”, 4 pairs of shoes for different scenarios, a leather jacket for nights out, 3 pairs of jeans in different colors, a film camera that I needed to replace the battery for, and extras of every toiletry I needed (and a lot of other things). I ended up with a full 65L backpacking pack, a full daypack, and a full roller carry-on. I went on with this for about a month, pretty annoyed whenever I had to jump on a plane or take the bus/train to a new city.
Luckily, my coworkers came to join me on a leg of my trip. This is the point where I decided I just didn’t want to spend the rest of my trip lugging around a 65L backpack, a daypack, AND a rolling carry-on suitcase. I ended up sending the carry-on back to California with my coworker. And I felt so FREE from the bulk!
Here’s what I think. Stop thinking about the scenarios in which you’d wear your clothes or use your cosmetics. If you do that, you’ll just end up packing everything because there’s a perfect scenario for your belongings. I would recommend packing what you know you’ll use at least 5 times, maybe even 10 times.
For those nights out in Europe, you probably won’t be using a jacket or specific going-out shoes. Leave it at home, it’s heavy anyway. Why not bring some workout tops that double as everyday wear? Bringing articles of clothing that serve multiple purposes and can be worn on multiple occasions is the key to packing light here! Cut the extra shoes out unless you know for a fact they’re comfortable for walking and need variety (in my case, I brought a pair of Nikes, Birkenstocks, and TOMS espadrilles that I could walk 10+ miles in). For extra toiletries, just buy it when you need it when you’re in Europe.
5. Eye masks and earplugs are game changers.
Before this trip, I had never really utilized eye masks. Then again, I had never stayed in this many hostels. Both earplugs and eye masks are so necessary for a hostel environment, as sharing a room with strangers with different sleep schedules can be quite disturbing to your sleep cycle. One person might open the blinds at 7 am, one might be packing their belongings at 5 am prepping for an early flight.
Bring them just in case, even if you’re not an eye mask person. They’re very affordable, and this way, you’ll be prepared to sleep through all the stimuli you’re bound to encounter.
6. Couchsurfing can be really useful.
And this is coming from someone who gets creeped out by guys (especially when I post a public trip and only men offer to host). I’ve actually talked to a lot of female travelers along the way and I’ve heard nothing but good things about women staying with male and/or female hosts. Some have even become really good friends with people they’ve met through CS. I haven’t had too many Couchsurfing experiences, but there is a really extensive and friendly community of CSers who are just looking for others to hang out within a city; perfect for those moments when you’re alone and looking for some social interaction!
You might be apprehensive at first (I was), but not everyone is creepy. If you’re hesitant to stay with someone who offers, check out their references and read their reviews. If they are all positive, and “50 out of 50 surfers would stay again”, then he/she can’t be that bad. Then, exchange a few messages and get to know the person, get all your questions answered, and just get a feel for the person. Use your instincts and leave if things get weird. Luckily, I haven’t had any bad experiences so far!
7. If you need to go to the pharmacy, do your googling before opening the package.
In Europe, things aren’t as simple as popping into a Target, CVS or RiteAid for your medical needs. Allergy pills, nasal sprays, itching cream, you name it– these are sold at the pharmacy (stores with the green cross) where you’ll either have to talk to a pharmacist or decipher what is being sold on the shelves as the products are likely not in English. I can’t tell you how many times I explained what I needed, trusted the pharmacist to know what he/she was talking about and choose a product for me, used it, and googled it later on to find out that it was NOT what I needed. So much money wasted.
If you don’t have internet there, buy the product, then google its uses BEFORE opening the packaging. You should still be able to return it if it’s not what you need. Find exactly what you need online, and show them. They should be able to find an equivalent there instead of selling you garbage.
8. You will be thankful for those do-nothing days off.
When my coworkers joined me in Europe for Rome, Budapest, Prague, and Krakow, I was exploring nonstop for 2 weeks from 8am to 9pm. At the end of it, I was completely exhausted both physically and mentally. I was actually sick before this 2-week stint of my travels, and I ended up getting sick again immediately after.
I know you want to see everything; usually as Americans, we don’t have weeks at a time to travel abroad. I’d suggest allocating time throughout the day to hang out at a cafe for a bit. Sip on a coffee, prop your hardworking feet up and watch the world go by. If you are lucky enough to have the time to go slow, allocate some days to just resting in bed, sunbathing at the beach, reading at the park, or watching Netflix. Your mind and body will thank you for it. Trust.
9. Plans can change. Get the refundable option or bear the consequences.
Before my trip started, I had pre-booked a lot of flights, trains, and lodging. There was one scenario where I had booked a hotel in Krakow through Agoda three months before my trip (please note, this is not my usual preferred booking site), but had completely forgotten about it. The only trace I had of this booking was buried deep in my countless numbers of saved travel reservation emails. Fast forward to a few weeks before the stay in Krakow, my coworker ended up booking another option for us since I had assumed we had nothing booked. When we were in Krakow, I ended up being charged a hefty no-show fee for the Agoda booking I had forgotten about! Money right down the drain… I’m usually really good about keeping notes, but this one just fell through the cracks.
Here’s another scenario from this trip: I thought I was for sure going from Krakow to Paris and from Paris to Milan. However, I ended up changing my mind and had decided to stay in Poland a few days longer and then hop over to Portugal and Spain instead, skipping out on Paris entirely. So sadly, I forfeited both flights to and from Paris (with extra cost for checking a bag!!), which was about $250 down the drain.
You see, lodging can be easily canceled for free, but it’s not the same case for transportation. Either wait until you have a clearer picture of your plans or pay a bit more for the refundable option. You can weigh out the pros and cons of each. And of course, note where you’ve reserved a room, dates for your flights, etc, such as with an excel sheet or Google Docs.
10. Save room for… shopping?
This might not be applicable to some, but perhaps it’ll help you guys pack for your trip. Maybe you’ll come across a huge sale (in late June/early July, a lot of stores in Europe have HUGE sales semi-annual sales, I’m not big on shopping but even I couldn’t resist the deals), maybe you’ll want to buy gourmet food souvenirs for your friends and family, maybe you want to pick up some antique/flea market finds. If you think you’re going to be packing on more weight (har har), then make sure to save room in your pack. No one wants to deal with an overstuffed backpack.
What I did which was very preoccupying was that I kept on analyzing what I owned and picking what I could throw away to make room for new things. To maintain peace of mind, just save room for things you might come across during your travels.
And there you have it! I hope you guys will be able to take my trip learnings and reflections and make your trip that much smoother and more spectacular. Have additional questions or concerns that weren’t discussed? Ask away in the comments section below.
Looking to go on an extended trip but not sure how to accelerate your savings? See how I saved up over $10,000 for my trip!
Need help with packing? See what I packed on this trip!