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Does anyone have any travel tips for a first time European backpacker?

My friend and I will be traveling around Italy, Greece and Vienna for about a month. We are both girls in our early 20s and have traveled a little around Europe. But, neither of us have spent an extended period of time traveling "alone" (without our parents or a study abroad group). I am looking for any essential travel advice that anyone might have. Any great packing tips? Must pack items? Don't pack items? (I'm a horrible over-packer) Must see sights? Places to avoid?

Posted by
846 posts

Pack light! You will have a blast! But, seriously, bring as little as possible. Rick Steves guidebooks have good packing lists. I traveled for 9 months in Europe with a backpack many years ago! My only other tip is to pack clothes in plastic bags. This will help keep your backpack organized and it will keep everything dry in case of rain.

Posted by
703 posts

it might sound obvious but a pair of good walking shoes ( i don't mean full length hiking boots) , when you are on the move all day, every day often on cobble stone roads you definitely need good shoes. I found one pair of 'water proof' shoes really does the job for extended weeks of travel. we laugh ( to ourselves) when we are visiting some hill top town or mountain look out etc and other tourist arrive wearing inappropriate clothing /footwear.
so pack light and put some good off line apps on your phones/ipods. etc we find some particular apps invaluable

Posted by
16894 posts

Start with some useful tips, including traveling "solo," at, excerpted from Rick Steves's Europe Through the Back Door. As a pair who may not have traveled much together, give yourselves some time and space to go off alone when you need to., e.g. for a day's sightseeing.

On the sidebar, see also the link to Packing tips, which include such reliable gems as this:

Spread out everything you think you might need on the living-room floor. Pick up each item one at a time and scrutinize it. Ask yourself, "Will I really use this snorkel and these fins enough to justify carrying them around all summer?" Not "Will I use them?" but "Will I use them enough to feel good about hauling them over the Swiss Alps?" Frugal as I may be, I'd buy them in Greece and give them away before I'd carry that extra weight over the Alps.

Next, I would not overlook the extensive, efficient info you can get from a good guidebook. You'll need one for each country. While you need not make all your decisions in advance, and Greece is an area where being flexible is usually the best way, you can make better decisions on the road when you have already thought through some options and priorities.

P.S. Don't be like the two young ladies I roomed with on my first trip to Greece, who were each carrying a Costco-sized bottle of shampoo. Toiletries are heavy. Or the young man in the same room who brought his GameBoy but not a guidebook (pre-internet).

Posted by
5837 posts

I'm assuming that by "backpacking" you are travelling similar to hut to hut travel or hostels.

As others note, good walking shoes/boots, light but supportive, traction and water proof/repellant are a starting point. Add comfortable hut shoes and shower flip-flops.

Clothing needs to be comfortable (vs fashionable), wicking and quick drying. Wear one set of undergarments and socks, pack two (drying sometimes takes more than overnight). See REI tips:
I'm partial to fabrics like Coolmax with wicking fast dry structure.

Silk sleep sack/sheet is nicer than cotton and packs tight.

Bring or buy padlock for hostels. Guard/protect your passport, have back up credit and ATM card in secure place.

Posted by
8889 posts
  • Bring a good Swiss army knife (but don't pack it in your hand luggage). Essential for opening and cutting up that pack of ham / cheese / local specialty you just bought for your lunch.
  • Make sure you each have different cards (bank cash cards and credit cards). So if one of you looses their cards and you block the cards, the other persons cards are still usable.
  • Learn the absolute basics in each language: Yes, No, sorry, thank you, how much?, the bill please, and the numbers.
  • Learn the "real" names of all places you are travelling to: Roma, Firenze, Venezia, München, Praha, Wien etc. Then you can read the signs.
Posted by
3428 posts

Here's my packing list:
Layers are what work. Wear on plane: black cotton-blend pants (could be capris in summer), long sleeve turtleneck/T-shirt in winter, or short T/tank in summer, and a long-sleeved or 3/4 sleeve "big shirt" {button up that can work/ look a bit like a jacket}, Windbreaker/raincoat with hood in summer or winter coat with hood, good walking shoes.
In carry-on:
2-3 pair black or khaki cotton-blend pants (I am allergic to wool and rather hot-natured- if you prefer, substitute 1 pair shorts or capris in summer, maybe 1 pair good dark jeans in winter)
3-5 T-shirts/tanks/turtlenecks (sleeve length depends on season) I tend to take red, cobalt or purple or black and white tops.
1 additional "big shirt"(in summer, one is short sleeve and one longer- in winter, both long),
I usually take a couple of "dress-up" scarves -everything coordinates with everything else.

3-5 bras, at least 7 pair undies (often enough for entire trip) same with socks
1 pair pjs if desired (or take extra shorts/yoga pants and a t or tank)
Optional - a sweater/cardigan or fleece
Gloves, hat or hooded scarf (in fall and winter)
Extra shoe liners
Possibly a pair of flip flops for shower, if desired
Phone, charger, adapter plug
3-1-1 bag with deodorant, perfume, shampoo, lipstick, Chap Stick, toothpaste, etc.
another quart baggie with eye shadow, blush, face powder, talcum powder, comb, brush, tweezers, razor, clippers, etc. ,
"Feminine supplies" if needed,
Wash cloth in a baggie,

In my day pack (some trips it has been a back-back style, others a cross body/messenger bag style), I also take hand wipes, stain wipes, small baggie with laundry soap, first aid "kit" in a baggie- band-aids, small packets of Neosporin, dental floss, Advil or Aleve, Benadryl, Dramamine, Nyquil gel capsules, etc., - sewing "kit"(various colors of thread wrapped around a small piece of cardboard, 2 needles, buttons, safety pins), Kleenex, prescription medications, medical info sheets, copy of insurance info, paper & pen, umbrella (maybe),
Hubby gets by with a bit less. He wears dark dockers style pants and a polo in summer, a long sleeve shirt in winter. He packs 1 or 2 pairs of dark or khaki colored pants, 3 or 4 shirts, with at least one button up collared shirt, 3 pairs of socks, 3 pairs of undies. His 3-1-1 bag with deodorant, cologne, toothpaste. He takes the camera & charger, extra memory cards for camera, his phone and charger.
We each take one of Rick's carry-on and a day bag. We also each pack a collapsible bag in case we buy a lot of things. Our bags weigh less than 20lbs each, hubby’s sometimes less than 10#s.
Oh- don't take a blow dryer, curling iron, straightener, etc. Even with a voltage converter and plug adapter they often don't work well 'over there'. Style your hair simply and use the blow dryer provided by the hotel, if needed (or do like I like to- cut your hair very short).

Check out prices at hostels and B&Bs and the cheaper hotels. Sometimes hostels are a good bargain, sometimes not. Some have 'private' rooms, others only dorms. If you stay in a dorm style- be certain you have excellent locks- especially if you take any electronics.

Posted by
32241 posts

A few thoughts that come to mind.....

  • I'd suggest reading Europe Through The Back Door prior to your trip, as that has a LOT of good information on "how" to travel well in Europe, and include topics like packing, women travelling alone, etc.
  • Also have a look at the country or city-specific guidebooks as that will help to determine sightseeing options that most interest you. They also have a lot of good information on things like transportation, museum opening & closing times, etc.
  • If you're planning on staying in Hostels, you'll need to pack a Towel (the micro-fibre types work well), some flip-flops for the shower and a small but robust Padlock for the lockers (DON'T use the cheap TSA luggage locks). I don't normally pack a Sleep Sheet, as that's provided by most Hostels.
  • You'll probably need to do laundry in the sink at some point (underwear and socks), so packing along some travel soap is a good idea. The group here will be able to provide a variety of suggestions on the best soap to use.
  • You might consider getting an inexpensive HI Hostels membership, as that provides cheaper rates and preferred booking over non-members. I've found their Hostels to be well run, although they're not "party" hostels. Most provide breakfast.
  • Are you planning on travelling with any electrical or electronic gadgets (Cell phones, Tablets, Hair Dryers, etc.)? There are some things you'll need to be aware of. At the very least, you'll have to pack along Plug Adaptors.
  • As someone else mentioned, it's prudent to have a "backup" ATM card, in case your primary card malfunctions (I've had that happen). At least one credit card is also a good thing to have.
  • Be sure to notify your bank, credit card firms, etc. that you're travelling so they don't freeze your cards when they detect transaction activity in Europe.
  • Using open-jaw flights is usually best. Where are you flying from?
  • Have you bought Backpacks yet? There are two main types of packs (top load & panel load), so you'll need to consider the benefits of each. It's important to choose a pack that allows for torso range adjustment so that most of the weight rests on your hips rather than shoulders. In most cases you'll only be walking short distances from the train to the Hostel, but if you have to wear the pack for long periods, you'll appreciate the torso adjustment.

When is this trip taking place?

Posted by
21 posts

All great tips! Thank you!

Everyone said "good walking shoes" I was going to bring my Birkenstocks, a pair of gym shoes and these sandals I got at REI that say they are "never not comfortable" that are made out of like yoga mats or something. I have spent a number of music festivals in my Birkenstocks and was okay but I'm a little nervous about a month in Europe. I spent a number of weeks in Alaska in hiking boots but I don't think I want to bring those with me, they are heavy and I'm not doing that serious of hiking. When I was in Alaska I was hiking often on ice, I don't think the even the couple mountain hikes will be that big of deal (I hope :/ ). Any better shoe tips? I'm open to buying another pair if it is worth it!

Clothes: I will be traveling in Italy, Greece and Vienna in July. Everyone says it's crazy hot BUT "Europeans don't wear shorts". Is that really true? Or just a myth people have been telling me to make me sweat in the summer. I know I could wear a dress but I don't want to do that everyday. I know cotton blend pants were suggested, are you not dying in pants in the summer? Also any tips to not stick out like a sore thumb?

When it comes to guide books, I'm a little nervous about weight. I know Rick Steves suggests cutting the books. Has anyone done that? Is it worth ruining the book?

Does anyone have tips for backing up their pictures. Photography is a big reason I'm going on the trip, but don't want to carry my lap top to back up my photos. Having my camera stolen or lost with the memory card is a major fear of mine. I want some way to get my pictures onto something so I don't have to worry about it so much.

Maybe a dumb question but: Can you get two debt cards for the same account in case an ATM eats it or it is lost? Has anyone done that?

I know that was a lot more questions! Thanks so much for all of your help! I love hearing advice directly from people, I oddly trust it more than some of my guide books or blogs I have read.

Posted by
2768 posts

Re: shorts. Europeans do wear them but not as often as Americans, especially in bigger cities like Rome or Vienna. Bring a pair or two, but also other choices. Casual dresses, lightweight pants, etc. I have the "city jogger" pant from athleta that is magic. Lightweight, works with sandals and a t for casual, or heels for dressier times. But a dress is definitely cooler, temp wise. Cooler than shorts too.

There's a website called "travel fashion girl" tgat fashion from a younger woman's viewpoint. I'm early 30s and I find Rick Steves clothing advice too old or just not right for me.

Sticking out- Avoid gym shoes unless they are the trendy ones. Wear shorts with anything but gym shoes. Shorts and basic gym shoes is a sure fire way to stand out. Unless you are actually going jogging or playing a sport, I wouldn't bring them. A good walking shoe, and sandals should be fine.

I don't think you will need serious hiking boots unless you are hiking on strenuous trails for long periods.

Re: guidebooks. I take mine on a kindle, kindle for iPad would also work. I know people do cut the book, and I hear it works. Or just leave it at a hostel when done with that region.

Backing up pictures - I connect my camera to my iPad and upload photos, then onto Dropbox, then delete from the iPad. I also email the best photos (4-5 day) to my family at home and to myself. That way no matter what the best 5/day are saved. You could also bring 3 memory cards and rotate them. Loose 1 card, you still have something. There are small hard drives with memory card readers, but I have never priced this.

Posted by
1194 posts

I have solo backpacked across Greece. It was the first time I traveled with carry-on only. It was a wonderful experience! Here is my advice:

  • Take a single 45 liter pack or smaller. This is carry on sized. You do not need a bigger pack. You don't. Especially when the temperatures are above 100 deg F (and they will be). You will thank me for this.
  • You don't need hiking boots because you aren't carrying a monster pack. You do need walking shoes with great tread and great traction. Many of the historical sites have marble floors, and it has been polished slick by many feet.
  • You will take a travel capsule wardrobe and do laundry once every 1-2 weeks, just like home. Google "Travel capsule wardrobe" for ideas. In addition to walking shoes you'll need a pair of dressy shoes. How about a pair of very light hardly there sandals (the kind with the thin soles and delicate straps). Great for evenings out. If not those, think about a pair of light ballet flats.
  • Keep your skirt lengths hovering around knee length and you'll be fine for churches etc. Greek Orthodox are even more strict than Catholic churches. Cover shoulders and knees to please (a scarf is a nice cover for legs if needed).
  • You will need: 1 silk tee, 1 leggings for wearing under clothes if it gets cold. You will need 1 sweater and 1 unlined waterproof rain coat for bad weather.
  • Bring at least 1 pair of light pants and 1 light long sleeve shirt (mosquitos, sunburn, cold snap). I'd suggest 4 tops, a cute knee length skort or skirt, a light sun dress and a light knit dress. You may want to add in one of those light cotton fishermans pants that are everywhere right now. All of your clothing should mix and match.
  • Decant, decant, decant your makeup and toiletries. Bring a months worth of simple makeup decanted into tiny bottles. Do not bring a months worth of toiletries - buy it there.
  • I use a light packable cross body bag for day trips. I also pack a light packable day pack for hiking. I like the PackBarefoot Wanderlite.

I would look at for a tutorial on packing light. Doug Dyment has a downloadable packing list of everything you will need for your trip. Travelfashiongirl has nice fashion trends, but she usually carries 30 pounds of stuff (way, way, way too heavy).

Please feel free to contact me personally if you want more advice.
You're going to have wonderful fun!

EDIT: I forgot about swimsuits and bras! I like "work to workout" bras" These have enough support for athletics but look and act like normal bras. You'll need around 2 (one to wash and one to wear). Use your swimsuit top as a 3rd bra when doing laundry.

Posted by
1194 posts

On a question of two debit cards. The short answer is that it won't work. Both debit and credit cards have a number associated with that card. If it is compromised then the bank will cancel that number and the 2nd card becomes unusable. What you really want is a 2nd account. Have you considered Andrews Federal Credit Union? They have the chip and pin cards that are needed in Europe. That can be your "travel' account with your normal bank cards being your backup account.

On guidebooks. Guidebooks are like food. They get old and useless across time. Do not feel bad about cutting them up. Snarky Nomad has a great post on ripping apart guidebooks and binding them into your own mini-specialized guidebook: I've used it - it works.

Posted by
108 posts

To maximize your ability to mix and match (and consequently reduce the amount you have to pack), you may want to pick a color scheme and stick with it, that way all the tops you bring can go with all of the bottoms you bring, etc. For example, when I travel for work, I find it easier to bring all black/grey or all navy suits and corresponding shirts/shoes/accessories, rather than a mix and having to bring more shirts, shoes, etc. to match both black and navy, for example.

Posted by
2768 posts

Yes, pick a neutral color. For me it's always black/gray - so I might bring a dress with a print where one of the colors is black, a skirt with a print in black, pants in denim or black or gray, and tops that match all the bottoms. A sweater or cardigan is useful for cool nights, so I bring it in black or gray so it matches everything. A scarf in colors that will match everything. Another tip is to wear tops over a dress for a "skirt" type look. You have to watch the lengths to make sure it works (it can looks silly if the top is loo long or just hangs oddly), but if you can swing it it's one more clothing option. Example - I have a plain black sleeveless dress from Target that I wear by itself, or with a scarf, or I have a lightweight printed short sleeve top that I can put over it, add a belt, and voila - it's a top and skirt. Then I can wear that top other times with pants or shorts.

Posted by
846 posts

You don't need hiking boots. When I backpacked, I did not bring hiking boots -- too heavy and clunky. I hiked in running shoes. I think 2 pairs of shoes are enough -- one pair for sightseeing and light hiking (I use my running shoes -- and I do not feel out of place in these) and a something a little nicer (I've been using boat shoes, but in a warmer climate, sandals make sense). Shoes take up a lot of room.

I would wear what you wear at home, but you want to make sure you have something in Italy to comply with dress codes for churches. I don't wear shorts much at home. I love my really light weight capris -- you could get something at REI. They dry very quickly and are comfortable in heat.

Bring a light fleece jacket for the plane, or to use to sit on for a picnic or as a pillow.

When, I backpacked, I tore up books to eliminate weight. That was before kindles were invented. You may want to make a copy of maps from a hard cover. Try to minimize books that you bring -- the are heavy.

I wouldn't worry about sticking out. Europe seems a lot more casual and there are many tourists out there.

One more thing, I usually carry a cloth shopping bag when sightseeing, with my map, guidebook, and any food purchases I've made during the day. I find it easier to slip a map or guidebook in and out of a bag that I carry on my shoulder than a daypack on my back.

Posted by
1840 posts

Put new shoe strings in your shoes, ones that won't break easily.

Posted by
1250 posts

Do laundry every night. It is going to be a hot and sweaty summer.

You can easliy wash and hang dry your daily shirt, socks and underwear. I have done it in tiny little sinks or even taken my items into the shower with me. No detergent necessary, I just carry a bar of soap. The new synthetics look good and are breathable, cool, fast drying and wrinkle-free. Pants are a bit bulkier, but need washing less often. I would suggest staying away from jeans, but if you can't live without your Levi's, jut go for it. Test wash and hang dry at home to figure out your wash and dry times so you know how much time you need if you are on the move.

I like to wear 100% cotton socks which can take longer to dry. Just buy the shorter ankle ones. If they are still damp in the morning, i just put them over a hair dryer and in less than a minute, they are warm and crispy.

You can make your own travel clothesline. Just take a bunch of rubber bands. Tie them together to make three strands about a meter long and braid them together and tie off the ends. I then put small carabiners on each end.

If you do this, you will always have clean dry clothes to wear. No smelly backpack. No need to look for or pay for a laundromat. Frankly, I don't like wasting 1 to 2 hours watching my clothes in spin in a washer dryer. You can also pack lighter. No need to pack a weeks worth of stinky socks and underwear.

Finally, if you are shopping for a backpack, I recommend that you get one with an internal frame and a hip belt . The internal frame is usually aluminum or plastic stays which transfer most of the weight to your hips. I bought a SOC Gear Bugout Bag which met all carry on requirements and worked well for my recent 19 day trip. I just wish the fabric was a bit tougher.

Have fun.

Posted by
15974 posts

Just back from Belgium and Germany last week and we saw backpackers EVERYWHERE! I wouldn't stress about clothes other than having too many or stuff that isn't easy-care 'cause they were wearing everything under the sun, and all of it comfortably casual.

'Athletic shoes' were a hot item: canvas Keds-type in all colors of the rainbow and Sketcher-looking models as well so whatever is comfortable for long days on your feet, bring them. I'd say no more than 2 pairs (wear one; pack one) plus flipflops for the shower. Unless you intend on going to dinner at fancy restaurants, leave the heels at home.

Even though it was warm, dark leggings - worn ankle or mid-calf lengths - were everywhere too as were skinny jeans. Tuck in a flippy, easy-care, knee-covering skirt or two for hot days. And yes, I did see shorts but skip the very short variety - those really do stick out like sore thumbs. Maybe take note of what people around you are wearing before pulling them out. Is your trip during the summer? They can be really nice for lounging around in hostels and hotel rooms which don't have air conditioning!

I've become a BIG fan of packing cubes. They're lightweight, keep clothes and other items organized, and make unpacking/packing packs or suitcases quick and easy… and especially so when you have to dig around for something. Just pull 'em out and toss 'em back in.

Great advice to keep the toiletries to a minimum (buy what you need along the way). Share some of them between you and your friend (like sunscreen), and leave hairdryers and curling irons at home. Tuck in an extra plug adaptor in case you accidentally leave one behind. If you're used to scrubbing up with a washrag, bring one of those too - they're not common in Europe - and a scarf or two to tie up longer hair on hot days or around the shoulders of a sleeveless top if popping in and out of churches.

A small flashlight is nice when finding the way to unfamiliar bathrooms at night. A swiss army knife with bottle opener, scissors, corkscrew, etc. is great to have too but it'll have to go in a checked pack (which I assume you'll be doing anyway). Large paperclips make good clothespins.

But if there's one rule that probably applies to any traveler at all, it's to never take anything you are not SURE you'll wear or use more than once. :O)

With the time you have before you go, you could do a test run with your chosen wardrobe? Try wearing only the clothes you intend to take for a week, and hand-wash/drip-dry them to see how well they'll work? I've discarded some of my own choices after finding out that they weren't as comfortable, versatile or easy-care as I'd thought!