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backpacking without a plan - freedom - doable?

My 20 year old son and friends are planning a backpacking trip to Europe for the summer of 2024. They want to book a flight from the US to somewhere in Europe and then "figure it out as they go." They don't want to book places to stay ahead of time.

I don't think this is a good idea. I think they should have more a clear plan and book some or most places ahead of time.

I backpacked in Europe in my early 20's. We had an itinerary planned ahead of time, but then did look for places to stay overnight once we arrived. It worked, but we did lose a lot of time finding places at times. That was also 30 years ago.

Can anyone offer advice on this?

Posted by
8821 posts

He’s 20.

When you did what he and his friends are wanting to do you didn’t have cell phones and the internet.

It’s an unfair comparison.

Posted by
23437 posts

It is a great idea --- Mom !!! --- don't rain on his parade. He will be fine. He will have his phone with many more options that you had 30 years ago. He can easily call ahead for reservations, be in constant contact with you, not worry about access to cash because of credit cards and ATMS. He will have a great summer. Time to let him go.

Posted by
731 posts

Make a compromise. They have to have a reservation for the first 2 nights they arrive and can wing it from there

Posted by
8597 posts

I did it in my '20s. Its part of the learning experience. And he's not asking for advice.

Posted by
2565 posts

My son did the same when he graduated from college with different groups of friends. It all worked out fine. He did face time me a few times looking for help looking things up as his internet wasn’t strong enough. This amused me greatly but I did find what he asked for.

He also went to Africa to climb Mt Kilimanjaro when he was 20 with a friend. No FaceTimes from Africa.

Now 30 years old, he is traveling to Europe with his fiancé and has every detail of their itinerary figured out.

I think the idea of having the first nights reserved is a good one. He may not know what jet lag feels like. But then let him go. My husband and I still tell the story about the youth hostel we stayed in Zagreb in our twenties.

Posted by
2355 posts

What an adventure! With technology today, it’s so much easier to find a hotel/restaurant/train/taxi at a moment’s notice. 30 years ago I researched my first trip to Europe on microfiche in the public library! They'll be just fine!

Posted by
7404 posts

What are yours & his expectations? Self-funding? Checking in once a week on WhatsApp or FaceTime? Those type of questions should be very clear, so you’re not sending money, etc.

He will learn some valuable lessons in budgeting and planning through the experience of going through this trip. And hopefully learn about other cultures. Also, I would request that they understand they’re representing the US abroad- showing either mature behavior or the opposite.

They may run into issues at passport control if they don’t have a return flight booked- not sure.

Posted by
323 posts

Does mom sound like a helicopter pilot? {I'm teasing...}

Seriously, the best way to learn is to do -- and to sometimes undo. When he gets home, he'll have GREAT stories, some of which he'll never tell mom. Others he'll share repeatedly with those traveling friends in the decades to come.

My dad told me that if I ever get arrested, I was not to call him. Fortunately, I never got arrested -- though I did and do some really dumb stuff (some of it even outside our country). And somehow I extricated myself when I needed to. It's part of the growing process.

I hope your son NEVER stops adventuring. I didn't. I've had a great life -- and played a reasonably good role model for my kids (you really should ask them) who now galavant around the globe. In fact, I just logged onto this site because I'll be heading to Europe for five months beginning in May. My children couldn't be more thrilled about my trip.

As Rick Steves says, "Keep on traveling."

Posted by
808 posts

Your son's approach is refreshing insofar as so many posts on RS are based on travel anxiety - packing, itineraries, etc.
I guess your son will live and learn and maybe at the worst end up sleeping in a train station.

Posted by
8597 posts

Get him a copy of the Let's Go: Europe guidebook. This is a venerable guide series that is oriented to student/budget travel and has lots of practical info on where and how to look for rooms, laundry, cheap eats, etc. I haven't read one for years, but used them on my first couple of trips in the '80s. It was as ubiquitous then as the blue RS books are now.

I always thought of RSE guidebooks as the next step up from Let's Go: for people past their student years, but still wanting to travel inexpensively.

(edit) I guess they stopped publishing in 2020 but I'd still find it useful. Probably other student-oriented guides I'm not aware of.

Posted by
1253 posts

Don't worry, if your son has a credit card, he can always spend his way out of trouble.

Posted by
873 posts

Have a round trip ticket, two nights "somewhere" to start, a reloadable (by you) credit card, What's App, and an up to date phone with dual sim capabilities (one for his US number and one for the pay as you go European plan he buys there from Aldi) . Maybe underwear... but they sell that in Europe.

Posted by
460 posts

Ha ha--When I was that age I was actually the opposite. In my 20s I wanted everything booked, planned out, reserved and sorted before a trip so I would know exactly what was happening every day and night. I stressed out a lot over plane tickets, documentation, lodging, eating, and activities. I thought the only way a trip would go smoothly (or more smoothly) is if you worried about stuff and checked everything off. Many times I wouldn't go on a trip unless it was an official program or tour. Serving in Peace Corps broke me of that somewhat, as has experience and years, and now in my 50s I am much mellower about my travel plans. Am now planning to do the Camino Frances, and hardly be planned-out at all.

Posted by
414 posts

How fun!

I agree with the first couple of nights reserved just to adjust to time zone, and an agreed upon check-in schedule.

A couple of weeks before our 20th birthdays in January (46 years ago) my friend and I backpacked for 3 weeks during our Christmas break from a small private college in England. No cell phones, no internet, no credit cards. (If I say I spoke to my parents by phone 5 times that year, I'm probably exaggerating--I sent letters and a cassette or two. )

Along with our Eurail passes, we had a very small amount of money, lists of hostels, friends' addresses in Scandinavia and our huge orange Thomas Cook Train schedule. We had nothing scheduled beyond the first week at friends'. We were two sheltered young ladies with a year of religious college under our belts. In retrospect. I often think it must have been worrisome for our parents, but they were wise and never expressed doubt about our plans. We returned to spring semester with self-confidence and stories (and yes, gbrennan, some Mom never heard!).

While the world is so much smaller with technology, this adventure could still prove to be a pivotal point in your son's life.

Posted by
5650 posts

Get him a copy of the Let's Go: Europe guidebook.

Skip Let’s Go. While it was useful for students, they stopped publishing in 2020. If they are inclined to read before the trip, Europe Through the Backdoor is a useful primer on the mechanics of traveling in Europe.

I’d advise making reservations at least for the night of arrival and night before their flight home.

If they don’t book in advance, they may either need to pay more or move on to another town to stay. As long as they are prepared for this, I am sure they will have fun.

Posted by
10308 posts

Traveling is a wonderful learning experience. A night outside in the drizzle or sleeping in the train station because they didn't reserve space in the hostel and the hotels are expensive or full might help them decide to plan ahead a bit more. Discomfort is a good teacher. As long as they learn how to secure their passports, wallets, and phones, they should be okay.

I spent 3 months traveling fifty years ago, using a Let's Go book, very ignorant of geography and with a very loose plan. Admittedly, it was a different time. One of my sons did the same at age 19, still in the last century with no electronic communication.

Having a guidebook, even if it's only on his phone, is a good idea. Too many young ones rely solely on blogs which aren't screened for accuracy.

I like the parameters some have mentioned, the weekly video call, hands off by the parents but with the understanding that if he needs you for something you're there for him.
Bon voyage.

Posted by
451 posts

I bet Rick Steves' mom didn't make him have a preplanned itinerary all those years ago! And, everyone is showing their age, as no 20 year old is going to carry around a travel book, as everything can be found on their phone. But the first two nights' reservations are a must. All they need are credit cards with no exchange rate fees, and their cell phone with unlimited data. They'll get on social media and ask lots of questions of their international peers if they need to figure something out that they can't otherwise figure out online. Good life lessons in taking this trip! And most likely once they find their footing, they may book some accommodations a little ahead.

Posted by
272 posts

My VERY eccentric aunt did a European tour one summer vacation on a Eurail pass probably in the 1970s or 80s.

She was probably in her 60s. She was an artist.

I do know that the reason she knew it was time to come home was that someone wished her a "Happy Birthday" on the 4th of July.

Not her birthday, so she asked for clarification and realized her return ticket to the US was on 7/5 or 6 from Heathrow!

I have no idea where she spent her nights or how she got around other than Eurail and her own 2 feet.

Like I said, my VERY eccentric aunt.

I want to be just like her. Mostly.

I hope your son and his friends have a FANTASTIC time!!!!

Posted by
100 posts

Given that ( I assume!) anyone reading or posting on this Forum loves to travel or wants to travel will be squarely on his "side". It's true that with their phones and apps finding and booking places to stay and transportation will be so much easier. A couple of your responses mentioned safety, as far as an agreed upon time to check in that fits your needs- maybe weekly? Technology also makes it so easy to make a quick call or text, vs looking for a pay phone in the olden days that this is not unreasonable, at least IMHO.
As an older solo traveler I keep location enabled on my phone, not sure that's something to which they would agree.
But what hasn't been mentioned by you or your other responses is health insurance. Presumably he will be covered under your plan, but does it extend outside the US and to what limits? Hopefully they will all stay safe and healthy, but something to consider.
Someone else did mention funding. Does he have a budget? That's an excellent learning experience. When my son traveled at about the same age he overspent the agreed upon amount on the card we set up. Then what?! Not sure if that conversation has been had but it's an important one, especially if they are able to (?) enter Europe without a booked return.

Posted by
2532 posts

I love the direction this thread has taken, and would only add that if they are open to nudging you should encourage them to eat things that don't look familiar and occasionally walk in the opposite direction of where the signage or phone apps are pointing when exiting transit stations. Too often when feeling a little insecure and young we settle for pizza and kebabs and taking the well-trodden path :-)

Posted by
323 posts

I should have added that my brother-in-law, who is very near retirement age, was a college basketball player. He wasn't good enough for the NBA. He went to Germany with a suitcase full of clothes, the phone number of a basketball player agent, and a promise for a tryout - he was 24 at the time. He didn't even have a place to stay arranged.

He walked into a bar in Hamburg where he met a family who befriended him, and invited him to stay with them until he sorted out the basketball.

It was, he told me, the most fantastic time of his life.

Posted by
11401 posts

Be interesting to hear from OP whether any of the comments have be helpful/useful.

Posted by
1334 posts

I (68M) did that last year in England. I travelled 2 weeks with an idea of what I wanted to see (Maritime Museums), but not how long at each place. I used app to find accomodation and National Express App and TfW App (recommended by The Man in Seat61) for transport.

Not having fixed plans enabled me to include The Eden Project on a whim.

I planned accomodation and transport two or three days ahead.

It worked for me.

But make sure he has travel insurance, so he can get home if he gets seriously ill.

Posted by
41 posts

Thank you for the thoughtful replies with ideas and information to consider - much appreciated! I enjoyed the stories about others experiences!

I was not in need of parenting advice, but admit I was not clear in what I was looking for when I originally posted. My specific wonder was whether the fact that it has been very busy/crowded with tourism in Europe since the pandemic will make it more difficult to find a place to stay at the last minute.

To the person who stated that my son is not asking for my advice - as a matter of fact he is!

And for those who seem to want to know who is funding his trip - although absolutely none of your business- he is actually paying for this on his own and has been working hard to save.

I had thought this site was not as judgmental as many, but I guess there is no escaping a certain amount of it online these days. Oh well, I still got some helpful replies and laughs from the more snarky replies!

Posted by
3205 posts

I’ve just re-read all the replies.
I didn’t see anything “snarky” at all.

Posted by
919 posts

My specific wonder was whether the fact that it has been very busy/crowded with tourism in Europe since the pandemic will make it more difficult to find a place to stay at the last minute.

No it should not be an issue.

I would book the airline flights and the first two nights so that there is a chance to get "organized" once they arrive. Nothing like taking a deep breath and getting your bearings before heading out.

Posted by
11401 posts

My specific wonder was whether the fact that it has been very busy/crowded with tourism in Europe since the pandemic will make it more difficult to find a place to stay at the last minute......... My 20 year old son and friends

The ease/difficulty will more likely be determined by what type of lodging they want and how many of them there are.