by Liberty Stembridge, Lifestyle Columnist
Published in Lifestyle on 31st August, 2018
First of all, why backpack solo? There are innumerable reasons for solo travel, but probably the most common is simply that you don't have anyone to go with. Not everyone catches the travel bug or has the money to travel, but this shouldn't stop you from travelling if it's something you really want. Solo travel provides you with incredible amounts of independence, freedom and experience. No-one has ever gone backpacking solo without discovering something new about themselves (be it good or bad). Use this as an opportunity to get out of your comfort zone and push yourself into new territory - you won't regret it.
Not only that, but backpacking in general is a humbling experience. The struggle of hauling everything you possess and sometimes even your shelter for the night around several different countries, all in one or two bags will challenge you in a good way. Backpacking provides such a different experience to just staying in a hotel or resort for a week, as well as being a lot cheaper, meaning you get to spend more time exploring. Europe is the perfect destination for solo travelers, whether you're from Europe yourself or from farther away. It's generally safe, culturally rich, steeped in history and good food - you'll never be wanting for much.
So you know you want to backpack around Europe, the first step to realizing this dream is saving up the money, if you haven't already. There's a common misconception that to backpack around Europe, you'll need thousands saved up already, but this is not so. Plenty of frugal backpackers have spent many weeks trekking around the continent on not more than $500. As a general rule, you'll want to have about $1100 saved up, although this completely depends on what countries you'll be visiting, your accommodation, and how long you'll be travelling for. Try not to stress out too much about money, so long as you have enough for your flights, the rest will work itself out one way or another.
Europe is a pretty big continent, and it's unlikely that you are going to be able to fully explore every single country, so you'll need to decide on a specific route to follow. This is entirely up to you, you could completely freestyle it and come up with whatever you feel like, or you could stick to one area of Europe (for example, the Nordic countries, or the Mediterranean, or Eastern Europe) or you could even just follow someone else's route. There's no shame in that, oftentimes there are common routes for backpackers to follow, because they offer really amazing experiences. Once you've settled on a route, the rest will follow far more easily.
How are you going to get around Europe? For most solo backpackers on their first trip around the continent, the answer is public transport. Europe thankfully has a pretty good network of trains and buses that can take you pretty much anywhere you want to go. Eurostar services run from London to Amsterdam, stopping off at Paris and Brussels along the way, which can be a great start for many backpackers who aren't sure where to begin. There are pro's and cons to trains and buses however. With trains, you will likely spend more money, but you will probably get to your destination quicker, and if you book an overnight train, you may even get a bed to sleep in (cheap accommodation for a night, as well as transportation), but with buses, the prices will be considerably cheaper, and you will have more freedom of movement, as buses are more likely to be able to take you to remote or hard-to-reach places. Ultimately, you'll probably end up with a mix of the two.
If the idea of booking all of your tickets and figuring out your route on the go is not something that appeals to you, the inter-rail program may be worth checking out. By booking through inter-rail, you can create a custom route and pay a lump sum to buy a ticket that will work on that route. However, you will be restricted in the number of days that you can travel, and oftentimes it can work out as being more expensive.
Chances are, if you're backpacking through Europe, you're going to be on a budget and accommodation can easily drain this budget if you're not careful. AirBnBs and hotels may sound nice, but when your realize that you've completely blown your food budget... not so much. If you're trying to save money, you have three main options: Camping, Hostels and Couchsurfing.
Camping as you backpack Europe is not for everyone. It can be exceptionally difficult to do, especially without your own vehicle, as there is very little free camping ground in Europe, and even the paid ones are difficult to access by public transport, generally speaking. However, it can be done, and it'll provide you a very unique backpacking experience. Many say that they would never do it any other way.
Hostels are probably the most advisable and best way to source cheap accommodation while travelling around Europe. While you may have to sacrifice some privacy, you gain in savings and the opportunity to meet new people, generally travelers who are also on the same kind of trip as you. Hostels are inexpensive and more importantly: they're everywhere. You won't find a single major European city that doesn't have plenty of hostels for you to choose from.
If you're really intent on saving money, and you love to meet new people and get to know the locals, couchsurfing is for you. Essentially, couchsurfing is an online community of travelers and locals. The locals offer their couch to sleep on for a few nights, in return for some company and the chance to show off their city.
Now that you've got the money, figured out your route, transportation and accommodation, you need to prepare your gear.
When backpacking, the most important item you will own (aside from your passport) is the backpack itself. If you're going to be travelling with essentially your entire world packed onto your back, make sure you've got a sturdy backpack to carry it. Generally something that's large enough to carry all that you need, but not so large that it'll become cumbersome. If you're new to backpacking and aren't sure how well you'll deal with carrying a large heavy backpack around, make sure to get one with plenty of support built in, like a hip belt and adjustable straps.
Your clothing is also important, and you'll need to pack very wisely. Depending on what countries you are going to, pack accordingly. Try to create a capsule wardrobe where every item matches every other item, and can withstand getting dirty, sweaty and crumpled in the bottom of a bag. If you can, limit your shoes to just one or two pairs and limit your toiletries and accessory's as much as possible.
Lastly, you're going to want to be prepared electronically. Take a good phone, a decent battery bank, a universal plug adaptor, plenty of wires and headphones, as well as any other electronics that you could foresee yourself needing. Make sure that you also have digital copies of your passport, and any important documents that you might, just in case.
So, you've done all this preparation and you've finally landed in Europe - now what?
Now is not the time to give in to shyness, oh no, now is the time to be as bold and confident as possible. Remember, even if you embarrass yourself - you'll likely never see most of the people you meet again, so don't worry about it. Use this awesome opportunity you have to let loose and release your inner social butterfly. If you're staying in hostels, talk to your room mates, or go down to the bar or kitchen area and strike up a conversation with any other solo travelers. Chances are there'll be plenty of other people just like you, looking to have fun and meet new people, and they'll be perfectly receptive to any attempts at connecting. It's no secret that European countries tend to have a more relaxed culture when it comes to drinking and socializing, and you can use this to your advantage.
Now is the time to explore and try new things. The more people you meet and the more you explore, the more you will gain from your trip, and the more amazing memories that you will create. If you get the opportunity to do something you've never tried before, go for it - chances are you won't regret it.
Chances are, nothing bad will happen while you're travelling. Although the prospect of travelling alone may seem very frightening and daunting, statistically, you are unlikely to be hurt. However, this does not mean that you should be lax about staying safe and protecting your belongings. It doesn't take much, a little wherewithal goes a long way. When meeting new people, be open, but trust your instinct, make sure you are always in control of your body and belongings when going out (now is not the time to start binge-drinking) and just in general take steps to ensure that your most important and valuable belongings are secured to you at all times, just in case you do find yourself in a sticky situation.