Omni Traveller

Budget Backpack Travel in Europe

Planning for an International Trip

Most people overestimate the difficulty of international travel and end up psyching themselves out of stepping on foreign soil. That’s a shame. I’m here to share some good news with you. International travel is actually pretty easy, and generally the less you plan, the better your experience will be.


The Only Decisions You Need to Make

Assuming you’ve already settled things at home, there’s actually only one big trip-related decision you need to make before you hit the open road, and that is where are you going to start your journey? You don’t need to know where you will be a week after you start your trip, but you need to determine where you’re going to be on Day One.

Narrowing down your Day One travel options is really easy, as some locations offer FAR better jumping off points than others.

  1. Pick a continent. Most North Americans should start their international escapades by visiting Europe. The culture clash won’t be as big, it’s easy to find exciting places where many people speak English, and you have probably had dreams of travelling to Europe anyway. If this is your first international trip (or your first trip in a long time) you want to take it easy on yourself while you get your travel legs and realize you really can do this.
  2. Pick a “hub” country. Countries like the U.K., The Netherlands, and parts of Germany are international hubs which means you’re going to have an easier time getting around and you’re going to encounter a more forgiving population that’s used to helping travellers get around. On the other hand, places like Croatia, while beautiful it simply is not a good hub country for less experienced travellers.
  3. Land in that country’s capital city. You’ll find much cheaper and more convenient flights to London or Amsterdam than Dover, or Groningen. Even if your ultimate goal is to reach the White Cliffs or Northern Holland, you’ll save a lot of time, money and frustration flying into a capital city airport and then simply taking a train or bus to your end destination. The same is true if you want to end up in a different country. You’ll find much better deals flying internationally to and from London, Amsterdam, or Berlin and then taking a intra-European flight to Barcelona, Munich, or Copenhagen rather than searching for a direct flight to these non-hub cities from North America.
  4. Plan on camping out for a little while. It’s a good idea to spend at least a couple days, preferably a week, in the hub city you first fly to. Take this time to adjust to life away from home and to the notion that you’re finally travelling. Once you feel settled down and confident about your decision to travel you’ll be in a good position to fly to your primary destination. You just won’t enjoy Bratislava that much when you’re still freaking out about finally taking the travel plunge. Spend your “freak out” days somewhere easier, like London, a place with less culture shock, English is spoken, and somewhere you may better relax.

Believe it or not, that’s pretty much all the planning you need to perform for your trip.


Aren’t There Other Preparations?

Yes. If you own:

  • A sturdy backpack, and
  • Some seasonally travel-appropriate changes of clothing,
  • then you will have all the possessions you need to travel for as long as you want. Of course, also make sure you have:

  • A passport valid for at least six months after your expected return date.
  • Make sure you have whatever immunizations your landing country may require.
  • Scan your important documents and send those PDFs to your primary email account, and download the files to your phone and your computer.

Beyond these simple material preparations there’s really nothing else you can do to get yourself “ready” for your trip. If this is your first international travel experience then no amount of psychological or emotional weightlifting will prepare you to leave, so don’t even bother trying to “get in the zone.” You’ll reach full metaphysical preparedness for your trip about 2-5 days after you arrive in Europe.


But How Will I Survive on My Own With Just a Backpack and Some Clothes?

Pretty much every city you should consider visiting as a first-time international traveller will be much safer than any American city. Violent crime is a major American problem but in general much less in Europe, while pick pocketing and other minor crimes are generally more common in Europe. So, don’t take anything for granted and follow these basic rules for urban safety and you will be fine:

  • Learn where the bad neighborhoods are and avoid them.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings.
  • Do not travel alone at night, especially if you are a woman.

Yes, women will need to be more conscientious than men, and it’s a good idea for women to do a little preliminary research to make sure they aren’t planning on landing somewhere with overly specific and retrograde cultural or religious rules about how folks are expected to dress or behave. But as long as you travel to a relatively modern country, then you will find that remaining safe in a foreign city is no harder than remaining safe in New York, Toronto, or San Francisco.

As a quick safety-oriented note- fears about anti-Americanism are often exaggerated. Most people in most countries will assume you’re from Canada (because Canadians travel more than Americans) and when they find out you’re American they’re not going to suddenly react with hostility. Most people around the world abide by reciprocity and will treat you like you treat them, so don’t act in an arrogant manner or be abrasive and you’ll be fine.


Don’t Be Blind-Sighted by Over-Planning

The number one secret to not being a jerk while you travel (is also the number one key to opening yourself up to the jewels of travel), is to think about other people before you think about yourself.

This is so important, seriously.

The more you remain caught up in yourself, your carefully made plans, and your imagined expectations, the more everyone around you will avoid you and the less you will get from your trip.

This is why over-planning, over-packing, and over-preparing can be a well-intentioned mistake. Such preparations can create crazy expectations of what your trip should be, how the people you meet are supposed to act, and how you are supposed to grow and change and feel. Very few of your travel experiences will live up to such expectations. If you become too wrapped-up in detail planning, you will lose the ability to enjoy the environment around you and not be open to experiencing the people you meet.

Most travellers start acting like jerks as soon as their trip stops conforming to their expectations. Instead of hoping that the second you land abroad you’re going to transform into a kinder, better loving person, it’s much easier to defeat this sort of entitled thinking by setting out with as few expectations as possible. You can’t find yourself disappointed to the point of abrasive behavior if you start to open yourself up to unexpected experiences and adventures before you even leave your home.