I've been thinking a lot recently about the experiences I've been fortunate enough to have while traveling, especially with the geographical advantage of living in Prague. Located right in the heart of Europe, its much easier to get around on a budget. I think back to a few years ago, when I wondered if the move would be possible or if I'd ever be brave enough to venture to a new country solo.
Oh, quite a lot has changed since then!
Nowadays, I don't think twice before booking a five day trip to Poland without any solid plans or hitting up a small Czech town on a weekend after waking up that morning wanting to leave the city. But a large part of what’s made this carefree mentality possible are the helpful tricks I’ve learned about to make travel easier. Often, while working with clients who are newer to backpacking, I consider the things I would have loved to know as a traveler starting out.
So, I've compiled a list of some, helpful, yet simple, tips & tricks to get you going.
Ever arrived in a foreign city at night, in the rain, with no idea which direction you're staying in? Well, I have---many times---and it was less than desirable. Don't get me wrong, these sorts of travel mishaps are sometimes expected and may even lead to new experiences you otherwise couldn't have planned for! But as a rule of thumb it's important to be aware of where you actually are. It's quite empowering to arrive in a city you've never been to before but still be able to navigate.
Here's a bit of advice thats saved me from countless misadventures:
Before you leave wifi, download the offline Google map for the next city you plan to visit. It sounds so obvious, but I've traveled countless times and forgotten this crucial step. Now, of course, there are still old school maps. And when you arrive in a new city you can usually count on the hostel directions to get you going. But its so insanely easy to get yourself around if you initially have everything you need at your fingertips from the moment you arrive in your next destination. If you plan ahead, it's even possible to preprogram certain highlights around the city. Trust me, the five minutes of downloading will save you tons of stress and make you feel like a pro traveler.
ATM fees can be unbelievable (I've had one as rough as $20!!) and when traveling all over Europe you're bound to switch to many different currencies. Yes, many tourist cities will take credit cards in mainstream places, but many of the off-the-beaten-track stops and even some hostels will only accept cash. Bottom line: its important to have at least some of the local currency on hand, even if just for emergencies.
A simple rule that's helped me minimize fees is to try to plan accordingly and take out a larger sum of cash just one time. Now, of course, this will vary based on the length of your stay and which currencies you're dealing with. For example, if you're traveling around Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands you can stick with the Euro. But let's say you're hitting up each Scandinavian country (all pricey and all on different currencies!) you'll want to be intentional about how you use the ATMs. Rather than take out $50 worth of Swedish Krona each day for three days, withdraw $150 worth of Krona all at once. The ATM fee will usually be around $5, plus a fee from your bank back home. Don't make life harder for yourself with three different $5 fees! Note: this is not to say Sweden is manageable on this budget (its expensive, so prepare yourself).
Another way to plan ahead is to check which hostels take credit card versus cash only. Do this math in advance and factor that into your withdrawals. I've forgotten this many times which resulted in having to make another frustrating withdrawal right before leaving a currency.
Sometimes you can also get lucky. Check with your home bank to see if they have any partnerships abroad. When I was studying abroad in London, I never dealt with ATM problems because their partner bank is Barclays (one of the major banks there). If you have a travel card, you might even be immune to major fees!
3. Helpful Technology
When I'm on-the-go on a long term backpacking journey, there isn't tons of time to research every little thing in advance. The last thing I want to do is spend extra time at the hostel just to take advantage of the wifi zone. In order to maximize time, I've done fairly well downloading free Lonely Planet guides from Amazon Prime to my device. Not just Lonely Planet, but many travel guides are available to "borrow" from the prime library. This allowed me to do my research on Athens during my 4 hour ferry ride so I had a general sense of my priorities when I arrived.
Some other helpful sites:
1. The TripAdvisor and Yelp Apps are great resources to find the major highlights of each city at a glance.
2. Looking to meet locals and fellow travelers? Check out couchsurfing.com to find free and unique accommodation or simply find a meet-up event in the area.
3. Hostelworld.com will become your best friend for budget accommodation. Whether last minute or well in advance, you'll find everything from hostels, to bed & breakfasts, to campsites. Raileurope.com will allow you to check train times and book seat reservations in advance if you have a rail pass. During high season, you'll be happy you paid the $11 for a seat rather than hanging out in the corridor next to the bathrooms for the whole train ride.
I hope this post will serve as a useful starting point for successful and stress-free travel! Well, let's be honest, no travel is totally stress-free---but that's part of the adventure. You're sure to run into a few minor snags along the way but, as long as you go in with the right expectations, tools, and a flexible mindset, you'll be sure to have an incredible experience abroad.
Stay tuned for the next post in our "How To" Series to get the insights on our must-have packing list for backpacking Europe.
How I Manage to Live Abroad and Actually Make a Living