When I was a senior in high school I was dead set on joining the army and heading to basic training as soon as possible after graduation. My Dad, a retired 1SG who joined during Vietnam to see the world told me "the army will be there, take your summer and backpack around Europe. You may never get the chance to again". He told my brother the same thing. Neither of us listened.
While I got to see a lot of the world throughout my hitch, it was usually under a rucksack or plate carrier or during an amount of free time measured in hours. So as my time for retirement drew near I thought back on that European trip i'd passed up to get into the army as soon as I could. From those thoughts blossomed an 8 week adventure of doing whatever the hell I wanted within only the confines of some self imposed rules.
Within those 8 weeks I visited 18 different countries with the goal of going to as many places as possible while not breaking the bank, stressing out, or missing out on the "big" sights of every location I stopped in. Most of the time it worked out. Sometimes it didn't. Hopefully this and the next few articles will help you, should you find yourself alone and unafraid for eight weeks of doing whatever you want in Europe.
Priorities Are Key
My trip aside from the goals mentioned above had a few other points of focus. In no particular order they were military history, good food, and places to lift or otherwise be active. Using those as a guide gave me things to do during my individual visits. Where I visited next was based first on interest, cost to travel there, and available lodging once I got there. Blending those things together was how I decided where I'd go next, this was discovery learning as I went. Thanks to the wonderful world of technology there are all kinds of apps and websites that aided me in my quest. During the next few articles I will talk you through some chunks of my trip and how I made them work based on all of the above, and also when I shit the bed.
What To Take
One of my self imposed rules was that I only had a bag that I could use as a carryon for flights. This has the obvious pro's. First being I never had to check my bags which saved tons of time and ensured I never had stuff I needed lost by the airlines. It also kept me relatively light for times when I had all my belongings on my back when I'd arrive somewhere before check in time, or had a day to kill after I'd checked out and didn't want to backtrack to pick up my stuff. Cons are that you have to be picky about what you bring, and for me the biggest con was I had to be very picky about what I acquired along the way. I took and I recommend the REI Co-Op Trail 40 pack. I did a lot of research and came to the conclusion it had the most functional space, was easiest to use, and the most comfortable of all the packs accepted by every airline as a carry on. To make life easier and to make the best use of space I also used packing cubes, whatever brand you want works I'm sure.
I won't write down my whole packing list, but will include a few tips you may not think of. Shoes can take up a ton of space. I wore a set of Salomons because they were good for running, hiking, and if I cleaned them up and it was dark they didn't look ridiculous with jeans and a button down shirt. For a summer trip you may think flip flops are a good idea. But there are tons of attractions in Europe where flip flops would A. make you look like an asshole and B. they aren't even allowed. I used toms as my flip flop alternative. They pack really small and you can run in them if there's trouble.
How To Get Around
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles got me where I needed to go. Each one has it's pro's and cons. At the beginning of my trip I was using Kayak or just google to get places, then I found an app called GoEuro, which saved me a ton of time and probably a good deal of money. It will give you multiple options on travel, combining buses, ride sharing, trains, and flights.
Trains take a little longer and aren't always the cheapest, but if you time a trip right you can take an overnight train which gets you a bed for the night so it evens out. Trains were also a rad place to meet people and in Europe they all have pretty legit dining cars where you can eat and drink beers, and if you're so inclined talk to fellow travelers. Trains will also get you to city centers, where most European airports are pretty far from where most of the sights are. Another thing about trains is how dependable they are, they're ridiculously on time. My last perk for trains is you can just show up and hop on, no security or weird procedures. So trains were my preferred method of travel overall.
Buses were really cheap, so for shorter legs of my trips I tried to use them. For anything up to about 6 hours I can endure not being super comfortable and having to bring a sack lunch if it costs 1/4 what a flight or train would have been. Buses usually take you to city centers as well. I generally found that they didn't have as many departures a day with buses so you may have to travel at a less than ideal time, but I was able to work around that most times. Be sure you have small bag to keep your "valuables" in when you take buses as you have to store your luggage under the bus during the ride. I'm sure it's pretty safe but I was still weirded out at stops as people just grabbed their bags on the honor system. One great thing about buses is you see more stuff. Trains generally went through the countryside and the towns they do pass through zip by in a hurry, where on a bus you get a lot better of a look on what's between points a and b.
Planes are planes. You've been on them before, same stuff applies basically everywhere. Only thing I need to stress is knowing where the airport is you're flying into. One of London's Airports has nothing at all to do with London, its not even close so don't trust the name and look it up.
There are a couple of ride sharing apps that looked awesome and I know people that used them that I met along the way. My only issue was I didn't keep my phone on and that's pretty much a requirement for verifying your account and meeting your ride. Bla Bla Car is the one I heard the most about. I never used it but think it's worth trying if you want some adventure.
Where To Stay
Lodging is the largest expense of a long trip so "roughing it" as much as possible is ideal, or it was for me. But every now and again you're gonna want some privacy in a place that doesn't smell like the feet of 6 other euro trippers.
Hostels: This is usually your cheapest option depending on where you are. I used the HostelWorld app, which was great. There are a lot of lessons I learned about staying in hostels for a couple months. First was a how to read the reviews. There are a lot of people that will drive down the ratings on places because they're just terrible people that think a hostel is a hotel. It isn't. When I read the reviews the things I looked for were; how well the wifi worked, if it was really hot (most places in Europe don't have AC, and how plentiful the showers and bathrooms were. People who whine about noisy people in their room aren't me, no one was noisy in my room after I told them to shut the fuck up once, and I met a ton of cool people in hostels.
Air BnB or apps: This was my second option to find lodging. And in some Eastern European cities you could find really nice ones for close to what you're pay for a hostel. Perks of an Air BnB are kind of obvious, privacy, having your own space, and a kitchen are the most obvious. But what I used them for mostly was doing laundry. I lucked out a couple of times with great hosts, and great views. I also got some who cancelled on me last minute. The other thing to think about when using these is how you're going to communicate and meet with the host. If you are only on wifi it can get tricky if theres a hiccup in your timing.
Hotels: I stayed in a hotel a couple of times when I had to. They're hotels. They're just like the ones here. Those are the biggest things to think about when planning a long trip to Europe. In future installments I'll get more specific about the stuff above as it applies to specific locations or by region.
Tips for Comfort: ear plugs and a sleep mask. Even the most considerate of roomies will still come and go or need to get up early to travel so those things will mitigate how much normal movements disturb you. Second, when you check in ask fro a bottom bunk. It's not prison, so being on the bottom bunk just means you have somewhere to sit when you're putting your shoes on. Lastly, bring a longer than normal charger cord for your phone in case the wall plug isn't right by you.
Overall I loved being at hostels. As a solo traveler it gives you a ready made set of potential friends or at least someone at a front desk to ask questions. Lots of them have pretty decent bars with cheap beers and some have decent local food.
Jariko Denman is currently wallowing in freedom, after a full career as the most "Hooah" of all Rangers. He is currently looking at a second career as a Wal-Mart greeter or Navy SEAL. Thank him for his service.