My friend Lauren is planning on going to Europe for a bit over the summer, and asked me for advice. Here are some tips, Lauren: (keep in mind I went during the month of May)
— I'd DEFINITELY invest in good walking shoes. You most likely have some decent shoes around, but remember this time you'll have a thirty-pound pack on your back everywhere you go. I wore Born shoes (My mom got them on sale for around fifty, and they are SO comfortable and even look European to boot!) and those were great. My friend Tessa brought her running shoes, but she ended up never wearing them because it rained so much, and her shoes never dried properly, so they smelled really bad. I wore my flip flops a lot of the time because of the rain, but it's probably not the best choice for your aching feet.
—I know everywhere you'll look online will tell you this, but pack lightly! I thought I needed at least five outfits for the month we went, but I really could have just worn two. Get one or two classy tees you look great in and that cover dirt (think bright patterns), nice jeans (I made the mistake of bringing too old of jeans and they didn't last), capris (unless your jeans roll up nicely into capris, which would be a plus!), shorts, and a nice top for going out at night. (I was grateful I bought a nicer top early on in the trip at a flea market because I ended up needing it the night we went to Monaco.) Try on everything and make sure you can mix and match it all. I'd also bring a LIGHT zip-up hoodie (I got mine from Target for twenty bucks!) and perhaps a fun scarf because it rains quite a bit, but is still relatively warm outside. Also, laundromats aren't easy to find; keep that in mind. This is what I wore 80% of the time, but I looked cute in all my pictures!
—Pack a travel umbrella. You will be grateful you did, and when you do get caught in a downpour (which you will—trust me) you will be grateful that you don't have to buy one for 10 euros off a street corner.
—Invest in a good backpack. If you can, try it on before you buy it. One of my friends got a long, skinny backpack that had a drawstring at the top, but it turned out to be frustrating because you have to take EVERYTHING out of it to get to something at the bottom. I really love the backpack I got. It was a black Jansport Euro Sak, but I didn't bring the detachable smaller backpack shown on the front. This backpack zips open all the way like a suitcase does. It was wonderful for keeping things neat and orderly, and it had plenty of little pockets to stash things in.
—As for a day bag, I wouldn't recommend anything too big, but definitely not too small. I brought this bag, and it was really nice because of its size. It has a pocket that rests against your skin where I kept my documents such as flight records. (I kept my passport and railpass documents on my body at all times though with a neck wallet. I strung it around my waist so it wasn't as noticeable, and shoved it down my pants. Gross, I know, but you've got to do what you've got to do!) It also has a water bottle holder on the side, but it only holds as big as my 24-oz Camelbak waterbottle. That may seem like enough water to get you through the day, but it's not. I brought a bigger bottle and used a carabiner to hook it on to the strap. That worked fine, but was a little annoying as it hit against my leg all the time. My friend brought a Camelbak (she got a High Sierra one from Costco for twenty bucks) and loved it. She had to check her back a few times at the front desk because it technically was a backpack, and that was annoying, but she always had enough room, and never ran out of water. (It's at least 1 euro for a small bottle of water—there are no drinking fountains ANYWHERE—so we just filled our bottles up in the morning at the hostel. I never got sick from doing this, despite what people will say. It's not a third world country...the water is clean!) To save money, we also brought food with us everyday (see next tip) and her backpack definitely held more than mine did.
—Bring food with you, and you won't have to go out to lunch. We'd buy baguettes in the morning, and at grocery stores (which are very difficult to find, but it can be done!) we'd stock up on peanut butter and jelly. Both will keep without refrigeration and lasted us the whole month. I also brought instant oatmeal packets, a plastic spoon, and a plastic cup with me, and ate it for breakfast most mornings (easy: use hot tap water and let it sit in the cup for about a minute.)
—Eat everything yummy you see. I gained a few pounds doing so, but I don't regret it one bit. Most everything you will eat can't be found in America.
—MAPS. Right after you get off the train, find a map for the city you are in. You'll need it.
—Book your hostels in advance, if possible. They fill up quickly. We tended to stay at the cheapest hostels, and though we met some shady people, we never had a problem with them. Count it as a life experience. You'll live, I promise. We booked our hostels online about two days in advance through an internet cafe, and it ended up saving us money in the end because it's cheaper when booked online. Here's what happened once in Germany when there was only one room left:
—Bring your own "sleeping bag". Not a large one, but a tiny one. I brought a fleece sleeping bag that rolled up nice and tight, and kept in the bottom compartment of my backpack (yes, there's a pocket just for it!) We also stole the blankets and pillow they give you on the plane, and were grateful we did. We used those a lot on the overnight trains. (We rarely got the couchettes—the trains with "beds"—because they were over double the price than a regular train ticket. Sleeping in a seat isn't the most comfortable, but again, count it as a life experience.)
—If you can, plan your trip out a little bit. We varied from our plan a bit (of course we wanted to stay an extra day in Rome!), but for the most part, sticking to our plan proved beneficial in the end. There was another group who we knew that left the same time as us (we were going to join groups, but nine people is too big of a group), and went the opposite direction around Europe. Unfortunately, they ended up taking a lot of day trains and wasted a lot of precious daylight on the train. We, on the other hand, planned to take mostly night trains, and thus maximized our daylight in each country. Smart planning pays off. If you can, buy your train ticket to your next destination right after you get off the train, so you won't have to come back and buy it later. When we didn't buy it right after we got off the train, we found some of the trains we wanted were already booked.
—Get a railpass. I paid around $550 (US dollars) for a thirty-day pass (or 25 days, or whatever it was), which isn't too bad! The price goes up at the beginning of each calendar year, so if you can, purchase it before the New Year. You will occassionally have to pay a small fee (think 10 euros or less) for a ticket, but it really does pay off. And I don't recommend going into a country where your railpass isn't accepted—we ended up getting lucky, but our new friends in the same cabin had to pay about 60 euros because Prague wasn't on their ticket. (For some reason, though Prague wasn't included, we only paid about 12 euros extra. God was with us that day!)
—Bring a journal, tape, a gluestick, and extra pens. I pasted so many things in it! Downtime on the train is a good time for journal writing. Also, I brought along a military Book of Mormon (pocket sized, about $4 at the Distribution Center) and it was a lifesaver. When I felt lonely, I found comfort in reading the scriptures.
—Bring an ipod if you want. Bring a charger for your ipod.
—Bring a nice camera, and don't fret. It wasn't too hard to tell from the shady people and the nice people. Listen to your instincts and to the Spirit. If you feel good about it, ask them to take your picture. They won't run away with it if you listen to your instincts. (Even try people watching them for a few minutes before you approach them...this helped a bit too). I was grateful I brought my camera, and I the best pictures I have EVER TAKEN were from my Europe trip. I took almost 1,000 pictures, and don't regret it a bit!
That's all I can think of for right now, but if I think of anything, I'll add it. Feel free to ask me questions!