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Solo Student Backpacking through Europe

Student writing in her travel journal in Madrid.
The author writing in her travel journal in Madrid while a student.

Go It Alone. Traveling abroad should be a change from everything familiar. Talking to the people you meet, many of whom are English-speaking and eager to answer questions, is what it’s all about. You may only backpack once, often during your student years, and you want it to stretch you and remove you from a comfort zone, so don’t backpack with your best friend.

Practical Preparation. A sturdy backpack is the most important investment. As far as what to pack in that indestructible backpack, bear in mind a hostel sink plus Woolite is your friend. Bring a few clothespins and some cord to make a clothesline. By morning, I was always ready to roll.

Take the Trains. There is a Eurail pass option for every traveler’s time, itinerary, and budget. Buy one before you leave home. You’ll share space with new mothers and businessmen as well as spontaneous adventurers traveling due to interests that might be similar to your own.

Bring a Journal. Even if you don’t love to write, you’ll thank yourself because you’ll be able to recall the details of your trip whenever you miss Europe. And recording the friends you made, places you saw, and lessons you learned will help you savor the time in each place.

Have a Plan But Allow for Flexibility. Use your time en route to a new city to memorize a few key phrases in the local language, get a general idea of sights you want to see, how to get to your hostel, and decide when you’re leaving for the next city so you can budget your time. Take Mr. Franklin’s advice and be early to bed. You don’t want to miss a train or oversleep for your tour of Vatican City on your last day in Rome.

Don’t Let Being Clueless Scare You. Practice being able to laugh at yourself and not catastrophizing inconvenience or confusion. When a station employee told me I wouldn’t be able to get a train out of Prague for another week, I went to another line and found there was one leaving in five minutes.

Fake Confidence. Pickpockets and scam artists are looking for people whose heads are buried in their fold-out maps or wading through their pockets to pull out a wad of cash. Only carry the cash you need, and trust your instincts about suspicious-looking people.

Listen and Learn. Americans tend to be stereotyped as ethnocentric, with an attitude that American culture is superior to that of other parts of the world. Surprise people by taking an interest in their way of life, political views, and sentiments. Enlist the help of the people who know more than you, which will be almost everybody.

Just Smile and Nod. When your journal is full and you’re sick of wearing the same two shirts, you’ll have stories, names, and places to speak of for years to come. The paradox you need to be prepared for is both a feeling of great achievement and loneliness. Read up on reverse culture shock. You’ll discover that no one will really understand just how cool it was, because they can’t. The backpacking experiences are yours alone. It’s only when you return to all things familiar that you’ll notice how much they’ve changed you.

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