Western Europe: Solo Backpacking

Backpacking Solo through Europe

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“The greatest irony — and tragedy — of human nature is that to be your real self, you have to be someone no one can recognize”, Vikram Bhatt

What would you do if you are anonymous? When you walk incognito? No matter how hard we try to be our true self, we wear a mask in our daily lives even with the people who are closest to us. Because there is a consequence of every interaction we have. Because there is a tomorrow with that person. Because we care.

I found my answer when I travelled solo. For 2 weeks in Europe. I knew nobody and nobody knew me. There was a maximum of couple of days with anyone I would interact with and then I would move on. To a new city. And frankly, I surprised myself at what I could do. Moreover, I felt free and by the end of my trip, I felt bold. I was also reminded of the transience of everything.

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I expressed my newfound freedom and boldness dressed like this

Europe was my first ever solo trip. And it was accidental. I planned the trip with a friend and when my friend’s visa got rejected (but who gets a tourist visa rejected!!!), I was left to fend for myself. Fortunately, I had had an extensive planning of booking my flight tickets (enter via Paris and fly out of Rome) and… that’s all. With a gap of 2 weeks. Otherwise, no itinerary, hotel bookings or even the sense to carry a decent camera (yes, I have a terrible picture collection of my first solo backpacking trip using iPhone 4 camera).

Despite my friend’s fiasco with visa, I decided to take the plunge (I later heard she went to a meditation camp). Mainly because cancelling and booking a last minute flight from US to India was too expensive (things money can motivate us to do!).

And the D-day arrived. I remember the realization fully hit me when I landed in Paris. I had no clue how to navigate a city. As an introvert, talking to people was akin to walking on burning coal. After collecting my backpack, I sat in the airport for full 2 hrs. Not willing to walk out of the safety of the airport. Eventually, as evening approached, I stood up. And walked over to the information center. They gave me rapid instructions on how to reach my hostel (what the hell is RER?? Turns out, the name of the local subway system) and slammed a city map in my hands (Am I supposed to navigate a city with a physical map? Whatever happened to GPS!!). I went to an ATM and withdrew 1000 euros in one go (bad idea, I know!). That was also the extent of money I had. Rest had to be credit cards.

So began my journey. After missing stations several times, getting on any train that moved, calling the hostel several times for directions (on international roaming… and how am I supposed to pronounce Rue du Dunkerque which was supposedly near Gare due Nord station??), I finally managed to reach the hostel. Relieved!!! And in those 3 hrs that took me to reach my hostel (as against 40 min journey), I witnessed the famed French charm and fell in love with the city. A French passenger in my train went out of his way to help me get to the right stop. A taxi driver made a massive effort of going through a dense yellow pages book to locate the street I asked him (although it turned out we were both standing in the same street. Full marks for humanity, 0 marks for knowing your city as a cab driver and -5 for technology).

Over the next 2 weeks, my schedule was something like this. Ask for the most famous, ‘touristy’ things to do in the city at the hostel reception and start walking to those sites during the day (the local transport in the major cities are very convenient once you learn to read the route map). I would come back in the evening and decide the next city I can visit. Next, I would book hostel for the next city and transport. Later in the evening, I would visit the clubs with friends. Then the cycle repeats when I reach the next city. My only constraint was to reach Rome by the end of 2 weeks since that’s where my return flight was booked.

While I visited only the most touristy sites in a city (guided by receptionist’s suggestions and TripAdvisor’s “Top 10 things to visit in xyz”), the journey in itself was lot more fun. I had my first hitchhiking experience after I missed the bus from Amsterdam to Berlin twice. Because…. you know…. Amsterdam. Or the time when I and my hostel friends got lost at 3 am. Yet we confidently gave directions to another group of lost souls we met on the road.

In conclusion, the accidental solo trip was one of the best things to happen to me. After this trip, I found my passion in travel. Besides being a beautiful journey of self- discovery, I learnt to embrace uncertainty and adventure. I learnt to figure out a way out of tough situations, ask for help and negotiate. And I was totally ok when things didn’t go as planned. I hope this encourages many of you who are contemplating a solo trip.

In the rest of this article, I will lay dole out some wisdom for a budget travel through Europe.

Route, Duration, Budget, Stay, Transport:

I visited 7 cities during the 2 weeks. Yes, rookie mistake. But hey, cut some slack for a first time amateur backpacker. For some reason, constantly being on the move, deciding the next city was more fun than staying longer in a city. My route was: Paris (3 days), Brussels (2 days), Bruges (1 day), Amsterdam (4 days), Berlin (1 day), Munich (2 days), Rome (3 days).

I was able to do the trip within 1000-1200 euros (excluding flight tickets). Truth is, I was forced to stay within that budget since my credit card got blocked after my first attempt (suspicious transaction apparently). And hence, I went out of my way to avoid costs wherever possible.

Some tips on how to stay within the budget:

  1. Of course, advanced booking is cheaper but that also takes out the joy of planning/ deciding on the go. And for terrible planner like me, this option is not feasible.
  2. If you are younger than 26 yrs, plan your trip to Europe ASAP. You get discounted tickets for Eurail and several sites. If you are older, read on. Also, carry your student ID card.
  3. Food will be expensive if you are from one of those ‘developing’ countries. So fine dining was out of the question. Generally, small shops/ cafes should get you a decent meal (i.e. sandwich/ baguette/ panini) in 8-10 euros.
  4. Hostels are the best way to travel in budget. Europe has a well developed, safe and clean hostel network (try hostelbookers.com or hostelworld.com; choose one of the top rated hostels and try to stay near the city center). They are also a great way to make friends. So if you are not a prince or princess, you will enjoy the shared stay at hostels. Typically, for longer vacations, people stay in a hotel once in 2 weeks (you will appreciate the privacy so much better). A 4 bed shared room comes at 20-30 euros per night in peak season. If your hostel has complimentary breakfast, feel free to hog all you can in the morning and have a lighter lunch!
  5. A big chunk of your budget will be taken up in transport (especially if you travel like me staying just 2 days at a time in a city). Eurail pass is very convenient but typically more expensive. But if you have some more budget, would recommend a Eurail pass. Since I was going unplanned, I used a combination of buses, trains, hitchhikes (yes, this too!!) and a ride sharing app called ‘bla bla car (https://www.blablacar.com/)’ (this is an upcoming start-up and something to watch out for). Visit the site rome2rio.com for options of transport between 2 destinations. I used this site to work out the cheapest and convenient transport option for me. Within the city, try to walk as much as possible. A lot of student travellers were willing to walk 2-3 kms to avoid a 2 euro ticket through the subway. Also, there is no better way to see a city than to walk through the streets. In the spirit of walking through the city, I even ended up walking 5 km with my backpack to the train station in Bruges. Technically, bad idea but I lost 4-5 kgs.
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I had lost some weight within a week!