The day after my 25th birthday, I decided I would fulfill a dream: I was going to backpack Europe. When my best friend Ryan agreed to go with me, I knew I was in for an unforgettable adventure. I was right.
We spent 45 days exploring some of Europe’s most famous cities. It was both of our first time on the continent, so we wanted to see as much as possible. As 20-something backpackers, we were also looking to do so for as little money as possible.
It’s been almost 5 years since I eagerly boarded that flight to London. It’s a trip that changed my life and spurred me on to continue pursuing travel. Reflecting on it, I realized that Ryan and I were able to do and see A LOT for a very reasonable amount of money. I wanted to pass on the actual real-life itinerary we followed, with a bit of budget guidance, so that any first time European backpackers might benefit from our tips (as well as our mistakes). I’m going to lay it all out for you: my 45 day European backpacking itinerary which cost roughly $3500.
The General Budget
I saved for 3 months to do this trip. Working as a waitress at the time, I took as many shifts as possible, often doubles. I worked at a really nice resort and often worked from 6am on room service duty until 11pm. In the end, this paid off, and I was some $3500 richer. A perfect amount for a quality, yet budget, backpacking trip.
First things first. A lot of my budget went to pre-trip necessities. I needed a backpack (of course!), some travel essentials like an electrical adapter and a quick-drying towel, and one very important item: my passport. I’d never been outside of the USA prior to this trip, aside from a quick Canada visit when passports weren’t yet required. Before we even left for Europe, I’d spent $100+ for the passport, $200 on supplies, and roughly $800 for my flights.
I got great deals on flights through Student Universe. At the time, as an under 27, I still qualified for a “youth” rate. My outgoing flight from Boston to London was around $300, while my return flight, Paris to Montreal, was closer to $500. As I was living in Vermont at the time, I was planning to bookend my trip with bus rides. Megabus had just started offering services from Burlington at that time, and I was chuffed to nab a $1 ticket to Boston. Best deal ever.
Flying Off to London Town
I’ll never forget my flight to London. Because I was awake for the ENTIRE TRIP. Wide-eyed and eager, I did not sleep a wink on my overnight flight to London. Free drinks? 3 meals? I had amazing service on my British Airways flight and it got me even more hyped up to go overseas. The feeling of that first big travel experience can never be replaced.
Ryan had flown from NYC, so we met in Heathrow airport. The trip was beginning!
That first day is a blur of Big Ben, pubs, the tube, and a massive headache that came on later in the day (due to lack of sleep and jet lag).
Once we were refreshed by a nap, we talked budget. Our goal was to spend no more than $50 per person per day, which was to include transportation, food, drinks, and accommodation. Not much, when you put it all together. To keep track, when we bought transportation or reserved accommodation, we’d subtract the cost equally divided from the next few days’ allocation.
I could fill a book with tales of our London adventures, but I’m gonna keep everything to the nitty gritty.
London: October 4-6
Stayed: Astor Victoria Hostel (on the cheaper side, though no hostels in London were less than $20 per night)
Explored: British Museum & British Library (both free!), strolling through several parks, walked through Mayfair, took many photos of famous sites, Platform 9 3/4!
*Notes on London- There’s way more to do in London that we never even touched. But with only a few days and being totally thrilled to simply be there, we were pretty content just exploring. As would become a trend for our trip, we had one nice meal out in the city, and saved money the remainder of the time eating in our hostel or on the go. We always allocated funds for drinks, however!
On to Scotland
We hopped a Megabus to Edinburgh for $29 per person. A way longer ride than by train, but also far more affordable. We arrived in Edinburgh the evening of October 6th. Edinburgh was an absolute dream, and remains one of my favorite places in the world to this day. I ended up returning the next year to do a Master’s abroad.
I might be biased about Scotland because I met my husband there, but aside from that it is a magical, historical place that will wrap you up and make you never want to leave.
Edinburgh: Oct. 6-11
Stayed: The Belford Hostel (super cheap at the time, and in an old converted church)
Explored: Edinburgh Old Town, climbed/hiked Arthur’s Seat, went on a free walking tour (*nearly all of the free walking tours we took were through Sandemans & we enjoyed them all very much), visited the science museum (free), drank whisky, went on a free (tips only) bus tour to St. Andrew’s & a whiskey distillery with The Hairy Coo, went on a backpacker pub crawl.
Consumed: Dinner at Maggie Dicksons (delicious, but tourist prices), a meal at Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, drinks at The Fiddler’s Arms, tea at Cafe Vivo, tea and coffee at a few other coffee shops I can’t recall, and dinner one night, sadly, at Pizza Hut. The rest of the time it was pasta and more pasta in the hostel kitchen. Plus, the pub crawl we joined took us to several bars and pubs of varying repute, most memorably, one known as Frankenstein.
*Notes on Edinburgh: I’d recommend all the tours and places mentioned above as none were a bad experience. Generally, however, to save money, avoid restaurants or pubs along the Royal Mile or in the Grassmarket area. I also wish we’d visited Edinburgh Castle, but at more than £20 per person, it was too pricey for us budget backpackers. I’ve also been told since then that Stirling Castle is much more interesting inside. (Stirling is only 50 minutes by train and the castle is around half the price.) Also note, our food and drink budget got reigned way in after Scotland, when we ate and drink far too much for our modest wallets.
*Check out our list of Free Things to Do in Edinburgh!
Over to the Emerald Isle
Next up was Ireland. We had initially planned to take a ferry, but found that flights were cheaper. We purchased RyanAir tickets on a whim and got a good deal to fly easily from Edinburgh to Dublin. We couldn’t wait to see Ireland, and planned to spend 10 days there exploring a few areas of the country. We visited Dublin, Killarney, and Galway.
Dublin: October 11-14, October 22-24th
Stayed: We both started and ended in Dublin, so we stayed in two different hostels. Apologies, but after researching for awhile, I can’t find either of them online. Perhaps they no longer exist. I do remember that one was far from the main area of activity and felt a bit rough around the edges.
Explored: Our big spend was the Guinness Storehouse– a fun factory tour with a free pint of heaven’s nectar (AKA Guinness) in a 360 degree view tower bar. We also took a free walking tour, visited Trinity College, National Museum of Ireland, had drinks and listened to music in the Temple Bar district, strolled through parks, met people in our hostel, went to a concert, attended an Irish Catholic mass.
Consumed: Mostly Guinness. Visited a few pubs including the historic Brazen Head. We ate dinners in our hostel.
*Notes on Dublin: Granted, it’s been nearly 5 years, but our time in Dublin seems fuzzy in my memory (as do my photos–sorry, I only had an iPhone 3 back then!). Perhaps this lack of clarity is because Dublin doesn’t stand out as a place I enjoyed all that much. Seems like I may have to give it another chance in the future.
Sweet Little Killarney
Bus travel in Ireland is the way to go. Affordable and reliable, this is how we traveled from Dublin to Killarney to Galway and back. And some of the busses even had free Wi-Fi. After spending so much time in the cities, we wanted to explore the Irish countryside, so we traveled to the quaint own of Killarney.
Killarney: October 14-17
Stayed: Killarney Railway Hostel (wonderful hostel, would highly recommend!)
Explored: Inquired at the visitor’s centre where we should go in the pouring rain and the friendly man gave us an umbrella to keep! Walked through Killarney National Park , spotted Red Deer, visited Ross Castle, went out for live music, took an amazing bus tour around the Ring of Kerry.
Consumed: Dinners in our hostel (lots of pasta and storebought wine!), drinks at Murphy’s Bar.
*Notes on Killarney: Very friendly people. Killarney was a sleepy little town, and it was a place we rested and relaxed. It also poured rain most of our time there–typical Ireland. I’d recommend it perhaps less for backpackers and more for couples seeking a romantic Irish countryside getaway.
Becoming a Galway Girl
Then we went to Galway, my absolute favorite part of our Ireland trip, and really one of my favorite destinations on the whole European backpacking itinerary. Galway is a small city, my favorite kind, and felt, to me, the most quintessentially Irish. I loved the combination of culture, art, and history. We enjoyed so much live music and many fun nights out in Galway, of course, with the “Galway Girl” song playing in some pub or bar just about every single night. I felt like Galway was sort of a secret city, a hidden gem. Turns out Ireland is full of amazing secrets everywhere you go.
Galway: October 17-22
Stayed: Woodquay Hostel (this hostel was so odd. It was a crazy mix of ages and residents who seemed to be long term boarders. It was an unusual lodging house feel but met our needs. We had the top floor dorm all to ourselves, which was great.)
Explored: Attended a silent disco and a slam poetry event at a cool music venue call Roisin Dubh, explored churches, walked along the coast and the Sandhill Prom, took our down DIY self-guided walking tour, checked out the beautiful Claddagh rings, listened to talented buskers, went dancing, drinking, and took a bus tour to the famous Cliffs of Moher.
*Galway notes: Simply put, I had the best time here. From the Cliffs of Moher to seeing small towns and Dunguaire Castle along the tour to our nights out in Galway, it was awesome. I can’t wait to take Nathan here someday soon!
To the Continent!
At a horrible 5am in a downpour, we waited at a Dublin bus stop for the bus that would take us to the airport. Freezing and exhausted, we were not in our best spirits. Upon arrival to the airport, we headed through security. I opened my bag to find my hair gel had exploded inside. ‘Twas a rough start.
But off we were to the “real Europe,” or at least that’s what it felt like to us at the time. We were heading to Munich for a few days of German food and fun.
Munich: October 22-25
Stayed: Smart Stay Munich City (cleanest hostel I’ve been to)
Explored: Free walking tour, explored on our own all over the city, a humbling trip to Dachau concentration camp site, shopping at stores and markets, enjoying pubs with fellow travelers.
Consumed: Best Schnitzel ever at Steinheil 16, drinks and pretzels at the famed Hofbrauhaus, delicious street food.
*Notes on Munich: Be extra respectful of your surroundings. There’s a reason the metro looks as beautiful as it does. I rested my feet on the chair opposite mine while riding, and was sternly reprimanded by an old German lady. Lesson learned! The Steinheil 16 restaurant that I recommended was AMAZING. Huge portions of delicious schnitzel at amazing prices. And the place is definitely not touristy. I highly suggest you go there! I visited Munich a few years later with my family and we took a walking tour focusing on Hitler and the Third Reich. It was such a fascinating tour that gave us incredible insight into the (often dark) history of the city of Munich. For only €15 or 12 for a student, this 3 hours is 100% worth it. Check out New Munich Tours for more info.
Eastern Europe Here We Come
In Prague, we hit hard times. We had overspent a bit in the previous countries and money was running low. Unfortunately, we’d also chosen a hostel which was off the main drag, and it was difficult to navigate the tram and underground system. Foolish youngsters that we were, our first day there, we could not figure out the ticketing machine for the tram. But we only had to go a stop or two, so we took our chances and got on sans tickets. Older and wiser me can not stress how much YOU SHOULD NOT DO THIS. It’s not respectful to the local culture, and in general, it’s just a bad idea….No sooner had we boarded than we were asked by two plainclothes men to show them our tickets. When we couldn’t produce them, they ushered us off the tram at the next stop and told us we needed to pay a hefty fine or go to the Czech police station. Preferring the former, they followed us to an ATM where we took out the equivalent of $100. That same night I lost 500 Czech korunas (or the equivalent of $50) that fell out of my jacket pocket. It was a sad, sad day for our budget and for our pride.
Prague: October 25-November 1
Stayed: Clown & Bard Hostel (very cheap, but a liiiittle sketchy, not gonna lie)
Explored: Took a free walking tour, wandered through little markets, visited the Lennon Wall, went inside several gorgeous churches, climbed the hill to Prague castle, admired the architecture, went out with fellow backpackers, tried absinthe at Absinthe Time, almost went to jail.
*Read my tale: 7 Things Not To Do in Prague*
Consumed: Some fried cheese and sausages from street food carts, and lots and lots of plain pasta. Also, absinthe!
*Prague Notes: For the best photos, hit up Charles Bridge in the early mornings, before the majority of tourists are up. Also, Prague McDonald’s: best McDonald’s cheeseburger of my life.
To the Classical Music Mecca
Vienna was next. We arrived via a Prague to Vienna bus, which was longer, but far cheaper than the train options. Vienna is beautiful. A pastel candy-colored city that is clean and pleasant. It was a nice place for walking around, shopping, and enjoying cafes.
Vienna: November 1-6
Stayed: Couchsurfing & Seven Vienna hostel
Explored: St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Zentralfriedhof, famous graves of Beethoven, Schubert, etc., went out on the town with our Couchsurfing host, visited Palace Schonbrunn, amusement park in the Prater, Saturday morning at the Naschmarkt.
Consumed: Tea & omelettes at the gorgeous Cafe Sperl, dinner at small local restaurant, drank Gluhwein (hot mulled wine).
*Notes on Vienna: Vienna doesn’t seem to be right for budget backpacking. With more money, we could have enjoyed a lot more that it had to offer. Since that trip, I’ve been to Salzburg and Innsbruck and ultimately preferred those cities more. If you have one choice in Austria, I’d suggest one of those two for your European backpacking itinerary.
To the Mediterranean!
We took a night train from Vienna to Venice which was a brilliant idea: it took care of accommodation and transport in one fell swoop. On a budget of course, we didn’t pay for sleeping cabins but just for seats. However, we were super lucky and had the compartment all to ourselves, so we stretched out to catch a few hours’ rest.
I was wholly unprepared for how beautiful I found Venice. I had no expectations about the city (it was primarily Ryan’s desire to come here), but stepping out in front of the grand canal literally took my breath away. That might be the only time that has ever happened to me.
Venice was such a great time. I remember it very fondly. We ate and drank delicious (but cheap) food while sitting and admiring the canals, buildings, and atmosphere. A gondola ride was out of the question (very pricey) but probably better for a romantic getaway anyway.
Venice: November 7-11
Stayed: A budget hotel in Mestre, the city on the mainland that leads to Venice. Cheaper than staying on the island.
Explored: Got purposefully lost on the main island, took vaporetti (water taxis) out to all the other islands (Burano, Murano, Torcello, etc.), took endless photos of cats, ran from flocks of pigeons, went inside many churches, ate pizza, drank wine.
Consumed: Pizza, wine, bread. That’s about it.
*Notes on Venice: Staying in Mestre saved us money, but it was a pain to get to Venice every day. You have to take a train out to the island. The price is affordable but it is a hassle. I think if I went again, I’d factor in the cost to stay on the island itself. I highly recommend paying for a full day vaporetti ticket. Seeing all the other small islands around Venice was amazing, and the chance to get out on the water is hard to pass up.
Avoid the pigeons.
And Finally, the City of Lights
Last but not least was Paris. Ah, Paris. A city that needs no introduction, beloved by many simply in photos and films (Need some inspiration for Paris?) We intended to end our European backpacking trip on a high note! We spent 5 nights in this city, and did as much as possible. Our dreams of a fancy French meal were dashed when we realized we hadn’t budgeted well enough for it, but we bought fruits, cheeses, and baguettes from local market, and felt like kings and queens anyway. We were in Paris!
Paris: November 11-17
Stayed: Friends Hostel (check out the 94 terrible TripAdvisor ratings. I’d have to agree. See note below)
Explored: Free walking tour, attended mass at Notre Dame, explored the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Arc du Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, took the train out to Versailles, spent time with friends from the hostel, self-guided walking tour of Montmartre complete with visit to the Sacre Coeur and an outdoor picnic of cheese, fruit, and wine.
Consumed: Crepes, coffee, tea, wine, cheese, bread.
*Notes on Paris: Paris was, as might be expected, the most expensive stop on our European backpacking itinerary. The cheapest hostel we could find was 25 Euros per night, and the one we chose was fairly rough. The Friends Hostel is one I would absolutely NOT RECOMMEND. From intermittent Internet AND electricity, to freezing cold water, no lights in the pitch black shower room, non-functioning electrical outlets, and hostel dorms that had one communal KEY, this place was rough. Not to mention the rat I saw in the courtyard right next to the dirty kitchen. Yep. Now that AirBnb exists, I’d highly recommend considering that for budget Paris accommodation.
I haven’t broken everything down individually by price because I simply don’t remember it all. I do know that Ryan and I stayed within our $50 USD per day budget except for a few days, so the entirety of the trip stayed around the $3500 budget. The hostels we chose were always based on low price, free WiFi, and if possible, free breakfast. Though I’d like to say we chose for safety and high ratings, this was not always true. So bear in mind, these are for the most part very budget hostels. I do highly recommend the Railway Hostel in Killarney, the in Vienna, and the in Munich. I would encourage you to avoid Friends hostel in Paris.
Have you backpacked through Europe? What was your itinerary? I’d love to know your thoughts! If you have any advice for would-be-backpackers, please share below!