The Best (And Worst) Countries for Backpacking in Europe
December 15, 2019
Although expensive, Norway's flexible camping laws quickly offset higher costs for goods and services. More so, backpacking in Norway is completed with ease thanks to its robust train system that allows travelers to go travel from the southern coast up to the article circle on time and in comfort.
Yet, perhaps my favorite detail about backpacking in Norway is the fact that the desolate wild remains at the fingertips for backpackers. Unlike many European countries that limit trains to cities and towns, Norway has train stops in the middle of absolutely nowhere, making it ideal for hopping off in Timbuktu to run around highland tundra with reindeer for a couple of days. Backpacker win.
Although Switzerland is a stunning country, its high prices and conditional train access lands it on the worst side for budgeting backpackers in Europe. In fact, the prices are so steep we would leave the country to go to a supermarket in France for groceries. Hostel prices can run upwards of $50/night for a mixed dorm in cities like Geneva, which is often an entire daily budget for a backpacker.
And although the trains are always on time and sparkling clean, getting to some of the country's most famous landmarks and outdoor playgrounds cost extra. For example, if you're traveling on a Eurail pass, taking the scenic train to Matterhorn runs an additional $50.
Switzerland's less popular, yet just as cool, neighbor is equally as stunning with fewer crowds and lower prices. There are a plethora of beautiful mountains, waterfalls, and postcard-worthy towns hidden within its borders, yet for some reason, tourists focus mainly on its neighbors. This makes it perfect for backpackers traveling without a strict itinerary, as finding last minute hostels, Airbnb, and couchsurfing hosts are much easier.
I refer to Austria as Europe's "breath of fresh air." The locals are warm, the food is cheap, and the mountain trails plentiful (and most likely full of ponies).
Although Eastern Europe can be an affordable haven when backpacking in Europe, Serbia's train system lacks the proper infrastructure for backpackers. Many times, the trains run hours behind schedule and the bathrooms fail to provide water for drinking/hand washing. Conductors do not allow for passengers to exit and re-enter the train at stops, which means that when your train is three hours behind schedule and you finished the last of your water an hour ago…the last (hopefully) four hours in the 100+ degree summer heat are bound to be painful.
The photo above was taken around hour 8 of a 13 hour train ride from Bosnia to Belgrade, Serbia. Occasionally, I'd hang out the window hoping to catch a slight breeze as I defeatedly gazed at the brown river that followed the tracks below. But perhaps the cherry on top of the cake was when I relieved myself in the train car and flushed…only to find the toilet bowl open directly to the tracks.
Besides having some of the most beautiful cities in Europe, Poland is affordable, hospitable, and filled with everything from long sandy beaches to towering mountains. €1 grocery store pizza pastries and €2 ice cream cones mean cheap eats and more extended travel for backpackers. Hostels can easily be found for under $25/night, and summer temperatures are more moderate, making it the perfect place to relax during the dog days of summer.
Although the train system can be slow and crowded, our backpacking ventures in Poland quickly expanded from a planned three day stop to spending a week hopping from one beautiful city to another. Underrated cities like Gdansk and old town Warsaw promptly stole the spotlight from more popular (and expensive) cities such as Barcelona and Venice.
For backpackers who rely on train systems Greece can be a nightmare. Unannounced train strikes and uncaring workers make attempting to travel around the country by rail nearly impossible. A four-hour pause welcomed our arrival in Greece at the border for reasons that remain unanswered to this day, again without access to food or water. A few days later, the entire country was halted by a train strike, which stranded us in a remote town along the Aegean Sea for two days.
The only thing worse than the mainland is the Greek Islands, which are complete mayhem in the summer months. Tens of thousands of tourists arrive daily, either by plane, boat, or cruise ship, quickly overcrowding the streets and ending with tourists fighting over spots to catch a glimpse of the sunset over the coast — a far cry from the perfect European oasis many backpackers dream of.
Bonus: Additional Quick Tips for Backpacking Europe
Deciding where to travel when backpacking in Europe is only the first step, and there is a lot you are going to learn along the way. Here are some other essentials when planning your Euro-trip:
- If you are traveling to high-tourist zones in Western Europe such as London, Paris, and Barcelona, purchasing a Eurail pass is probably not the best investment. Traveling to the most popular cities often require additional ticket reservation purchases, which makes the convenience and money spent on a Eurail pass a waste. Learn more about Eurail passes here.
- Visit the small villages and towns. It's true when they say the best places in Europe are beyond the tourist's eye. Make time to explore lesser-known areas around Europe. Work in a backpacking trip through the mountains or hop off the trail in a small village for the night. You won't regret it.
- Never, ever, ever, attempt to visit coastal Croatia as a backpacker in the summer. Just don't.
- If Italy is a dream destination on your bucket list, save it for the off-season. Visiting during peak summer tourism will leave you disappointed (and very very sweaty).
At any given moment, Shalee is either lost, hunting for ice cream, or obsessively planning her next adventure.
Born and raised in rural Michigan, she began exploring the shores of Great Lakes as a teen, often sleeping in her car to save money. Eventually, her urge to explore pushed beyond her Midwest borders. Today, Shalee shares her tips and stories to thousands of readers interested in adventure, outdoor, and sustainable tourism. Her pack now includes two spunky hiking cats and her partner, Josh. Learn more about her here.