How I Got Obsessed with Travel – My First Solo Backpacking Europe
My first “big trip” was a 10-day solo backpacking trip through Europe. I haven’t left the country since 10 years ago when I went to Puerto Rico for spring in college. I’ve always liked “traveling” but this is the first major experience that made travel my new passion.
My motivation for this trip was a combination of things. A week off of work was already blocked off in my mind because I was making plans with my brother. We wanted to do a Pacific Coast drive from San Diego to Seattle. That never came to fruition so I just started thinking about the idea of going somewhere else. I also just renewed my passport a few months ago, so it felt like the time to use it.
My 33rd birthday was also coming up, which happened to be a kind of sad milestone. My father passed away at the young age of 33, so this birthday had some meaning to me. I felt like I couldn’t just waste another year and needed to do something exciting to honor life.
Making Myself a Europe Backpacking Route Planner
Choosing the Countries to Fly In and Out Of
So with all of that, I just bought a ticket to Barcelona on a bit of a whim. I was at work just looking at one-way flights to Europe on Google Flights. This is an awesome tool for finding places to travel when you want to let your budget be your guide. Barcelona was extremely cheap to fly into and I’ve always heard it is an amazing city (see Things to Do in Barcelona). When I was 18 I had gone to A Coruña, Spain with my grandparents. I knew I already loved part of that country at least. I bought the flight then asked my boss if I could have off.
My boss is a great guy who was really supportive of me taking “a week off”. He asked where else I was going and how long I’d be gone for. I had no idea so I went back to find some other cheap flight back. This was a little more difficult than just choosing LAX and seeing all of the options from there. I had to search individually from different cities, on different dates, back to LAX since I was doing all one-way flights.
Basically, I just made a list of about 25 places in Europe that I wanted to visit and then searched one-way flights for each of them, one by one for 4 separate dates. I put all of that into a simple spreadsheet and had about 7 or 8 cities that I could get a one-way flight back to LAX for under $300. I bought a flight from Berlin but made a rookie mistake on the layover and everything so I changed it to London a few days later.
Choosing the Countries to Visit
By this point, all of my travel booked was just two flights getting me to Europe and getting back home. I had my trip bookended with Barcelona and London, but I knew I wanted to get to at least 2 major cities while I was on that side of the world.
The first stop after Barcelona was pretty easy. I always wanted to go to Rome since I love Italian food and I’m also a history dork. The ruins were calling my name. Walking around the Colosseum eating gelato on my birthday seemed like a great idea too.
I went back and forth with using the trains to get around and figuring something out there, but this trip didn’t warrant that. Barcelona and Rome were 2 definite parts of my trip and the trains don’t have an easy route between the two without wasting about a day sitting on a train. That’s a day that I could be off wandering the streets of a new city and eating my weight in local desserts.
The easy choices were see more of Italy, take a “trip” to Amsterdam, head up to Paris, or make my way northeast to Berlin. Those are the places everyone else goes. I figured it would be fun to check out a place that most people I know haven’t been to, but was also a big city that has a lot to offer.
With that, I was able to narrow it down to Budapest, Prague, or one of the Nordic countries. Most of the things I read about Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland is that it is insanely expensive in each of them. I was reading that coffee is $9 and I need a few of those a day to get by. So, it was a coin flip between Budapest and Prague.
My job was sending people back and forth to Budapest for about a year and I was hearing horror stories. They weren’t bad stories about the city, just the job at hand, so I wanted to steer clear from that bad juju. I also really wanted to see a castle, and Prague Castle is one of the biggest in Europe. To The Czech Republic then!
Getting to Each Country
Here is something that was stupid on a financial level, but smart for enjoying me. I didn’t book any travel between the countries. I wanted to leave it open so I could have the freedom to change something last minute and not be beholden to a flight schedule. It gave me the option to stay in a country longer or shorter than planned and also I imagined some ultimate scenario where I took a train from Rome to Northern Italy and then to Prague. That didn’t happen.
Still, by just winging it, I didn’t have that hard of a time getting decent flights and for okay prices.
- I booked a Ryanair flight from Barcelona to Rome 2 days before the flight for $96 (I overpaid because I panicked about the checked bags)
- I booked my Vueling flight from Rome to Prague about 18 hours before the flight for $120.
- I booked another Ryanair flight from Prague to London the night before for $164 (I had to pay extra to check a bag because I couldn’t manage on my leg that I fractured earlier in the trip)
*At this point, I am a much bigger fan of Vueling over Ryanair.
Where to Stay in Each City
My job wasn’t exactly paying me a fortune, so staying at hotels for 10 days was obviously out of the question. Even if I stayed at the European version of a Motel 6, that would cost a ton. I also never stayed in a hostel, so I was a little nervous about that.
For Barcelona, I found a great deal on an Airbnb in a shared apartment. It was in a decent location just at the entrance to the city and the reviews for the host were all pretty amazing. She luckily lived up to the hype. Thanks Ruth!
Then in Rome, I was likely going to be there on my birthday so I looked into hostels to maybe make some friends there and go out for some fun. I found this place called The Yellow Hostel which everyone said was one of the biggest party hostels in Europe. That sounded like an extreme option, but it was cheap and if it was hell I could find a new hostel that was tamer or go stay in a cheap hotel.
Prague…Prague is cheap! I wasn’t sure what day I was going to get there and what day I was going to leave, but the last Friday of my trip was almost guaranteed to be there so I looked into hotels. It was one night to treat myself and I found a pretty insane deal using the rewards points on my Chase Ink card to get a room at the Alchymist Nosticova Palace. Oh, that place was too good for me, but I made it work.
I went to Prague for another night before that and tried to get another night, but the rewards site doesn’t find day-of rates so I was a little SOL since I wasn’t about to pay real money for a hotel room. A friend I made at The Yellow in Rome told me about the Hostel World app so I downloaded that when I got to the Prague airport and found The Mosaic House that cost me a whopping $16.41 for the night.
London was a similar situation. I had no plan of where to stay when I landed and I couldn’t find a hostel that was that cheap this particular night. I also really wanted a bed to relax in. I also heard a tip about using Hotwire to get a highly discounted room, but you just don’t know what the hotel is until you pay for it. That was a huge mistake. I ended up with a “boutique” hotel that the room was so small I literally couldn’t fit in the shower. I definitely didn’t get the rest I wanted.
Since I knew the last night of the trip would be in London, I did the Chase rewards thing in advance for the night as well. OH thank god for that. Going from the dingy hotel with a wet bed and tiny showers to the beautiful and clean Hotel Indigo was like heaven.
Being Social while Alone
This was actually pretty difficult to do. I’m the type of person that is an introvert when I’m alone, but if I know one or two people I’ll be more of an extrovert. I also worried that being far from home for 10 days in places where people spoke other languages would be extremely lonely.
Barcelona I didn’t make much of an effort to go out to bars or anything. The jet lag was hitting me hard and I was really enjoying exploring things on my own. It was nice to see a random alley while I was walking and take a detour to check it out since I didn’t have anyone to slow down or any place I had to be. I found a lot of interesting places by just having no plan and going wherever my curiosity took me.
I did sign up for a couple of classes in Barcelona through Airbnb experiences though, so those were times that I had set to meet people. There was a two-hour photographer class/tour around Barcelona that I met a fun couple from Bangladesh. The husband was a little obsessive with his new love for photography and his wife kept wandering away to check out street food.
I also did a paella cooking class which could be my favorite thing from the entire trip. Shout out to Just Royal Bcn in Plaça Reial! The instructor was a lot of fun, there were 3 couples that were all social and down to have a good time, and there was wine. Lots of wine. I left there after a three hour class with cooking knowledge, a full belly, and a decent buzz.
Rome I was in that “party hostel” which meant I was almost guaranteed some kind of entertainment. I was put in a 4-bed dorm that had 2 women in there from America. We hit it off and hung out for the next few days. I still talk to one of them. The Yellow has a bar across the street that we met a ton of other travelers at.
I wasn’t so lucky at the Prague hostel. Somehow in a room of 5 other people, not one of them was social. I even had one guy in there that refused to look my way when I introduced myself to him.
London, I did not expect to be there during the London Marathon. When I realized it was the marathon I was pretty upset that it was going to ruin my sightseeing since it cut the city in half, but then I realized the Brits party hard for those 26 miles. I think during this whole trip I held back from saying “when in Rome…” until I decided to stop being so touristy and start pub-hopping like the locals. I spent the rest of the day drinking at different bars and striking up conversations with people at them all.
I also spent a lot of my international phone data swiping on Tinder looking for some international romance. There was one woman who really wanted to just give me advice on what to see and where to go, but there was one Ukrainian living in London that actually wanted to go on a date. I have to say it was one of the most romantic first dates I’ve ever been on. You can read about my solo traveling date here.
Some Experiences from the Trip
In Barcelona I hurt my leg, I think from slipping in the rain. The next couple of days I was walking with a limp and my leg started to swell pretty badly. A couple of days into Rome one of the girls in my room looked at my leg. She demanded I go to the hospital after seeing how red and swollen it was. That was probably a good idea since I was taking a lot of sitting breaks at that point because I couldn’t use my leg anymore.
I waited until around midnight on April 16th to go to the hospital. My thinking was there would be less of a wait and I wouldn’t waste my day of sightseeing. The beginning of that was one of the eeriest hours of my life. Then there were another 3 uncomfortable hours of waiting to see an Italian doctor. The good news is it was just a stress fracture and the better news was it was FREE! I just had to buy crutches and a brace the next day.
The Prague Castle was totally worth taking the trip to Prague. I limped around there on crutches so fast to see as much as I could. Since I only had one day in Prague I had to rush around. I think I need to go back ASAP and really take it all in. I did however get to shoot a crossbow above Golden Lane. I may have also hit a bulls-eye on my first shot.
Thoughts on Traveling Alone
Traveling alone can get to be a little more expensive depending on the activities involved. For instance, I wanted to try a lot of foods. With someone else, I’d be able to go splitsies and share pieces of each other’s food. Instead, I just ordered 2-3 people’s worth of meals just for myself to sample. Somehow I still managed to lose weight on this trip doing that.
Airbnb life was lonely as was the crappy hotel in London. There are so many other people at the hostels in the same solo travel boat. I realize now I should stay in them for my future solo trips. I made some great friends in Rome and didn’t have time to give it a chance in Prague.
The best way to describe how I felt as I often felt alone, but I never felt bored. It was a great feeling not to constantly look down at my phone to keep my mind occupied. Instead, I could just look up and around at all of the new things there were around me to explore.