It's easier to be a backpacker

Rick Steves always encourages young travelers to keep a journal (or these days, a blog). As a travel writer and teacher, he says, he finds that the journal entries he wrote as a scruffy 20-year-old in 1975 still resonate. LAURA VanDEVENTER
Rick Steves always encourages young travelers to keep a journal (or these days, a blog). As a travel writer and teacher, he says, he finds that the journal entries he wrote as a scruffy 20-year-old in 1975 still resonate. LAURA VanDEVENTER

Fast and cheap transit, hostel options, and Web make vagabonding in Europe a breeze.

Posted: July 29, 2013

When I was 18, I wrote a postcard to my grandmother from Austria, describing how I slept for free on the porch of a hostel in Innsbruck. While I wouldn't do that now, it's fun to reminisce about my backpacking days. Bars were inundated with smoke, currency changes were required after each border crossing, and it took about nine hours to travel from London to Paris. Despite the changes, the adventure and thrills of good old-fashioned vagabonding survive.

One of the most amazing changes over the last decade is the speed and ease with which you can get around. In my 20s, I traveled around Europe on a two-month Eurail pass that cost about $200. I slept on trains as much as I could to save time and money. But fast and cheap transportation options, especially the proliferation of discount airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet, have changed the way budget travelers can see Europe.

My first stop when seeking cheap flights is Skyscanner.com. This no-frills website is a fast way to determine which European budget airlines serve the route you're eyeing and helps you compare prices.

Although flights may look cheap at first glance, it's important to factor in extra costs, such as the price for getting to and from the airport. Also, since budget airlines don't make much money on your ticket, they look for other ways to pad their profits, such as charging for food and drink, priority boarding, seat reservations, checking bags, and checking in at the airport (instead of online). With planning, a few sacrifices, and light packing, travelers can avoid most of these costs.

One mode of transportation I advise backpackers to steer clear of is a car. While rental prices may look enticing, this is hardly ever the cheapest option. The daily fee may be low, but the extras, such as tolls, gas, and parking, make it far more expensive than it seems. Also, Europe is dotted with automatic speed guns and cameras that will issue a ticket and track you down even across the pond. I know this because my own twentysomething son was photographed speeding and received a $100 ticket, with a $100 service charge tacked on by the rental company.

As for economical accommodations, hostels are still some of the cheapest beds in town. But while being a member of the Hostelling International network used to be the mark of a respectable hostel, that's no longer the case. Standards at most independent hostels are just as high, and they are often more interesting and fun. The best way to find hostels these days is through Hostelworld.com.

Another way to sleep inexpensively is to rent a bed in someone's home. Airbnb.com is a great way to find these, with its extensive list of options ranging from futons in the living room to entire apartments. You can read reviews to make sure it matches what you're looking for, and it's also relatively safe, as cash never changes hands (payment is handled via the website).

Technology is revolutionizing budget travel in other ways as well. During my early trips, travelers would gather at AmExCo offices to share information and collect mail from back home. Today, even cybercafes are becoming dated, as most young travelers carry smartphones, tablets, or laptops, and connect to WiFi in either cafes or hostels.

For communicating with people back home, cellphones are cheap and easy to buy, even for a short trip. But the best deal is to make phone calls via the Internet. If both parties have iPhones and WiFi access, you can enjoy a FaceTime connection across the street or across the ocean for free. Otherwise, Skype is a good, inexpensive standby.

A recent development in Europe is the advent of free walking tours. While the tour technically doesn't cost anything, guides work solely on tips (and they make sure to remind you of that). At first I wasn't hot on these "free" tours, as guides, generally expat students who have memorized a script, emphasize stories over the strictly academic and are known to take liberties with historical events and characters. But they're still enjoyable, and for travelers on a budget, they're an affordable way to get to know a place.

One thing I always encourage young travelers to do is keep a journal (or these days, a blog). As a travel writer and teacher, one of my favorite discoveries is that the journal entries I wrote as a scruffy 20-year-old in 1975 still resonate with the generally much-less-scruffy 20-year-old American exploring Europe in the 21st century. Today the same timeless magic is there - it's just a lot more convenient and comfortable to find it.

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