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Backpacking Abroad: A Rich Trip on the Cheap

So you want to go to Europe? Does the idea of backpacking around a different continent appeal to you? It can be done, and quite economically, too, if you are prepared to forgo some North American creature comforts. If you plan to take a backpack and rely on the train service with the occasional bit of hitchhiking, the best time to go is late winter or early spring, when you can always get a room, either in a hostel or pension, and a seat on the train.

Flying to London rather than continental Europe makes sense. It's a good deal cheaper, especially in the off-season, and if you speak only English it's a good idea to spend your first few days away from home in a country where you can be understood. Don't assume that everyone in Europe speaks at least a little English; on the continent, the English-speaking person is the exception, not the rule. When you are trying to recover from jet lag during those first critical days, easy communication is important.

Your first stop in London should be the headquarters of the British Youth Hostel Association. Here you can pick up a hostel card valid throughout the United Kingdom and Europe for about $12 U.S. The only condition of membership is that you be under 26. Take along a few extra passport-sized photos of yourself for the various cards you are going to accumulate.

While you're getting the card, pick up a book called International Youth Hostel Handbook: Europe and Mediterranean, which costs $3.50. The book shows the major roads and rail routes and the precise location of every recognized hostel on the continent and in the United Kingdom. The handbook also lists the conditions each country has set down for visitors to its hostels, and gives concise descriptions of each hostel.

Hostels vary from country to country, but basically they're dormitory-type places providing clean beds, reasonable toilet facilities and good fellowship with people from all over the world. Beds are usually $3.50 a night, with breakfast $1 extra. Some hostels offer such services as a safe for your valuables and even currency exchange.

To get around Europe, it's best to pick up some sort of train pass. In some countries, such as Spain, hitchhiking is a definite no-no – Spanish motorists simply don't pick up strangers. In other countries, it's often so undependable you can wait days for a ride.

There are two main types of train passes – Eurail and InterRail. The Eurail pass is available only to North Americans and provides up to two months of travel on the major rail systems of Europe excluding the United Kingdom. The InterRail pass is the European equivalent of the Eurail pass; depending on the length of time you wish to travel, it can be cheaper. But it has some restrictions. If you intend to use the trains for more than a month, the Eurail pass is your best bet. However, if you plan to travel for a month or less, InterRail is worth considering. Unfortunately, you get only a 50 per cent discount on train fares in the country in which you purchase the pass. You get unlimited free travel on all trains in other European countries. The Eurail pass can be bought only in North America; the InterRail pass can be picked up at any major railway station or travel agency in Europe.

What should you take? It depends on the climate of the countries you intend to visit, but I would recommend the following essentials, to be carried in a well-made, lightweight frame backpack.

Take two or three pairs of pants and make sure two of those pairs are jeans. The third pair can be cords, but don't take dress pants. Jeans are tough, lightweight, and can stay dirty for a few days. Other types of clothing must be washed immediately, which isn't always possible.

Take three pairs of underwear and socks. A tip on washing these: when you get to the youth hostel, simply take a bar of soap into the washroom and wash them in the sink, then hang them to dry off your bunk or by a window. Everybody does it, so don't let modesty stand in your way.

You are going to be spending a good deal of time on your feet, so take care of them. Blisters and athlete's foot may not sound serious, but they can turn a three-kilometer walk from the youth hostel to the train station into a painful experience.

Take along good hiking boots. You should get a pair that fit perfectly and will take lots of abuse. If you can get them waterproofed, so much the better. Buy your boots before you go, because they're outrageously expensive in Europe, even the cheaper ones. Also take a pair of well-made running shoes. You won't use them for long walks, but they come in handy when you're looking around town or going out at night.

To round out your wardrobe, take along a couple of T-shirts, a few sweatshirts and two good sweaters. A lightweight, waterproof, hooded wind breaker is also a good idea.

A good backpack is well worth the money. It should have a lightweight, metal frame, padded shoulder straps, and be made of a tough, waterproof material. Try to buy a pack which has an enclosed compartment for the sleeping bag. If your pack doesn't have one, make sure you put your bag inside some sort of waterproof plastic sheet. If your bag gets soaked, it will take days to dry completely and will never be the same again.

There are two types of sleeping bags: down and synthetic. Down bags are a bit warmer than synthetic bags, but they're more expensive. If a down bag gets wet, it takes a long time to dry and tends to be rather lumpy thereafter. Synthetic bags are less expensive, almost as warm, and dry quickly when wet, retaining their original shape.

Get a spacious money belt and wear it all the time. Use it to carry your passport, return air ticket, youth hostel and rail cards, and some of your travelers cheques. Take travelers cheques in a European currency, since these tend to fluctuate less wildly against other European currencies than the Canadian dollar. If you're making London your base, get your cheques in pounds. It's also a good idea to take smaller cheques, say around 5 to 10, because every time you change a cheque into a different currency, you lose a bit. If you're going to be in a country for only a short time and are forced to change a large cheque, you'll have to change whatever you have left over in the next country and you will lose again.

Should you go alone or with someone? It really depends on you. If you're the independent, self-sufficient type, having to consider a companion's wishes can be a pain. Independence offers freedom. It can also be satisfying personally, proof that you can make it by yourself. And you'll find you make a greater effort to meet people and speak local languages when you travel alone.

I went to Europe by myself and while I consider it the best thing I've ever done, there were times I wanted a friend to talk to. I met several teams of travelers, most of them quite happy. But there's nothing more depressing than a team which isn't making it.

One of the things which makes unhappy teams so dismaying is that this is probably the only time you will ever make a trip of this sort and if you spend all your time bickering, the beauty of the experience is lost. If you pick a partner carefully, however, and put some effort into the relationship, serious problems should never arise.

I found I could travel in Europe with a fair degree of comfort for about $15 a day. Some tips on saving money: Forget the cheap souvenirs. You won't have any room for them, and unless you're willing to spend a great deal of money on something, all you will get is a plastic article made in Taiwan, hardly indicative of the place you wish to remember.

Be content with pictures. They form more lasting impressions because you took them and they have greater personal significance than anything you buy.

If you're going to take pictures, get a good camera (somehow an Instamatic just won't do justice to the Swiss Alps) and shoot a couple of rolls at home to become comfortable with it. Buy your film in Canada, since it's a great deal cheaper than in Europe. Take camera and film with you through customs and onto the aircraft. If you pack the film in your backpack, it will be scanned by electronic devices; these can cloud the film, making it useless.

You are going to have to alter your diet a bit when you're in Europe.

Meat is out, cheese is in. I found I could get by on one large meal a day, the youth hostel breakfast, and snacks consisting mainly of bread and local cheeses. Local wines are also a good deal since they're much cheaper than soft drinks and the local water sometimes can't be trusted. Even the smallest restaurant has an inexpensive house wine.

You must accept the fact that certain cities and countries are going to be expensive (Paris and Switzerland are two examples). You shouldn't avoid these places, but budget a bit extra for them and don't stay too long. Try to get the most out of every day you're there. Afterward, try to go someplace relatively inexpensive, which usually means a smaller town, to allow both your budget and your body a chance to recover from the hustle and bustle.

A few words of caution about shady dealings. You may be approached while walking through certain areas of certain cities, and asked quite casually if you would like to buy some hash. Don't. Even the smallest amount of narcotics can set you up for a messy and protracted hassle. A mistake commonly made is to assume that if you do get caught, all you have to do is phone Mommy and the nearest Canadian embassy and everything will be taken care of. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While you are visiting a country, you are subject to that country's laws, and, if convicted, to that country's penalties. The most the Canadian Government can do is make sure that you are treated according to international regulations concerning prisoners, arrange some sort of defense and contact your family. Beyond that, you're on your own.

Some further advice: Check your health insurance coverage. You're probably covered under the provincial health scheme, but it's a good idea to take out a bit extra.

Make a list of the Canadian, or British, consulates and how to get in touch with them quickly for every area you intend to visit. It's a million to one chance you'll need the list, like the extra insurance, but it's comforting to have it.

When you buy your airline ticket, spend a few extra dollars and pick up flight insurance. This allows you to return home quickly because of a family emergency, and guarantees a refund should you have to cancel at the last moment.

Finally, expect to feel a bit lonely and depressed now and then. It's natural. There were times when I felt like giving up and coming home on the first flight. Fortunately, if you keep active, move about and meet people, these times tend to fade. It's when you sit around feeling sorry for yourself that problems arise.

Somehow even these low times are good. They allow you to really appreciate the many high points of your trip and they tend to toughen up your character. No matter how old you are when you go, no matter how long you stay, you come back a different person – a little older, a little wiser. Isn't that what travel is all about?

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