My First Solo Trip Review: Backpacking Europe

by wheretheroadforks

In the Summer of 2011 at 18 years old, I set out on my first solo trip. For three months I backpacked around Europe through 20 countries. I traveled by train, bus, and boat. In this article, I review my first solo trip. I’ll talk about planning, packing, budgeting, my route, experiences, and more. I’ll discuss the mistakes I made and the things I did right. Hopefully, you can learn from my experience to help make your first solo trip a bit smoother and less stressful.

houses in Amsterdam

Why I Decided to Take this Trip

I knew I wanted to travel after high school but I didn’t know where to go or how to go about it. While studying Spain in Spanish class, my teacher taught us about Europe’s extensive rail network. She shared her experience traveling around the continent with a Eurail Pass. After some more research, I concluded that Europe sounded like an easy destination for a first-time solo traveler like myself.

Research and Preparation for My First Solo Trip

Because this was my first trip, I wanted to be as prepared as possible so I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed when I arrived in Europe. I researched every aspect of the trip extensively and planned for every possible scenario. I didn’t want any unexpected surprises. Topics of research included visas, transportation, safety, pricing, accommodation, and more.

At the same time, I wanted to keep my plans as open as possible so I didn’t pre-book much. I didn’t know how fast or far I’d want to travel because everything was new to me. I also wanted to be a bit spontaneous. This turned out to be a good idea as travel in Europe was much faster and easier than I expected.

Building my Itinerary

I started off by studying the world map that I had hanging in my room to familiarize myself with the geography of Europe. I created several potential itineraries that I thought were possible with the time I had. My plan was to fly in and out of the same airport so I created a loop itinerary.

Next, I researched each country in the region. I read travel blogs, articles, travel forums, and borrowed a Western Europe travel book from a family friend. While researching, I made a list of potential activities, museums, monuments, and points of interest that I may want to see.

a canal in Amsterdam
A canal in Amsterdam

A few top destinations included Stonehenge, the Louvre, the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, the Vatican, and the canals of Amsterdam. I’m also pretty interested in WWII history so I wanted to see Anne Frank’s house, Oskar Schindler’s factory, Anne Frank House, and Auschwitz, and a few more sites.

Transportation

The next step was researching transportation. I started by shopping for the cheapest flight from Los Angels to Europe. London seemed to be the cheapest city to fly into at the time.

I also researched the Eurail Pass extensively. I looked up the time tables for each leg of my itinerary to check whether or not the Eurail pass covered it and what time I would leave and arrive in each city. When it didn’t, I looked at bus tickets. I found that Europe is so well connected that almost every route is possible.

a European train

Visas

Before the trip, I applied for my first passport. While I was waiting for it to arrive, I researched visas. I learned that my US passport allowed me to travel pretty much anywhere I wanted without arranging any visas in advance. The only one I would need was for Turkey, which was available at the border on arrival.

Accommodation

I planned to stay in hostels most nights and camp once in a while. I looked for hostels on Hostelworld and Booking.com in each city that I planned to visit. While researching, I checked prices, the location in the city, whether or not they included breakfast, and how to get there from the train station.

a hostel dorm room

I only booked my first three nights in London but I wrote down the names and prices of some hostels that I might stay in along the way. Because summer is so busy, I knew that I would need to book in advance most of the time so it helped to be prepared.

Packing

Next, I started thinking about what kind of clothing and gear I would need for the trip. I needed to buy a new backpack to carry my clothing and gear. I already had most of the clothing I needed. The only other gear I needed to buy was outlet converters, a money belt, and a few small items.

Budgeting

Finally, I needed to make a budget. As I researched, I wrote down the price of everything I could think of including my flight, Eurail pass, reservations, bus tickets, hostels, food, drinks, entry tickets, and more. I then added it up. I’ll talk more in-depth about budgeting later on.

Telling My Family About my Solo Travel Plans

One issue I ran into while planning my first solo trip that I didn’t consider beforehand was how difficult it was going to be to tell my friends and family about my plans. I got some pushback and questioning. Particularly from my grandparents. Some people just don’t get solo travel. My dad got it. My mom was unsure but accepting.

Common questions, comments, and concerns I heard include: ‘Why are you doing that?’ ‘Why don’t you go with a friend?’, ‘Isn’t that dangerous?’, ‘Why don’t you travel in your own country instead?’, ‘Why don’t you wait until you’re older?’, ‘How are you going to pay for that?’ ‘Why do you want to go there?’, ‘Why don’t you get a job instead?’, ‘you don’t want to do that’, ‘you’ll never make it’, etc.

At times, I began to doubt myself. I wondered if I was biting off more than I could chew. If I was capable and competent enough to complete the trip. Luckily, I was strong enough to push through the criticism and go through with my plans. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have second thoughts though.

I’m not the only solo traveler who has run into this issue. Telling friends and family about solo travel plans is a common concern. It comes up frequently on the subreddit r/solotravel. I’ve read some horror stories there about people’s families forbidding them to travel or even threatening to disown them if they go through with their travel plans. Luckily my family wasn’t that extreme.

If you face this problem when planning your trip, my best advice is to answer their valid questions about safety, transportation, budgeting, accommodation, etc. to put their mind at ease. Try to avoid talking about the trip as much as possible. If you let them dwell on it and bash your plans, you’ll just start to doubt yourself. No good can come of it. You may even feel tempted to cancel your trip.

For some more tips, check out this great guide to dealing with unsupportive friends and family from Nomadic Matt.

Money and Budgeting for My First Solo Trip

My first major obstacle in planning my trip was making sure I had enough money. I saved up around $5000 for the trip from working at McDonald’s, 18 years worth of birthday money, and some painting work I did for my friend’s parents. This had to cover all of my expenses including airfare, the Eurail Pass, other transportation, accommodation, food, drinks, entertainment, activities, souvenirs, travel gear, etc. My goal was to make it last 3 months.

Euros

I made a rough budget to find out what this whole thing would cost me. I spent a significant amount of time researching the pricing of everything I could think of and adding it all up. To make my budget, I priced out the following:

  • Travel gear- I needed to purchase a backpack, outlet converters, a tent, some clothes, new shoes, travel-sized toiletries, and a few more small items.
  • Plane ticket- I shopped around to find which city was the cheapest to fly into from Los Angeles. It turned out to be London.
  • Eurail pass- I considered which pass I would require based on the duration of my trip and the number of trains I planned to take. I found that the Eurail pass was economical for my particular trip. I went with the 3 month global pass.
  • Hostels- I went on Hostelworld and Booking.com and researched the price of dorm beds in most of the cities that I planned to visit in order to get a rough idea of the price of hostels. I found an average price for each city, multiplied it by the number of nights I planned to stay, then added up all of the hostel costs to get a rough accommodation budget idea.
  • Entry fees, tours, and activities- I looked into the prices for various things that I wanted to do while traveling including entry to museums, parks, tours, etc. I’m not really into organized activities so this cost was pretty low.
  • Food- I considered the cost of restaurant meals and cooking my own food in hostel kitchens. This one is difficult to estimate. I planned to cook for myself most of the time.
  • Alcohol- This one was tough to price as well. I couldn’t legally drink in my home country at the time but I knew I’d be drinking on my trip.
  • Miscellaneous- I budgeted a bit extra for various unexpected expenses just to be on the safe side. I think I ended up buying a couple of new shirts and a new pair of shorts when mine wore out.
  • Souvenirs- I don’t buy souvenirs but if you plan to, you’ll want to budget for them.
  • Travel Insurance- I did not have travel insurance on this trip but I probably should have.

After adding everything up, my total costs came out above my $5000 budget for my three-month trip. To cut costs, I made some changes to my itinerary. I cut out a few expensive Western European cities and added a few more affordable Eastern European cities. I also eliminated a couple of destinations that my Eurail Pass wouldn’t cover. Eventually, I was able to get my budget to around $5000.

First Solo Travel Tip: Make sure you have some emergency money in case a problem arises. You don’t want to spend every penny you have on your trip. You need some backup in case an emergency arises. That way, you’re covered if your phone gets stolen or if you need to buy a ticket home in an emergency. You also need some money to re-establish yourself when you return home. For example, maybe you need to rent an apartment.

Exactly how much you need depends on your age, budget, financial situation, etc. I like to carry at least $300 in cash plus have a couple thousand extra in my checking account. I didn’t have any emergencies on this trip but it brought me peace of mind knowing I had some extra cash just in case.

For more info on travel budgeting, check out my guides:

Tickets and Reservations I Booked in Advance

About a month and a half before my trip, I bought the following tickets and made the following reservations:

  • Plane ticket- I bought a round trip ticket between Los Angeles and London with Air Canada. It cost around $1200.
  • Eurail Pass- I bought the 3 month global unlimited pass. It cost around $700.
  • Hostel- I booked 2 nights in a hostel in London. I wasn’t sure how many days I’d want to stay or where exactly I’d go next so I just booked the first two nights.
  • Tour- I booked myself on a tour from London to Stonehenge for the day after I arrived.
Stonehenge
Stonehenge on my first full day of my first solo trip

First Solo Travel Tip: Book your first few days of accommodation in advance. Having a hotel or hostel bed already reserved brings peace of mind because you know where you’re going when you arrive. It also helps when passing through immigration.

To make things even easier, consider booking your airport transportation in advance as well. Many hotels and hostels offer a shuttle service. If you plan to take public transport from the airport to your accommodation, make sure you know which bus or train lines you need to take. Also, have the hotel’s phone number and address handy in case you need to ask for directions or tell your driver where you need to go.

Gear and Packing for My First Solo Trip

travel backpack
My well used travel backpack

Travel doesn’t really require much specialty gear. Before I left, I bought a few items including:

  •  Travel Backpack- I needed something lightweight and voluminous enough to accommodate all of my clothes and gear. I wanted a backpack that was small enough to carry on an airplane and large enough to accommodate 3 months worth of gear. I bought the Osprey Talon 44. This is a great bag. After 8 years of rough use on 6 continents, it’s still in excellent condition. Read my full review of the backpack here.
  • Outlet converters- For charging my camera. I didn’t pack a laptop or cell phone on this trip.
  • First aid kit- I bought a small first aid kit with bandages, antibiotic ointment, anti-diarrhea medicine, etc.
  • Tent- I bought a cheap one person non-freestanding tent. I wasn’t sure whether or not to travel with a tent. I figured I could at least save some money by camping.
  • Sleeping bag- I bought a lightweight synthetic travel sleeping bag. This turned out to be pretty useful. These days, I always travel with some type of blanket, quilt, or sleeping bag. It comes in handy surprisingly often.
  • Money belt- Instead of using a wallet, I used a money belt to carry my passport, cash, and cards. This helps to protect valuables from muggers and pickpockets. I bought the Eagle Creek Silk Undercover money belt on Amazon. I’m really happy with it. I actually still use the same one to this day. It’s one of the only pieces of original travel gear that I still use. Read my full review of the money belt here.

Pretty much everything else I needed I already had. I packed:

The Trip

The following two sections cover the first week or so of my trip. Things started out a bit rough. There is definitely a learning curve to solo travel. In this section, I’ll outline a couple of mistakes I made and the lessons I learned. I’ll also describe a few unexpected hiccups I experienced along the way. Hopefully, my stories can help you avoid experiencing similar problems.

Paris
Paris

My First Day of Solo Travel

My dad drove me to LAX and dropped me off. I don’t remember being particularly nervous which is surprising because I’m generally a pretty anxious guy. I felt confident and prepared.

The flight itself went smooth. I checked in and checked my backpack then boarded my flight without any issues. I had a brief stopover in Toronto before catching my first intercontinental flight to London.

After landing in Heathrow, the first problem immediately arose. While standing around the baggage claim, the crowd slowly thinned out until I was the last guy standing next to the belt. My bag didn’t arrive. Air Canada lost my backpack full of all my travel gear that I had so carefully packed. Stupidly, I packed everything in my backpack, including my contact lenses and camera.

I walked over to the baggage counter and told the agent that my bag didn’t show up. The guy was incredibly unsympathetic. He just handed me a form. All I could do was fill it out and hope that Air Canada found my backpack. I was offered no compensation.

Luckily, I did have my debit cards so getting cash wasn’t a problem. After clearing customs and immigration, I navigated the tube into central London.

I had a bit of trouble finding my hostel. I ended up wandering around Borough High Street for around an hour before I managed to find the entrance. Once I found the place, I checked in and went to sleep. This was my first day of solo travel. So far I hated it.

Over the next couple of days, I walked down to the nearest payphone to call Air Canada a couple of times per day. I tried my best to get some type of compensation out of them but they offered nothing. They just expected me to wait in the city for my bag to arrive.

Finally, on the third day, my backpack made it to London. Someone dropped it off at the hostel reception. Now my trip could begin.

A few important lessons I learned on my first day of solo travel:

  1.  Only bring a carry-on bag- I overpacked. Probably because this was y first trip and I didn’t know exactly what I would need. Now I know that a carry-on-sized bag is sufficient to accommodate enough gear for almost any trip. These days, I never check a bag unless I’m packing camping gear.
  2. Never fly Air Canada- At this point, I have flown on dozens of airlines and Air Canada has the absolute worst customer service that I have ever experienced. I found this particularly shocking since Canadians are such nice people in general. I will never fly Air Canada again.
  3. Always have travel insurance- I probably could have gotten some type of compensation for the trip delay. Luckily my bag was found this time. If it wasn’t I would have been out several hundred dollars. Travel insurance would have come in handy. These days, I use World Nomads travel insurance.
A small town in Switzerland
A small Swiss town

My First Solo Trip Begins

From London, I decided to travel to Amsterdam. The Eurostar cost too much so I decided to take the bus then transfer to a train. I left London without knowing exactly how I was going to get to Amsterdam, where I would sleep, or when I would arrive. This turned out to be a mistake.

I caught an afternoon bus from London to Brussels. There, I activated my Eurail pass and caught my first European train. I ended up on an afternoon train to Antwerp then transferred onto a night train to Amsterdam. Unfortunately, I didn’t arrive until midnight.

This was my mistake. I arrived in an unfamiliar city in the middle of the night without any accommodation booked. I had no way of accessing the internet to look for a hostel because I didn’t have a phone and all of the internet cafes were closed. At this point, my only options were to spend the night in the train station or go out wandering around the city looking for a place to sleep.

I walked out of the train station, not knowing that I couldn’t re-enter until the following morning. Essentially, I ended up spending a long, cold night wandering the streets of Amsterdam with my backpack. I didn’t know where to go so I just walked.

Over the course of the night, I ended up meeting a series of strange and interesting characters including a drunken cyclist, a homeless Welshman, and an odd bald guy. The whole night was just bizarre, like a fever dream. I didn’t sleep at all. Luckily I didn’t get robbed.

The following day, I started my search for a place to sleep for that night. After visiting half a dozen hostels, I realized that everything was fully booked or out of my price range. I never considered that Amsterdam would be fully booked out and I couldn’t afford to pay $50 per night for a dorm bed. This is peak summer season travel in Amsterdam.

Eventually, I found an internet cafe and went online to look at my options. I knew that worst case, I could catch a train to another city. Of course, I really wanted to experience Amsterdam.

Hostelworld had nothing in my price range. I found a campground just outside the city that was accessible by tram. I ended up camping there for the next few nights. This turned out to be cheaper and more pleasant than a hostel anyway. Luckily, I was traveling with a tent.

From this ordeal I learned to:

  • Avoid arriving in an unfamiliar city late at night or early in the morning without confirmed accommodation and transport plans- Everything becomes more difficult at night. For example, public transportation often stops running, hotels and hotels lock their doors for security reasons, and restaurants are all closed. Arriving at night is also slightly more dangerous because most crime happens at night. You don’t want to be out wandering around a foreign city in some random neighborhood at 2 am looking for a hotel with a vacancy. Nothing good can come of it. If you plan to arrive in a new city in the middle of the night, book ahead and arrange your transport in advance. Also, make sure your hotel reception expects you. Better yet, arrive during the day.
  • Book ahead in popular destinations or during peak season- Some touristy cities, like Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Paris for example, fully book out during the busy season. Sometimes you need to book up to a couple of weeks in advance in order to get a bed in a decent hotel or hostel.
  • Carry a tent- You can almost always find a place to camp. Most campgrounds won’t turn you away, even if they’re packed. There is always a bit of space. If you have a tent, you can also wild camp. If you don’t want to carry a tent, consider packing a hammock. For more info on camping while traveling, check out my guide to traveling with a tent.
the Colosseum
The Colosseum, Rome

The Rest of the Trip

The trip started out pretty rough but I feel like I learned a few valuable travel lessons early on. From there on out, it was smooth sailing.

A few highlights from my first solo trip included:

  • Stockholm- For whatever reason, I loved this city. I also met a great group of fellow travelers at the hostel.
  • The hostels- I’m probably in the minority here, but I love staying in hostels. This trip gave me my first hostel experience. I’ve stayed in hundreds since.
  • The train rides- On this trip, I learned that I’m a train guy. While traveling, I ride them whenever possible. This trip gave me my first taste of train travel.
  • Prague- This is probably my favorite European city. It’s cheap, beautiful, and the beer is great. I love it.
  • Wandering around on foot- Most European cities are compact and walkable. For the most part, you don’t have to worry about wandering into a dangerous neighborhood. One of my favorite things to do while traveling is walking around. Europe is perfect for this.
  • Krakow- Another historic and beautiful European city. It’s affordable too.
  • The ferry ride from Greece to Italy– I slept on the deck in my sleeping bag. The weather that night was perfect.
  • Istanbul- As an inexperienced traveler at the time, this city felt really exotic.
  • Camping- Many European cities have campgrounds within the city or just outside. They’re usually accessible by public transport. My favorite places I camped were Munich and Amsterdam.
Prague
Prague, my favorite European city

My First Solo Trip Route

I put my Eurail pass to good use and ended up visiting about 20 countries during my first solo trip. On average, I stayed in each city for 3-4 nights. That gave me enough time to see the main sites and go out one night. If I was really enjoying a city, I’d stay 4-5 nights. Travel time between cities was always less than a day.

I visited the following cities during my first solo trip:

London – Amsterdam – Copenhagen – Stockholm – Berlin – Munich – Prague – Krakow – Bratislava, Slovakia – Vienna – Budapest – Bucharest – Sofia – Istanbul – Thessaloniki, Greece – Rome – Zurich – Interlaken, Switzerland – Barcelona – Madrid – Paris – Bruges

My personal favorites were Amsterdam, Stockholm, Prague, Krakow, Istanbul, and Barcelona.

Stockholm

The Eurail pass covered every trip except London-Brussels, Sofia-Istanbul, Istanbul-Thessaloniki, and Bruges-London. I bought these tickets separately at the bus or train station.

Accommodation: A Note about European Hostels

Europe is the birthplace of youth hostels. The first one opened in Germany in 1912. That means that travelers have been hosteling in Europe for over 100 years. My dad backpacked Europe in the 60s and probably had a similar experience to me.

At this point, I have stayed in hostels on 6 continents. In my opinion, Europe offers the best hostels in terms of facilities and cleanliness. There are also a lot of them. Hostels are absolutely everywhere on the continent.

Hostel dorm room
A typical hostel dorm room

Unfortunately, European hostels are expensive and prices keep increasing. During my first solo trip, the most expensive hostels cost around $30 per night in Stockholm and Amsterdam. Average prices were around $7-$15.

These days, hostel prices are significantly higher. In most Western European capital cities, expect to pay $25-$35 per night for a dorm bed in a centrally located hostel during busy season. In the most expensive cities like Paris, Amsterdam, Zurich, Oslo, and Stockholm, you might pay $40-$50 during peak season. That’s getting a bit too pricey for most backpackers traveling long term.

Luckily, prices are still reasonable in Eastern Europe. For my next European trip, I plan to visit Ukraine, Moldova, the Balkans, and the Caucuses. Hostel prices still seem very reasonable in that part of the continent.

First Solo Trip Tip: Stay in Social Hostels

Solo travel gets lonely. Particularly at night. To help you meet people, stay in a social hostel. Hostels offer a common area, bar, walking tours, group meals, pub crawls, and a variety of other social events. These offer great opportunities to meet fellow travelers to go out with, sightsee with, and even travel with.

One thing to remember when booking is that hostel atmosphere varies greatly. Some are more oriented to partying while others are more chilled out. Some are designed to be social while others are geared pretty much only for sleeping. Be sure to check reviews before booking. Check out my guide to choosing a hostel for some helpful tips.

If you’re not comfortable sleeping in a dorm room with other people, most hostels offer private rooms. This way, you get to take advantage of the social aspects of hostels while still maintaining some privacy. Couchsurfing is another great social accommodation option.

Transportation: European Trains and the Eurail Pass, Budget Airlines, and Buses

Europe has maybe the best transportation infrastructure in the world. Between trains, buses, and budget airlines, you can travel pretty much anywhere on the continent quickly and usually affordably.

The European rail system, in particular, is world-class. Trains are reliable, comfortable, fast, and the system is extensive. You can travel almost anywhere by train. It’s impressive if you come from a place where train travel is less common.

train tracks in Stockholm
A train in Stockholm

I bought the 3 month global unlimited Eurail pass before my trip. At the time, the pass cost around $700. While writing this article, I checked the price on their website and found that the pass costs about the same now. Somehow the price hasn’t increased in 9 years. That’s actually pretty impressive.

I absolutely recommend traveling by train in Europe but I’m still not sure whether to recommend the Eurail pass. On one hand, I used my Eurail pass extensively and definitely feel that I got my money’s worth. The pass even included my fairy fare from Greece to Italy. On the other hand, I think it would be easier, and for some trips cheaper, to just buy tickets as you go.

One thing that annoys me about the Eurail pass is the fact that you have to pay a reservation fee for most longer routes. They generally charge 10-15 euro per trip. Shorter routes often don’t require a reservation. You just hop on. The reservation fees add up quickly. I probably spend a couple of hundred Euro to reserve seats.

If the train is too expensive, I recommend you check bus ticket prices. It’s almost always cheaper to travel by bus. A few budget European bus lines include Flixbus, Megabus, and Eurolines. Bus companies vary by region as well. If you shop around, you can score some great deals. For more info, check out my bus vs train travel guide.

When traveling between cities that are more that a day apart overland, consider flying instead. European budget airlines offer surprisingly low rates. In some cases, it’s cheaper to fly than take the bus. A few popular European budget airlines include Ryanair, Norwegian Air Shuttle, EasyJet, Wizz Air, Pegasus Airlines, AirBaltic, and Eurowings.

First Solo Travel Tip: Travel by night. This benefits you in two ways. First, you’ll save money on a night of accommodation. Second, you’ll save valuable time. Rather than wasting a whole day sitting on the train or bus, you can sleep through the trip and wake up in a new city ready to explore. Of course, your sleep will suffer unless you book a bed in a sleeper car.

Accessing Money on My First Solo Trip

Before my trip, I got my first debit card from my local credit union. I was still 17 while planning the trip so I had to have one of my parents sign for the card. I kept most of my money in my checking account so I could access it through ATMs. At the time, I did not have a credit card. As I traveled, I withdrew cash from ATMs. I never had a problem finding one in Europe.

I also left home with about $500 USD in cash, which I stored in my money belt. This was as a backup just in case my debit card was lost, stolen, or shut off for some reason. Occasionally, I would exchange some cash for the local currency when I found a good exchange rate.

The cash came in handy on one occasion. For whatever reason, my debit card did not work in Romania. Even after calling my bank, they couldn’t figure it out.

I ended up spending a decent chunk of money on currency exchange fees and ATM fees. I learned my lesson after this experience.

moneybelt
My money belt with my cash, credit and debit cards, and passport

These days, I use a travel credit card instead of a debit card or cash whenever possible. I do this for three reasons.

  1. There are no exchange fees- Travel credit cards eliminate most fees. This saves you 1-3% on every transaction. Most debit cards charge a fee. You also avoid the conversion fee of exchanging cash.
  2. Using a credit card adds security- Credit card companies can do chargebacks. They can refund you if your card gets overcharged or stolen and used by a criminal. This is possible because credit card companies usually don’t pay vendors until the following month. They still have the money so they can give it back to you if you fall victim to fraud or a scam.
  3. I can take advantage of the points to travel more- Rewards points add up fast. Most credit card companies offer bonus points when you open a new card as well. For example, I paid for my round trip airfare to Africa with credit card points. That saved me around $1200.

I also carry a debit card with no foreign transaction fees or ATM withdraw fees. This has saved me hundreds of dollars in fees over the years.

For card recommendations, check out my article: The Best Debit and Credit Cards for International Travel.

Things I Would Have Done Differently on My First Solo Trip

Even thought the trip was a success, it wasn’t perfect. If I were to take this same trip again, I would:

  • Pack lighter- I didn’t want to buy everything new for the trip. I just didn’t have the budget. I ended up packing heavy clothing and gear that I already owned. As a result of this, my pack was pretty heavy. I’ve since upgraded to mostly ultralight gear. A lighter pack makes travel so much easier and less stressful. For help packing, check out my ultralight travel packing list.
  • Pack better shoes- I packed one pair of Converse All-Stars. These are great looking shoes but just aren’t comfortable enough for long walks. Over the course of the trip, I walked several hundred miles in them anyway. My feet hurt. These days, I pack running shoes or trail runners. I can walk all day and experience zero foot pain.
  • Spend more time in the outdoors- Europe offers some beautiful natural scenery. I spent most of my time in cities. On a future trip, I’d like to do some hiking in the Italian Dolomites, Norwegian Fjords, and Mont Blanc.
  • Spend less time in Western Europe– The region is beautiful and historic but too developed and touristy. In fact, the central tourist zones are so clean and well kept that they feel like Disneyland. I found Eastern Europe to be much more interesting. Having said this, I’m glad to have visited the famous western European capitals.
  • Spend more time in smaller towns- I mostly stuck to big capital cities like Berlin, Rome, Paris Amsterdam, London, Stockholm, etc. On a future trip, I would like to explore some second tier cities like Bergen, Norway, and Frankfurt, Germany. I would also like to visit some rural regions.
  • Visit fewer destinations- I was packing up and traveling to a different city every 3-4 days. I ended up visiting about 20 countries in just 3 months. I wanted to see everything, which got exhausting. These days, I travel much slower. I like to take some time to get to know each city and relax a bit. I’m over my country counting phase.
paris
The European capital cities are cool but it’s nice to spend some time in smaller towns and rural regions as well

Things I Should Have Left at Home

Most first time travelers end up overpacking. Myself included. Some of the things that I shouldn’t have packed include:

  • DSLR camera- Too bulky and heavy. I don’t even travel with a camera anymore. I just use my phone. Of course, phone cameras were pretty bad at the time of this trip so that wasn’t really an option.
  • Some of my clothes- I packed too many clothes. I could have left a couple a couple t shirts, underwear, and socks at home. These days, I just pack a couple of shirts and pants and buy more when my originals wear out.
  • My heavy tent- The thing weighed like 4 pounds. I still carry a tent. Just an ultralight model. I have the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 1 and love it. I may buy a bivy sac for my next trip to cut even more weight and bulk.
  • Sleep sheet- While researching for the trip, I read online that it’s a good idea to sleep in your own sheet or sleeping bag liner in hostels for hygiene reasons. This is unnecessary. Hostels are clean enough.

Loneliness During My First Solo Trip

During this trip, I quickly learned that solo travel is a lonely experience. I spent hundreds of hours alone in transit. I cooked and ate many meals alone. Much of the time I went sightseeing alone. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just something to consider before taking a solo trip.

This wasn’t really a problem for me because I’m a bit of a loner naturally. Having said that spending so much time alone can take its toll. Sometimes I wished I had someone to talk to and enjoy the experience with. Sometimes I wished I had someone to suffer with during the low points.

Of course, most of the time I wasn’t alone. I met fellow travelers as well as locals everywhere I went. At most hostels I met people to sightsee with, eat with, and go out with. On a couple of occasions, I even met people to travel with for short stints.

Luckily, meeting people as a solo traveler is pretty easy. A few ways to meet people include:

  • Stay in a social hostel- Choose a hostel with a large common area and a bar. These features make it easy to meet fellow travelers. If the hostel offers outings or group activities, even better.
  • Go on a free walking tour- These are incredibly common in Europe. You’ll definitely meet fellow travelers.
  • Try to keep a positive attitude and try to look approachable- If you appear friendly, you’ll make friends more easily. People don’t want to talk to you if you look like you don’t want to be bothered.
  • Share food and drinks- Buy some beers or snacks and share them with other guests in the hostel. You’ll make friends quickly.
  • Go to a bar- Hotel and hostel bars are great places to meet people.
  • Stay with a local host or go couchsurfing- This way, you’ll automatically have a friend when you arrive.
  • Chat people up while in transit- You might make a friend and the time passes faster.
  • Take a class- Cooking, yoga, diving, and surfing classes are all great places to meet people. You’ll instantly become frineds with your classmates because you all share a common interest.
  • Volunteer or work- You’ll become quick friends with your host and fellow volunteers while working together.

For more help, check out my guide to meeting people while traveling alone.

walking tour
A group walking tour

First Solo Travel Tip: If you’re thinking about taking your first solo trip, it’s important to recognize that you will be spending a great deal of time alone. Even if you’re a chatty people person, you won’t meet people everywhere you go. Some hostels aren’t that friendly. In some cities you simply don’t meet anyone you connect with. You will be eating alone, sightseeing alone, and sitting alone for hours on the bus or train. If you’re the kind of person who needs constant social interaction, you may not enjoy solo travel. It’s not for everyone, which is fine.

A Note About Technology on My First Solo Trip

When I took this trip in 2011, smartphones and Wifi were just becoming common. I didn’t bring any kind of internet-connected device. I didn’t even bring a regular cell phone. During the trip, I only saw a handful of travelers with laptops or phones.

Back then, pretty much every hostel offered computers in the common area. I used these to research and make bookings as I went and to keep in contact with family and friends through email and Facebook. Occasionally, I used payphones to call home. I feel like I got to experience the tail end of the pre-smartphone era of travel.

Travel has changed significantly since 2011. These days, I always bring my phone and laptop when I travel. Every hostel has Wifi. Common computers and payphones are a thing of the past. A few major advantages of technology include:

  • Navigation- GPS makes it so much easier to find hostels, restaurants, points of interest, transit stations, etc. Even when I don’t have internet, I can download maps from Google Maps or Maps.me and use my phone’s GPS to find where I need to go. One of the most annoying parts of my first solo trip was finding the hostel when I arrived in a new city. Before leaving the previous hostel, I had to handwrite directions to my next hostel. I could usually get to the neighborhood pretty easily but actually finding the hostel was a challenge. In Budapest, I spent almost two hours wandering around until I finally found the hostel’s postage stamp sized sign on the side of a building. Now I could walk right there with my phone.
  • keeping in touch- These days, I can call and text my friends and family back home and around the world whenever I want. There are dozens of free apps available including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, WeChat, etc. Sometimes I buy a local SIM card so I can call local numbers and use mobile data. Calling home was incredibly expensive during my first solo trip.
  • Communication with locals- With Google translate, I can communicate with pretty much anyone in their language. I usually download the offline version if I don’t have a local SIM card with mobile data.
  • Currency conversion- Instead of trying to calculate the prices in my head, I can whip out my phone and quickly convert prices into dollars with the most up to date exchange rate. This helps greatly with budgeting and avoiding scams.

A Few Tips for Your First Solo Trip

  • Choose your destination wisely- Some places are easier to solo travel than others. For your first solo trip, you probably don’t want to go to Nigeria or Afghanistan. Choose an easy destination with established tourist infrastructure. This makes it easy to get around and find decent accommodation. Choose a region that is popular among backpackers. You’ll have an easier time meeting people. Also, consider the language barrier. A few great destinations for first-time solo travelers include Southeast Asia, Western Europe, and Central America. For some more ideas, check out my guide to the best solo travel destinations.
  • Meet people- As mentioned above, traveling alone doesn’t mean you have to be alone all the time. Put some effort into meeting fellow travelers and locals. Looking back, some of my best memories of the trip were created with the people I met along the way.
  • Try to blend in- Tourists are a target for scammers, pickpockets, and muggers. By blending in, you reduce your risk of falling victim to a crime. To blend in, try to dress like a local rather than a tourist and avoid speaking too loudly. I blended in pretty well on my first solo trip. In the hostel in Stockholm, someone recommended I roll up my jeans at the bottom so I would blend in more. I guess that was in style in Northern Europe at the time. About 5 minutes after I walked out of the hostel some guy approached me speaking Swedish. After he learned that I didn’t speak the language, he told me that he thought I was a local because I was dressed like a Swede. It was a funny coincidence.
  • Always have a backup plan- It’s important to have a plan B in case things turn south. Carry some extra cash in case you need to take a taxi back to your hotel. Upload copies of all of your important documents to the cloud in case your passport gets stolen. Make sure you always have the address of your hotel on your person in case you get lost. Try your best to be prepared for every situation.
  • Pack light- Schlepping around a massive 90 liter backpack full of 50 lbs of gear grows old quickly. Try to pack everything you need into a carry-on sized bag. 40-50 liters is ideal. Try to keep the total weight under 10 kg or 22 lbs if possible. If there is any question about whether or not you’ll need something, just leave it at home. A light and compact bag allows you to avoid luggage fees. You can also easily walk with it across the city. You don’t need transportation everywhere you go.
  • Don’t plan too much- It’s fine to make a basic itinerary but I recommend you avoid booking anything beyond the first few days. Try to leave some room for spontaneity. Your plans will probably change once you reach your destination anyway. For example, maybe you end up falling in love with a particular city and you decide that you want to extend your stay. Maybe you end up hating a country and want to get out of there. If you already planned everything and booked everything in advance, changing your plans becomes difficult. If you kept your plans open, you can play it by ear.
  • Slow down- Many first-time solo travelers try to cram too many destinations and activities into their itinerary. I made this same mistake. Instead of trying to do everything, pick out a few things to do in each city. Instead of visiting 10 cities in a month, visit 3 or 4. Give yourself time to relax and explore. You’re on vacation after all.
  • Do your own thing- The best part of solo travel is the absolute freedom of it. You can do whatever you want without having to take anyone else’s preferences into consideration. It’s all about you. If you feel like renting a bike and riding across the city, you can. If you feel like going to a water park, you can. You also get to avoid things you don’t like doing. If you hate museums, skip them. If you don’t care for the local cuisine, eat something else. It’s your vacation. There is no right or wrong way to solo travel.
Amsterdam

Final Thoughts about My First Solo Trip

I realize this is a cliché, but this trip was life changing. Not in the sense that I ‘found myself’ or that I changed in any way. Rather, that I found what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to travel. By the time I arrived back home, I was already planning my next trip, Asia.

9 years have passed since I took my first solo trip. In that time, I have designed my life around travel. So far, I have visited 56 countries on 6 continents with plenty more trips planned for the future. I also started this travel blog. In this sense, the trip changed the course of my life.

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