THE NEW RULES
Everything You Knew About Backpacking in Europe is Outdated
Over the past 30 years, the classic post-college trip has changed considerably
What you'll find in this story: Europe backpacking guide, new Europe travel tips, Europe travel secrets, backpacking suggestions
Don't try to do it all
With cheap airfares to Europe and travelers happy to head over to Dublin or Geneva just for a weekend festival, the world is a lot smaller than it once was. Kids should not approach this as their only chance to see Europe, as some of their aunts and uncles did a generation ago. Instead of trying to experience everything in a single trip, it's far more sensible and fun to concentrate on a manageable two or three countries.
Skip the monster rail pass
In the past, backpackers opted for the big whopper of a Eurail pass, which covered travel in almost every country. A one-month youth ticket (valid if you're under 26) now costs $615, an expense only worth it if you take long trips on the train almost every day--which no one should do. Go for something more cost-effective and better suited to your needs, such as a France'n Italy Youth Pass, with 10 days of train travel in both countries during a two-month span for $337 (raileurope.com or railpass.com).
Search out low-fare carriers
Flying within Europe used to be far too expensive for the backpacker budget. Thanks to the growth of no-frills airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet, hopping a flight is often quicker and cheaper than the train or bus. Now, if what you want to do is spend two weeks in Scotland and a month in Italy, there's no need to travel through France and England, wasting time on trains and ferries. Just fly direct from Glasgow to Pisa on Ryanair for about $70. Be warned that the no-frills carriers often fly into airports that are far from the city center, and they typically charge extra if you're checking a bag that weighs more than 40 pounds-trouble for backpackers in particular. For a roster of discount airlines and routes, consult lowcostairlineseurope.org.
Use the Internet for everything
The old way to reserve a bed in a hostel was to call or show up first thing in the morning and pray there was a spot for that night. If the place was full, you scrambled for alternatives and sometimes even had to leave town. The Internet has made this and other headaches disappear. Most hostels either accept bookings through their websites or are part of a network that takes online reservations.Hostelbookers.com offers free reservations at hundreds of hostels, gives prices in U.S. dollars, and supplies details on whether breakfast is included and if private rooms are available. If you want to know what the range of options are in town, from hostels to five-star hotels, visit cheapaccommodations.com. There are Internet stations all over Europe. Most hotels and hostels have free or pay-per-minute computers so you can e-mail parents and friends, upload pictures, update blogs, buy plane tickets, print maps, check train schedules, or reserve spots to see The Last Supper. There are also tons of online reviews and travelers' forums--bootsnall.com, thorntree.lonelyplanet.com, gapyear.com, hostelz.com--that give a sense of what's cool and what's overhyped. Word of mouth is always the best source for recommendations on where to stay and eat, as well as that undiscovered beach in Portugal or hip club in Berlin.
Think before calling collect
A few years ago, calling home from pay phones that took only coins and required complicated dialing codes was maddening and expensive. If e-mail doesn't meet your needs, buy an international calling card at a convenience store in Europe. You generally get better rates if you pick up one there, rather than bringing a card from home. For keeping in regular contact or trying to meet up with friends abroad (formerly a huge conundrum) rent a cell phone from Cellular Express ($15 per week plus $3.74 per minute to call the U.S.) or Roberts Rent-a-Phone (from $23 per week plus $2.25 per minute to call the U.S.). If you already use AT&T Wireless/Cingular, T-Mobile, or Nextel, ask about bringing your phone overseas, as well as about fees for calling the U.S. from the countries you're visiting.
Go with plastic
Trying to find a place with a good exchange rate for traveler's checks is a chore. Credit cards are universally accepted and offer up-to-the-minute rates. ATMs are everywhere, but you'll typically be hit with a fee for each withdrawal. Take out a decent sum every once in a while rather than a little here and there. Stuff a couple of $100 traveler's checks in a hidden sleeve of your backpack for when you run out of cash. Some things never change.