Trip Coach: April 3, 2007

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Mark Pearson, editor of the anthology Spain From a Backpack, answered your questions about backpacking in Europe.

Charleston, SC: I plan to travel around Western Europe by Eurailpass in March, April, and May of 2008. I am a 61-year-old man and will be venturing solo. Can you suggest categories of accommodations that are moderate to inexpensive, clean, and offer some modicum of privacy and quiet? Thanks.

Mark Pearson: First off, March thru May is a great time of year to travel in Western Europe. You won't have to deal with the heat, crowds, etc. What is moderate to inexpensive and clean certainly varies from country to country. If you want privacy and quiet, well, that rules out hostels, which average about $25US per night. Expect to pay around $80US per night for a moderate hotel in a decent location. Like everything, you pretty much get what you pay for. There's a reason why some of the new budget hotel chains are only $40US per night. Do you really want to be 30 minutes outside of town at a truck stop? Your best bet is to spend time consulting several guidebooks. If you're ready for an adventure, you might try Couchsurfing.com or hospitalityclub.org, two sites where you can find people that will let you sleep at their pad. I guarantee a good story or two to tell.

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New York, New York: How can my boyfriend and I travel to Turkey for $1000 per person (including airfare). We want to travel the last two weeks of May and we are both 25.

We would love to do as much hiking as possible as well as see Istanbul.

Thank you, Katrina

Mark Pearson: Hi Katrina and Katrina's boyfriend,

Two weeks in Turkey for $1K including airfare?? The flight alone will cost you nearly $900, which leaves you with about $7 per day! If you're crazy, you can do it. A friend of mine and contributor to our book series, Ben Bachelder, traveled for 14 months around the world on a $5 per day budget. How do you do it? It involves hitchhiking and staying with the locals.

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Phoenix, AZ: Have you any insight in hiking the Pilgrim's Trail in Northern Spain?

Mark Pearson: One of my dreams is to hike the Camino de Santiago (or Way of St. James). What I know about it comes from reading two moving stories in our anthology, Spain From a Backpack. I don't mean for this to be a shameless plug but it's best if I let the opening of Mara Ginnane's story, "To Be A Pilgrim," speak for itself...

The wind whips around me, shoving me off course and flapping my jacket wildly against my arms. My heavy backpack, tightened around my hips and shoulders, pulls me toward the ground. On both sides of the road, groves of poplar trees bend and shake with every gust, hurling leaves and small branches in all directions. Above, dark clouds boil and swell, full to bursting with the threat of rain.

This is my worst day yet. Three-hundred kilometers into an 800-kilometer trek across Spain, I am wishing I had never heard of the Camino de Santiago. My tired legs strain to propel my body forward on blistered feet, and my eyes squeeze nearly shut, tearing up against stinging sand blown by the roaring wind. I had been hiking with three companions, but they have fallen behind now. I can't even hear the crunching of their boots on the gravel road.

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Milford, CT: What is your favorite country for naturally scenic backpacking in Europe? Please include time of year, city names, and trail names.

Mark Pearson: A backpack is simply the best way to carry your worldly possessions while traveling on a shoestring budget. Backpackers experience marvels that elude people who carry suitcases.

While I'm not a hiking expert at all, I do enjoy it. One of my favorite hiking destinations is in the mountains near Interlaken, Switzerland. The village of Gimmewald serves as an excellent base. The other scenic spot is Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera.

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Westfield, NJ: Mark:

My wife and I are both (not so young) teachers looking to be able to afford Europe (preferably Italy or Spain and Portugal) for July and August. We are interested in seeing cities for 4-5 days and the countryside between cities on the other days.

We would like to backpack (to be able to afford this experience) but not rough it too much. We want a clean hostel, apart-hotel, apartment or agritourismo that has a comfortable bed, hot water, and simple cooking hookup and private bathroom during the trip.

We understand it is the busy season and we know the exchange rate of the Euro however this is something we would like to do as an alternative to our central and south American trips each summer.

What details for lodging and food can you recommend in pulling this trip off in one or more of the following countries: Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Holland, France, or Northern Europe during this time period?

How much can we expect to have to spend for the two of us for this type of trip?

Thank you in advance. I look forward to your answer.

Professor K

Mark Pearson: Professor K,

Do you have any long lost relatives that you can stay with? It's hard to say how much this type of trip will cost you. From what you described, I would expect to spend about $100 a day. To save money, you have to make some sacrifices. For example, you may want to steal a page from the Europeans and stay in one spot for 6 weeks. It's only the Americans who race around the Continent trying to see as much as possible. The more you move around, the more it will cost you.

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Blaine, WA: I'm going to Italy alone in May, 2007 and I've been told to be careful in train stations. Aside from that, is there anything else a 50-something woman alone should watch out for? I'll be mostly in the area between Milano and Firenza.

Mark Pearson: May is one of the best months to travel in Italy. I would be more concerned about the 50-something Italian males wooing you than the train stations!

I strongly recommend buying a money belt to store your cash, credit cards, and passport. The money belt should be worn underneath your clothes. There are entire books full of safety tips. It comes down to using common sense.

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Payson, AZ: We will be traveling in Spain later this summer. We like small, out-of-the-way places, but are finding it almost impossible to get train routes and schedules related to the small towns. Specifically, we can find nothing about connections from Santiago de Compostela across the Costa Verde, including the towns of Le Coruna, Ortegueira, Ribadeo, Gijon, SantanderBilboa and San Sebastian, then on to Bayonne France. The Renfe web site doesn't list those towns and refuses to offer connections possible more than a month in the future. HELP!!! James

Mark Pearson: I feel your pain, James. I had the same problem with the Renfe Web site last year! First, the time schedules may not vary much from month to month. The times you see this month are likely what you'll see next month. Second, you're often better off traveling by bus instead of train. If you don't want to wing it, the RailEurope.com train schedule search works pretty slick. However, you don't need to buy train or bus tickets to these small towns in advance. Finally, one train strike will derail all the planning.

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New York, NY: I (I'm 29) will be backpacking in Eastern Europe (Prague, Vienna and Budapest) with my Mom this summer. We leave from JFK on Aug. 1, for 15 days. Do you have a suggested essential itinerary -- where to spend more of our time, etc? Thank you, D.F.

Mark Pearson: Hi D.F.,

That's great you're taking your mom to Eastern Europe. Here's a suggested itinerary:

  • 2 or 3 nights Prague
  • 1 or 2 nights Vienna
  • 2 nights Budapest
  • 2 nights Eger, Hungary

Depending on where you fly in and out of, you could add Krakow, Salzburg, or Munich.

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Dublin, OH: I back-packed through Europe for 3 1/2 months in 1970. I even met my husband that summer on a train and we have been married for almost 36 years. How do think back-packing has changed from then to now?

Sincerely, Diana

Mark Pearson: Hi Diana,

The story of meeting your husband on a train would have been a great story for our book. My first backpacking trip around Europe was not until 2002 so I don't know firsthand how it has changed since 1970. I can tell you that backpacking around Europe is now more popular than ever, despite the euro gaining on the dollar ($1.33US gets you 1 euro today). Every year, nearly two million Americans ages 18 to 29, and hundreds of thousands of Brits, Canadians and Australians, head for Europe to travel, study and work. It's still a right of passage.

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Phoenix, AZ: What are the 2 best cities to backpack/hike in Spain and Italy? Say 3 days per city. Thanks, Robin.

Mark Pearson: Hi Robin,

Here are a few regions where you'll find great hiking.

Italy -- Cinque Terre

Italy -- Amalfi Coast (Positano is a good base)

Spain -- anywhere on the Camino de Santiago

Spain -- island of Majorca

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Novi, MI: My husband, 10-year-old son and I would love to backpack around Italy or France. My question is, is it advisable to backpack with a young child? If the answer is yes, what is the best way to approach the trip? Thank you. Any help is appreciated.

Mark Pearson: Your 10-year-old son will have a great time in Europe. There are plenty of kid-friendly things to do. Rather than visit a dozen countries, you might consider, for example, renting an apartment in Rome or Paris for a week. They can be less expensive than hotels and it will feel like you're actually living in Europe!

I highly recommend taking a break from the museums and spending a few days at the beach in the Italian Riviera. What kid would not want to play in the sand and eat pizza and gelato?

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Mark Pearson: Thanks so much for joining me to talk about backpacking in Europe. If you're planning a trip or just want to relive the adventure, pick up a copy of one of the Europe From a Backpack series travel books. My site, europebackpack.com, has a blog and lots of resources for you.

Cheers
! Mark Pearson

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