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What I learned while backpacking through Europe

Updated: Jul 22, 2023



A few months ago, I went travelling through Europe and had the weirdest two months of my life. This was my first solo trip in Europe, and I had no idea what I was doing.


I made a lot of mistakes and a few good decisions along the way and have decided to impart my wisdom in this article to discuss what I wish I knew before I left, what I’m happy I did, and important lessons I learned along the way.


What I wish I knew

Sometimes I can be a smart person and other times I can be a blundering idiot. Here are a few examples of me being a blundering idiot:


1. Do activities that you enjoy

This may seem very intuitive to some people, but it took me a while to learn this lesson: do activities that you normally like doing. While I was travelling, I realized that I hate museums, but I still spent the first month of my trip going to museums because I felt like that was what I was supposed to do to experience each place properly.


I don’t have the mental energy or motivation to read all the plaques. If I do force myself to read all the stupid little plaques, I know will not recall a single bit of information after I leave the museum. Therefore, I decided one month into my trip to stop spending time and money on museums.


But while I find museums insufferable, I know that I really like theatre and films so I decided to prioritize these activities. I saw a comedy show at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre which was really funny, I went to The Book of Mormon on a Tuesday in London, and I found an indie theatre in Iceland that played films with English subtitles which I went to like three times.


I don’t know why it took me a month to stop spending money on things I didn’t like doing, but when I started doing things I actually liked, my trip was a lot more enjoyable. Don’t do all the tourist activities just because you think that’s what you “should be doing.” Do activities that you actually like and you will learn more and have more fun.



Side note: If you do decide to go to museums, don’t feel bad if you don’t have intelligent/sophisticated thoughts while you’re there. Some of my thoughts at the Louvre included:

  • How did all these ugly paintings get into the Louvre?

  • France needs to give Egypt their stuff back.

  • Where is this special mummy they have listed on the map? Oh, there it is. I passed it because I didn’t realize it was the special one.

2. Choose social hostels

If I were to do this trip over, I would also pay more attention to the social ratings at each hostel as the hostel you’re at is probably one of the biggest factors in whether you’ll make friends easily.


I stayed at a really great hostel chain in London called Hostel One and they had activities every day and went out as a group every night so it was super easy to meet people. In other places like Iceland, there were no social activities, so if I didn’t meet someone in my room or in the kitchen, I was pretty much out of luck.


To find social ratings for different hostels, you can use the Hostelworld website or app to look at the ratings and reviews. Generally, anything with a social rating above 9.0 should be decent, but I would also check people’s reviews and/or the hostel’s website to see if the hostel regularly hosts social events and if people actually go to them.


3. Do your research before you leave

When I’m at home, I have my entire life laid out in my calendar, but when I travel, I like to go with the flow and see where life takes me. Going with the flow is good to an extent, but going on a trip with only my accommodation and travel planned in advance taught me that there is definitely some planning required.


For example, while I was in Amsterdam, I wanted to see Anne Frank House, but turns out you have to book your tickets weeks in advance. By the time I got there, there wasn’t any availability left for the rest of my trip, so I didn’t get to go.


Before you leave, I would definitely make a list of all the attractions you want to see beforehand and check if you have to buy your tickets in advance. Some attractions don’t require that you book in advance, but if you do, you can sometimes bypass the regular line so you don’t have to wait as long.


What I’m happy I did

I wasn’t a complete idiot for most of my trip and I think I generally had the right attitude. Here’s some things that I did that I would definitely recommend doing while you’re travelling:


1. Keep a journal

The lessons I learned while travelling were very intangible and although travelling definitely changed my outlook on the world, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where these changes happened. Further, I spent most of my time travelling feeling stupid or inadequate and wishing that I was different: I wish that I was less awkward, I wish I was more fun, and I wish that people didn’t think I was an idiot when I tried to participate in their culture.


Going back and reading my journal is extremely cringy, but it also lets me see how I changed throughout my trip. Even though I was in a constant state of confusion, by reading my journal I can see that I was always trying to learn and figure things out. Usually by the time I got my feet on the ground in a new place, I would move and have to meet new people and be confused all over again which made me feel hopelessly stuck in my own personality and culture. But although I felt frustrated at times, looking back, I can see that I learned and changed a lot.


2. Be open to new experiences

Everywhere you go, you will meet people and they will invite you to do things. Sometimes they will invite you to do very strange things. Sometimes you will like the strange new thing and sometimes you will hate it and be very confused as to why anybody could possibly find this very strange experience “fun.” In either event, you will have either a good story or a fun time so I would suggest agreeing to any strange experiences so long as they seem reasonably safe.



3. Invest in your friendships

I met a lot of really wonderful people while I was travelling and many of them I will probably never see again. It would be impossible to keep up with all the friends that I made while I was travelling, but I am still in touch with a handful of them.


I heard somewhere that you learn more about people by getting to know one person well than getting to you a bunch of people superficially. Out of all the experiences I had on my trip, the ones that changed me the most were becoming close friends with people from different walks of life.


I don’t know how to describe how my new friends changed me other than saying that my brain is now bigger. The people I met challenged me and taught me how to think in different ways which has made me consider different ideas, re-examine some of my beliefs, and made me more empathetic.


I am eternally grateful for all the friends I made while I was travelling and believe that the people you meet along the way are the best part about travelling.


Lessons learned

When you’re travelling, you have the opportunity to sample different ways of living, and when you get home, you have to decide how you want to continue your life. You don’t have to live the life people want you to live and you don’t have to do things you don’t want to.


You can’t do everything, and you have to choose who you want to be, how you want to invest your time, and what you want to spend your money on.



One lesson that my trip really reinforced for me is that comparing yourself to other people truly is pointless. I’m very grateful that I was able to travel and go on this trip, and it makes me sad to think about how much time I wasted feeling inadequate or wishing I was farther along in other areas of my life.


I know I’m usually really hard on myself when I falter in certain areas, and while I think it’s important to venture outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself, it’s also important to recognize and invest in the things you’re good at.


Ultimately, I learned that you can’t do everything, you can’t know everything, or be who everyone thinks you should be; you have to decide who you want to be and invest in that person.


I like films and theatre, reading, Banksy, camping, Thai food, and cinnamon buns; having close friendships is important to me; I feel very lucky that I have a job that allows me to travel.


I don’t like museums.


Some final lingering thoughts I have are that good and bad things happen in no specific order, and for no specific purpose; be good to people around you even if they are occasionally annoying; treat everyone with respect and dignity; sometimes the expectation of something happening is more fun than the thing itself; live in the moment and learn to enjoy life as it unfolds.


Life is fun and you don’t need to have everything or know everything to enjoy it.



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Harrison Solish
Harrison Solish
22 ก.ค. 2566

Love the blog, thank you for sharing some of those pretty personal insights- that's the much more interesting stuff. Your insight on doing what you like is a super great idea. I completely get what you mean. So often I feel like I just check off things from a travel to-do list. I fear someone saying "oh you must've loved the Louvre," and then me saying "I never went," and their ensuing shock. But who freaking cares. As you say, comparing ourselves to others is such a waste of time.


Blog more. You're a very entertaining writer.


-HS

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juliastratton25
23 ก.ค. 2566
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Thank you for your comment Harrison! Glad you enjoyed it :) Exactly, who cares what you do as long as you're having a good time--it's your vacation!


Thank you for the encouragement, I definitely need to write more. I've been writing a lot for other people over the past few months but it's so refreshing to have the freedom to write whatever I want. Stay tuned, I will definitely have some more blog posts coming out!!!


-Julia

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