What Surprised Me About Backpacking Through Europe

Insider’s reporter took a one-week solo backpacking trip in Berlin and Vienna, sleeping in budget Airbnbs and shared train cabins.
Joey Hadden/Insider

  • I recently spent two weeks backpacking through Europe and was surprised by my experiences.
  • Backpacking through Europe wasn’t the glamorous, romantic adventure that it looks like on Instagram.
  • My trip was more exhausting than I expected, but I learned more about myself than I thought I would.

I recently took a two-week backpacking trip through four European countries, where I slept in shared train cabins and budget Airbnbs.

The author sleeps in budget Airbnbs (R) and train cars (L) while backpacking in Europe.
Joey Hadden/Insider

I backpacked across Germany, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland for two weeks. It was my first time visiting each country and backpacking in Europe. 

There were a lot of surprises that made me realize backpacking is about more than just a fun adventure, from hardships to hidden gems.

While I always thought it sounded like a cool experience, traveling with just a backpack never appealed to me before 2022.

The author’s packed suitcase for a cruise in April 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

When I was younger, I preferred to pack liberally with all the outfit combinations I could dream up for that perfect Instagram shot right at my fingertips.

Since I began traveling more in 2022, backpacking has felt like my best option to have less stuff to worry about losing.

The author on her first backpacking trip to Canada in August 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

In August 2022, I spent a week backpacking for the first time through Eastern Canada and realized the minimalist travel style was much more attainable than I’d originally thought. 

So when I planned a two-week train trip through four European countries two months later, I decided to push myself to fit everything I needed into my backpack again.

Unfortunately, I recently found that backpacking through Europe wasn’t as romantic as it often seems through photos on my Instagram feed. But I did learn a thing or two along the way.

A woman backpacks in Northern Italy in an undated photo.
Mathieu Young/Getty Images

From young adults describing their ideal gap year to college students recapping their summer, “backpacking through Europe” is a phrase I’ve heard since I was a kid to describe a DIY trip with just a backpack.

In these conversations, aspiring backpackers said they longed for an experience they were confident would set them free.

On social media, I often see epic photos of an empty nature scene save for the backpackers and the turtle shell on their back with a caption about life being an adventure. 

For one thing, I was surprised that I could fit everything I needed for two weeks in just one bag.

Everything the author packed for her two-week trip to Europe in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

While I longed for more outfit variety, I was surprised to find I had everything I needed. 

To accomplish this, I picked the largest bag I own — a 32-liter backpack — for my two weeks in Europe.

The author’s bag packed for Europe in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

I used the same backpack for my week trip to Canada and stuffed it to the brim, so I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make it work for a more extended trip. 

Then, I practiced packing as lightly as possible — twice — before I left to ensure I could fit everything. My work gear and other essentials took priority over extra clothes.

The author practices packing for her Europe trip in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

I started with my work gear, which included a laptop, cameras, lenses, and a notebook.

Then I packed other essentials like chargers, toiletries, and snacks.

I also stuffed a packing cube with two polos, one t-shirt, one long-sleeve t-shirt, three pairs of pants, a sweater, a blazer, a dress, and two light jackets.

Once it came time to gear up for real, I was pleasantly surprised that I could pack lighter than I ever had before and still have all I needed for the longest trip I’d ever taken.

The author gets on a train in Italy in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

While I longed for more outfit variety on my trip, I was surprised that I had everything I needed despite packing lighter than ever. 

I also didn’t expect to use my iPad every day, but it surprisingly brought me a lot of comfort.

The author uses her iPad in a train station (L) and in a train sleeper car (R) in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

While on my way to each destination, I read about the sights that awaited me in my guidebooks.

These books helped me decide how to spend my time in each location and built up my excitement for my upcoming adventures. 

I brought my iPad to watch TV, read, and draw, but since I figured I’d be spending so much time discovering new places, I thought I wouldn’t use it much.

The author watches TV on an overnight train from Vienna to Venice, Italy, in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

Before my trip, I downloaded books for each country I visited. 

During my trip, I downloaded a few episodes of my favorite TV shows to comfort me, which I usually watched around bedtime.


But watching TV and enjoying my hobbies made me feel more grounded before bedtime and while traveling on trains and planes.

Guidebooks and sketches on the author’s iPad.
Joey Hadden/Insider

I used my iPad to draw cover art for my band with the Procreate app, so I spent some time sketching designs for upcoming singles. 


I didn’t consider how exhausting traveling to my destinations would be, especially on overnight train and plane rides.

The author feels exhausted after a 7-hour flight (L) and an 11-hour train ride (R).
Joey Hadden/Insider

When visiting multiple locations in one trip, I found the travel exhausting.

I started my journey with a red-eye flight to Berlin from my home in NYC. Then I took overnight trains to Vienna and Venice, Italy, in shared sleeper cabins. 

I thought traveling through the night would maximize my time to explore, so I began my trip with a red-eye flight to Berlin. But arrived in Berlin too exhausted to maximize my time there.

The author on an overnight train (L) and a red-eye flight (R) in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

I initially thought overnight transportation would be the best way to travel through Europe to maximize my time exploring during the day.

But for me, sleeping onboard flights and train cabins among strangers was challenging, and I arrived at my destinations feeling more exhausted than I had hoped. 

I didn’t consider how little I’d be able to sleep during these overnight rides. One sleepless night on a train even left me frantically searching for a last-minute hotel booking in Vienna at 7 a.m.

The author’s train arrives in Vienna in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

When I arrived in Vienna on an overnight train from Berlin, I planned to spend my morning in Vienna, seeing the sights until I could check in to my hotel at 3 p.m.

But as I stepped off the train, it was apparent that my body needed rest, so I had to figure out where to get it.

I didn’t expect to problem-solve as much as I did on my trip, but I found it improved my split-second decision-making skills.

The author arrives in Vienna by train after a sleepless night.
Joey Hadden/Insider

Before going to Europe, I planned everything, from booking accommodations and train rides to mapping out the locations I wanted to visit to avoid problems.

But plans don’t always work out, and I had to make quick decisions, like when I arrived in Vienna. 


When I finally found a hotel in Vienna, I felt relief and confidence in my traveling capabilities.

The street where the author found a hotel in Vienna one morning in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

When I got off the train in Vienna, I started going to random hotels to book a room. By the third hotel, I got one. 

My trip was full of problems like this, and solving them made me feel more confident in my travel abilities.

I also thought I’d be out exploring all day and night, but my sleepless night made me realize that downtime was just as important.

The author explores Italy (L) and rests in Germany (R) in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

When visiting a new country for just a couple of days, it’s easy to pack exploration into every hour without planning for rest. But without downtime, I found travel wasn’t as enjoyable. 

During the parts of my trip when I felt well-rested, I could appreciate where I was and take in the unique architecture and bustling atmosphere.

The author explores Vienna in the early evening after sleeping all day in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

Getting sleep also made me feel more in touch with what my body needed, from staying hydrated to eating enough food. 


But a lot of my trip was physically draining, which I didn’t expect. On travel days, I had to carry my backpack for a day of exploring before catching a train to my next destination.

The author boards a train after a day of exploring Berlin in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

Wearing my backpack while walking for extended periods made my muscles feel sore. 

I wasn’t used to the weight and size of my backpack, which made it challenging to get around.

The author boards a train in Italy with her big backpack in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

In crowded spaces, I kept forgetting that the backpack made me about a third larger than I typically am.

In these moments, I was surprised to find myself questioning if a backpack really is more convenient than a carry-on suitcase.

The author day dreams about her carry-on suitcase while backpacking in Europe.
Joey Hadden/Insider

Sure, a carry-on suitcase is larger, but after lugging around my backpack all day, I felt like it could be easier to roll a suitcase around.

Plus, I’d have more outfits to choose from. 

Large crowds made having a backpack even harder. I thought traveling in October — the end of shoulder season — would help me avoid this, but I was wrong.

Crowds swarm the Trevi Fountain in Rome in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

In the Summer of 2022, it felt like everyone I followed on Instagram was in Europe. So I booked my trip for October to avoid peak tourism season. 

But throughout my trip, I stood on my tippy toes to see popular historic sites above rows of heads obscuring my view.

From Rome to Zurich, I trudged through places I didn’t expect to be overrun with tourists.

Crowds inside the Colosseum in Rome in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

According to SOTC Travel Limited, a travel company based in India, Europe is less crowded with tourists in September and October than in summer.

But in the fall of 2022, traveling during shoulder season became a big trend, Elite Daily reports. 

Luckily — and surprisingly — some of the highlights of my trip came from quiet towns outside of cities where I booked Airbnbs to save money.

The author’s Airbnbs in Switzerland (L) and Germany (R) in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

During my visits to Berlin and Zürich, I stayed in small towns about an hour outside the city center by train.

My tiny home hotel in Germany was in a peaceful town with charming cobblestone streets.

A 3D map of Neustrelitz, Germany, found in the town square in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

When I visited Berlin, I stayed in a tiny home hotel in Neustrelitz, Germany.

My hotel was a 20-minute walk from the train station, and I enjoyed starting and ending each day with a relaxing walk through town, where I spotted the occasional backpacker among mostly locals. 

At the end of my trip, I spent two nights in a village among the rolling hills of Switzerland, where I saw a gorgeous sunset during an unplanned hike. This small village was the best part of my trip.

A sunlit field in Roggwil, Switzerland, in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

I liked Roggwil, a small village near Zürich, more than almost any other part of Europe I saw.

I couldn’t help but think that if I hadn’t booked this specific Airbnb, which was a 2-minute walk from the town’s train station, I would have never seen it.

I expected nothing more than a place to sleep in these towns, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that they felt like hidden gems.

Snapshots in Roggwil, Switzerland, and Nerstrlitz, Germany, in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

With so many crowds in the cities, I enjoyed experiencing the quiet, slower pace of suburban life while photographing landscapes in less-visited areas of Europe. 

I also thought seeing so many new places in a short time would make them blend together in my mind, but each city felt genuinely unique and left me with distinct memories.

The author makes memories in Milan (L) and Rome (R) in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

I visited six cities and two small towns in just 14 days, so I thought my memories of my European adventure would start to meld together after my trip concluded. 

I’ll never forget how alive Berlin felt — with its lush pockets of greenery, dramatic murals, and street performers — or how Vienna’s garden mazes and fairytale architecture made me feel like royalty.

Snapshots in Berlin (top left), Vienna (top right), Venice, Italy (bottom left), and Zürich (bottom right) in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

Berlin and Vienna weren’t the only destinations to leave lasting impressions.

The canals in Venice also made me feel like I was in a storybook, while Zürich had charming streets with jaw-dropping mountain backdrops.

Ultimately, I was surprised by how much I grew during this journey as an individual and as a travel companion.

The author alone in Austria (L) and with her partner in Italy (R) in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

I spent my first week traveling solo, and when my partner joined me for the second week in Italy and Switzerland, I found I had a new appreciation for traveling with a companion.

I learned much more about myself during my solo travels than I anticipated. And when my partner joined me, having someone to share new experiences with helped me explore and problem-solve in a new way.

The author and her partner in Switzerland in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

While on my own, I had to push through more uncomfortable situations than I’d had on any trip prior.

Having someone to share memories with when my partner joined me in Italy halfway through the trip taught us how to work together in new places.

While it wasn’t a picture-perfect adventure, backpacking through Europe made me realize that you can’t plan out every second, and maybe that’s a good thing.

The author exits a train in Venice, Italy, in October 2022.
Joey Hadden/Insider

Next time, I’ll let go of my expectations and plan to be surprised. 

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