I’ve been constantly roaming Europe for a decade, and seen plenty of backpackers sweating under their loads as they struggle to find their hostels in some hidden outskirt.
They’ll set the loads down for a day or two, rush to get photos of whatever sights as-seen-on-instagram, then heft their packs back on their backs and start again.
As they go, they rarely meet interesting locals. Instead they meet and commiserate with other such backpackers about their misadventures. Some of the major contingents that they discover among themselves:
- There are the South Africans and Australians, who are often doing Europe as part of some incredibly epic, round-the-world trip, since the tickets are so expensive just to leave home.
- There are the Instagram-happy Latin Americans, who often want to photograph themselves in front of as many famous monuments as quickly as possible and then move on to the next one.
- Likewise there are the boisterous and bucket-list-following backpackers from the United States, who need to check off as many spots as possible in the tiny bit of vacation time they are alloted, and the Canadians, who stress that they are nothing like their southern neighbors and don’t deserve to share a sentence with them and didn’t I see the flag on their backpack?
I’ve got some questions myself about the very concept of backpacking and hostelling in Europe and most other parts of the globe. I’ll ask them in two main parts: Why the backpack? And why hostels? I come at these from the perspective of someone who has enjoyed this style of travel, but wouldn’t do it anymore or recommend it to anyone — for the most part.
- The Backpacker Pack: A Walking, Crushing Mobile Billboard for a Crazy Travel Philosophy
- Hostelling Can Be Fun — Or Disastrous — But it Rarely Connects You to Local Cultures
- If You Want to Stay in a Hostel Anyway: Our Advice
- Alternatives to Hostels
Update History of This Article
The Backpacker Pack: A Walking, Crushing Mobile Billboard for a Crazy Travel Philosophy
There’s received wisdom out there that if you’re a young person on a long trip, you should have a backpack and it should contain everything you might need. This impractical but advice comes from travel bloggers and review sites, and while some encourage you to reduce, some claim that you’ll want to haul around at least 70 liters.
Here are the questions that I wish would get asked more.
1. Why not wheels?
Unless you’re going to be walking exclusively out in the woods or on trails, wheels are you friend. And you can get packs that have straps as well as wheels, so that you can pop your pack on your back for a set of stairs, a bike ride, or moving off-road. But most of the time, if you have wheels you’ll use them, particularly in cities and towns. Here are the full-sized combo wheels-and-backpack-straps packs that we’ve found work best for long-term travel. But it’s even better if you can…
2. C’mon, couldn’t you reduce to just a carry-on?
This is nirvana, if you can get your stuff down this light. Most experienced travellers go carry-on-only and doing so frees up a lot of energy and time for other things. And yes, there are also great rolling backpack carry-ons out there — this is what we really recommend and use ourselves.
3. Do you really need those “just-in-case” items?
If you’ve travelled before to similar lands, think about what you’ve packed before and not used — definitely eliminate all of that. Instead of phrasebooks and guidebooks, use digital versions on your phone, for example. For more inspiration on such reductions, see for example our minimalist packing list for Brazil or for study abroad.
Your money, time, and energy are always limited, and this is even more true when you’re on the road, experiencing new cultures. Traveling light and free ensures that you don’t expend these commodities on lugging around stuff that you will rarely use.
Hostelling Can Be Fun — Or Disastrous — But it Rarely Connects You to Local Cultures
I’ve had plenty of wonderful experiences staying in hostels and meeting others doing likewise. But they’re far from the best option in most cases.
Continuing with more questions…
4. Do you want to be so far from the city center?
Hostels, especially official HI hostels, are often far from city centers, which sometimes can be interesting in that you see weird corners that you wouldn’t bother with otherwise.
But often these areas are simply rather residential and interchangeable with other such areas anywhere. This means you end up spending a lot of your precious time (and/or money) getting to and from the hostels.
Note the bottom left corner of this very useful map.
5. Do you want to only meet other travellers?
Locals are of course not in hostels. It’s true that hostels can be a great way to experience a variety of cultures, but it’s generally a terrible way to understand anything about the place you’re actually in. The other options discussed later in this article give you far more opportunities to interact.
6. Are hostels actually the cheapest way to travel?
We sympathize with the idea of making your travel savings stretch farther so that you can go longer and see more. But in spite of their limited comforts, hostels aren’t always even the cheapest option. You’re often sharing a room with snoring strangers, and yet it can at times be cheaper to rent a room or flat from a local or even take a cheap hotel room. And of course there is couchsurfing, making friends, staying with friends of friends, and even, for some, dating apps as travel lodging.
7. Are hostels too dirty, too noisy, too boring, too wild…?
… and so on. All sorts of beautiful and horrible things can happen in hostels. But I’d generally prefer my adventure not be about the lodging itself, and rather about the places I’m visiting, the things I’m doing there, and the way I interact with the space and the (local) people.
If You Want to Stay in a Hostel Anyway: Our Advice
If you do decide to go the hostel route for at least part of your trip, one of the best ways to ensure that you get a place that avoids some of these pitfalls is Hostel World; it has a map search so you can ensure that you only bother looking at options that are well-located, and users heavily review where they stay so you can immediately spot when cleanliness or other standards are starting to slip.
Alternatives to Hostels
But in many cases travellers can have both more comfortable and more meaningful adventures with other lodging options.
SAFETY NOTE: The first two options below are far safer than the uninitiated often assume, as the web review systems ensure that people are on their best behavior. In fact, staying with a well-reviewed host is, in my book, much safer than staying in a random hotel or hostel, for which you may not know if things have gone terribly for previous guests.
- Home stays: It’s not just Airbnb, although that tends to be the site with the most comprehensive options for any given locale. HomeStay and Booking.com are alternatives with pretty wide arrays of room and apartment rentals. These are fun ways to find offbeat places to stay, where you interact with hosts and often have a kitchen so you can buy local foods and learn to make them. Look especially for rooms for rent rather than whole tourist apartments, so that you’re interacting with locals in their own homes rather than displacing them in the local housing markets.
- Couchsurfing: The classic Couchsurfing site is in a state of decline and disrepair (and the owners sadly ripped off the volunteers who helped build it when they converted this into a for-profit site). And in any case this free lodging and cultural exchange site has been somewhat supplanted in hosts’ and travellers’ minds by Airbnb and the like. But it’s still a useful way to find people to meet and places to stay for some locales. The less-populated but more ethical site for making hosting and travel connections is BeWelcome.
- Stay with friends: You don’t have friends everywhere, but if your life is at all interesting, you do have at least some friends who are not from/in your local area (if not, work on that!). As one traveler suggests, you should even prioritize going to visit places where you know someone — your experience of the local culture will be much richer for it. It can help if you’re also hosting lots of friends and friends-of-friends yourself.
- Volunteering: In some cases, you can get free lodging and a learning experience in exchange for your labor. This can include meaningful interactions with locals. Woofing is one example. Do be careful to thoroughly investigate any such option including with people who have previously done it, so that you know what you’re getting into.
There are a few caveats to the above diatribe. Wheels are obviously not useful if you go exclusively off-road, and I know a few people who just enjoy the feeling of carrying their loads on their backs rather than pulling it. Also, hostels can be fun and useful in certain areas and situations.
But I hope I’ve laid out a good argument at least against the automatic assumption that backpacking and hostelling are the way to go, especially for young people and shoestring budgets. There is so much more out there.
We have a few other articles offering more detailed advice on what minimalist travel is and how to go about it. And comments and questions are welcome below; we pay attention and this can help us update our advice.
Photo at top by Antoine K.