In the fall of 2015, I had the privilege of being able to study abroad at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. While there, I spent a bunch of my time visiting other countries. I haven’t been able to really quantify the experience that I had abroad. Since I’ve been home, I have had this conversation probably close to 100 times:
Friend: “Hey Greg, How was Europe?”
Greg: *Struggles to condense months of life-changing experiences into a simple reply* “Umm, good.”
So here, I’m going to try to compress the most eye-opening two weeks of my journey, the two weeks I backpacked around Europe, into a blog post in attempt to express how great Europe was!
A quick google search tells me that 29% of Americans have never left the country. The majority percentile, 50%, have only visited 1-2 countries—commonly Mexico or Canada. In two weeks, I visited 6 countries and 13 different cities. In that time, I traveled with as many as 10 people or as few as me, myself and I. This leads me to my first takeaway:
1. You are not alone.
There are thousands of Americans backpacking through Europe at any given time. When I was in France, my friend Elizabeth and I visited the Eiffel tower. We were eating a baguette when three boisterous Americans approached us. (If you want to find Americans, just look for the loudest people.) They quickly befriended us and before I knew it the 5 of us ended up exploring the city of Paris until 4 AM. It’s unforgettable experiences like that, that are only possible by meeting new people.
So you might be asking: “Greg, how do I meet people?” That is a really valid question, since my above story was dumb luck. My best advice leads me to my second takeaway:
2. Stay at Hostels!
Sure, the idea of sharing a room with 16 other people might be off-putting to some, but for 8 Euros a night, you really cannot beat it. The better part about hostels are the people. You get to meet some of the most incredible, like-minded people you will ever have the pleasure of meeting. In my time, I met everyone from people who were staying the weekend to people who were taking a gap year, and using it to travel the world. Hostels are also one of the most valuable resources available to you. Typically, the hostel is staffed with people who have been living in your host city for some time, so they will know all the best spots.
So now you might be wondering, “Wow, Greg, I have so many friends, what should I do with them?” That leads me to my next takeaway:
3. Find a balance of touristy stuff and unplanned exploration.
I thought about how… this was the one time in my life I’d get to do something this amazing just for me.
Personally, I love exploring. I really enjoy going into a city and just wandering. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I have friends who love seeing the incredible buildings Europe has to offer. The key: balance! For every structured thing you do, i.e. visiting the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, do something explore-y like taking a boat ride through the dams. Try to find someone who compliments your travel style as well. My friend Phoebe loved to see sites and historical landmarks, where I was more laissez faire about what we saw. Both are important!
Until now, I have been talking about doing stuff and traveling in groups. My fourth takeaway is:
4. Take some time for yourself to appreciate everything.
On the last day of my travels, I went to Nice in the French Riviera (which happens to be the most beautiful place I have ever been to). I did not come to Nice with anyone. I climbed one of the hills there and looked out on everything, taking time to reflect on my study abroad experience. I thought about how the next time I would be here, I would be on business or with a family—how this was the one time in my life I’d get to do something this amazing just for me. Some of my favorite memories of my study abroad travels were spent in silence, just looking out at the most amazing parts of the world.
Finally, I want to give you something concrete that you can use for your backpacking experience. And that is:
5. Fit everything into one backpack.
I cannot tell you how many times I was thankful for having one backpack. Typically hostels have storage for bags, but getting from the airport to a hostel can get really frustrating, especially since most hostels are located out of the way to cut down on costs. It is possible to fit everything in one backpack: towels are typically provided by the hostel, and if you’re like me and don’t grow facial hair, then you can save space by not bringing shaving equipment. Another thing to consider is that most budget airlines have additional baggage fees for more than one bag (I’m looking at you, Easy Jet). If I had to do it over, I would even sacrifice the convenience of having multiple sets of clothes for only taking one bag.
Make sure you go backpacking! I can’t recommend it enough. College has been my favorite part of my 20 year-long life. Study abroad has been my favorite part of college. And backpacking has been my favorite part of studying abroad.
Greg McNeil is a Mechanical Engineering student at the Stevens Institute of Technology and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, in 2015.