Smartphones have become every backpacker's go-to travel essential. Credit: Shutterstock

A Backpacking Journey: Now vs. Then

Traipsing through Europe and beyond has long been a rite of passage for young people. But how has it changed over the decades?

To say that smartphones have revolutionised the way we travel might be the understatement of the century. Not only can we now search, compare and book entire journeys with a few simple taps, but we can also store thousands of photos, get instant access to advanced translation programs and video call loved ones back home. 

We take these perks for granted today as backpacking essentials, but if someone would have told me this when I went backpacking in Europe by train 12 years ago, I would have looked at them as if they were from another planet (back then, an apple-green iPod was the height of digital sophistication). But exactly how has our use of technology changed the way we backpack, and how different would my trip have looked if it had taken place today? Let’s find out!

First, let’s backtrack to an early June’s day in 2009. My sister and I are about to depart Gothenburg’s central station, stumbling to our Copenhagen-bound train carrying two giant backpacks. Oh, that reminds me: don’t put the backpack on for the first time just before getting on the train, do it early enough so you have time to repack if it’s too heavy. Remember, you’ll have to be able to run around enormous train stations and lift them up and down from shelves!

The continent felt like our oyster with our month-long Interrail cards in hand. Instead of researching every step online, we improvised our journey from stop to stop based on recommendations from other backpackers, our trusted, well-thumbed Lonely Planet guidebook, and a map. 

Circling around Europe by train imbued us with a feeling of freedom and female empowerment. Discovering how destinations, countries and cultures connected via the varied landscapes that took us from the flat plains of Denmark to the mountains of Austria and beyond, made us more aware of our place in the world and how vast and fascinating the world truly was. 

Today, our planning would have been quite different. We would have booked online via a site like Omio, known where to stay thanks to Booking.com, and would have been able to navigate our way from place to place thanks to Google maps (let’s not forget how we would document each step of the journey on our social media apps).

We can now find everything from the best budget eats in our area to dates that fit our profile and age-range. There’s rarely any aspect of daily life or travel that our smartphone use has not touched. While smartphones have made all our lives easier, I kind of miss the days when we would run around a city, frantically trying to find a random internet cafe so we could book our next hostel.

Technology can empower our journeys, and phones in themselves are neither good nor bad, it’s just up to us how we choose to use them. It’s undeniably harder to be in the moment when constantly connected to your device, ready to share and receive updates, not to mention the overload of information that can be as daunting as helpful. Ok, I might just have one photo left to remember my trip by, but seeing the Trevi Fountain or Prague castle for the first time will forever be ingrained in my mind. Perhaps because I was too busy taking it in to take a photo.

Timeless backpacking advice 

Regardless of what decade it is, some things never change. Here are some important backpacking tips that will hold through the ages. 

Backpacking do’s

  • Travel off-season. Avoid mid-June to mid-August and benefit from a much wider set of available train seats (always try to reserve a seat when traveling by train in Germany) and hostel rooms.
  • Make a budget Plan ahead so you aren’t overspending.
  • Research destinations Make a list and itinerary of those can’t-miss places you have been dreaming about

Backpacking don’ts

  • Plan everything beforehand Spontaneity is your best friend.
  • Pack more than what fits in one backpack Remember this is a bag you should be able to haul around hot European train stations!
  • Stay too long in one place. If you fall in love with a destination you can always go back another time. During our month-long trip we never stayed longer than three nights anywhere.

Due to an increased interest in train travel and sustainability, night trains have been making a big comeback. Travelers are hyper-aware of their carbon footprints and today it’s easier than ever to find more environmentally friendly options to get you where you want to go. Plus night trains save you a bundle on a night in the hostel.

Since COVID-19 changed the way we move across borders, we advise you to keep up to date on the latest travel regulations with our Open travel index

Also don’t forget to ensure you have your EU Digital COVID Certificate in the form of a QR-code downloaded to your phone at all times!