As an American who just finished a ten month trip around the world, this might sound weird, but one of the biggest culture shocks I experienced happened when I arrived in Europe. After seven months backpacking in Asia and another 9 months living in South Korea, being back in the Western world was a real change of pace and a lot of it had to do with how different the backpacking scene there is. All this said, I’ve put together a list of some of the most striking differences between backpacking in Europe vs backpacking anywhere else I’ve been in the world, which also includes Africa, and Central and South America.
Fashion Is Important:
The first thing I noticed about being in Europe after having backpacked in India and SE Asia for seven months was that backpackers were fashionable. Not only were people not just wearing singlets or whatever else they might have that was clean (or kind of clean) people were wearing nice clothes and there were many hostels where I was literally the only person who didn’t have a leather coat.
There Are More Women:
This is a hugely anecdotal statement on my part, but the difference was very dramatic and an observation I heard from many other travels. Another reason I’ll stand behind this observation is because it just makes sense. The overall notion most people have about traveling in Europe is that it’s safe. Combine that with its beauty, romantic allure and how easy it is to get around, and it just makes sense that a lot of women who might not feel comfortable walking the streets of New Deli would feel pretty OK about roaming around Rome alone.
It Doesn’t Put You Out of Your Comfort Zone:
This is a hugely relative statement since it depends on where in the world a traveler is from, but for Western backpackers, going to Europe doesn’t require much of an adjustment and there isn’t going to be much that they encounter that will challenge their way of thinking about or viewing things. However, for the increasing number of backpackers coming from Asian countries, I imagine Europe might prove as disorienting and unusual for them as going to Japan might be for someone coming from the West.
You’re Constantly Meeting Other Backpackers:
Related to the last one, Europe isn’t going to challenge Western travelers or push them outside of their comfort zone, which are two of my favorite things about traveling. However, this doesn’t mean traveling there is pointless. Far from. Europe is overrun with backpackers from all over the world. While in places like India and Myanmar, I would sometimes go days without meeting or talking to other foreigners, Europe couldn’t have been more opposite. In two weeks there, I met more people from more countries than I did in four months in India and Nepal. So while I might not have been challenged by cultural differences, I certainly got to talk with plenty of people from different cultures.
You Can Drink the Water:
What more needs to be said about how safe and developed the place is. It’s a money saver and one less thing to have to worry about.
Way Too Many Flash Packers:
Being that Europe is a continent made up of a bunch of small countries close together, a lot of the backpackers you meet are not traveling far from home and are only traveling for a short time. Half the people I met while I was in Bucharest, Romania were pretty much just there for a long weekend of partying and were only interested in hanging with the friends they had come with. That Europe is a different kind of backpacker scene was made even more clear to me when I went to put my pack in one hostel’s storage room and saw that every bag in this very full room was a roller suitcase.
Don’t get me wrong, the cost of a beer can be cheap in lots of countries. I paid less than 3 dollars for 3 liters of beer in Bulgaria. And in Eastern and Southern Europe you can get a very nice meal for just a few bucks, but on the whole, Europe costs way more than places like SE Asia, South America and Africa when it comes to backpacking. A good deal on accommodations in Europe might mean paying 10 dollars to be in a ten person dorm as opposed to spending ten bucks on a private beach hut in Thailand. And, of course, there are the big clubs and a more developed bar scene that can quickly suck your bank account dry. Goodbye 4 dollar party buckets that can be slurped down while partying on the beach and hello ten dollar cover charges to get into an abandoned warehouse party that has 5 dollar beers. And the cost of transportation is through the roof relative to other places.
One of the best things about traveling around Europe is that you can largely do it without anyone bothering you to buy anything. Outside of a handful of truly touristy spots, a person can pretty much count on being able to walk down the street or sit at an open air cafe and enjoy an uninterrupted conversation. Sometimes this more than makes up for the higher prices because there are few things worse in life than having 20 different people come up to your table while you’re eating to try to sell you the same crappy souvenirs and not taking no for an answer.
Options, Options and more Options:
Another one of the best things about traveling in Europe are all the options. Not only do you have a ton of choices on where to stay, you have a ton of choices on where to go and how to get there. While hostels now seem to be all over the place in SE Asia, not too long ago they were few and far between. They are also new in India and still only in a few locations. Many of the bigger cities I went to in India had exactly one hostel and they were all less than 6 months old. But along with having tons of choices on where to stay, Europe also gives you countless choices on where to go. Europe is small and well developed. this means that in every city you go to, you have the choice of taking a train, bus, hired van or even plane to another nearby major city. This sometimes made me feel overwhelmed with options but it was great for meeting up with people and it sure beats spending two days on a bus to get to a town that’s two days away from the next closest town.
Effortless Beauty Everywhere:
One of the reasons I think I like traveling so much is that I can see beauty in a lot of different things, even a plastic bag blowing in the wind (five points if you got that movie reference). That said, finding the beauty in some places is harder than others. But when it comes to Europe, so much of it just looks exactly the way a tourist imagines it in their head before going. Whether it’s a street lined with perfectly painted, old buildings or a lone standing castle that’s crumbling, everything there works together to scream, “You’re in Europe! Look how fantastically old and lovely it is?” While I think there’s a case to be made that Japan is a more beautiful place, that has a lot to do with every square inch of it being perfectly manicured.
It’s Relaxed and the Service Is Terrible
Obviously chilling on the beach all day in SE Asia with an endless supply of nearly-cold beers isn’t a bad way to relax; however, Europeans have figured out a way to do it that doesn’t require tropical beaches. If I had to name the biggest cultural difference between Americans and Europeans, it’s that Europeans really know how to just sit back and let life pass them by while sitting at a cafe or enjoying a long meal. And it’s exactly because no one there is in a rush that cafes there are always busy. Unlike in America, cafes, restaurants and wait staff are not concerned about turnover and moving customers along so they can get their next customer and their next tip. You can sit – guilt free – for hours with just a cup of coffee or two, and dinners can easily last for two or three hours. The urge to eat quick and get out is a hard one for me to fight as an American, but getting into that zone of really not feeling rushed while eating or drinking really is worth the effort, and it makes it much easier to deal with the terrible service that is so often found in these no-tipping countries.