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Student Reflections

Tips for Backpack Travel

Jake Austgen
October 5, 2022

When I bought a new backpack before coming to Madrid, it was out of necessity. I planned on taking a lot of weekend trips around Europe, and since I am a college student, I wanted to do it as inexpensively as possible. That means flying on budget airlines where carry-on bags aren’t free. Therefore, everything I bring must fit under the seat in front of me. I could’ve used my school backpack, but I couldn’t imagine living out of that for a few days, so I decided to buy a new backpack. A travel backpack. It is the same size as my school backpack but opens like a suitcase and contains compartments for organization. After using it on a few weekend trips, I have learned how convenient it is, and why it might even be better than traveling with a suitcase.

It can be intimidating to think of ditching your suitcase to travel with just a backpack. You must cut down on the clothes and accessories that you normally take for granted. But in my opinion, the benefits outweigh the costs. After a long day of flying, there is nothing better than throwing on your backpack and leaving the airport. If you had a suitcase, you would need to lug it down city streets or pay for luggage storage. Bringing just a backpack saves you time, money, and stress. The same goes for when you are leaving, all of your belongings fit comfortably on your back, and you are free to enjoy the city without worrying about a big suitcase.

The biggest challenge of backpack travel is relearning how to pack. When you have a suitcase, there is flexibility in what you bring. You might be able to pack an extra hoodie and an extra pair of shoes. When your bag must fit underneath the seat in front of you, you need to be deliberate when choosing what to pack. I like to bring plain shirts that go with any color so that I only need to bring one pair of pants or shorts. If it is going to be cold, I will wear my jacket on the plane, so it doesn’t take up space in my backpack. Once all your clothes are packed, there isn’t much space left for technology or toiletries. I try to leave my laptop behind when possible and only pack the essential toiletries that I will need for the next few days.

Even though space is at a premium, there are a few extra things that I always make sure to bring wherever I go. First is my travel towel, a towel that is thin, light, and dries quickly. Some hostels don’t provide towels, so bringing a travel towel is essential if you want to shower while you are away. You can buy them in many sizes, but I opted for the largest option. What I sacrifice in space, I gain in versatility. I have used it as a beach towel in Barcelona, a picnic blanket in Madrid, a pillow in Munich, and even a blanket while sleeping in the Athens airport. Always carrying my travel towel means that a nap in the park or a dip in the water is always a possibility!

The next thing I always bring is a packable bag. This could be a single-use grocery bag, but I have a reusable bag that compresses down to about the size of a racquetball. When you are walking around the city, it is easy to let your backpack become disorganized and uncomfortable. An extra bag gives you the flexibility to carry things outside of your backpack. Whether you buy some souvenirs, have some leftover food, or need a place to store your damp towel, a packable bag is a way to go. It is also a great way to bring a few snacks onto the plane, as most airlines don’t count that small of a bag against your allowance.

When I first bought my travel backpack, I only saw it as a tool. A tool that would allow me to book cheaper flights and make traveling with fewer items more bearable. However, now I see it for what it really is. A gateway to freedom and exploration. When I travel with my backpack, everything I need is on my back. If I come across a swimming pool, I can change into a bathing suit and jump in. I don’t even need to find a towel. What I initially thought would be inconvenient has turned out to be more convenient than I ever could’ve imagined. You can expect a lot more backpack travel in my future, even if I am allowed to bring a carry-on for free.