my experience isn't extensive, can be addictive and adventurous, or it could be hard, gross and tiring. It may just be a perfectly entertaining blend of both.
The best memories of my month backpacking were filled with simple and delicious food and drink, the comfort and excitement of a moving train and the wonder that is a hostel*. You learn more than ever in a short amount of time. You are meeting people, understanding culture nuances, testing the limits of your body, learning how to get along with the people you are traveling with and developing the confidence it takes to be well-traveled.
*Disclaimer to the Americans: We have been raised to fear hostels, at least here in the South you say hostel and people cringe. Don't listen to those negative Nancies.
So here's the basic overview:
1. Make a budget. Figure how much you are willing to spend on this (priceless) experience. It can be as extravagant or as meager as your wish. Here's a helpful site.
phenomenal places that you're itching to get to (like seriously, mosquito bite behind your knee itching). Then, try to connect the dots. In doing so, you go to maybe smaller, maybe less well known cities and towns. I adored going to Dresden, Germany, for instance, and it was merely a resting stop before going to Berlin. The key is to have an open mind, and I can't say this enough: RESEARCH. My weapon of choice when it comes to budget travel guide books is Let's Go. It's for students, written by students, and it saved us.
3. What will the pace of a trip be & how many days do you want to go? If you are the type of person that likes to spend a while soaking in the culture whilst cafe sitting don't forget to take that into account. If you are wanting to go to as many cities and countries as possible then go-go-go (but realize you may be exhausted and missing the details of your stops). We did 11 major stops (13 or 14 altogether), and it was a lot for my taste. I like to feel like I immerse myself into the intricacies and scrumptious bits of the culture. So, determine what type of trip you are wanting to embark on. And for how long you're there? It's all about the money.
InterRail because we lived in Europe; Eurail for the Americans and non-EU people] were the best way to experience the culture while traveling. You could travel country to country and the language would change, the people would be different and the scenery outside would zip by in different colors. Here's a nice resource about means of travel. The websites for the rail passes have useful tools in aiding your planning, too.
hostels get a bad rap. They are the best price and best environment for the young folks. You learn more about the world in the lobby or common room of a hostel than any other place I've ever experienced. All types (always some Aussies) will be there hanging out, cooking and wanting to hang out later on. But research your hostels ratings--some are better than others. Determine what's important to you whether it's cleanliness or free towels or breakfast. Then, pick accordingly.
Once you're decently planned it's time to pack your backpack or duffel and hit the ground running. There's no need to overplan, the uncertainty of it all is part of the adventure. My dad got my backpack for me at REI, and I just had an unhealthy attachment to my pack. It was green, it worked miracles, it never failed me. I also packed with compression bags, which was absurdly useful, that I got from Target.
The whole ordeal of packing for a backpacking trip is another massive post, but I just may have to delve into that next.
Go, do, see and be in the world!