Something Jesse and I noticed last summer was how much backpacking* has changed since our parents did it back in the 70s and 80s, and even from how you and I did it as recently as '07 and '08. Our parents relied a lot on train travel... getting a Eurail pass that would seamlessly take them from country to country. My dad says that it was frequently cheaper and easier for him to simply book an overnight train and sleep on the train while traveling between countries than to book a hostel room. Even so, hostels were incredibly cheap for them compared to what they were for us when we traveled five years ago. I remember cringing every time we booked a room and the dorm style rooms were barely cheaper.
You and I did still travel by train, but that was also expensive, and several times we used Ryanair. Our time back then was right at the transition point, I think. We did bring a backpack on some of our weekend trips, but remember that giant suitcase we thought was a good idea to share for a week in Switzerland? That was ridiculous. I think we would have been just fine with two shirts and one pair of jeans each...in other words, a very empty backpack. But we didn't have to think about size or weight because we were using the train (granted we would have been MUCH happier with something smaller, but there were no constrictions so we didn't limit ourselves).
I would venture to say that the new generation of backpackers has the luxury of being able to pack lighter simply because hostels have priced themselves out of being an option for us. When you are staying in hostels you need to pack a towel and frequently a sleeping bag... these are huge space wasters, not to mention heavy. They were totally worth it back when a hostel was $15 a night, but now you won't find any hostel that's cheaper than $35... and that's per person! Now that may sound alright if you are traveling alone, but if you are traveling as a couple or with a kid or two that adds up fast because it's per head. Yup... bad idea!!
Now here's how the new generation of backpackers is different... or at least Jesse and I! We exclusively traveled by air. Ryanair is incredibly affordable. Granted, they have absolutely no luxuries... but when you are backpacking you don't expect that anyways. And you don't need food or entertainment (I know... we don't have these luxuries on our domestic flights either and they are hundreds of dollars more than Ryanair) when the flights are usually less than an hour.
Flying Ryanair is what made us pack so light, because they are very strict about the cabin luggage sizes. It looks like they have lightened up a bit since this summer but then we were not allowed to have any personal items on top of our backpacks--this meant my purse had to be rolled and attached to my backpack (see above) and our camera had to be stowed inside the backpacks. They do allow the smallest sized rolling suitcase, however, European carry-on sized suitcases are significantly smaller visually and actually than any you can get here in the states. If they even suspect your bags are over the size limit they will measure it meticulously and charge you 50 euros right there at the gate. So the best thing about a backpack was that they never asked to measure or weigh our bags. And I feel like, towards the end of our two months, mine was definitely over the weight limit! As you can see above... it was very taut--this picture was taken close the the end of our trip.
You can check out all that I packed in the summer in a backpack post that I wrote before we left. In retrospect I did not need a lot of those things. Some of them I ditched along the way, like the striped tank top and the platform sandals. Remember, if your going to Europe, you will be in the fashion capitols of the world. So don't sweat what you pack. Just bring some solid basics that all coordinate. Accessorize along the way!
The other big difference was that we never used a hostel. We were lucky enough to be able to crash with my family and friends for about a month of our time, but the rest of the trip we used Airbnb. You all have heard of them by now, I'm sure, but they are the only way to go now! For as little as $25 a night you get a private room with full access to a kitchen, which in turn cuts down on food costs (plus being the only way to stay healthy having celiac). For no more than $80 we sometimes had an entire apartment to ourselves! Its so fun to see how each place is decorated (or not decorated as the case may be!).
One thing I missed about hostels was the communal aspect of it.... this is something that Jesse and I are actually working on (fingers crossed for next summer... more on that later if it works!). But I was pleasantly surprised by a lot of the places we stayed, because the hosts would rent out each room so it was like a smaller version of a hostel! We met lots of people that way.
*By backpacking I do not mean mountaineering or hiking... that's a whole different genre. I mean the art of traveling for a few months at a time and living exclusively out of a backpack. (Although when I refer to my dad he was doing a lot of climbing... nearly exclusively that... while backpacking through Europe. So for him I'm mainly talking about mode of transport not what he carried).