There are many cool and exciting things about studying abroad... Meet new friends, see new places, hear great accents, party every night... uh... if you're into that, and have a three week spring break! That three-week break ended when classes began this last Monday, but I can tell you, along with European fashion, America should jump on this bandwagon.
As my friends here began to make their way home to see their families in nearby towns and countries, I pulled out my bag, filled it with minimal necessities, and took off for the unknown with three other girls. Well, our first stop was London, so I can't say it was "the unknown", but the sun was out the entire time, and our hostel was surprisingly clean and private. After our escapades in London, we entered into France and met up with a few of our guy friends, and we toured every inch of Paris. No joke. Our legs were achy, and I'm not sure any of us have yet regained feeling in our feet. So, it was a fun and necessary break to head up to Normandy and visit one of my travel buddy's grandmothers. Staying with family members is a fantastic and cheap way to visit new places... plus when it is a grandma, there is no need to worry about eating, and eating well. But this is where the ease of "traveling across Europe" ended. Our group split up after Normandy and two of us boarded a train back to Paris to catch another train to a city an hour outside of Paris. We had to catch a bus to the airport located in that city to begin our trip that only included a flight to Portugal, and then spontaneous planning to also visit Spain and Italy.
The great thing about traveling and spending time in a foreign country with native speakers is that picking up the language is quite easy, and by this time my travel companion and I had a somewhat working knowledge of a language we had never before spoken. This was our only consolation when our flight was canceled, and every French airline went on strike until no set date in the not so near future. We were able to find transportation back to Paris and scoured the town for a hotel that was open, and wouldn't clean out our bank accounts at 3AM. We managed to find shelter, waited for stores to open, and luckily had visited a shopping center previously knowing it offered free wifi, which we used to capacity trying to locate friends who were traveling through Paris, and looking for a new route to finish our trip. We ended up having a wonderful time, even though it was not the trip we had anticipated, however this is the unknown side of backpacking in Europe. Trains arrive late, bus schedules are printed in obscure hiding places, airlines strike, train platforms change, and you never feel 100% confident about the decision you just made that will take you to another unknown location. Unfortunately, three weeks was not enough time to deal with those circumstances, and changed our travel plans drastically. However - if you have a summer, a semester, or even a year to experience changes in your plans, uncomfortable nights sleeping in train stations, and are confident enough to go with the flow in a foreign country, backpacking is completely for you. Just don't expect it to be easy all of the time. From my experience over the semester, not only my spring break, here are the most important tips I can provide for you:
Buy a rail pass. There are many companies that offer these to US citizens, and you can purchase them for a discount before you cross the pond. Make sure to purchase a global pass, or another company's equivalent, because it essentially allows for unlimited travel across the European Union by train, ferry, and bus. The price may shock you, but I sincerely promise a pass saves money, and allows for almost complete flexibility while traveling. You can decide to travel from Germany to Switzerland the night before you want to travel, and catch a train the next morning. If you don't have a pass.. pray for an internet connection and be prepared to pay an arm and a leg for the short trip. I purchased a pass with the company EuRail, and they provided me with a map, train schedule, and an info book to help with understanding the ins and outs of train traveling.
Acclimate yourself to the idea of staying in hostels. Unless you family owns a hotel chain, don't expect the prices to be comparable to the United States. Hostels are the way to go in Europe, from the affordable prices, to the information they can provide you at the front desk you will feel very comfortable. That is not to say that they will all be clean, private, have warm water - or any water - but for the most part you can know what to expect by visiting hostelworld.com to read reviews, view photos, and book your stay. The great thing about this site, is they only require a 10% down payment on your stay, paying the rest upon arrival, which allows you to change plans last minute if needed. However, some hostels require 24 hour notice if you decide not to stay there, so make sure to read the fine print. Another tip is to join the YHA network of hostels if you will be staying in the United Kingdom at all. It costs only £10, you will save money each time you stay, and they all offer free tours, clean rooms, and amenities (showers, bed linens, and a place to eat).
Be aware of the currency. If you can, before you leave, acquire some currency for where you will be traveling, and memorize it. Euros look different than British Pounds and US Dollars, and some countries in the European Union still use their own currencies. It may not be feasible to do this before you arrive, but once you get here, know the worth of coins because some are worth over $2. Along those lines, be careful with your money. If you have a deep bag with a zipper, keep your money in there and literally never let go of your bag. Not just set it next to you on a chair, but also have an arm looped through a strap, or a hand on a handle. It also wouldn't hurt to split up your cash in case something would happen.
Safety also is pretty self explanatory, but remember that your passport is who you are while you are traveling. Without it... you are nobody without rights, and have no way to return home. So, to avoid this, be extra careful with your passport and identification. Keep it somewhere you don't access frequently to avoid pickpockets or dropping it yourself, that being said, check for it often. Before leaving a hostel, boarding a train, or just for peace of mind sitting at lunch. If you do happen to lose it while abroad contact the local US embassy, be prepared to wait, and pamper your travel companion for waiting so patiently with you. Another way to stay safe is to register with the US State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. This program allows the United States to know that you are traveling, and can provide you with embassy information, as well as travel alerts abroad.
Lastly, pack only the necessities. Be prepared to wear the same pants, shirts, and socks more than once. If you are staying in a private room in a hostel, this is a good time to wash some clothes in the sinks and hang them to dry in your room where they won't get stolen. Some places do offer laundry, so if you are worried about hygiene check it out. You have to carry your belongings with you, so if you are unsure about bringing four shirts think about how you will feel in two weeks when your back is breaking and your legs threatened to stop working two miles ago.
All in all, Europe is amazing. History surrounds you everywhere you go, beautiful mountains rise up on the landscape as your train speeds past the flowering fields, and street vendors offer delicious, weird, and unspeakable treats that you have to try because you are "only in Sardinia once, and have to try the larvae infested cheese", or "only in Belgium and have to get a waffle and chocolate"...whichever floats your boat. So go get some comfortable shoes, international voltage converters, and some courage and begin your journey!