Go the Distance: European Study Abroad Travel Tips

A major part of the study abroad experience is travel, both in and out of the country in which you choose to study. If you happen to choose a European country for your study abroad semester, summer, or year, I feel that I can be of some assistance. I have traveled quite a bit in my two months here and have a few more trips planned before I head back to the States. I do not nearly claim to be an expert in the refined art of travel, but I have experience to share and some tips and tricks to make any European excursion a little easier. 

The Consultation

First things first, always have a rough idea of the highlights of any city you want to visit. It is a lot easier to plan and navigate with certain points of interest in mind. Some resources I like to reference before I go to a new place (or while I'm there) are Trip Advisor, Use-It, and guidebooks.

Trip Advisor gives reviews of and suggestions for restaurants, hotels, and attractions every city has to offer. The reviews are an excellent way to gage everything from the customer service at a hotel to the portion sizes at a restaurant to how far apartment popular landmarks are. However, it is important to remember that only two types of people write reviews - people who loved the thing their reviewing and people who hated it. Keep that in mind when consulting reviews anywhere.

Use-It is a really cool website that has locals and students gather information about a city, create maps, and suggest itineraries for visits. Currently, the site is only aimed at smaller cities and because it is so new, many of the cities' links are still under construction. Use-It is the best way to get inside information on living like a local in the less touristy, European spots!

Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I still love the feeling of a hardcover book - guidebooks are no exception! I have two favorite books I am constantly referencing when planning a trip: The Lonely Planet's "Europe on a Shoestring" and the New York Times "36 Hours in Europe." Both give basic information about the cities and countries they report on, offer places to stay and to eat, propose itinieraries depending on the length of time you are in each place, and even inform you of the best time of year to visit! The Lonely Planet book definitely presents more concrete travel advice, while "36 Hours in Europe" shows colorful agendas for each location. 

Getting There

We've all heard horror stories of students flying on RyanAir - the crazy regulations, boarding pass woes, and extended travel hassles. But the truth is, RyanAir is a cheap and easy airline IF and only if you are flying directly in and out of the actual cities you want to be in. For example, RyanAir does not fly into either of the major airports in Paris. Rather, it flies into an airport an hour and a half outside of the city that requires you to take a bus and the metro into the actual downtown area. If you don't mind doing this, RyanAir is perfect for you! A similar airline is WizzAir. I have the same advice for this airline. Is the price cut worth paying for a bus, a train, possibly a taxi, and your sanity to get where you actually want to go? Another airline I have had some luck with is AirOne. Again, similar to RyanAir and WizzAir, AirOne is very useful and economical if you can get exactly where you want to go on the first try. For flight deals and comparisons, Student Universe lines everything up for you. You can compare the prices, times, and airlines available for you trip with ease. 

As for tickets, it always helps to have them printed out before you get to the airport, but a lot of airlines now offer digital tickets! This means they will email you your ticket and you can save it to the "Passbook" app (if you have an iPhone or iPad) or just pull it up straight from the email of your smartphone! Passbook also allows you to save other digital tickets, for museums or concerts. If you have the option, skipping the paper is a sure-fire way to never leave home without your ticket! 

Everyone knows about the abundance of trains available in Europe; the entire continent is connected via high-speed rail. Sometimes, taking a train is a lot cheaper and more effective than flying to another city. In Italy, this could not be truer. Trenitalia and the Le Frecce system allow visitors to get from point A to point B at almost any hour of the day and night. Similarly, Eurail and Bahn do the same for all of Europe. These websites allow you to book not only the quickest or least expensive train, but also any connecting routes you may need to take to get to your destination. Finally, Rome2Rio is a website that searches trains, planes, buses, and ferries to find the most convenient method of travel for any trip. 

Phone a Friend

Typical college kids live for the classic European-back-packing-hostel-ing-hiking-adventure scenario. I never subscribed to the "hostel" way of life. For my trips, I like to consult Airbnb to find a place to stay. This source for bed and breakfasts allows you to compare prices and locations of personal apartments, homes, and guesthouses from people all over the world. The pros to staying in a B&B over a hostel or hotel are endless! B&B's offer a very personal touch to the city you are visiting. The person you are staying with is likely in expert in the region and can give great tips and recommendations for restaurants and activities. At a B&B, you are guaratneed certain things like WiFi, breakfast, a hot shower, and a clean room - especially when you find the place through a service like Airbnb where reviews are critical. A good review on Airbnb is gold! (Not that hostels never work - in all honestly, European hostels have really cleaned up their acts in the past few years and are no longer the sketchy, dirty places I heard about in my childhood.)

Another thing I like to do when planning a getaway is ask my friends who have been there what they liked or didn't like about the place. I trust my friends to know what worked for them and what they think will work for me; their advice is invaluable. This is particularly true when visiting a city or country that a friend actually studied abroad in. For example, I've been planning a trip to Rome for Easter. One of my best friends was in Rome last semester and absolutely loves the city! I picked his brain for all the best local joints in order to steer clear of the places that will be overrun with tourists at one of the most crowded times of year. Asking people who know and love a city for their favorite places to go and things to do makes the experience much more enjoyable! 

The last piece of advice I have to give is consider student tour groups. Groups like Contiki and Sta Travel plan the trip for you so all you have to do is fork over the dough and relax. Warning: these services are normally pricier than doing it on your own, but they do have a lot of benefits. Usually, tour groups have the advantage of working with local attractions to get you into the best places! Various types of trips are offered - relaxing, adventurous, or cultural - and at a variety of paces - eight jammed packed days or twelve days with a lot of free time, for example. Check out their websites for more information! Even Student Universe has some offers.

Overall, don't try to do EVERYTHING in your trip. Maximize your time, but be realistic! Cities are big and even the natives haven't seen it all! Enjoy your European adventure! Ciao! 

 

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Photos 1, 2, 3 (provided by author), 4 (provided by author)