So you’re abroad, and if you’re anything like me or other kindred spirits that flock to Europe for a semester, you want to see and do as much as you can. You have bucket lists to follow, goals to meet, and oh so little time! I get it. But if you’re anything like me–a planner, a like-to-knower, a maximizer–perhaps the whole abstract idea of “travel” can actually seem a bit daunting. Maybe you’re thinking, “Okay sure, I want to go to Germany for the weekend, but how does that actually work? How do I get there and what’s it going to cost me?” I’m here to break down my process for you to give you some practical answers. This isn’t a science, but I’ve been fine-tuning my method for myself, and I hope that sharing some things that I have found helpful can give you a starting point for travel planning. I’ll also show you how globe-trotting doesn’t necessarily have to bring your bank account to ground zero if you play your cards right.
Step One: Make a Wish List
Getting where you want to go starts with deciding where you want to go. At this stage, go wild! There’s definitely no fault in dreaming. On your wish list, include trips to other countries, as well as destinations in your host country. Having a varied list will help you fit trips into your schedule better when you begin looking at travel options. All this being said, it isn’t necessary to box yourself off to only the trips on your list. In fact, you shouldn’t! Things may come up later and you’ll be glad that you’ve left yourself the flexibility to jump on new opportunities.
Step Two: Watch the Wish List
By this I mean start checking out transportation and prices. You can start this process before you leave for your study abroad program, however do not be worried about planning a bunch of trips before the semester even starts. If a wish list item can be traveled to by train you don’t have much to worry about since train prices stay generally consistent, but planes are another story. Skyscanner, Hopper, and Google Flights are going to make up your Holy Trinity of plane travel. Use these tools to scout different weekends and times to get to the items on your list. Outline your bigger, priority trips first, and with the weekends you have left, fill in with more regional trips that you can reach by train.
Tip: On Skyscanner you can even use the “Search Everywhere” button for inspiration using different dates; you can do this on Google Flights as well by simply clicking“Search” without filling in a destination.
Step Three: Do Your Homework
Now you’ve picked a destination and chosen a weekend, but don’t go click-happy and settle for the first flight you find. Return to the Holy Trinity. At this point I would primarily use Skyscanner and Google Flights. Both of them have great tools to make the most economic decision. For example, on Google Flights you can use the dates tool and price graph to compare returning on a Monday rather than a Sunday, or use the “nearby airports” option on Skyscanner to consider flying out of a different regional airport. Keep in mind that Skyscanner and Google Flights usually pull in the budget airlines to their results, but not always. Double check directly on the budget airlines’ websites, such as Ryanair or easyJet, to make sure you’re not missing out on a significantly better price with these cheaper airlines.
Tip: If you are using a nearby airport to fly in or out of, think through it logistically and weigh the costs. For example, if you save $50 on a flight by flying out of Rome instead of Florence, but now you have to buy a $30 ticket to Rome with an hour and a half train trip, is that still worth it?
How about train travel? A good place to start is with Omio. I use this primarily to see train and bus options in one place. You can also usually buy tickets directly through this website as well. There are lots of providers when it comes to trains. For example, in Italy the main train services are Trenitalia and Italo. But for travel to or from another country you may be using a service based out of that specific country. This is where resources like Omio come in handy.
Trains and buses are another great example of the need for cost-benefit analysis. I.e. that overnight bus might save you money, daylight hours, and the need for a night of lodging, but will you be rested enough by the time you get off in the morning to feel ready to sight-see?
Step Four: Book Your Lodging
My process for this is extremely simple: I start by looking at Hostelworld, then Airbnb, and sometimes Booking.com. I typically stay in hostels, and when I do I personally always book through Hostelworld. This website is frequently updated with reviews and ratings which takes a lot of the guesswork out of choosing a good hostel. To give you an idea on the cost of hostels, I have found most of my hostels (one bed in an all-female dorm) for around 20-30 Euros a night. If I am traveling with someone, I will also usually check out Airbnb. Airbnb tends to be more economical when traveling with multiple people and staying multiple nights due to the flat rate cleaning and service fees. It also doesn’t hurt to check out Booking.com. While this mostly results in hotel accommodations which do typically cost more, every now and then you may be surprised by scoring a high rated hotel for the same price or cheaper than an Airbnb or even hostel, when you are splitting the price of a room.
Step Five: Get to the Fun Part
Finally, after you have your transportation and lodging situations…situated…start doing research on what you want to do and see. Besides learning what the most obvious sights to see are, I also like to put together a short list of restaurants and cafes in various parts of the city, so that whenever I get hungry I have some go-to places stored up and won’t have to settle for expensive tourist trap restaurants. Having these kinds of destinations is also just a good way to see more of the city, as great restaurants or fun cafes will often lead you to cool streets or neighborhoods.
Step Six: Don’t Forget the Nitty Gritty
Ugh I know, logistics are not the most fun. But at least for me, having them figured out ahead of time is going to help me enjoy myself on my trip so much more and forego some stress beforehand. So think about things like…
- How far is the hostel from the train station and city center?
- Can I walk or will I have to take the bus?
- Is my flight so early in the morning that I’ll need to taxi if the busses aren’t running yet?
- How do I get from the airport to the city center?
A little bit of research can go a long way in helping you feel confident as you arrive in your destination. A lot of times it will also save you money and time that you would probably much rather be spending at a bistro in Paris.
Step Seven: Breathe and Go with It
Trains will be missed, buses will not show, that restaurant will be way farther than you anticipated and your legs are about to give out. Remember that travel revolves around flexibility. Hold your plans loosely and take the trip as it comes. Having a skeleton or outline of your itinerary is helpful, but it’s not the end all be all. At some point you just need to explore and enjoy the ride. So make a plan, and then don’t be afraid to throw it out the window.