How to Travel in Europe as a Student
Studying abroad in Europe does not mean staying in one city. Due to weekends and holidays, a summer or a semester abroad allows opportunities to see several countries outside of your home base. With many European countries in such proximity, it is easy to visit several in a few months. The trick is to find out the most enjoyable and practical way for you to travel. I recently spent four months in Rome. During that period I was able to travel to eight countries in Europe. Along the way, I learned some helpful tips that should help make your side trips a bit easier.
Choose Air Over Land
For years, many travelers, especially backpackers, swore that traveling by train was the best, and only, way to get around Europe. But with Eurail tickets now costing as much as a few thousand dollars and limitations now on the numbers of countries for which the tickets are valid, traveling by airplane is often far more economical. There are several low-cost airlines in Europe. Two of the most popular are easyJet and Ryanair.
Ryanair, based in Dublin, operates over 500 routes in over 25 countries. I traveled round-trip to Paris from Rome for $20 total using the airline. Plane tickets can cost as little at $0.01 for a one-way flight. But nothing comes without a price, and Ryanair is no exception. Extra fees quickly add up with this low-budget airline. My $20 trip to Paris? It was actually two $0.01 one way tickets with several excess fees. In fact, the airline makes most of its money on these excess fees, such as checking bags, booking fee and priority seating. You also will not get anything free using the airline: sandwiches cost about $4.
And don’t think you’ll land right in the heart of the big city. Ryanair uses mainly smaller airports in suburbs. Many are an hour or more outside of the city by bus. But $20 to see Paris? Well worth it.
Book Airlines Early
To get those great deals on Ryanair, it’s important to book early, a month or more in advance is best. Many of the $0.01 flights go up as the date of departure gets closer. And be prepared to leave very early in the morning or very late in the evening for the best deals.
Book Hostels Early
Now that you have the flight lined up, do not forget a place to stay. Before leaving you should book a hostel ahead of time, with a few weeks in advance being ideal. Hostelworld.com, a website where you can research and book hostels and budget hotels by country and city, is a great resource. But if you find yourself looking for a hostel after getting off the plane, do not worry. Finding a hostel once you arrive at your destination can be done, but it could be costly and time consuming. When traveling to Frankfort, Germany, Stockholm, Sweden, and Oslo, Norway, I did not book a hostel ahead of time. Luckily, in all three countries I was able to find a place to stay. But I had to pay extra money for the more expensive room and spend several precious hours looking for a bed to sleep in instead of enjoying the city. Also, I do not think I would have been as lucky in the more popular destinations. Although Rome, Paris and Amsterdam might have more hostels, they also have more college students and backpackers clamoring for a place to stay.
Be Careful What You Book on a Hostel Booking Site
Although most of the hostels and hotels on the website are certified and legitimate, some are less than satisfactory. I booked a double-bed hostel ahead of time for a trip to Amsterdam. It was fairly cheap for Amsterdam standards, had a TV, and received fairly good reviews on the website. I was quite surprised when I arrived at an apartment complex and was greeted by a man who rented out two of his own rooms. He expected cash up front. At that point I had no choice. My friend and I paid the money, praying that he would not kick us out on the streets in the middle of the night. He did not do that (and there was a color TV), but it was not quite what I had in mind. Make sure to read the reviews and comments. If you still are not sure after that, see if the hostel itself has a website and an official email address. If not, it is probably best to try to find something else.
Travel in Small Groups
While it might seem fun to travel with all of your friends, but it is usually not be conducive to a weekend trip. Trying to satisfy five people who want to see five different things will not do anything but start fights. And who wants to see Prague when they are angry? I think it is best to travel with one person, possibly two. Try to ensure that they are people who want to see and experience similar things to avoid tension or conflict to the extent possible.
Buy a Guidebook(s)
Although knowing nothing about your destination and feeling your way as you go might be the best way to learn about a city, it is probably not possible to do that and see everything the city has to offer in two or three days. Try to plan ahead and find out what is available in the way of sights, food, and nightlife. There are several good guidebooks on the market today, many cater to low-budget or student travel. I took Lonely Planet’s Europe on a Shoestring book with me on each of my trips. With maps that pinpoint the major sights and restaurants, it came in handy more than once. Besides the Lonely Planet series, other good travel guides include the Let’s Go series (Europe, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, as well as many individual countries and major European cities).
Do Not Rely Solely on the Guidebook
There are still many hidden gems that are not in guidebooks. Some you may stumble across on your own or hear about from a friend, but just because it is not listed in the guidebook, do not write it off as unworthy. It is also important to research information about your destination ahead of time. Some very pertinent information may not be listed in guidebooks. I traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, with a friend in late March. What was first on our list of must-sees? Tivoli Gardens, a large amusement park and garden in the heart of the city. Too bad we were unaware that the park does not open until April—one little fact my guidebook did not list about one of the country’s major tourist destinations. My friend and I decided we would make the most of our three days in the capital and found other interesting things to see and do even during the Easter holidays when much of Europe shuts down.