Budget Airlines, Your New Best Friend
Look at your academic calendar. Do you have Friday classes? Do you have one long month off at the end of the semester or do you have a weeklong spring or fall break?
If you don’t have Friday classes and a weeklong break, plan weekend trips. I was able to fit in trips to six different countries in four months. Depending on flight prices, leave on a Thursday night or Friday morning and plan on staying until Sunday. Occasionally, I would fly back on a Monday morning but I wouldn’t recommend it since many cities shut down on Sundays and often times with the price of food and an extra night in the hostel it isn’t worth it.
If you have the other type of calendar with a month off at the end of the semester, make sure to budget wisely since you will be spending the bulk of your money at the end. Plan the flow of your travel for that month so that it makes sense. Maybe go to Italy and see five different cities or take the train to neighboring countries. Backtracking and jumping around will only cost you more money.
Pick the best times to go.
Think about going to Venice for Carnevale and Munich for Oktoberfest. You’ll get that added bonus of seeing the city at its most vibrant.
Be realistic about the weather. As much as you would like to, you cannot wish the Greek islands warm in early February. Save trips contingent on the weather for warmer months.
Avoid drama. Like anything in life, travel planning is not immune to drama. Maybe your roommate tells you day 1 she wants to go everywhere together when you envisioned mixing things up with different groups of friends. Or maybe you or another one of your friends has a problem with a particular person coming on a trip.
Strike a good balance between communicating your preferences and letting things go. You’re abroad and having the time of your life. If you’re with your best friend or worst frenemy you probably are still going to have a great time.
That being said, pick your travel buddies wisely. You can see how it might be a problem if you’re planning to get up at 7am and hit eight different tourist spots before noon and your friend is planning to sleep until 1 and then maybbee strike up the energy to grab a cappuccino in the afternoon.
Invite at least one other person on the trip that you expect to have the same travel style as you and don’t push others into doing anything they don’t want to do. One person might get enjoyment out of seeing all the museums and famous landmarks while someone else might be perfectly content spending time in a local coffee shop or wandering the streets.
But..don’t invite too many people. Coordinating a big group can be a headache. A group of 3-4 people is ideal.
Utilize your networks. Do you have a friend studying abroad in the city you’re planning on visiting? Ask them if the hostel you’re staying in is in a good area, if they can recommend a good restaurant, or if they want to meet up with you for drinks. With only a few days to explore a city, they can help you determine the must-sees from the should-skips.
Having a host in the city you’re visiting can be an awesome resource but don’t over impose. Don’t assume you can stay in their apartment or dorm. Ask and then be prepared to book a hostel if they say no. Realize too that they may not be able to spend the whole weekend with you or that they may not want to redo all the touristy things in the city. Be appreciative and flexible.
Be smart with your money.
Book flights on low cost carriers such as Ryanair and book in advance. Stay in hostels or cheap apartments. Scrimp during the week so you can spend on the weekends. Get an idea of what things cost so you don’t get ripped off in taxis or in the markets. Let your credit card company know where you’ll be traveling so you have access to an ATM. Look up conversion rates. Try to avoid ‘touristy’ restaurants or places where they obviously jack up prices. Research whether its cheaper to go on your own vs going with a student tour company.
Packing Smart=Packing Light.
The less you bring the better. Fit everything into one carry-on bag. At the beginning you’ll over pack but as the semester goes on you’ll get better at figuring out what you need and what you don’t. As long as you have your passport and a photocopy of it, your printed boarding pass, money, camera, socks and underwear, one pair of pajamas, a towel, a toothbrush, and atleast two outfits, you should be good. Consider bringing mini-toiletries if you don’t want to buy them there. Remember, less is more and you can always re-wear things. Be prepared to feel a little bit dirtier than you would at home.
Figure out transportation.
Plan how you’re going to get from the airport into the city and buy tickets ahead of time when you can. Consider bringing a map or downloading one on your smartphone. Get some sort of idea of the subway structure before you go and read city guides.
One option is to hire a driver to show you around the city. In Malta, we paid someone to bring us to different destinations around the island. Just negotiate the price beforehand and don’t budge if they try to change it on you later. And trust your instincts if the situation seems sketchy.
Don’t plan to go away every weekend.
You chose to study in this particular country for a reason and if you’re leaving all the time you are missing out on really getting to know the country and its people. Students often get swept up in tourist part of the experience and stay in their study abroad bubble the entire time. It takes a little bit of effort to make connections in your city but so worth it when you do. That’s one thing I really regret about my study abroad experience. Although I am facebook friends with a few Italians, I did not really make friends with any locals. My friend who studied in France went on a ski trip in the Alps with her new local friend’s family and my friend who studied in Madrid visits back and forth with her Spanish friend every summer. I’m jealous that I did not try harder to make non-American friends.
It’s okay to go out of your comfort zone and take risks but don’t be naïve. Stay in groups, don’t reveal where you are staying to strangers, bring a combination lock to protect your stuff, and watch out for pickpockets! Also- get your friends’ international numbers if you plan to meet up and be sure to write them down along with your hostel information. If you don’t and something happens to your phone, you’re screwed. Also, consider giving this information to your parents beforehand so they will know where you’ll be and can contact your friends in an emergency.
Record and remember.
From taking pictures to writing down stories on the way home, everything thing you do in this aspect you’ll appreciate later. I took some short videos on my digital camera, which I think really captured some of the most epic moments of my trip. I can relive the experience of drinking Guinness in a Dublin pub or a boat ride into the blue grotto anytime I want to.
Lastly, don’t plan everything! Sometimes on-the-fly decisions make for the best experiences! Leave room for adventure and be flexible if plans change.