By Hannah Ohman
Ready to see the world? You should be! You’re about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, and if you are planning on traveling outside of your host city, the logistics can be overwhelming. I studied abroad in Granada, Spain and traveled a lot during and after my program. I learned so much, but there are definitely some things I would do differently if I had the chance. To help you streamline your experience and spend the most time doing the things that matter, I’ve compiled a list of tips and tricks on the best ways to travel through Europe.
First of all, book your flight through Icelandair. Seriously, just do it. It’s cheap, they offer great service, and they have tons of movies and shows to watch on the plane. I originally bought a round trip ticket to Spain planning on changing it once I solidified my plans. It was cheaper to buy a round trip ticket and change it than to buy two one way tickets- who knew!
While abroad I had been doing some research online about traveling and came across a woman who documented her solo travels around the world (and I recommend you take a look at her blog for more information on traveling http://theblondeabroad.com/category/solo-travel/). She had gone to Iceland, saying it was one of the safest places for women to travel alone, and recommended traveling to Europe by booking a layover through Icelandair. Once I solidified the travel dates after my program ended I changed my ticket home to go through Iceland. Icelandair lets you stay in Iceland for up to 7 nights for no extra airfare, and boy, do I recommend it. While Iceland itself isn’t cheap (think $12 for a hot dog), it was an experience I’ll never forget. So, if you want to cross this off your bucket list and enhance your study abroad experience for no extra airfare I recommend booking through Icelandair!
Speaking of flights, there are tons of low-cost airlines in Europe, like Ryanair and EasyJet, and they can be one of the cheapest ways to travel in Europe. With Ryanair, you can find many flights between large cities for under 50 euro! They sometimes sell fun things like lottery tickets and stuffed animals on these flights because why not? You can imagine a flight on Ryanair to be like any other flight on a low-cost airline; don’t expect top of the line service and comfort. But, if you need to fly somewhere on a budget, it might be worth it. Keep in mind that it might not always be convenient. Pro tip: when looking for the cheapest way to travel you need to consider all possible costs, not just the cost of the flight.
My first big trip was to Paris, France. I found a flight from Madrid to Paris for 20 euro!
Cheap right? BUT I didn’t consider the extra costs associated with traveling to Madrid. There many more costs associated with traveling to Madrid that I didn’t take into account, as well as the amount of time I would be spending on a bus (5 hours) and the money I would be spending on extra food during that time. Overall I paid around 105 euros to get to Paris while also spending about 10 hours on a bus, about 2 more hours on the metro with all of my luggage plus the time on the plane and in the airport. I could have flown out of Malaga, an airport about an hour and a half from Granada, and cut down of cost of food by spending less time traveling. If I had flown out of Malaga I might have spent around 90 euro. Although that is not a huge difference in price, I could have saved at least 7 hours, and when you’re doing a lot of traveling that time matters. You know, so you can do cool things like sleep.
So, the lesson? If you are studying in a large city like Madrid, a low-cost airline can definitely be for you. However, if you are studying in a city these flights don’t service directly, the picture gets more complicated. Make sure to weigh all the costs and consider the time commitment when booking flights.
Taking buses between locations is a cheap and easy way to travel in Europe. Thankfully the bus system in Europe is incredibly developed and easy to navigate. There are multiple bus companies that provide fancy coach buses with a large selection of movies and reclining leather seats to many locations throughout Europe. The buses make pit stops along the way, usually at a cafeteria where you can stretch your legs and get a Café con leche or Jamón-flavored Pringles (yes, they exist; and yes, they are gross). Buses are great for low stress travel and are even better if you don’t like flying.
I did some extra traveling after my program ended–which I highly recommend–and took a bus from Berlin to Prague for around 30 Euro. It was much easier (not to mention cheaper) than flying and I got to see the countryside on the way, something you miss out on when you fly! There was also a “bus attendant” who sold snacks and drinks on the ride. Buses are an easy way to get from place to place; my friend took a bus from London to Amsterdam across the sea! Pretty cool, right?
So, don’t rule out taking a bus to travel in Europe. Everything is so close together it doesn’t take long to get between major cities and attractions. You don’t have to spend all that time getting to an airport and going through security, asking yourself “Should I take off my shoes?” (Answer: you don’t always need to take your shoes off like you do in the United States.)
Unlike in the States, trains are everywhere in Europe. High speed trains generally cost less than a flight and a bit more than a bus, and can often be the fastest option. My sister and I took a high speed train from Rome to Florence for an afternoon and it was amazingly easy. We spent about 45 euros for a one-way ticket to get to Florence (also known as Firenze so don’t let that confuse you when you are buying tickets) and it took about an hour and a half. No way would we have been able to see Florence in just a couple hours if we had to take a bus or fly, so trains were a great middle ground.
There are many flight scanning websites, like Skyscanner, that will help put together the cheapest combination of flights for you. This can be a massive help when you’re trying to fly for cheap, but don’t know how to find the cheapest flights on your own. Keep in mind, however, that the cheapest flights will probably be early in the morning or late at night. Do you really want to be landing in a foreign city you know nothing about at 1:00 am? Probably not, but it’s up to you. You also can’t check in to a lot of hostels super late at night so you might find yourself sleeping in the airport.
Europe is the hostel hot-spot of the world, good and bad. Your parents will be happy to know that hostels today are nothing like they were when they were in college. I never felt unsafe in a hostel at any time traveling in Europe, and I stayed in over 20 hostels. Most hostels boast a bar, free breakfast, option of room size and all female dorms for a little added safety and comfort for female travelers. This site lets you search by location, price and rating. There are tons of reviews so you know exactly what you are getting yourself into when you get there. I would highly recommend Berlin Plus in Berlin, Wombats City Hostel in London and Loft Hostel in Reykjavik. Make sure to book ahead of time if you want to get a spot in the better hostels!
Don’t sweat the small stuff
When you’re doing so much traveling things are bound to go wrong, and you know what? You just have to accept it and and move on. On my way from the United States to Spain I had a two layovers. The flight at my first layover was delayed by 3 hours so I missed my connecting flight and had to wait 7 hours in the Brussels airport for the next flight. I was already anxious to be going abroad for the next 6 months and this didn’t help. Looking back it’s just one of those learning experiences that will help you become a better traveler.
Just remember: sometimes cheap tickets = cheap thrills. The moral of the story? There are tons of ways to travel around Europe on a budget, but you need to be flexible and take into account all aspects of your trip. Affordable travel frees up money to do more on your trip, so do your research! It’s easy to find good information about the cities you’re traveling to and cheap ways to do it. Now, go out and explore!