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One of the major perks to studying in London is that you essentially have access to almost all of Europe with multiple airports at your doorstep (or a bus/train ride away). I wouldn’t advise spending every weekend or break away at the risk of really missing out on what London has to offer, but when you’re ready for your first Mary-Kate and Ashley-inspired adventure, here are some tips on European travel as a study abroad student.
Do: Make sure you’re compatible with your travel companions
There are two major kinds of European trips for a study abroad student: the “everything is planned down to the number of croissants you will have in the morning” trip and the “we have no idea what we’re doing, but we’re in Europe so who cares” trip. This sounds ridiculous, but plan with your friends what kind of trip you’ll have (and what they’re expecting).
If you’re all wanting a relaxing weekend in the Greek islands with nowhere to go and nothing to do but soak in the sun, be upfront about it. On the other hand, if you’ve imagined your week in Barcelona as non-stop touring and you have a list of the 20 restaurants you must hit on Day 1 of your trip after your fourth walking tour, share that as well. Especially in larger groups, it can be a recipe for disaster if you all have different expectations and everyone will leave feeling unsatisfied. If you find that you’re not compatible with your group, know that you’ll either need to adjust your idea of ‘fun’ for this trip or bow out gracefully.
Don’t: Plan too far ahead
This is going to sound pessimistic, but I have seen it time and time again, discussed it with my study abroad friends multiple times, and feel like I have to mention it.
There is a 99% chance that you will not be friends with the people you meet online or on Facebook groups before you study abroad. Being a study abroad student is like being a freshman all over again, and suddenly everyone becomes over eager to “make friends” and, even worse, make travel plans over social media long before the semester even starts.
Study abroad Facebook groups are great for asking questions and sharing excitement. But, honestly, unless it’s a trip organized by your program, wait until you move in to find your friend group and make travel plans. There are too many cringe worthy stories I’ve heard over the years of people who find themselves on a trip in October that they planned online with a group of seemingly-nice faces back in the summer. The majority of the feedback is “…well, that was awkward,” whether that’s because you never actually befriended them in person or because you grew to actively dislike each other two weeks in.
Do: Look for budget flights
If you’re seriously planning on traveling in Europe, you’ll be aware of budget airlines and may have heard of the major ones like EasyJet and RyanAir. Don’t be afraid of these. The prices are cheap, but the safety is regulated just like any other airline. It’s really important that you book ahead in plenty of time, as prices on these flights will keep going up as more and more seats are filled.
Don’t: Take budget flights without researching
You can check out my guide to budget airlines for a (humorous) rundown of the downsides of budget airlines, but the most important consideration is where the flight lands and how easy it will be to get to where you’re staying. Plenty of cities just have one airport so it won’t make a difference, but sometimes budget airlines will fly into airports far away from city centers or into different cities altogether. This can add huge costs to your travel and also lots of time you might not want to lose if you’re only staying for a weekend.
Do: eat the local cuisine
“When in Rome…” do as the Romans do and eat the gelato and pizza! Food is a huge part of many European cultures, and even the pickiest eaters should be able to find some things they enjoy. From cheeses in France to waffles in Belgium to pasta in Italy, make sure you make time to eat like the locals. When else are you going to be able to say that you strolled past the Colosseum while munching on a cannoli? Yes, it sounds pretentious, but this is your chance to be pretentious and get away with it. Do it.
Don’t: eat out all the time
Considering you’ll be on a budget, remember that many cities have great food markets and stalls to choose from and accessible supermarkets. “Sit-down” meals can get expensive quickly, so don’t be afraid to suggest stopping in to the grocery store for a lunch in the park or breakfast on the go. It’s another way of seeing how the locals live and what treats and candies and food are popular. If you came to London and never went into a supermarket, you’d miss out on Freddos, and that is basically a crime against the British empire.
Do: Look into the train system
In America, trains are like these mythical modes of transportation that we’re pretty sure only Hogwarts uses (and maybe a few cities in New England.) Don’t take that misconception to Europe, because Europe is well connected by rail and it can sometimes be the best option. For closer destinations like Paris and Belgium, check out the Eurostar. Also look up trains within countries. Once you fly to Italy, for instance, you can then travel around by train instead of continuing to deal with airports.
Don’t: be immediately drawn to hostels
When you think ‘budget travel’ in Europe, hostels immediately come to mind. Hostels can be great for meeting new people and feeling like you’re having the “typical” travel experience, but if you have a larger group or are staying for more than a few days (or just don’t want to resort to living in a cramped room for the sake of adventure,) check out AirBnB. Depending on the city, you can find apartments to rent that will be much more spacious at the same kinds of prices (once you split it among the group).
Do: experience your trip with your own eyes, rather than a lens
I love travel photography. I appreciate a good Instagram. I once took 52 pictures of the same bird in Brighton because I couldn’t get the picture I wanted (spoiler alert: none of them worked). But don’t be that person who has to relive their trip back in London while looking through their Facebook photo uploads. I’ve done that and regretted it, because if I wanted to look at pictures of Europe online, I could have just wandered the streets on Google Street View and saved myself the money.