Weekend trips! The very best part about studying abroad! There’s nothing like living in Europe and knowing you can get from Italy to Croatia for under $100 round trip, leaving at the butt crack of dawn Friday morning and getting back around 1:00am Monday.
Although incredible, they can be a bit daunting to plan, especially when you first get to your host institution. Unfortunately, the United States isn’t as travel-friendly, so most people aren’t used to planning a whole trip by themselves. I know I wasn’t- my dad does everything for our family, and I always just went along for the ride. But when I got to Europe I had to do the whole independent-adult thing and figure it out on my own.
Looking back there are definitely things I’d change about the first couple trips I took, but now I’d like to think I’m a bit of a weekend-trip-planning-pro. I wish I had seen a post like this before I started planning my trips, so to help some other young college gal like me I decided to throw one together of my own!
I’ll preface all of this by reminding y’all how Type-A I am. I love being organized, and my favorite hobby is making google docs. So if you’re like that, this post will probably suit you PERFECTLY. If you’re more go with the flow, I admire that, however hopefully this will help you become a little more of a planner, because that’s how you’ll get the most out of your semester abroad!
Research and Planning
Arguably the most fun part! I’m kidding (sort of), the best part is actually traveling. But the crazy, type-A planner in me can’t help but get excited when my friends mention wanting to go to a new place, because it means I get to do some hardcore google doc formatting and flight research.
LET’S GET THIS PARTY STARTED.
1. Make a Google Doc
I got chills thinking about this because I had so much fun making my semester traveling google doc. I’m extremely Type-A, so this was right up my alley. Here’s the guide-within-a-guide to making a traveling google doc the way I do:
Formatting. Use the “styles” to format your doc, which will make your outline easy to use. The title should be what your doc is called, then use Heading 1 for trips you’ve booked (that’s what trip #1 looks like) and Heading 2 for trips you haven’t booked (that’s what trip #2 looks like). That way you can easily see which ones are nailed down in your handy outline.
You can also put a ‘ ✔️ ‘ next to trips you’ve already taken. That way, in your outlineeeee, you can see which one’s are completed and which one’s are booked for the future.
Use the outline!!!!! I’ve already mentioned it 100 times, but it’s so great. If you can’t figure out how to get it to pop up, go to “View -> Show Document Outline” in the menu bar. This is really helpful when you start racking up the trips and you want to quickly find one or the other.
Budget everything. You’ll appreciate it when you get back and know exactly where all of your money went. Having it all in writing is really helpful and helps subdue that post-trip panic of “oh sh*t where did all of my money go?” (you’ll have a lot of those moments).
Un-highlight the things you’ve booked. In our example doc, everything is highlighted, because this trip hasn’t been planned yet. But as you spend, add up the cost in the title where it says (Spent: $___) and un-highlight the cost in the lower portion of the doc so you know what you still need to book/buy.
Use a different color highlight for each trip. The icing on the cake, you get to pick fun ways to color code your trips! Lucky you! Using a different color for each trip will help keep them from running together when you’re scrolling, or when you have a few up on your screen at the same time.
2. Set your budget
This part sucks the most, but really hear me out, if you do your google doc the right way you’re going to really be able to maximize your budget. By putting your trips down.to.the.dollar. you’ll have a clear picture of just how much spending you’re going to do, and you won’t have to stress about how much you money you *think* you have left.
When you start, you’re going to be thinking you’re-rolling-in-cash-oh-my-goodness-why-didn’t-anybody-tell-you-how-cheap-trips-around-Europe-are?!!?
But then when you realize how many places you want to go to and oh yeah when you’re there you’re going to want to spend money on food and things and drinks that’ll turn into:
But it’s ok! That’s why you budget.
First set an overall budget. This is the overall amount of money you’re allowed to spend on travel all semester. I came to London with $3,000 in savings just to be used for traveling, and I’m on track to use all of that up and then a little (oops). I would say save as much as possible before you come, that’s a given, and then when you get here plan as much as possible and as detailed as possible.
Next divide that up into smaller budgets. Smaller weekend trips (my trips to Bruges, Belgium and Dublin, Ireland) should cost you about $250, +/- a little, if you budget correctly (Belgium cost ~$200, Ireland cost ~$150, but it’s always good to include a cushion). And bigger or longer trips will be more. For example, over spring break my friends and I are going to Italy, Portugal, and Croatia over the span of 5 days. For that trip, I’ve budgeted about $600.
So here’s what I did with my $3,000 budget:
$1,500 for 2 longer trips (one 5-day trip for spring break, one 9-day trip at the end of the semester)
$1,250 for 5 weekend trips
$150 for 1 day trip to Paris
$100 for 2 day trips around England
So far this has been pretty accurate, because I was very specific in my google doc budgeting! I really swear by it, because it allowed me to plan more trips than other people I know who ended up with leftover money but nowhere to go their last couple of weeks abroad (you really have to book in advance for good ticket prices).
3. Figure out where you want to go
This sounds so obvious, so why is it #3? Because you have to set up the bones (google doc and budget!!!) before you know how to prioritize your trips. I’ll admit, I wish I had done this part a little better, because I definitely could’ve combined some nearby trips to be 4 days instead of two 2-day trips (you save money that way!).
Also, if you’re like me and you go to your study abroad institution knowing *nobody* you’ll meet people who want to go different places. Your perfect traveling list that you spent months putting together (cough personal experience cough) probably won’t come to fruition exactly how you pictured, but trust me, it’s likely for the better.
Where you want to go and what you want to spend your money on changes so. much. when you get abroad.
- Meet up with your friends and each of you make a list of 10 places you want to travel to.
- Try to match up countries or cities that are on the majority’s lists to create a group top-10 ***
- Pull out a map and figure out if three or four of those places are clumped up in the same general area. They are? Oh good! Hit em all in a row for spring break, woo-hoo!
- Figure out which places you *must* visit when the weather is good, and which ones you can bear to have crappy weather for. For example, we didn’t care when we went to Ireland because the weather kind of always stinks. I did care when I went to Portugal, because I wanted it to be sunny.
- Don’t always go for the biggest city. For example, Bruges is the second biggest city in Belgium behind Brussels, and I loved it so much. There were fewer tourists and, I thought, more character.
- Be open to seemingly random stops. We went to Ljubljana, Slovenia, which felt out of left field for me. Turns out it was gorgeous, and Lake Bled (about an hour away) was so nice to sit next to because we got lucky and had a really sunny day.
***side note: if the group excludes one place you’re just ~dying~ to go to, don’t be afraid to make it a solo trip. I’m doing a day trip on my own, and I had a friend who did an overnight. Just be smart about it, but more on that later.
4. Book your flights/trains/busses
This time around GoEuro found the cheaper flight, while also giving me train and bus options. That’s not always the case, so it’s good to check both to make sure you’re finding the cheapest possible option.
Skyscanner is for flights only, unlike GoEuro. It also has a cool feature where you can say you want to go from your city (London for me) to anywhere, give it a date to fly out on and a date to return on, and it’ll show you the cheapest round trip options to pretty much anywhere in the world. So, if you have an empty weekend and cash to burn you can try it out and see what places would be cheapest to visit!
GoEuro is great for if you’re going somewhere close or accessible by a bunch of different transportation options, and you want to compare price/duration/departure times. For this example, GoEuro is probably better because I can reasonably get to Paris by plane, train, or bus. However, if I were going to, say, Italy, that function wouldn’t be as helpful because I’m flying regardless of what it finds me.
Ryanair and EasyJet are two very popular cheap airlines. Between the two you’ll be able to go just about anywhere in the world for next to nothing if you go on the right dates. Here are the two compared when I searched for flights:
EasyJet is cool because they let you do every airport in your city at once to compare prices, and they’ll show you the bordering dates for the one you picked. Ryanair only does one airport to one airport, but they do allow you to easily compare nearby dates.
Personally, I like EasyJet more just because I’ve had better experiences with their customer service, and they’re a bit more flexible on their check in process.
If you’re looking to get from London to any European city (big ones are Paris, Amsterdam, or Brussels…) the Eurostar is your only option (I think…?). I’ve taken one before and was really pleased with my experience, but be warned, it’ll probably be more expensive than flying or taking a bus.
To get around Europe, the Eurail is very popular and offers passes that allow students to travel for pretty cheap. Beyond that, it really depends what country you’re in. Italy has cheap train tickets, and it’s pretty easy to navigate, too. France also has a good rail system, but transportation strikes are not rare so keep an eye out on your government page.
National Express is a big name in the bus business, and they’re typically very comfortable, have nice drivers, and come with outlets. Same can be said for FlixBus, and commonly these tickets will be cheaper than National Express’.
These are the two big bus companies I’ve used, and really you get what you pay for. It’ll take longer than flying, won’t be as comfortable, if you’re going from London to Ireland or Europe you might have to get on a ferry (which sucks if you’re doing overnight), and you run the risk of motion sickness if the driver isn’t great. But it’s usually dirt cheap. So take what you can get.
If you’re looking for a bus to your airport in London you can use National Express or Airport Bus Express directly, or you can book through EasyBus (yes same company as EasyJet) and get super cheap airport transportation. Most of the time booking through EasyBus is the cheapest way! I don’t know how they do it, I don’t ask questions, I just enjoy the savings.
5. Find somewhere to stay
This really depends on how much you’re willing to pay and where you’re going.
For example, when we went to Venice, we knew we weren’t going to be spending a lot of time in our accommodation so we picked a cheap hostel and it worked great. When we went to Florence, we wanted a more comfortable place where we could hang out a little bit if need be, so we got an Airbnb.
Hostel World is the spot to find a hostel. They have a giant database, reviews, you book directly with them, and can see all amenities offered and private/dorm options laid out right next to each other. I would go for a hostel if you know you won’t be spending a ton of time in the room, and if you’re really trying to save money.
AirBnB is a very reliable site to get flat rentals for a decent price, and they have a ton of options to choose from. If you want to splurge, you can jack up the price range a bit and get a place with a ton of amenities, or if you’re ballin on a budget like me, you can find whole apartments or private rooms sometimes for as cheap as a hostel. Get $40 travel credit on your first booking by using this link.
Booking.Com is what I use when I’m going somewhere that doesn’t have hostels or reasonably priced Airbnb’s. That doesn’t really happen often, but they have really good deals, and often list hostels as well as hotels so you have a really wide range of options.
6. Pick a few activities and book online (if possible)
This is obviously going to depend on where you are, so I won’t go into specifics too much, but I will say this- having pay-for activities ready to go once you get there is so nice. It’s a huge weight off your shoulders, and feels great when you get to the ticket counter and don’t have to spend any money.
Here are some places to look if you don’t already have plans for your destination:
- Pinterest (just search the city’s name and you’ll get thousands of ideas)
- The city’s tourism website
- Rick Steves Europe
- Instagram (search the location and see what pics look fun!)
If you’re like me you’ll be ballin on a budget when you get to these places, and will probably be prioritizing free activities over paid ones. However, it’s always good to splurge on one or two things so you know you’re getting a well rounded trip.
Right Before You Leave
1. Check in to your flight ONLINE!!!!!
This is a really important one, because those dang budget airlines will charge you a stupid amount of money if you forget and have to check in at the airport. Now it won’t be the end of the world- you’ll still get on the plane. But you’ll have to pay upwards of $100 at the counter and it’ll put a damper on your trip for sure.
Set a reminder 48 hours before you leave to check in online, put in your passport and personal information, and print out your tickets.
2. Find a printer
… and get ready to kill some trees. Sort of kidding. I hate having to use so much paper when I travel, but for me it’s the best way to stay organized and make sure I have everything I need before I go.
When I travel, I make sure to print out:
- Plane tickets (and bus/train tickets if applicable)
- Hotel/Hostel/Airbnb booking information, with confirmation details, address, and the location on a map (in case your service is bad when you land)
- Any pre-paid activity booking information/tickets
- My host university acceptance letter, for coming back into the country through customs (I keep this in my passport booklet)
3. Map out important spots
If you have an idea of the places you want to go when you’re in a city, I really recommend plugging the spots into google maps (the computer one, not the app) beforehand. This way, you can see what’s near what, and how to get from one place to the other, which will really maximize your time.
For the first picture, I just plugged in a bunch of tourist attractions around London that somebody might want to go to when they visit, starting at UCL. It’s a mess. This is awful to look at, and you would be walking in circles for ages!
Just by looking at the plotted spots, I was able to drag my destinations around to change the order, turning the messy blob into a nice path. Driving it says it saved me 20 minutes, but if I had put it in walking mode it would have saved me 1 hour of walking time! That’s a lot!
4. Pack your backpack
First you’re going to be like,
But I swear you do not and you will deeply regret it if you do. Here is how I pack my backpack for weekend trips:
- WEAR ON THE PLANE: Your bulkier shoes, jeans, a top, a cardigan, and a jacket.
- 1 pair of shoes that go in very first
- Socks, underwear, and small things go inside of your shoes
- 1 rolled ‘bottom,’ so a skirt, a pair of pants/shorts, or a dress
- 2 rolled tops
- 1 rolled t shirt to sleep in
- 1 rolled pair of leggings to sleep in
- Toiletries and liquids in a small ziplock baggie, placed at the very top for easy security line access
Obviously how stuffed your bag is will depend on the time of year. My winter and early-spring trips, my backpack weighed so dang much and was filled to the brim with sweaters and boots and I had to bring a coat. But now that it’s getting warmer packing is 1,000 times easier and my backpack weighs half as much.
5. Get some sleep
You’ve got a big few days ahead of you! Rest up, because trust me you aren’t going to be sleeping all that well if you’re in a hostel. Lol good luck ha.
1. Take out cash
It’s always good to have some of the local currency on hand right when you get there, and there are always ATM’s in the airport. Usually those ones don’t charge you an arm and a leg in conversion fees, but definitely check to see if there are any charges along with just the withdrawal.
Furrrrrthermore, I always find it easier to keep track of my spending when I take out the amount I’m planning to drop when I’m in a city. So like if I budget $100 for food, souvenirs, and things to do, I take out 80 euro and try to ration it that way. Keeps me honest.
2. Blend in
This one is pretty important, although you won’t really be able to control it all that much. When you get to a new city, it’s good to try to at least act like you know what’s going on and where you’re going, or you could get targeted as an obvious tourist. I’ve heard a ton of stories about girls getting taken advantage of (mostly in the money-sense) by scam artists who hang out right outside of the airports and in the really touristy centers.
Really just keep your wits about you, and try to have a destination when you’re walking around instead of just wandering. I know people always glorify “getting lost” in cities, and that is fun, but you have to be careful where you get lost because you could end up in a bad part of town, or just wasting your time wandering around a neighborhood.
And get a purse that zips or closes tightly so you can avoid pickpockets, because they target tourists big time.
3. Check-in to your hostel/AirBnB/hotel
This one’s pretty self explanatory, but it’s always the first thing I try to do. Get the key, ditch your backpack, and make sure you have a place to spend the night before you run off to explore and do fun things.
4. Take a second to breathe
It’s also always nice after a day of traveling to chill for a bit in your accommodation, so don’t be hard on yourself if you spend like 30 or 45 minutes just sitting, drinking water, and figuring out your game plan for the day. That 30 minutes could be the difference between you getting tired at 8:30 and you getting tired at 11:00.
5. Figure out the water situation
Hi yes it’s just your mom dropping in to remind you to always drink water, but only if it’s safe! Some cities in Europe aren’t very well developed and have sketchy water supplies, so always google it before you fill your water bottle up from the tap. You can also ask the people at your accommodation, or just be safe and buy a water bottle. But the tap will save you a ton of money.
6. Track your spending
When I travel I always keep a running note of what I spent money on and how much I spent. So for example it’ll say like:
ITALY- $8 (lunch), $5 (snack), $3 (gelato), $24 (gondola ride), … and so on
This just keeps me up to date on where my money’s going. That way, when I get home and wonder “holy sh*t how did you spend that much” I can look at my note and then say “ah yes, that’s how.” Doesn’t hurt any less, but keeps me from racking my brain trying to figure it out.
7. Don’t forget a souvenir
Memories fade but…
Kidding sort of but also very serious. If you go somewhere that you really love, get a souvenir to remember it! I know girls who are getting stickers from every city they go to, one’s getting a shot glass from everywhere (hard to travel with though), and one’s getting a piece of jewelry from each city. Really it just depends on your budget, and how much room you have in your suitcase, but even a little knick knack is a good way to remember a really great trip by.
Well that’s all folks. After your trip all you have left to do is go home, take a fat nap (because you’ll be exhausted), and cry about what a broke bi*ch you are. Then you get to do it all again the next weekend! And the next weekend! Yay study abroad!!!