The best part of being in Europe is taking advantage of how close and accessible all the different countries are! Getting to Europe and back from the States may be a long and pricey flight, but once in Europe it’s super easy to frolic around for cheap! During my semester studying in France, I became familiar with some of the resources for cheap travel. Now that I am working in France for 8 months, I am taking advantage of all these resources ! Here’s how I typically plan out a trip.
1. Pick a destination
Sometimes I choose my destination based on an event or time constraint. How long of a holiday do I have? I just spent a three-day weekend back in Rotterdam. I won’t typically plan for multiple cities if I am only traveling for a couple days. However, the French school system provides several vacation periods which are convenient for planning longer-term trips. I booked a two week trip to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague for my upcoming break!
Something I love to do is pick my path of destinations by looking at a map. I had decided that I really wanted to visit Prague before I return home this summer. If I’m going to travel that far east in Europe, I might as well visit some other destinations in the vicinity! When I decided to add Budapest to the Prague visit, I noticed that Vienna is nearly perfectly in the middle of the two cities. It’d be a shame to skip over it, right!? This is how I planned my October vacation as well. I knew I wanted to stop in Ghent and Amsterdam, but chose to stop in Antwerp and Rotterdam as well because they were conveniently in between.
2. Choose a Mode of Transportation
Once I have a general idea of where I am going, I scan several different modes of transportation to see what will be the best cost and most convenient. There are many cheap transportation options in Europe. Want to fly cheap? Check out RyanAir. Want to ride the train for cheap? Try Ouigo. Want a cheap bus? Check FlixBus. These options are great cost-wise, but as they are low-cost they’re typically less convenient in various aspects.
First, FlixBus is super cheap, but of course riding a bus will take longer than a typical trainride. Also, budget busrides are prone to delays due to traffic and other reasons. Ouigo (only in France, I believe) has great prices for trains, but they are far less frequent than regular trains and they sometimes leave from stations outside main cities. For example, Ouigo has trains leaving from Marne-La-Vallee which is a station 35+ minutes outside of Paris. RyanAir is super cheap initially, but there are a lot of extra fees of which to be wary. RyanAir also typically leaves from smaller airports which are further away.
Keeping in mind these pros and cons, I use these options when they are convenient to me. Sometimes I decide it’s worth the extra euros to get to where I want to go faster using SNCF or other European trains. When I am more flexible on arrival time, maybe I’ll take that Monday evening flight for super cheap and just start my trip later than intended. I generally will note down prices and arrival times for at least three different options at each location before booking.
Alternative: Reverse Steps 1 & 2
I mentioned that cheap transportation is limited. Ouigo, for instance only goes to a handful of cities in France. In the past, I have used cheap transport to choose my destination! Ouigo has cheap tickets from Paris to Aix-en-Provence? Never been! Let’s try it out! RyanAir is another good example of this. Sometimes I will open RyanAir and choose where I’m starting from (Paris or Brussels) then see where flights go from those cities, and for how much. As I live in between these two major cities, I check both.
3. Choose a Hostel
As a solo traveler in my 20s, hostels are my go-to for accommodation. In general, before confirming my transportation and travel dates I make sure to check the price of hostels at my destination! This is key, because some cities have limited options. If there are less hostels, the price tends to be higher, whereas if there are a lot of options it’s almost guaranteed there will be affordable prices. The price of hostels in a destination will sometimes alter my time frame. If I can stay at a decent place for €15 or less a night, sure I’ll stay awhile! However, if the price is closer to €35? No thanks. Hostels are shared rooms after all!
Weekend prices are almost always higher than weekday prices. Especially in big cities! For popular destinations, it’s helpful to book in advance. I like to have my “pick of the litter.” That is to say, I like to pick which hostel I prefer out of the full list available in the destination before the good ones fill up.
When looking for a hostel, it is important to know what to look for! Personally, I will not book a hostel unless it looks decently clean, provides Wifi (pretty much the norm now but JIC), provides free sheets and towel (ain’t nobody got room for that in their backpack!), and has good reviews about atmosphere and staff. I love hostels for the communal aspect! If a hostel has a nice lounge area or bar to hang out in, I’m game! I especially love hostels that provide activities for the guests like bar crawls or free walking tours.
4. Create a To Do List
I’ll be honest, I have skipped this step a lot recently. However, in general I like to look to Pinterest for suggestions at each destination. What do people argue CANNOT be missed? What foods should I try there? Are there any great day-trip destinations? I’m a huge proponent of using Tripadvisor as well. I always review the hostel I stay at, as well as any tours I take. Sometimes I will use that site to peek at what the top tourist attractions are, or what museums are suggested.
Essentially, I just gather little bits of notes on a destination before arriving. Then when I arrive I look at the maps and adjust my game plan as I go. I always ask for advice and suggestions at the hostel I am staying. After all, locals know the place better than anyone! Not only is it their job to know the area, hostel staff are quite honest in giving opinions. Sometimes they will suggest great places to grab a bite or beer at night. Also, hello free maps!
If I am not staying in a hostel, I try to take a moment to check out the tourist office. I do this for the same reason I usually ask for insight at the hostel. Generally, the best way to get to know a new place is to just get out and explore. I like to meander aimlessly like the best of us, but I always want to make sure that I don’t leave a city thinking “dang, I wish I had done X, Y, and Z while I was there!”
Check out my list of 10 must have travel essentials for your next trip!