Picking a Weekend
It isn’t s simple as you’d initially think. Sure, you can book a trip blindly, but remember that unique cultural celebrations happen across the continent year round. It’s important to be aware of these special dates and make your timing decision based on catching the holiday, or conversely, avoiding the additional headache it may introduce via limited public transportation, completely booked out hostels, etc. Catching the Carnevale in Venice and the Tomatina in Bunyol are absolutely unforgettable experiences but only if you’re up for the logistical challenge.
The days have passed when it was cheaper and easier to “train it”. Instead, thanks to airlines like Ryan Air and AerLingus, you can find round trip tickets for unbelievable rates. When I studied abroad, a friend of mine would wait until Monday or Tuesday to book flights for the upcoming weekend based on price alone. While this isn’t my style (I like to decide where I’m going based on my own volition), he had some of the most unique experiences of our entire group of friends; AND some of the cheapest as well — he would find round trip flights for under $10 US.
If you’re going to go the flight route, make sure to read all the fine print. I once got caught without my Ryan Air boarding pass stamped, and after a long run from the gate back to security, and some begging for an official signature, I was lucky to make my flight. Budget airlines make money when people miss their flights and need to rebook at premium rates. Make sure you’re aware of all these details so your cheap budget ticket doesn’t become the same price as flying first class.
That being said, don’t forget about trains altogether. Night trains get you there and back in time for classes on Monday but don’t plan on being well rested the next day. If you’re considering a night train it’s not unsafe to travel alone, but it’s better to have at least one friend with you for a bit of security. In addition, make sure the distance you’re traveling warrants an overnight trip. There’s nothing worse than getting on the train at 12:30am and arriving at 5:30am that same morning. In that case, I’d hop on a flight that would probably be equal, if not less expensive.
What about Eurail passes?
I’ve often been asked if Eurail passes save backpackers and students money while overseas. To put it simply, they do for the organized people. Eurail passes cannot be bought in Europe, and are designed for the backpacker who is traveling every few days, making the grand loop throughout the continent over 1 or 2 months. They’re designed for those who are traveling through cities A-B-C-D and so on…but not for the student who travels A-B-A, A-C-A, A-D-A, always returning to their city of origin where they are studying for the semester.
If you’re organized, you can save some money with them, though. Eurail prices are a function of three factors:
1. Number of countries in which they’re valid.
2. Number of days in which you can travel (an overnight costs only 1 day).
3. The overall traveling window.
For example: a student heading to study in Rome knows she wants to visit the Amalfi Coast, Venice, Florence, and the Cinque Terre. If she plans her times right (I know she will, you ladies are always more organized!), she could in theory pick up a pass for just ITALY, for EIGHT TRAVEL DAYS within a MONTH of the first travel day used. This way, she has bought the lowest possible number in each of those factors that determine the price of the Eurail pass, and can tick off all her Italian traveling desires in 4 great weekends, one after the other. If she wants to also visit Paris, that would add another country to the pass, so it’d be better to find a cheap flight there than paying for access to a whole other country’s rail system. Capisci?
Hostelworld.com is a great resource if you know you want to stay in a hostel. For me, some of the richest experiences I’ve had while traveling have been some of the cheapest. Staying in a good hostel sets you up with an instant community of backpackers excited to be staying in a new environment, and you often go exploring for the entire weekend with your new set of friends. Before booking though, it’s important to do your research. Don’t just go to the “highest rated”. Rather, you need to cross-evaluate the location, rating, number of ratings, amenities, and the reviews left by others who have stayed there in the past. Every single hostel will say they are “centrally located”, but remember this is relative term compared to Timbuktu!
I would also recommend looking into AirBnB.com. It’s a website that sets up backpackers with people in cities looking to rent out their spare room or entire apartment. If you can split if between yourself and a small handful of friends, you’ll find accommodations in great locations at very reasonable rates. It’s also pretty nice to have a kitchen and couch to call your own for a few days!
That’s all the time I’ve got for now. Keep an eye out for future guest blog posts in which I’ll discuss how you plan your time in each destination. In the mean time, check out WSAEurope.com for weekend adventure packages, more information and travel tips.