I like to consider myself a full time study abroad student. In other words, I’m from the US, but I’m going to university in Scotland for all four years of my degree. Being much closer to mainland Europe than I’ve ever been in my life, the moment I knew I was coming to university here I also knew that I was going to be taking advantage of literally EVERY budget airline ticket I could get my hands on. Since then, I’ve gone on many a weekend trip, and I like to think that I’ve become a pro at them.
Whether it’s a quick dash to Edinburgh or eight hours of travel to spend less than 24 hours in a place (thanks, remote town my uni is located in), I’ve done it all — and lived to tell the tale.
If you’re planning to study abroad in Europe any time soon, then it’s highly likely you’re hoping to see as much of this side of the world as you can while you’re here. And yes, that means taking what I like to call “study abroad weekend trips”. (P.S. need a push to start making plans to study abroad? Check out these 11 inspirational study abroad stories!)
Study Abroad Weekend Trips: An Introduction
Best known for the limited time you get to spend in a place after a lot of effort to get there, study abroad weekend trips are the bane of every study abroad student’s life — and the thing they look forward to the most. Because there is nothing better than traveling in Europe.
Now, I’m not going to lie to you. Sometimes study abroad weekend trips may seem like they’re not worth it. They’re a lot of work to be in a place for not a long time, especially if you’re studying in a more remote part of the world (like I am). But when you’re studying abroad, you want to use every second to your advantage — and weekend trips are the way to do that.
So without further ado, here is my foolproof guide on how to kick a** at weekend trips while you’re studying abroad.
How to Take Weekend Trips While Studying Abroad in Europe
Part One: The Planning Stages
1. Start planning early
I know, I know, planning is no fun (unless you get a thrill out of planning, like I do. Anyone else? No? Just me? Ok, never mind then.) But when it comes to planning weekend trips when you’re studying abroad, it’s important to plan early. You only have a limited amount of time to see as much of Europe as you can. Planning early will allow you to do this (in the most methodical and logical way).
Planning early also generally means that you’ll be able to score better deals. Budget airlines’ prices tend to keep going up the longer you wait. So if you see a deal, snatch it. (And don’t worry, we’ll talk ALL about budget airlines in a minute.)
1.1 Utilize Google Flight Tracker
I know, I know. I just said if you see a deal, snatch it. But if you aren’t quite ready to commit yet, then tracking those flights on Google’s Flight Tracker is a great second option. It will send you an email any time there’s a change in the price, so you can keep an eye on whether it’s going up or down. And who knows, you might even get lucky and score some serious deals.
Using Google Flight Tracker is how I grabbed those £30 return flights to Barcelona, after all!
2. Choose who to go with
Who you travel with is arguably even more important that where you travel to. Will you go with a group of study abroad students from your own college? With a tour company geared towards study abroad students? Or will you make your own path and travel solo?
No matter what you decide to do, you do need to make the decision, as booking flights, hotels, and everything else can be a bit hard if you don’t know who you’re traveling with.
3. Buy cheap AF flights
The first real, physical step of taking a weekend trip while you’re studying abroad is going to be to book your flights. If you’ve kept your eye out for good deals, then this part should be easy.
If you haven’t found good flights yet, then here are a few of my favourite places to look for cheap flights:
Kiwi — great for when you don’t have a specific destination in mind. You can put in your local airport and dates and it will tell you the cheapest places you can fly to from there!
Ryanair — searching on Ryanair’s website directly can mean even cheaper flight deals. Be sure to check out their Cheap Flight Destinations tool for inspiration if you’re not sure where you want to go!
4. Surf the web for the BEST place to stay
These days, there are loads of budget options for places to stay, especially in Europe. If you want to live the traditional European backpacker life, then a hostel is the way to go. But you can also couchsurf, connect with locals using Airbnb, camp, or even stay in a monastery.
Even if you have your heart set on one type of accommodation, it’s best to do at least a little bit of research before you book. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll spend literal d a y s surfing the web and looking for the best place to stay. Seriously, I compare price, location, how much I like the design, if there’s free breakfast…
You don’t have to get as crazy as me, but research is definitely a good idea if you want to find a good deal.
Here are a few places to start out:
Airbnb — if you’re traveling with a group of friends, this can often be the cheapest option. AND you can get a whole place to yourselves, if you want! If you’re not signed up for Airbnb yet, be sure to do so via this link to get $40 off your first trip!
Hostelworld — if you’re traveling solo, or just like making friends, then a hostel is a great idea. Check out Hostelworld for a comprehensive list of hostels in the place that you’re taking your weekend trip to. When you’ve found a place you like, go to their website — it’s often cheaper to book directly!
5. Research (and decide) what you want to do
Although showing up without a plan may seem romantic, when it comes to weekend trips you have to be realistic. You don’t have a lot of time, and you want to see as much of a place as possible while you’re there.
We never would have made it to Blarney Castle if we hadn’t planned it ahead of time.
You don’t have to plan out an hour-by-hour itinerary, but having a good idea of the sort of things there are to do, what you absolutely want to see, and, most importantly, what you absolutely HAVE to eat, is essential.
You can find loads of ideas online, but I’m not going to lie. A good, old-fashioned guidebook is still my favourite resource when it comes to planning my study abroad weekend trips. Lonely Planet is my go-to!
Part Two: Surviving Budget Airlines
It’s finally time to go on your weekend trip! But first: the plane ride. Here’s a mini guide on how to survive budget airlines in Europe:
1. Check in online
Most budget airlines these days charge you a HEFTY fee if you want to check in at the airport. To be sure you avoid this fee, check in online (and don’t forget to print your tickets out before you go!).
2. Pack an allowance-complicity carry on bag
In the US, you can usually get away with some pretty big bags as your carry on. But on European budget airlines, this is definitely NOT the case. Before you show up at the airport with a bag that’s too big (and get charged), be sure to check the specific luggage allowances for the airline that you’re traveling with — and comply to them.
3. Stuff some snacks in there
Budget airlines like to charge for everything. So don’t go in expecting to get pretzels and a drink halfway through the flight (at least not for free). Before you board, be sure that you have enough food to last you through the duration of the flight.
If you’re really traveling on a budget, pack your snacks before you even leave home. Bring a reusable water bottle as well to fill up after you get through security!
4. Prepare yourself for zero legroom
If you pay $30 for a return flight, you can’t exactly expect the height of luxury. And yes, your budget airline flight might not be the most comfortable ride of your life. But that’s not really the point. The point is to get to your destination for as cheap as possible.
Probably the biggest offender comfort-wise is going to be leg room. If you’re tiny (like me), then it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. But if you have longer legs (like my boyfriend does), then you might be in for a rough couple of hours.
Be sure to get up every once and a while to walk around the cabin. But never fear, most of the flights you’ll take for weekend trips while you’re studying abroad shouldn’t be more than three hours. It’ll be over soon.
5. Get ready for the time of your life
Weekend trips are a whirlwind. During this rare moment of rest, take some time to just sit back and relax (at least as much as you can with only 8 inches of leg room). Or, if you haven’t finished planning what you’re going to do during your weekend trip, take this time for some last-minute planning!
Part Three: Living Your Best Life While You’re There
You made it! You have finally arrived at your destination. Depending on what ungodly time your budget flight gets in (they’re always super early in the morning or super late at night), you can either start exploring right now or the next morning. Here are some tips to make the most of your time on your trip!
1. Check out events at your hostel (or just ask about cool things to do)
If you’re staying an a hostel, then you already have a huge amount of resources at your fingertips. When you first check in, check out the bulletin board to see what sort of stuff is going on at your hostel while you’re there. These can range from dinners in to free walking tours to pub crawls. Definitely take advantage of them!
Also take the chance to ask the person at the front desk if they have any recommendations of things to do — especially for places to eat! A local’s favourite places are always going to be the best.
2. Rock public transportation (or just walk!)
You’re a student. You’re on a budget. Which means you’re probably already pretty familiar with public transportation. I probably don’t even need to mention this. But definitely don’t bother with taxis on your weekend trip. Public transportation (or just walking) will get you where you need to go for a lot cheaper.
If you’re a big overachiever (like me), then you can do a quick Google search before you go to make sure you know how the public transportation system when you’re going works — sometimes it can be a bit confusing! This can also help with estimating what your transportation will cost for the weekend.
3. Go on free walking tours
If your hostel itself doesn’t offer free walking tours, I promise that there is at least one free walking tour in the place that you’re visiting. Just pop “[place name] free walking tour” into Google and you’ll find them.
Free walking tours are a great (cheap) way to orient yourself with the city. They’re also another great chance to get tips from a local. All you have to pay is a small tip at the end! Perfect for students on a tiny budget 😉
4. Eat at the local places
Eating at the “local haunts” means getting a lot more bang for your buck. First of all, they’re generally a lot cheaper than restaurants geared towards tourists. The food is also generally better, and they’re a great way to get a feel for local life.
But how do you find local places to eat? Those recommendations I told you to get earlier are a great place to start. I also suggest venturing a bit further from the main tourist boulevards. And avoid anywhere with an English menu with pictures.
5. Get some sleep
I know, I know. You want to see it all and you only have, like, 36 hours. But trust me, you’ll look back a lot more fondly on your weekend trip if you get at least a little bit of sleep during those 36 hours.
Part Four: The Return “Home”
1. Cry on the plane ride back to your host university
One weekend is never enough time in one place. Unfortunately, when you’re studying abroad, this often means being short on time. So on your plane ride back to school, be sure to lament the fact that you didn’t have enough time.
But don’t worry, you’ll be back again sometime soon.
2. Collapse from exhaustion
If you do a weekend trip right, you’re dashing around almost the entire time. You’ll have likely walked miles and miles, spent more time awake than asleep, and visited more museums than you thought was physically possible.
If you’re not collapsing from exhaustion at the end of your weekend trip, you’ve done something wrong.
Part Five: Repeat
Sure, you’ve just collapsed from exhaustion. But was’t it so much fun? Take a week to recover, then go back to the beginning of this guide and start all over again.