I just got home from fall break, which is luxuriously a week long for Cornell in Rome students. I traveled to Spain for the first time — first to Barcelona with my friends Carly and Lily, and then to Seville with just Carly. After this trip, I consider myself an expect budget traveler, and I am here to share some tips.
Everyone thinks of train travel when they think of Europe. However, while it is a romantic and potentially breath-taking way to see changing landscapes, it is also time-consuming and not the cheapest option for a quick weekend trip. Surprisingly, the cheapest way to travel is usually by flying. Ryanair is notorious for both its cheap tickets and its hidden-fee horror stories, but my friends and I decided to risk it. The trick to is to travel light and ignore all of their costly extras. They are strict about their carry-on size limitations, though, so packing carefully is of the utmost importance. Luckily, I got too stressed out watching other people’s carry-ons get rejected to make the same mistake.
The best part about flying in Europe is how fast the airport process is: security is much more lax (they didn’t seize my full-sized shampoo and my shoes stayed on), and if you stay in the European Union you don’t need to go through customs! Basically, you get on a flying bus and end up in a new country. In fact, Ryanair’s cheapest tickets don’t have assigned seats, so boarding the plane really is like boarding a bus.
It’s easy to find cheap hostels in most large cities, but make sure they are centrally located. As a rule of thumb, those closest to a train station are usually more sketchy but are often cheaper. Traveling with a group of four people is convenient for hostels, because renting a private room for four people is common and inexpensive, and you don’t have to share a room with strangers.
For the most adventurous (or poorest) travelers, couchsurfing is another option. It is exactly what it sounds like: sleeping on a generous stranger’s couch for free. Although this might sound pretty dangerous, it’s actually fairly safe if done through CouchSurfing.org. This trip marked the first time that Carly and I tried it, mostly to cross it off our bucketlists. It was an overall positive experience, but I don’t know if I will do it again. It’s important for me to feel flexible and independent when I travel, which just isn’t possible when you have to rely on somebody else’s schedule.
I enjoy high quality, healthy food, but I am not a foodie. I know some people travel partially to try the food of other cultures, but I am not one of those people, so for me it’s important to find the cheapest ways to eat healthily in a new city. For this, grocery stores are key. They often have delicious prepared food, or at least fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Street food or fast food is usually surprisingly expensive in Europe and just not worth it. (Huge exception: döner kebabs in Berlin, which I wish I could eat for every meal… but that’s another story.)
Most cities have lots of free things to see, especially for an architecture student — you don’t need to pay to see interesting urban spaces and building exteriors. Having said that though, I think it’s silly to try to save money on site-seeing because that is usually the most interesting part of visiting a new city. I shelled out €15 to see the Sagrada Familia and Casa Milà without regrets, and they were completely worth it. However, make sure to carry a student card with you and ask about student discounts, because most places have them even if they don’t advertise them.
Although I tried to make these tips as universal as possible, I know that in reality they don’t apply to everyone. At the end of the day, it comes down to your priorities while traveling. For some people, the most interesting part about travel is trying the cuisine of other cultures. For them, it makes more sense to have expensive and exciting dinners every night and then spend less money visiting museums. Others can’t enjoy themselves on vacation unless they have a guaranteed good sleep every night, so they probably shouldn’t risk the unpredictability that comes with staying in hostels or on someone’s couch. The most important part of budgeting for travel is to be honest about what is most important to you and to spend money accordingly.