A lot of us are returning from Spring break from all different places, and, of course, with such different experiences from the places we visited. I personally made a trip to Berlin, Prague, and Budapest. Coordinating it was essential to making sure that everything would work out, and if it did not, I had back-up plans. I arranged all my dates of travel beforehand and bought all my tickets for trains and planes. I also booked all of the hostels I stayed at with two of my other friends in our program. However, some things are better planned out when you get to a place. I found these past 8 days of travel and my research beforehand provided me some great knowledge on how to do things right when it comes to traveling in Europe.
First of all, I found it essential to compare prices of different travel options. Flying is often the cheapest way to travel, but it is not always. This is often a mistake people make when booking cheap flights like Easyjet and Ryanair. There are instances where rail is cheaper and often more convenient. I found this especially to be the case in what is considered “Eastern Europe” by the former Soviet occupation boundaries. It is also important to take into account transportation costs, because with rail it is from central city to central city thereby avoiding unnecessary and some times expensive options of getting from the airport to the central city. However, with long distances and expensive high speed trains as the only viable alternative, rail becomes far less appealing. It really matters what the destinations are in determining which is cheapest. I did a little bit of both. I flew to Berlin and back from Budapest to Rome. I took a train from Berlin to Prague and from Prague to Budapest. The above travel plans I determined from what were the cheapest options and the most comfortable. Trains are often the most comfortable option because they allow you to see landscapes along the way, they run on a very tight schedule (trains face many less delays than planes in Europe), and they let you avoid the hassle of getting to/from airports. Buses are also an option, and they are often cheaper, but as many in our program can tell you, they can become an absolute misery to ride in. Trains are often quicker, make less stops, and do not hit traffic. European countries also put tremendous investments into their rail. So if you do travel by trains you get to see a bit of that investment.
In terms of hostels, always book beforehand and look for those with good ratings and close proximity to the different parts of the city. There are a lot of great hostels out there, and it only takes a little research to find them. Often times by choosing a more central hostel location there is no longer a need to buy public transit tickets, or there is less of a need for bigger cities. Part of the reason I chose cities like Berlin, Prague, and Budapest for spring break is because they are very cheap to stay in, eat in, and they are stunningly beautiful and vibrant cities. I found hostels in these cities from as low as 6 Euros to around 18 Euros a night. They were all great hostels because I checked the reviews beforehand and for one of them I waited for the price to go down to reach a last-minute special price.
When it comes time to seeing the cities I think it is important to have a good mix of tourist stuff and local stuff. You can usually distinguish between the two by seeing what kind of people are in both places. There are definitely things as a tourist that have to be done, especially if they are free. However, some things I find very unnecessary and a waste of money. Paying 10 Euros to take an elevator ride up a building when you could just pay nothing to climb up a hill right nearby and see a similar view really makes it not worth it to me. I found great views just by climbing up to the castle in Prague and up to the art museum in Budapest. The absolute worst waste of money in my opinion is tourist buses. You could just ride a city bus and use a public transit card. It would save you 10-20 Euros, and would give you a far better feeling of a place by seeing locals in front of you on the bus while seeing the scenery outside rather than seeing the locals through a stained glass bus window. Of course sometimes it is worth paying to obtain views from above (never ever from tourist buses though), when the building itself is worth seeing. In cases like the Duomo in Milan or Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, go to the top and see the view. These buildings are spectacular and worth seeing at all vantage points [Barcelona is a trip I did separately from the program].
The last lesson I have is to use local knowledge to your benefit. I heard in Prague that last-minute tickets can be incredibly cheap to see a philharmonic concert. So, my second day in Prague I headed to the box office and heard there was a concert that night. I checked with the person at the ticket office and discovered that I could sit in the second row and pay only 130 Czech Koruna for a last-minute ticket (in United States dollars that is about $6.50). $6.50 for a second-row seat in the Rudolfinum, one of the oldest concert halls in Europe with some of the best acoustics, to watch a Czech Philharmonic classical music performance! This concert was a highlight of my trip and it cost me only $6.50. So, seeing amazing things really does not have to be a huge expense if you hear word-of-mouth of such a great deal as the one in Prague. There are also great student discounts in many of the European museums. I paid half-price off what already was a cheap ticket to see wonderful art museums, Jewish museums, and Greek and Roman museums that showcase antiquity (I know it is a bit humorous to visit such museums when I live in Rome, but these museums in Berlin displaying antiquity were fantastic).
As for doing what the locals do, that is something I always try to emulate. They go to certain restaurants, shop at the local markets, and take a stroll in certain squares because they find them to be the best assets of their city. Instances like eating at a restaurant are times where you do not want to be a tourist surrounded by other tourists. You get a much better deal and much higher quality by going where locals go. Also, get ready to do some math when you travel outside where the Euro and Swiss Franc are used. Once you enter countries like Czech Republic and Hungary the conversion rates are no longer so simple. For the Czech Koruna it is about 19.6 CZK per $1 and for the Hungarian Forint it is about 235 HUF per $1. In Budapest I had to get used to paying 1400-2500 Forint for a good meal and 150-220 Czech Koruna in Prague (which after the conversion rates are so much cheaper than meals in Rome). Had my travel plans included expensive cities in Western Europe I would have done a lot more grocery shopping. The big changes in prices between cheap and expensive cities are in terms of such things as restaurants, hostels and hotels, tourist attractions (but not always), and regional and local transportation (in most cases forget about taking a long-distance train for 20 or 30 Euros, as is the case in more Eastern European cities).
Lastly, don’t forget to have at least one splurge. The last day I was in Budapest I went to the Szechenyi Baths where for 4100 Forint (still only about $17) I was given access to 7 different baths (indoors and outdoors) ranging from temperatures of 20 degrees celsius (way too cold for me) to 60 degrees celsius (2 minutes and I am out of that bath, or I would start cooking). They were mineral baths, and many of them had jets. It was extremely relaxing and felt like a real vacation. The powerful winds and the slightly above freezing temperatures also added to the experience. It was also a place I could spend hours in, which I chose not to so I could visit some other places in Budapest that day.
Also, it adds to the experience to visit places with vastly different languages. I spent 4 days hearing German everywhere I went, 2 days hearing Czech, and 2 days hearing Hungarian. Hungarian and Czech are some of the most difficult languages to learn, especially Hungarian. Hungarian is not even an Indo-European language. It is more closely related to languages in Western Siberia. So, even with my ability to pick up a few words in different languages, I could not even begin to learn Czech and Hungarian. However, I did pick up a few words in German despite almost all the young people we met who knew English.
There are wonderful things that can be done over Spring break and in the end you can do quite a lot for not very much. I had an absolute blast in some of the most beautiful cities that I have ever visited, and even with a limited budget it was a fantastic trip. Of course it is hard to extend advice to all places, but I believe the lessons I learned are applicable to a lot of cities in Europe.