As my semester in Europe drew to a close, I was reminded what an incredible privilege it is to be able to travel. Traveling internationally always feels like a big deal to me and I hope it always stays that way. From casually scrolling through my instagram feed, you might think I have some secret fortune that I’ve been tapping into, but I assure you that’s not the case. While it’s certainly due to some privilege that I’ve been able to do so much traveling, it’s also required creativity, patience, and efficiency in planning trips that I could actually afford to take.
Each trip I take, I get a little better at it and so I thought I’d pass on what I know. These travel tips might be, admittedly, for a relatively narrow slice of the population. My experience as a white, single, childless woman with significant chunks of free time probably doesn’t apply to all of you, so take what’s useful to you and ignore what isn’t. I hope these tips inspire you to plan a trip to somewhere you’ve never been before.
So whether you’re traveling alone or with a travel companion, I hope these tips and words of advice help you plan and have an amazing trip!
The three biggest non-negotiable costs for traveling are housing, food, and transportation. After that comes fun activities and souvenirs. Since I like free walking tours (always tip around $5), seeing the sights of the city, and free museums, I usually keep my “fun activities” costs pretty low. Anything that you can do to reduce the Big 3 costs will make your trip so much cheaper. If possible, plan trips to visit people you may know (even if you barely know them!) so you can have a free place to stay. This is my dad’s travel method and it’s taken him around the globe more than once. Of course, this works best if you are open to welcoming others to stay with you. If you don’t know anyone living outside the US (how does one begin to make international friends anyway?) I’ve had lots of friends have a great experience through couchsurfing, but I haven’t done it myself.
You can also reduce costs and maximize your time abroad by not traveling much within your trip. A trip to 5 countries in 3 weeks sounds great but it also means you only see the highlights of each city and you spend a good chunk of money, time, and energy on transportation. This is primarily how I’ve traveled, but in the future I want to focus on trips in one country where I can get off the beaten path and see beyond the tourist spots. This can be hard as a solo traveler, but I think it’s worth considering. Two days in a capitol city might be all that you need to see the main attractions, but if you have a week, you can get out of the big cities and see parts of the country that a whirlwind trip don’t allow for.
Bring 3 methods of payment— a no-international-transaction-fee credit card, debit card for withdrawing local currencies, and USD for emergencies.
When you withdraw money or use your card, always choose the “local currency” instead of the conversion to USD. Your bank will always give you a better deal than what the terminal/ ATM says.
I recommend getting a separate debit card (like Chase Liquid) from your regular checking account to use to withdraw money abroad. That way, if your wallet gets stolen, your whole checking account isn’t vulnerable. Keep only as much money in the account as you want to withdraw. When it comes to money when traveling, always prepare for the possibility of pickpockets.
There are lots of great options for credit cards that have no international transaction fees. Ideally, you want a Visa card since they are accepted everywhere. I’ve had the Chase Sapphire card for years and I love it. I treat it like a debit card, never spending more than I have, and it basically pays me to spend money. If you use my referral link, you can get 50,000 points (worth $500 in cash back or even more for travel!) which you can use for booking travel (I’ll get some points too). I wouldn’t recommend it if I didn’t genuinely think it’s the best deal out there.
I always have an emergency stash of USD in case something happens. Keep this (and ideally a back up card) in a different location than the rest of your wallet. When my wallet got stolen in Prague, this is what saved me.
That being said, always always keep your wallet in a safe, zipped pocket. When I’m traveling, I leave my passport in my hotel/Airbnb room so I don’t have to constantly worry about it.
The most obvious question when planning a trip is “where should I go?” If you’ve got the patience, you can start searching for good airfare deals long in advance. With a bit of flexibility with dates and destinations, you can score amazing flight deals to Europe. I think you can have an amazing trip anywhere, so don’t overlook seemingly “random” destinations.
Weather and time of year are obviously huge factors in traveling. This past winter in Europe was my first time traveling in the winter time and I learned that it’s not really my jam. I’d rather get food from a grocery store and have a picnic by the river than be bundled up walking from indoor activity to activity. That being said, I have no regrets about my winter travels. It’s just something to keep in mind when making your plans- what are you hoping the trip will feel like? If lots of times in parks and by the water is the vibe you’re looking for, maybe hold out for May-September trips.
I’ve now been to most major countries in Europe, with some notable exceptions, and I’ve found that some cities are impossible to be overrated (hi Paris!) and others that I had no expectations for blew me away (looking at you, Krakow!). Here’a my current, probably incomplete, recommendations:
Ireland and the United Kingdom— Call me #basic, but the UK is my favorite place to visit. It’s super easy to do a solo trip throughout the UK. One summer, I did Dublin-Belfast-Edinburgh-London and loved each one. The UK is great for train travel and there are budget airlines throughout the isles. If you can go to Cornwall or the Cotswolds, you will not regret it. My dream is to spend a summer in Cornwall! London is easily my favorite city and I could spend hours giving recommendations.
Scandinavia— Scandinavia is as expensive as everyone warns you it is, but it is doable as a solo traveler. Although I enjoyed my trip in the winter, I definitely want to go back in the summer. I didn’t make it to Oslo or Stockholm, so those are still on my “someday” list! Helsinki is an amazing city to visit and there are lots of great things to do in the region.
Central Europe— This is, admittedly, a broad region. People from these countries feel very strongly that they are in Central Europe, not Eastern Europe (that line tends to be east of Poland) so choose your words wisely! The benefit of Central Europe is it is much cheaper than the rest of Europe. Of course, I love the Czech Republic (and not just Prague), so I definitely think you should visit. There are lots of cute little towns you can easily get to by train for a day trip from Prague. Poland was an unexpected delight in October. It’s a beautiful country and it’s worth the visit to important holocaust memorials like Auchswitz. Budapest is my favorite city on the continent and you could spend a week there any only scratch the surface! Technically, you can count Istanbul in Europe and that city is definitely a must-visit, although the political landscape is a bit tenuous at this time.
Western Europe— I think this is what most Americans consider “real” Europe and it’s certainly a good place to start. Paris really is as magical as it looks in pictures and the food in Italy is all it’s chalked up to be and more. I spent only a few days in Germany and it made me want to spend a month traveling all throughout the country. It’s worth remembering that the bigger European countries are a bit like the USA- made up of different regions with unique landscapes, food, customs, and dialects. Spending time going all throughout one country is a great way to see the many different aspects of the country, rather than just the capitol.
While You’re Abroad
When I plan a trip to a city, I do a bit of research in advance, but I’m always very flexible. I never do “city pass” or “hop on and off” bus tours because you end up paying for more than you’ll be able to use. I mostly use Google Maps for my planning. I do some crowdsourcing and simple googling, then star things that I want to do and plan a route that makes the most sense. I usually end up walking about 8 miles a day, summer or winter!
I use Google Maps all day long for getting around- both walking and public transit directions. It’s almost always spot on (although it’s often missing trains, so double check to see if there’s a train option). You can download an offline map of the city in case you don’t have service.
Leave room for flexibility. You never know what you might stumble upon and unplanned stops end up being some of the best moments of traveling.
Expect things to go wrong. Something will go differently than you expected, perhaps not for the best. Be prepared to roll with the punches.
I plan housing based on:
If I know anyone in the area
Public transit/ walkability. For big cities like London, anywhere on a good transit line can be fantastic. In cities where you can reasonably walk everywhere you want to go, you can end up saving time and money by staying somewhere closer to downtown so you don’t spend as much money on transit.
If I want to meet people or do my own thing. For example, in Malmo I stayed in an Airbnb room in a family apartment, which was a great experience. I didn’t meet any other travelers, which is how I wanted it. In Copenhagen, I stayed at a hostel and met a number of other women, which was perfect for NYE in a city where I didn’t know anyone. From here on out, I think I’ll be doing more Airbnbs than hostels.
It’s probably worth it to have a data plan. You might be able to get by with just WiFi hotspots, but if you want to be free to roam about the city, a data plans come in very handy. Almost all cell phone plans are cheaper abroad, so if your phone is unlocked, you can get a SIM card that has a data plan that works althoughout Europe. I had a terrible experience with O2, but Vodafone, and T-Mobile Europe are great options.
Pack light! Pack (wrinkle free!) clothes that you can mix and match and make plans to wash as needed. I did 16 days with 2 pairs of pants, 1 skirt, 1 dress, and 5 shirts and it was plenty because I made sure to book Airbnbs that had washing machines (although I brought a small bag of laundry detergent). Make sure you take clothes that you want to be photographed in, because once-in-a-lifetime moments deserve pictures you actually want to look at someday!
Speaking of pictures, always get someone to take your picture. The 5 seconds of awkwardness is worth it for pictures you’ll be able to look back on for years.
My Favorite Travel Gear
Finally, having gear that serves you well will really help your trip go smoothly. If you’re on a budget (and who isn’t?) and you’re deciding between spending your budget on gear or the trip itself, I recommend buying one nice piece per major trip. It’s worth the investment over the long run, but it’s certainly not worth spent $600 on gear at once when that means not being able to afford your trip! Don’t sweat it if you don’t have all the perfect gear, just make sure you’re bringing reliable gear that fits the needs of your trip. These are my favorite things to bring when traveling:
Backpack. I can’t recommend this enough. In cities with old cobblestone streets, you’ll be so happy you only have a backpack to lug across town instead of a roller bag. This backpack is small enough to fit on all the budget airlines in Europe without a fee, which is key for budget traveling. Make sure you look up luggage allowance restrictions for the airlines you use. I use packing cubes in this pack and it makes it functional and organized.
Purse. I love this purse for traveling. It fits my iPad as well as other essentials for the day. It’s also easy to wear both my purse and backpack at the same time, which is great for travel days.
Portable Charger. This is a must-have item. This charger will charge a phone 2-3x, which is great for big travel days when you’re using your phone all day.
Adaptor Plug. This plug is the best adaptor I’ve ever had. You can get one with 4 USB outlets, but I’ve never needed more than two at a time. It has UK/Europe adaptors and charges devices quickly.
Water bottle. Water almost always costs money at restaurants in Europe and I know that I feel so much better when I’m well hydrated, so I always bring a reusable water bottle and fill it wherever I can.
Compressible Backpack. For days when you need more than a small purse, a backpack that is easily stashed in your luggage is great to have on hand.
Extra pair of headphones. The worst thing is loosing a pair of headphones and having to fork over a ton of money to replace them in a foreign country. An extra pair doesn’t take up much space and you’ll be so happy you packed them.
A Good Jacket. This is my favorite travel jacket for spring to fall traveling. I once lost it and when I realized it 5 months later (because you don’t need a jacket for months on end!) I bought the exact same one all over again because it’s so great. It’s easy to layer a fleece underneath if it’s chilly and it’s got a million handy pockets without being bulky. It’s water resistant and with UV protection, so it’s pretty much the perfect travel coat. Eddie Bauer constantly has a sale, so keep an eye out.
The secret to traveling is that there isn’t one. Every time I go abroad I make stupid mistakes, I accidentally say something that make me a less than perfect representative of my country, and things go awry. But I also have had some of the best experiences of my life traveling by myself in foreign countries. I hope you feel inspired and empowered to plan a trip somewhere new!