How to visit Europe on a budget while studying in France

Siobhan Donovan
 Dans Article de Siobhan, Article de Siobhan en anglais, Savemywallet, TourDuMonde

Consider this a comprehensive guide for trip-planning: from finding cheap flights to booking the best hostels, so you can make the most of your university breaks. 

As students, we are lucky to have so much time off. So naturally, one of the best parts about studying in France is getting to explore the neighboring countries.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m prettyyy sure ‘Official Study Abroad Rule #1‘ is always say yes to visiting a new city.

Not to mention, traveling is a way to bond with other students during your time abroad. Invite some friends for the weekend or do it solo and meet new people along the way!

What’s more, it’s required for students in licence to take at least one foreign language during the year (for example, I took Spanish and German)… so why not go practice it for a weekend? You’re technically “studying”.

Need more reasons to get out of your résidence etudiant ?

London, Barcelona, Rome, Porto, Brussels, Geneva, Dublin

There, I gave you seven.

These are just a few of the world-class cities within reach. I’ll tell you right away, though, don’t get too picky. Wherever you go, you’re bound to have a great time. Discovering a new corner of the globe is priceless.

Well, almost.

Photos of different European cities from my travels.

(Pictured Left to Right) Madrid, Dublin, Barcelona, Venice.

Traveling can be spendy. That’s the ugly truth. This is why I aim to share some of my favorite applications for trip-planning (and having enough € for food post-trip). While none of these tools are super secret, they deserve to be mentioned… I mean, if it helps even one person go travel, it’s worth sharing! 🙂

Alright, let’s cut to the chase.

 

PART 1: Getting there

Voyage, Voyage. 

When I plan my trips, I start with Google Flights. This website is best used on a desktop.

Google Flights aggregates flights from airline companies all over the world.

It’s really cool because it can help you find cheap tickets for anywhere in Europe, you just have to be flexible!

As a student, I often know my vacation availability beforehand (thanks to the university calendar) so this website allows me to identify the cheapest destination to visit in Europe based on my free dates. Check it out:

Step 1: Go to Google Flights.

Step 2: Adjust your city of departure.

Step 3: Hit search without specifying a destination.

Now you’ll be on this price map of Europe. Click on the calendar to pick your available dates or simply click the “Flexible dates” circle in the top left.

Whether you want to go for a weekend, one week, or two, the application shows prices for each country.

It’s possible to explore new cities for as low as 30 euros!

So do you really need that new bag from H&M or do you want to see Belgrade?

But let’s say you’re dying to go to one destination in particular, like, I don’t know, Prague.

So, Prague is on the top of your bucket-list.

You don’t care when you go, you just really want to see Prague.

But, you’re still on a budget.

How do?

You’re in luck… Google Flights can help you find the cheapest times to visit a city, too!

Just toggle with the calendar to find the cheap dates / length of vacation possible for that city. The application will then show you the available flight times.

PRO TIPS FOR USING GOOGLE FLIGHTS:

  • I’ll be honest, I’m a little paranoid of my search history being used to inflate prices so I will use a public computer at the university’s library before making my final purchase. This is not necessary, though.
  • Can’t find a good price from your airport? Think about adding an extra destination to your trip and flying out from there. For example, certain cities have airports where almost all the outbound flights are inexpensive, such as Barcelona and Lisbon.
  • On that note, one way flights are often cheaper. So you can fly into one country, then fly out of a neighboring country to save money (or bus back.)
  • When you think you have the flights you want, take five minutes to scope out accommodations for those dates before purchasing… this is just a smart move because you don’t want to be committed to a destination without having a general idea of your total budget.

If you’re traveling between neighboring countries, this is where the bus and train apps come in handy!

For finding bus and train connections, I recommend Omio.

It regroups the offers of other bus (and train) companies like Flixbus, Eurolines, Ouigo, etc. and compares them in one place so you don’t have to!

Pratique.

Omio, formerly called « Go Euro », aggregates bus, train, and flight deals.

For example, here’s a search for a week long round-trip ticket from Lyon to Barcelona in July…. for only 58 euros!

In just ten short hours, you’ll be lounging on the beach in total tranquility,

with the mojito man.

After purchasing flights, the rest of the trip falls into place quite easily.

To help illustrate, I will share the  « itinerary » from my break in April (pictured above) as an example of how planes, trains, and auto-mobiles can be combined on a budget.

Example Trip with Real Costs (April, 2019)

13th overnight bus to Barcelona, Spain (34 euros)

16th fly to Genoa, Italy (27.99 euros)

19th bus to Nice, France (10.46 euros)

19th overnight flight from Nice to Amsterdam, Netherlands (42 euros)

21st overnight bus to Lyon, France on Sunday (29.99 euros)

= 8 day vacation in 3 countries for under 145 euros!

You might be wondering if so many destinations in such a short time is ideal…

Honestly, it’s all about personal preference. I was glad to explore so many new cities however it was a little fast-paced for me.

If you’d rather keep it simple, you can limit your trip to just one or two destinations.

So you don’t end up like this:

PRO TIPS FOR BUSES:

  • You may notice that buses are typically much more affordable than trains or airplanes, yet they have one major downside: the travel time!
  • One solution is overnight buses. If you’re going to be on for so long, you’re better off sleeping. Besides, buses aren’t so bad in Europe… many of them have toilets, comfortable seats with more leg-room than airplanes, and free wifi.
  • Likewise, buses are practical since they depart from train stations which are often more accessible than airports. Who likes going through security, anyways?
  • I’ve been able to save a couple euros by finding the right bus via Omio, then going to the providers website to buy it directly from them, such as with Trenitalia.

Et le train ?

For now, I won’t go into trains because it’s very centralized in France. Just check out Ouigo. What you see is what you get. If you’re frequently taking the train, you can purchase a carte jeune for discounts.

Part 2: Finding a place to stay

Pictured left to right: Cabin in Netherlands on a farm, Hostel in Barcelona, the Airbnb we stayed in Genoa, Italy… which once housed Albert Einstein!

Ok so you’ve booked your transport…where are you going to sleep once you get there?

In the past, I’ve used Airbnb, HostelWorld, Bookings.com, and Yestudent.

Again, it comes down to preference. Regardless of what accommodation you pick, ALWAYS READ REVIEWS BEFORE BOOKING. Seriously.

To summarize the general experiences I’ve had with each of the following websites, I’ve created a pro/cons list:

Website Airbnb Hostel World Bookings.com Yestudent
Pros

Unique homes, easy to use, safe. Privacy. Airbnb ‘experiences’ are super fun and you can do them in any city, regardless of whether you’re renting a property.

Meet other students, very cheap, fun. It’s nice to have staff on-hand that know the city and can offer tips. I recommend this for solo-traveling or if it’s your first time visiting an unknown place. If hotels are your thing, this site is great. Hotels are a secure and practical option in most cities. Perks include wifi, breakfast, and you don’t have to worry about your mess (as much). Like Airbnb but for students only. Great way to meet people.  CHEAPEST option of all. Pretty informal, kind of like couch-surfing. You typically stay in another students house.
Cons High liability, prices vary on destination …. so for example, this is great in Italy but about as expensive as a hotel in Paris. Shared common spaces. Small bunks. In close proximity with strangers. Party atmosphere is sometimes exhausting. More expensive. Less contact with the local culture. They can feel all alike… lack of character. The host can cancel on you before you arrive (this happened to me once). Also, very limited options by country.

A photo from my first hostel experience. I’ll admit, I was a little nervous the first time, as I have constantly heard over the years that they’re dirty and unsafe. I didn’t find this to be the case at all.

In terms of cultural experiences, hostels go above and beyond to offer their guests many opportunities (like guided tours, live music, yoga, game nights, in-hostel bars). The little bunks are comfy, everyone gets a locker with charging stations, and I felt 100% safe.
In fact, I liked it so much that on my next trip (to Athens) I have opted to stay in a youth hostel.

My favorite Airbnb experience ever was a nude life drawing session in Barcelona… it was only $18!

So that’s it!

All the tools I use to plan my travels. I hope some of these prove useful for you, too. Of course, this blog post doesn’t cover additional expenses once you’ve arrived in a new city, like food and activities. Be sure to make a realistic estimate of « per day » expenses!

Also, don’t forget to make sure your visa is up-to-date before leaving France. *Luckily the OFII procedure just got a lot easier. Now you can do it online 🙂

See something I’ve missed? Have any other tips for traveling? PLEASE send them my way.  

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