When I first moved to Spain in 2015 for six months to study the Spanish language and culture, I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me. It was my first time in Europe, my first time to travel alone, I was 22 years old and seriously naive, and on top of that, I barely spoke the language. But somehow based on my misguided knowledge of the country’s culture Spain was the obvious choice: sun, tapas, flamenco… how could anyone go wrong? In truth, all I knew for certain back then was that I wanted to be away from home for some time, to learn how to live independently, and to discover the European continent as best I could. Those six months turned out to change the course of my life forever. I learned so many things about life and myself and more important, the experience cemented my desire to travel as far and as often as I could. From one student on exchange to another, here are some tips to make your stay abroad one to truly remember.
1. Keep an open mindset
Your time abroad is an invaluable opportunity to immerse yourself completely in a culture that probably has very little to do with your own. Rid yourself of all inhibitions, stereotypes, and prejudices. The only way to gain a full experience abroad is to be entirely open to it. Do things that you’ve never done before, and more important, things you might not have the chance to experience back home. Eat cuisine from your host country so openly until you find yourself a favourite, go-to meal. Develop relationships with locals no matter how short-lived they might seem; it is through interacting with them that you can truly capture the essence of the place you temporarily call home. Allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised at each turn.
2. Stay organized
I know first-hand how difficult it is to stay on top of things when you’re out and about on every possible occasion. But also trust me when I tell you that it PAYS to be organized especially when you’re living alone in a foreign land. Take care of all the bureaucracy upon arrival, double up copies of all essential documents, keep track of all your expenses, and you’ll thank yourself later. Don’t merely consider your time abroad as the ultimate chance to let loose; instead, see it as the prime opportunity to be responsible and independent and you will grow so much as a person. On top of that, it will be so much easier to have fun and enjoy yourself without having to worry about whether or not your monthly credit card bill has been paid.
3. Learn basic life skills
Nothing compares to the feeling of gathering your first successful batch of laundry, of cooking your first full, edible meal, of cleaning your flat for the first time, of taking care of yourself the first time you get sick abroad. Living and studying in a foreign place changes you in such nuanced ways that you don’t even realize you’ve turned into an adult almost overnight. It is a rite of passage to be able to look after yourself for an extended period of time with zero casualties and minimal food spoilage involved. It is also an experience that anyone who studies abroad is automatically warranted.
4. Make new friends
I cannot begin to explain how making friends, with both locals and the people in the same program, of varying ages and professions, enriched my experience back in 2015 in ways I could have never imagined. It was truly comforting to have your own, little family in your home away from home, knowing that all of you were more or less going through the same experiences and sharing memories that will last a lifetime. And this is coming from someone who is extremely introverted. You will soon learn that these once-in-a-lifetime connections are invaluable and transcend both time and distance.
5. Travel. And Eat. A lot.
An unforgettable day trip with classmates to San Sebastian, Spain
I owe my semi-nomadic lifestyle now to my first study abroad experience. It broadened my horizons in unexpected ways and opened my eyes to how simultaneously big and small the world really is. I traveled across the European continent with an unrelenting sense of adventure that has had an immense impact on the rest of my life. I ate my way through all the countries and cities that I visited in such a short period of time. And I took bajillion photos that to this day never fail to put a smile on my face.
After all these years of travel, I can conclude that the best thing about venturing outside of one’s home is the overpowering sensation one gets every time he or she comes across a new place and decides that it has made it into the ever-growing list of favourites. It’s a feeling that is unlike any other. A close second is what follows: the consistent sentiment of nostalgia that one is enveloped in until the next visit to that place. I have been flying between my home in Asia and Europe frequently enough to develop a solid list of personal favourites that I believe any student on exchange (and on a budget) should definitely visit while studying abroad. These are not just cities with a lot of heart and character, but also a great amount of life enough to make any homesick student forget about home even for a short while.
1. Berlin, Germany
My favourite thing about the German capital city is that it is thriving with modern culture and yet extremely quiet and peaceful. It is an ideal place for those that, like me, appreciate art, history, and gastronomy. There are plenty of things to do, it’s almost impossible to get bored. Berlin’s rapid transit railway system, the U-bahn, is ridiculously efficient and easy to use, although I have found that most major sites are within walking distance. And it’s such a joy to just watch the Germans go about their daily business.
Don’t miss: Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Wall Memorial, Checkpoint Charlie
Eat and drink: German beer and sausages at a beer garden, Pretzels, Currywurst, Berliner
2. Amsterdam, the Netherlands
My memories of this place might be a bit hazy at best but to this day, I remember how being there made me feel: light and happy. Amsterdam is a place I can see myself living in because it is beautiful wherever you look; likewise, it is unassuming, quiet, and yet full of life. People are as incredibly friendly as they are disciplined and they imbibe a very laid-back vibe and evolved sense of existence without effort. My only frustration is that I still did not know how to ride a bike properly on my first visit (I know, HOW?) but I am sure it would have totally enriched my experience even more.
Don’t miss: Vondelpark, Anne Frank Museum, Van Gogh Museum, canals
Eat and drink: Stroopwafel, fresh seafood (Must try The Seafood Bar), Gouda cheese, “brownies”
3. Seville, Spain
The one city in Spain I can’t quite seem to get enough of is Seville. This place is the image we all have of Spain and more: sunny, warm, lively, fun. It is so rich in history that one can easily spend days wandering around the city only to learn about how it came to be. Its gastronomy cannot be rivaled (except perhaps by the Basques up north) and I can confidently say it is the true tapas capital of Spain. There are so many reasons to visit Seville (again and again) and I don’t think I will ever tire of going back.
Don’t miss: Alcazar, Cathedral, Giralda, Plaza de España, Triana, day trip to Italica
Eat and drink: Tapas all day every day, Paella, Chocolate con churros, Serranito, Cruzcampo cerveza
4. Lisbon, Portugal
Going as far west as Lisbon felt like reaching the end of the world, in the best way possible. The unique, “je ne sais quoi” vibe in the city made me fall in love with it instantly. It was like feeling as though I wasn’t in Europe anymore, or on Earth even. On top of that, Portuguese people have got to be some of the gentlest, nicest people on this planet and it reflects on their culture. They truly know how to live their lives and it is something worth watching and getting inspired by when studying abroad.
Don’t miss: Belem Tower, Alfama, Bairro Alto, Castelo de S. Jorge, day trip to Sintra
Eat and drink: Pastéis de nata, fresh seafood, Chicken piri piri, Gelato
5. Paris, France
I have been back in Paris multiple times since the first time I went there and for good reason: Paris is always a good idea. The versions of Paris that we see in photographs and films do not do justice to the true Paris there is. For a city as famous and busy as it is, it is peculiarly tranquil any time of the day but everyone you come across is like a living, moving work of art – dressed in fine clothes, eating fine food – it’s something to behold! Even the least glamorous nooks and crannies of the city are interestingly beautiful and uniquely Paris. There really is nothing quite like the City of Light.
Don’t miss: Tour Eiffel, Montmartre, Notre Dame, Louvre, Sacre-Coeur, Arc de Triomphe, River Seine
Eat and drink: Le Relais de L’Entrecot, Escargots, French breakfast (avec pain au chocolat), Soufflé
I can still remember the first time I stepped on European soil like it was yesterday. After a relatively long but definitely comfortable flight via Singapore Airlines, I finally made my way to Barcelona, a city that to this day, possibly hundreds of cities later, remains a personal favourite. That day, despite my most vivid memory of it being how inadequately dressed I was for the cold (read: Spain is all sun and flamenco, they said), would mark the first of so many things for me. Not only was it the first day of my first six months living in Europe, it was also the first day of my dreams finally coming true.
Countless budget flights, bus rides, and train journeys later, it still feels surreal to realize that Europe has indeed become my second home. I have been to all four corners and yet have only seen mere glimpses of most of the continent. And naturally, I keep coming back for more.
Why Europe Travel Is Worth It
Europe really does look and feel like a dream; but one that anyone can very easily live out at that. The continent as a whole boasts a wide array of cultures and traditions that in my honest (and possibly biased) opinion only Asia can rival. And contrary to popular belief, Europe can actually rival Asia in terms of prices. I’ve never [actually] worked a day in my life and yet even I can afford to make it happen. To misquote the one and only Dragon, Dale Doback, “It’s all about who what you know”.
Things To Consider When Planning Your Trip
1. The Basics: Visa Application, Budget, and Itinerary
For Philippine passport holders, the biggest thing you’d have to worry about when planning a budget trip to Europe is obtaining a visa. Given that most of the countries to visit are members of the Schengen Area, a Schengen Visa is in order. This visa allows you to enter and exit the continent through any of the member states of the Schengen area, and thereby travel in its bounds, within the validity indicated and number of entries allowed. In addition, there are non-Schengen areas that can be visited with a valid Schengen visa and/or resident permit in a Schengen member state. For good measure, double-check with the specific country you want to visit (as was my experience inquiring with Croatia, they are very responsive). For instance, the United Kingdom, as with other non-Schengen territories, requires its own visa.
I don’t have any personal experience in obtaining tourist visas because each time I go to Europe I am required to apply for a student visa and then a resident permit which allows me to stay there throughout the duration of my program. In 2014, I applied for a short stay visa in the Spanish Embassy that was valid for around six months, which was the duration of my Junior Term Abroad program. When I returned to Spain in 2016, I applied for a long term visa under the Auxiliares de Conversación program, which expired in 90 days. This then required me to obtain a residence permit valid up until the last day of my program. I would say the easiest way to obtain a Schengen visa is to apply to the Embassy of the member state in which you will be traveling or staying the longest. It makes sense, especially in consideration of your itinerary. The process and requirements are the same across Schengen member states. Just make sure you follow them thoroughly and there should be no problem.
Budget on the other hand would largely depend on your itinerary and personal preferences. A lot of people are still surprised when they find out that Europe, if you choose the places correctly, could be a relatively cheap continent to visit. Prices of food, accommodation, and transportation are what the budget is usually comprised of. Staying in the Nordic states (e.g. Norway, Sweden, Denmark) would definitely be a lot more expensive than visiting the Southern countries (e.g. Spain, Italy, Greece). Eating and getting around in the East (e.g. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Turkey) is vastly cheaper compared to the West (e.g. France, Belgium, The Netherlands). Central Europe (e.g. Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary) is basically at the midpoint in every aspect. Conveniently-located accommodation is getting cheaper by the day thanks to Airbnb, which has also become an experience in itself. And if you’ve ever seen the Hostel trilogy, well, don’t worry so much. I’ve had my fair share of youth hostel experiences in Europe and they have all been awesome.
2. Language, Culture, Etiquette
As a native English speaker, I have never had a problem communicating anywhere in Europe. Well, it also helps that living in Spain has allowed me to be fully conversational in Spanish, studying French for five years has given me a conversant background for reading signs and understanding guides, and enrolling in an introductory German course back in college has equipped me with enough knowledge to order eine bratwurst. Europe is the continent in which my professed love for languages has bore the most fruit, so to speak.
What I love most about Europe, however, is how despite the geographical proximity of neighbouring countries, one can feel precisely at which point a border has been crossed due to an evident change not only in scenery but also in atmosphere. Europe is so rich in culture and history that wherever you go there is something new to be learned and to be tried.
The biggest lesson I have taken with me however is to never generalize a country based on its stereotypes. For instance, being based in Northern Spain, I’ve learned that the country isn’t always so warm and sunny and not everyone knows flamenco. Likewise, don’t expect everyone in Amsterdam to just be out smoking in the streets; there’s actually a very organized and strict system of coffeeshops for that, which impressed me very much. My experience there reminded me of when I visited Christiania in Copenhagen which gave me a new and inspired view of Denmark. And spending days by the Adriatic coast in my lonesome, I learned not only that the Balkans are no longer war-torn (hello, it’s 2017) but that the people there are some of the nicest I have ever come across.
3. When to Go, Where to Go, What to Eat, What to Do
Having experienced all four seasons in Europe, I would highly recommend traveling in the fall and avoiding summer at all costs. Fall weather is nice and pretty much everyone is back to school and/or work and so crowds tend to be smaller. Winter in Europe can also be a lovely experience (as long as you don’t have to brave the cold to go to school or work in the dark mornings, it’s all lovely). My experience in spring has been mixed and as unpredictable as the still transitioning weather. And summer brings on too many people, which is bad news for my social anxiety.
For first-time travelers to Europe I do not suggest going on whirlwind Eurotrips if you really want to get a solid feel of the places and not end up getting the first train back to your friends in Paris after a crazy last night out in Amsterdam (trust me, you don’t want to be like me). It’s easier to travel by region as well, this way you can take your time and take advantage of lower transportation costs. For the purposes of this post, I will be dividing the continent into five although each of them can still be broken down into even smaller regions.
North: I haven’t really been around the Northern part of Europe primarily because as a perpetual island girl, the cold is not really what I’m used to. I did however enjoy Copenhagen which proved to be a hip albeit expensive city. My wish is to visit the northernmost parts of the Nordic states, such as Norway and Iceland, specifically to see the Northern Lights before they dim out. Likewise, this region is probably not the first you’d want to visit if you’re on a budget.
West: I have the best memories in this part of Europe because I have always felt like this is where my personality and interests fit best. Although the weather is a bit colder and wetter and perhaps the food not as spectacular as in the south, Western Europe has a lot to offer. I particularly love France; although I can never get enough of Paris no matter how many times I have been, which does not seem to run out of sights even for multiple visits, I also intend to see its many cities and provinces. Belgium and the Netherlands are also personal favourites and really great places for young people to enjoy. Don’t miss out on the beer museums in Belgium and the seafood in the Netherlands. Prices here are almost as high as their neighbors in the North but definitely worth it.
South: If you’re into the more laid-back side of Europe, the South is definitely the place to be. Everything is cheaper down south. Everything seems slower, too. Spain and Portugal in the Iberian Peninsula as well as Italy are my top picks for travel because you really get your money’s worth wherever you go. One can easily spend months in Spain alone and not get bored. Breath-taking sceneries, perfect weather, and amazing food – especially if you’re coming from the North and West, you’d be shocked at how [relatively] cheap the prices are. Definitely the region to visit for budget travelers. Check out the tapas culture in the South of Spain and the pintxos, its northern counterpart. Gelato should not be missed anywhere in Italy as it is unlike any other in the rest of the world. And if you’ve found yourself all the way in Portugal, might as well overdose on their delicious custard tarts.
Center: This region for me stands out as the most beautiful in all of Europe, based on the number of audible gasps per square meter, even for a budget traveler. Filled with magical small towns and equally awe-inspiring capital cities, central Europe is the region for sight-seeing and Instagram-worthy snapshots. My favourites are definitely Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Switzerland. Dine in beer gardens wherever possible in Germany. Swiss Potato Rösti should find itself on your list of must-eats. Make a sidetrip to Salzburg and relive The Sound of Music wherever you go. The general rule is that the closer to the East you get, the cheaper the prices are so keep that in mind as you move along your map. It also helps that countries in this region have cultural and historical backgrounds in common.
East: As mentioned, it gets cheaper and cheaper the farther in the East you get, which is awesome because this part of Europe is another one that is rich in culture and history. I haven’t been around this region that much but I already like it based on what little I have seen. The Balkans are a great place to start not just due to the beautiful coastal area but also because it is relatively easy to navigate, and not to mention perfect for budget travel. As a huge Game of Thrones fan, I particularly enjoyed visiting Dubrovnik in Croatia, which also allowed me to visit nearby cities in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
4. Tips & Tricks
Divide and conquer. Like I said, Europe is easier and more convenient to travel if you divide them up into regions or small trips. Doing it this way, you give yourself more breathing time for smaller cities you would have otherwise missed visiting only capital cities on a whirlwind. The real Europe, I would argue, is hidden in towns and villages. For instance, you can go on a two-week trip around the Balkans, a two-week trip around Southern Spain, a two-week trip around the former Austro-Hungarian Empire all on a budget. You name it.
Book tickets in advance or really late. I am a fan of both air and land travel so I don’t think I am the best person to advice against one or the other. They both have their pros and cons and in all honesty I have found that doing a combination of flights, trains, and busses is the most holistic way to get around anywhere in Europe. I will, however, urge you to book your tickets way in advance or really late to score cheap prices. For example, I booked a really cheap plane ticket to Copenhagen to see the Christmas markets way back in July. Similarly, I booked bus tickets to Andalucía about a week prior to my trip on a flash sale.
Don’t book roundtrip tickets. If you’re coming all the way from Manila like me, it’s a good idea to divide your inbound and outbound trips and book them separately. This way, you don’t have to go back to the same starting point just to go home. Another advantage of this is that ironically enough, with the flexibility, you can cover more ground and it forces you to keep going until you get to the end of your trip. It’s an experience! Also, what I like about this is that I get to try so many different airlines, so much so that I have a secret ranking of them in my head.
Free walking tours. I absolutely enjoy these ones especially when I travel alone. A quick Google search of “place + free walking tour” should direct you to tours with reviews; all you have to do is pick one and then show up. These tours are a great way to get an introduction to the city for only a couple of hours. My favourite walking tour is one conducted by an Australian guy in Prague. He was so entertaining that I felt as though I was in the city for weeks when really, I was only there a couple of nights.
It pays to be a student. Seriously, I don’t know how many perks and free stuff I have gotten due to my student status. I don’t even have an international student card. Often my student visa and school ID are enough when asked to present documentation for discounts. Also just being young in general (and young-looking, at that) is a good thing because you can save a lot of money (e.g. youth hostels, discounts on transport cards, people automatically assuming you’re a broke millennial). You’re only young once, relish in the moment!