Many high school and college grads dream about celebrating that special day with a rite of passage backpacking trip through Europe. I mean that's what you see on TV shows (I'm talking about Gilmore Girls). It's an exciting dream to be young and carefree with a backpack. Sorry to spoil that dream, but backpacking isn't as glamorous as what you see on Instagram. Our backpacking trip through the U.K. taught us some valuable lessons on how not to break our backs or our spirits.
Use these tips to find your perfect bag:
How to get a permit
If you’re a member of AAA, that is your easiest and cheapest route to getting an international driver’s license. I went to the nearest AAA office, filled out a form, showed my driver’s license, gave them two copies of a passport sized photo and paid $20. I walked out about 15 minutes later with a driving permit valid in about 150 countries worldwide.
If you don't have AAA, my suggestion would be to head to your local DMV and ask how you can apply for an international driver's license in your state.
Airbnb-the next best thing next to Uber…or so people think. After using Airbnb in the U.S. and Europe, it’s safe to say we’ve seen both the good and ugly of staying in someone’s home. So here’s the nitty gritty on how to find the perfect property, the pros and cons and how our own Airbnb experiences went down.
How to use Airbnb:
I’ve got to hand it to the company, its website and app are super easy to use. Aside from the usual filters, you can see and compare where all matched properties are on a map. This is great because you’ll know exactly how far it is from the city center. After booking, you’ll get a message from the host with instructions on what to do when you arrive.
Insider’s Tip: If you pick a “shared room,” it’s likely that other couples will be at the property too. A new trend is that hosts are renting out several rooms at a time, like an actual B & B, so get ready to fight for the bathroom!
1. It’s an authentic experience-You actually get to “live like a local.” Usually your hosts have great tips on how to use transportation, where to eat and the top attractions to see. Especially when you’re in a new city, it’s nice to have a contact for all of your questions. Plus, not staying in a stuffy hotel can definitely make your experience; being surrounded by the culture pushes you to embrace it more.
2. The price-Let’s be serious, this is the real reason why we’ll pick an Airbnb over better accommodations. Just like with an Uber, the more people, the cheaper it’ll be. It’s an awesome deal for bigger parties, just be prepared to pay a deposit if you’re booking with a group.
3. Less stress-If your host is a good communicator, everything is pretty simple. Since you’re working with him/her one on one, it’s easy to ask questions, switch check-in times, etc. Another bonus is you get the “homey” feel. You don’t have to put on your professional persona and deal with hotel staff or worry about being too noisy; the vibe is much more relaxed.
Thanks to Airbnb we were 15 minutes from Oktoberfest & saw amazing sunsets in Croatia
1. It’s unpredictable-Even though you’ve done your research, you never know what you’ll get. Most pictures of the property are reliable, but it’s tough to trust a host’s profile 100%. You don’t know what your host will be like, what amenities you’ll be offered or if the location is accurate.
Insider’s Tip: Pick a property with a lot of reviews and read them! Previous renters will be honest about their experience and give you an idea of what you’ll walk into. Also, always keep an open mind and don’t set your expectations too high. Remember, this is NOT a hotel, so the amenities (like getting a towel) will be different for each stay.
2. All hosts are different-With hotels, the procedure is the same…well throw all of that out the window! Each Airbnb host is different. Some will be cool with allowing you to use the kitchen, others have extremely strict rules. You just have to go with the flow and remember that each host has a unique system for his/her home.
Insider’s Tip: Try to cover basic information with your host right off the bat when you meet them like: how to come in/leave the house, WIFI password, if amenities are provided and what the check-out process is like. Sometimes you won’t even see the host and will be given codes to get into your Airbnb, so be prepared for anything.
3. Be alert to scams/misinformation-We’ve had a few experiences where hosts will ask us to wire transfer money offsite or the Airbnb maps didn’t accurately pinpoint an address. Since Airbnb is more of a liaison between hosts and renters, always keep an eye out for anything unusual going on.
Insider’s Tip: If you’re nervous about this, picking a Super Host is always a good idea since they’re recognized for being great with guests. Just use your common sense-if it seems sketchy, report it. Airbnb headquarters is hard to get ahold of and honestly they’re not helpful, so if there are problems, you’ll have to take matters into your own hands.
Traveling alone = more selfies :)
1. Traveling on your own is awkward at first.
The honest truth is that being on your own all day, every day after spending the Fall with a constant companion, just feels odd. I'm used to having someone to talk with, or at least sit in comfortable silence with. Someone who is a built-in buddy, a shield from awkward social situations. Now, I was suddenly on my own. It's new, so it's uncomfortable. The good news? It gets easier! The first few days might feel off, but pretty soon you'll be forced to embrace the potential of an awkward social encounter and just go for it. Try to make new friends in your hostel and chat with your roommates. You may have a new system of people to spend the evenings chatting with and get to hear stories from people all over the world in all different stages of life.
2. Embrace the total freedom.
A definite perk to traveling solo is having total and complete freedom. Ice cream for dinner? Absolutely. Lazy day at the beach? Why not? Buying a last minute ticket to watch your favorite tennis player? Uh, definitely! Somehow the days feel longer now with all the options in the world for what I can do. I don't have to take someone else's interests into account and can completely focus on myself.
3. Getting over your own thoughts and doubts is a challenge.
Being alone all day means having a lot of time to think about anything and everything. I noticed that in my first few days traveling alone, I often felt self conscious. When I walked into a restaurant and asked for a table for one or sat by myself in a park, I wondered if everyone thought I was sad because I was alone. It took me a few days to realize how ridiculous this thought process was. I'm 23 and traveling through two new countries by myself - that's pretty cool...definitely not sad. Once I got over my own nervousness and awkwardness, I embraced the time to myself and actually enjoy it now.
When researching, planning and actually travelling to a new city, technology is a huge influencer in what deals we find, where we go and whether we get lost (yay for no sense of direction!). Since we're travelling without data, apps are our new travel must haves. See what made our list of favorites below:
Transportation & Navigation:
SkyScanner - We've used this app to find the best deals on flights all over Europe this semester. It's our first go-to when planning a trip because it shows you a variety of options across all airline companies. You can set your filters based on how much money you want to spend, how long you want to fly, etc. This is how we found cheap airlines like Wizz Air and Flybe. Check out SkyScanner for yourself here.
GoEuro - This is an awesome app for finding cheap bus & train options. Like Skyscanner, it does a cross search to offer you the best ways to get from place to place via plane, train and bus. This is a definite time saver because you can compare all transportation options in one place. Try GoEuro when planning your next trip.
Maps.Me - Navigating a city without data just got easier. While knowing how to read a paper map is a good skill, sometimes you just want an arrow to tell you where you are and a dotted line to show you where to go. With Maps.Me, download a new city map before leaving a wifi zone and then you're set to explore without worrying about data charges. We hadn't heard about this app until getting to Spain, but it's totally changed the way we travel.
TripAdvisor-This app is a great tool to find different attractions, especially if you're looking for something specific. Its "Things To Do" category is broken into subcategories: Top Things to do, Tickets and Tours, Special Offers, Historic Sites and more. It's also a trusted site when looking at reviews, plus a great platform to voice your own thoughts on the things you see and do.
Pinterest-One of our favorite ways to do some quick research before a trip is to check out city guides on Pinterest. Who better to trust than travelers who've been to the city themselves? You can find all sorts of guides like: 48 hour guides, free things to do, best city sites, etc. It's great because you can read pieces by locals and budget travelers and get a good sense of what's worth seeing before you go. We build our own "digital itineraries" by creating a board for each city and then saving our favorite guides there. This app has given us the space to research and plan our activities in one space.
Congrats! You've just decided to join the club of adventurers/thrill-seekers/travelers (also known as unemployed college grads) who are crazy-or stupid-enough to hold off on a job and spend the little money they have exploring foreign places. How financially irresponsible and potentially dangerous! All jokes aside, this is BY FAR the best way to start off adulting. You've spent the past 20+ years following a very set path: school-college-graduation-job-etc.; which is all fine and dandy, but what if it's not for you?
For us, study abroad was life changing...like it actually changed our life plans. Caroline ended up switching majors, and I knew the moment I got back from Spain that I couldn't start my career without going back. From the end of our junior year until graduation, we plotted and planned our great European return. And now here we are. While our friends are drowning in hours of law homework, we're touring the walls of Dubrovnik. While they're venting about tough med school assignments, we're downing Prosecco in Italy. Most people tell us, "Wow, I'm so jealous. Hopefully I can travel too." YOU CAN! This is absolutely the best time to take a gap year/semester because there's this wonderful window where nothing is tying you down. But don't let social media fool you, it took a lot of research, planning, and summer slaving to make it all happen, but was 1000% worth it.
Still interested? Check out below to see how we made it back across the pond:
1. Go for it
Since this is the path less traveled for most college grads, you'll be hit with a lot of questions like: How will you afford it? Aren't you scared to go off on your own? Is it smart to put your career on hold? While you might not have the answers to these questions, be confident in your choice. If you feel excited to explore the world, then go for it! It's natural that you might second guess yourself when people seem against you-but they're just curious (because you're about to go off and do something cooler than sit in a stuffy office). Honestly, taking time off to volunteer, teach or do research in a foreign place will only boost your resume. Plus you'll be more ready than ever to buckle down in the job world once you've taken time for yourself.
2. Know what you want
Making a pro/con list like Rory Gilmore is the best way to start your program search. What's great (and also overwhelming) is the variety of options you have. Here are some questions to think on:
Teaching & host family fun
Caroline and I were pretty dead set on what we wanted, which made our program hunt a little easier. Here's roughly what our list looked like:
Fun memories in England and Croatia (non-Schengen countries)
When we first got accepted to teach abroad, we were so excited to get back to Europe that we immediately booked our plane tickets. We had it all planned out - a month of traveling before making our way to Spain. Visa? No problem. We're volunteering, so we'll just go to the Spanish consulate and apply. Well, we got denied because our program was less than 90 days, which technically means we don't need a visa. All our plans went straight out the window. How do we make the timing work? Can we still travel?
After a small panic attack in Millenium Park, we started doing our research about how to get around the problem of not having a visa. Frustratingly, there wasn't much information about how to do it. Even more frustrating, everything we did find about staying more than 90 days in the Schengen Zone said it was tricky. Honestly, that's pretty accurate. I definitely would not recommend overstaying, but there are ways to make the timing work.
What is the Schengen Zone?
Before I go any further, let's talk about what the Schengen Zone is because I think that can be the most confusing thing for people. There's no set rhyme or reason for what countries are part of it or which aren't. The Schengen Zone is made up of 26 European countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lichtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
Why is this important? These 26 countries have come to an agreement that you can travel freely between them, so you don't need extra visas or even border control to go from country to country. So it's super easy and cheap to bounce between them. What are the rules? You can only stay in the Schengen Zone for 90 days within a 180 day period. This just means that you can travel around freely for 3 months out of a 6 month window. The tricky part? The days don't reset just because you leave the Schengen. So if I travel around Europe for 3 months, go home for a month and then go back, I'm now traveling illegally.
I think a lot of times hostels get a bad rap as being grungy, cheap places that backpackers stay when their budget is small. I will admit, when I first heard friends talk about staying in a hostel a few years ago, I used to imagine army barracks full of people in a cramped, dirty room (clearly my imagination is a bit dramatic). During our first trip abroad, we decided to put these impressions to the test. Our experience wasn't amazing (we froze under a tiny blanket), but it was better than I had expected. Since we were traveling for a much longer period on this trip, and we were trying to be as economically efficient as possible (that's the nice way of saying we're cheap), we gave hostels another shot. After a month of traveling, we've stayed in four and plan on staying in more.
Here's the truth about what staying in a hostel is really like:
Unless you plan on dishing out a lot of money, you will probably stay in an 8, 10, or even 12 person room and will most likely share a bathroom. If you've ever lived in a college dorm or sorority house, it's pretty much the same (and you're really only using your room to sleep while traveling anyway right?).
Everyone who studied or will be studying abroad has the same panicked feeling before they leave: Will you remember everything? What if it’s not what you expect? How will you survive in a foreign country? Even though we've already spend a semester abroad, we still had this feeling when getting ready to head back to Europe, so like most millennials, we jumped on the internet to look for a few tips.
And we were a bit disappointed by some of the articles we found. "Bring a Suitcase" and "Remember Your Passport" were a few that made the list. And while these are definitely important things to remember, we felt a lot of lists left out important things that travel abroad newbies may have no idea about. So check out our list of actual essentials:
Studying abroad is such a unique experience; it’s easy to form friendships because everyone is in the same boat – a new country, new culture, and no familiar faces. Being forced to adapt to a new culture and figure out how to live on your own can create strong friendships that are so incredibly different from those you have back home (this is how Lexa and I first met and became friends).
So you spend a semester (or a year) getting to know these people, and they may end up being some of your best friends. But what happens when the semester is over and everyone goes home? You say your goodbyes and cry while making promises to stay in touch. It’s easy to say you’ll stay close, but how do you keep these friendships going despite thousands of miles, an ocean, and a killer time difference?....