Tower Bridge, England
Even if you are in Florence for one semester, you may travel in Europe at least 5 out of the 12 or 13 weeks of your study abroad period. Some of these travel weekends will likely be in Italy, with an organized group or a school field trip where transport and accommodation are already arranged for you.
However, if you want to visit such places as London, Dublin, Paris and Barcelona, and other cities that are not part of your program or local tour providers' offerings, you are going to need to organize your own travel.
One of the best deals for students, and a fun way to explore Europe, is by staying in hostels. Compared to hotels, hostels are great for meeting new people and usually have a bar or common space where you can mingle with the other guests. New hostels are being built all the time, and some of them are just as nice as hotels, yet they cost a fraction of the price of a hotel room.
Hardcore backpackers usually do not pre-book hostel stays because they have one precious thing that students abroad do not: time. Rather than waste time searching when you get to your destination, book a hostel as soon as you have booked your train or flights. Better yet, do some research so that you can arrive prepared for what the hostel does (or does not) provide, know exactly where it is located, and spend your time exploring your destination.
Finding youth hostels is easy-a quick Google search for ‘hostel in Paris' brings up three major hostel booking sites (www.hostels.com, www.hostelbookers.com and www.hostelworld.com)-but choosing a hostel and preparing for a stay takes a bit more savvy. Below are some quick tips that should get you on your way to becoming an expert hosteler.
Know What You Are
LOOKING FOR IN A HOSTEL
Location, location, location. Being centrally located is always preferable but it is even more important if you are traveling alone or with just one other person. Common rooms and the chance to meet other young people aside, you won't want to be stuck in the hostel all evening, but you may not want to wander too far away, especially if public transit is not a viable late-night option.
Check customer reviews. Find out what those who have stayed in the hostel have to say about the experience: Is the hostel clean? Is the staff friendly and helpful? Were other travelers happy with their experience? Was the location good?
Hostel booking sites offer ratings based on customer reviews, and comments help you choose the best place to stay. If you are still not sure, use a Google search to ‘review hostel X' to see what people have written online before you book. Another source of information is travel books, such as Let's Go or Lonely Planet, the guide books most commonly used by young travelers.
Be clear about what you are getting. Check the details: Are sheets and towels provided? Is there a curfew or lock-out? What time do you have to check out? Is secure luggage storage provided? Does the hostel accept credit cards? These questions and other particulars should be answered in the list of services on the hostel booking portal.
Girls only! If you do not want to share quarters with male travelers, look for hostels with single-sex rooms. Many women prefer hostels with private bathrooms so they don't have to walk out to the hallway to shared bathrooms.
BE A SAVVY TRAVELER
Take only the necessities. If you have only three days to see Paris, do you truly need your laptop? (My thought: if you have enough time to use your laptop, then you are not spending enough time exploring your destination. If you absolutely must check e-mail or make a quick Facebook update, most hostels have Internet access.) One thing you should be sure to take is a padlock so that if you must use lockers, your belongings will be safe while you're out sight-seeing.
Be in the know before you go. Check the weather forecast online so you know what to pack. Don't forget your plane tickets, passport and a copy of your passport (just in case!). Check what currency is in use in your destination and make sure you have some cash to exchange or an ATM card. And make sure that your map includes the area where your hostel is located.