London by Michael Flatt

Traveling / Weekend Trips

One of the great things about living in London is that its location allows a study abroad student to visit more places than just about any other European city. During your time in London you will have the opportunity to get away from the city and explore other parts of the UK and the European mainland. Before discussing some of the places I recommend visiting, I will begin by mentioning two important travel tips. First and foremost, plan the details of every trip ahead of time. When you travel, especially for an extended period of time, it can be mentally and physically tiring. By planning ahead you will have one less thing to worry about during the trip. Second, I found it better to plan trips on my own (and with friends) because it’s cheaper and much more fun that way. Many travel agencies provide services for students but their programs are standardized and not uniquely tailored to each person’s interests and priorities. I will now explain my experience with hostels before delving into the many modes of transportation available to a traveler, and then conclude with the countries, cities, and sights I visited while abroad.

Hostels

Before studying abroad I knew very little about hostels. Like most people, I had heard both good and bad things about them. From my own personal experience, I highly recommend staying in hostels as often as possible while traveling. With that said, every hostel is slightly different in its setup and you should be aware of the accommodation options available to you before booking a room.

Dublin Hostel

My first experience with a hostel was not a real pleasant one. A group of friends and I had decided to fly to Ireland for a few days and we booked several hostels in various cities, beginning with two nights in Dublin. Our flight landed around 10 PM and by the time we arrived at the hostel it was close to midnight. Most of the guests were already sound asleep so clearly it wasn’t the most ideal time to check in. Since it was our first time staying in a hostel we weren’t aware of all the options available to us in terms of room selection and number of bathrooms so one member of our group just booked the cheapest room which held eighteen people. When we arrived in the room after checking in at the front desk, there were four of us, but only two unoccupied beds. After waking up several people in the process, we learned management had mistakenly given away two of our beds to another group. At this point everyone just wanted to go to sleep and try to get some rest. So, one friend and I stayed in the eighteen person room while the other two were moved to a different room on another floor. To make matters worse, my bed was missing its pillow and so many people were snoring loudly all night. By morning I was still exhausted and then noticed there was only one bathroom shared by everyone and it was not well-kept. I decided to pass on the shower. Looking back on the situation now, it was a tremendous learning experience. After Dublin, I made sure during the rest of my travels to stay in small, private rooms of four to eight people that had private en-suite baths (your own bathroom). While this option was slightly more expensive, it was well worth it in the end.

I hope you can take something away from my first hostel experience and make a better decision in your own travels. Overall, hostels are a great way to save money, though and I found the people who worked in them to be friendly and helpful. The managers always provided us with useful information about the city and even called taxis (at any hour of the day) for rides to the airport. On a final note, two very good websites for accurate reviews and bookings are Hostelbookers.com and Hostelworld.com.

Planes, Trains and Overnight Buses

Another benefit of living in Europe is that there are many different ways to travel. The overnight bus system is by far the cheapest mode of transportation, but when traveling a longer distance flying is typically cheaper than taking the train. There are several advantages and disadvantages to each transportation method which I will outline below.

Planes

Europe has several low-cost airlines, such as Ryanair and EasyJet, which offer extremely cheap base prices in an attempt to entice study abroad students who are on a budget. While these airlines present good deals based on price alone, remember that there is always a catch: you get what you pay for. I learned this concept the hard way while waiting for a Ryanair flight from Venice to Rome. A group of friends and I arrived at the airport early in the morning and had been waiting at the gate for over an hour when we suddenly learned that the flight had been cancelled only 10 minutes before our departure time. Ryanair management finally told everyone the reason for the cancellation was foggy weather, which I can certainly understand. Then, they proceeded to tell us there would be no other flights to Rome that day and all they could offer was refund of our tickets. This was certainly upsetting but at least we would get our money back. With that said, since we were on a planned schedule and couldn’t afford to stay in Venice an extra day (like most other people on the flight), the only other option was to travel by train. Luckily enough, there was a train leaving from Venice to Rome about two hours later in the afternoon. However, it cost more money than the plane ticket we had already paid for! After pleading our case to the Ryanair staff, they would not pay the difference so we were stuck paying more money to arrive in Rome nearly a half day behind our initial schedule. This is just one example of the type of customer service you can expect when traveling with a cheap airline.

Perhaps what is most disheartening about traveling with these airlines is they seem to have different policies at different airports. For example, at some airports Ryanair had self-check in booths where you could print your ticket out ahead of time and not have to worry about checking in with a staff member or weighing your baggage. Conversely, at other airports Ryanair did not offer this service and they were very strict on your baggage weight. So, to be safe always make sure your baggage fits the weight limit (which is 10 kg) and that you leave room for buying souvenirs.

Lastly, you need to be aware that cheap airlines often don’t fly in and out of the big cities but instead, small neighboring cities where you will need to catch connecting buses. In London, the main airport is Standsted and you will need to take a bus there. This can be time consuming and will add a few pounds or euros to the total cost of your trip. Although traveling with cheap airlines is faster and cheaper than traveling by train, you should remember issues may sometimes arise.

Trains

Another transportation option is the train system. They are more comfortable, less of a hassle, and provide unbeatable views of Europe. I mainly used trains when traveling short distances to various attractions within the UK. However, several of my friends insisted on traveling by train and bought Eurail passes for their Spring Break trip across multiple European countries. The benefit of a Eurail pass is that it gives you an unlimited ability to travel on all the main European railroads within a certain number of days. This pass can only be purchased by non-European residents and it isn’t cheap, so I would only recommend buying one if you plan on traveling frequently or for multiple weeks at a time.

Overnight Buses

I took one overnight bus to Edinburgh, Scotland and wanted to mention this as a third transportation option for those people who are interested in traveling from London to other UK cities for short day trips. Overnight buses are an efficient way to travel because they are extremely cheap and allow you to sightsee during the day and travel at night. At the end of my semester, I had yet to visit Edinburgh and with only a few days left I thought an overnight bus was the perfect solution. We arrived in the city in the early morning, spent the entire day visiting sights, and then returned on a bus to London that night.

Countries, Cities, and Sights

London is close in proximity to Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and France. Scotland offers a breathtaking landscape with a magnificent castle in Edinburgh while Ireland has Blarney Castle, Guinness beer, and some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. Wales is known for its stunning cliffs and outdoor activities and France has the romantic city of Paris. Throughout my study abroad semester, I was fortunate enough to visit the following places: Pembrokeshire, Wales, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Paris & Normandy, France, Venice & Rome, Italy, Barcelona & Madrid, Spain, Dublin, Limerick, Blarney & Cork, Ireland, Edinburgh, Scotland, and various cities throughout England. The only country I regret not visiting is Germany. I just ran out of time. I will now highlight my favorite places below.

Pembrokeshire, Wales

During my study abroad orientation week, a group of people from the outdoor adventure group Preseli Venture (www.preseliventure.com) came to talk with students about their weekend adventure program. This program is specifically designed to meet the needs of students who want to take full advantage of their time abroad by traveling out of the big city and to the quiet coast of Wales for a fun weekend getaway. At Preseli Venture, you’ll stay at their 5 star Eco Lodge where the lodge facilities are up to date and most likely nicer than your own room or flat in London. Furthermore, you’ll have the opportunity to hike the beautiful Pembrokeshire Coast National Park (great for picture taking) and engage in two of the following three outdoor adventure activities: coasteering, surfing, and sea kayaking.

Dublin Hostel

I coasteered for the first time in my life during the weekend in Wales and it was an experience I will cherish forever. For those unfamiliar with coasteering, it is an activity that involves swimming, climbing, and jumping from cliffs without the aid of surf boards or other craft. All the equipment used during the weekend is provided by Preseli Venture and I found their guides to be extremely knowledgeable, outgoing, and helpful. If there is one weekend trip you don’t want to miss out on it is Preseli Venture in Wales.

Paris & Normandy, France

Paris is a short two hour Eurostar train ride from London and Northern France in particular has a lot of sights to see. The main places of interest in Paris are the Eiffel Tower, Louvre Museum, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame Cathedral, Champs-Elysees, and Napoleon’s Tomb so you can stay busy for many days here. Similar to the Tube in London, Paris has an underground metro that will take you to all the main tourist attractions. It truly is a world class city. I also went to Honfleur, France which is a city located in the region of Normandy. Honfleur is a two hour drive from Paris and is a coastal city known for its old, picturesque port that you can see below.

Dublin Hostel

The region of Normandy was the Allied landing site for the liberation of Europe in WWII and the natives of this area are very welcoming and friendly towards Americans. Most study abroad students do not have the opportunity to visit Honlfeur but I had a personal friend named Alain who let some friends and I stay at his home for a weekend. Alain and his wife own a bed and breakfast (www.pressoirthylleres.com) that I highly recommend staying at if you want to immerse yourself in the Northern France culture. Alain provides travelers with beautiful accommodations in the countryside and gives driving tours of the Honfleur harbor, WWII American Cemetery and beaches, and Mont Saint-Michel. The WWII American Cemetery located above Omaha Beach is a must see for any history buff. The region's other highlights include Mont Saint-Michel, a spectacular island off the coast that has been named the most visited attraction in France. You can view pictures from my visit in the Gallery.

Rome, Italy

If there is one city you should spend more than just a day or two visiting it would have to be Rome. Along with London, Rome has the most attractions in Europe that will keep you busy for days. You should begin with Vatican City where you’ll see all the famous paintings in the Vatican Museum and hopefully catch a glimpse of the Pope. From there, you can spend nearly a half day just touring the Roman Forums where the Ancient Rome civilization developed (picture below) and the famous Roman Coliseum where the gladiator games were held.

Dublin Hostel

Other famous sights in Rome include the Pantheon, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and St. Peter's Basilica, the largest church in the world and a symbol of Catholicism. Rome also has an enormous number of monuments and churches that added with its great architecture make it one of the best cities in Europe to travel to while studying abroad.

England

After spending the first couple of weeks assimilating into life in London and taking advantage of all the things there is to do in the city, I think it is just as important to visit other places in England, especially the countryside. Some of the most popular travel destinations are Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, Bath, Leeds Castle, Canterbury, Cambridge, and Oxford. I took a day trip to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and Bath and also visited Canterbury Cathedral. Windsor Castle is an old Royal palace that is currently used as the Queen’s second home. Situated on Salisbury Hill, people have been captivated by the unique rock formation at Stonehenge for centuries and it became my favorite sight to visit in England. Bath is famous for housing the preserved Roman Baths from the ancient world and is a fascinating place to visit. Lastly, Canterbury Cathedral is one of the oldest and largest churches in England and the city of Canterbury is pleasant for a day trip. A picture of the front of the cathedral can be seen below.

Dublin Hostel

I truly enjoyed the challenge of traveling around Europe and attempting to communicate in other languages, but there was always a sense of relief when I arrived home in London after a long trip. I hope this page will be helpful to you in your travels abroad. Good luck and have fun!