Three weeks ago, we had a weeklong break following the end of our German Intensive period. Naturally, as this is the only full week off during the semester, all of us made elaborate plans to travel near and far. Some students, including three of my roommates (the Elizabeths, as it were. Really, 3 of my roommates are named Elizabeth. We have embraced it), went on the World Heritage Tour organized by IES Abroad. The other half of our apartment, plus one other friend, chose to carve our own path and explore 2 beautiful countries that still had summer weather in mid-September- Croatia and Italy. Originally, I planned to spend the entire week traveling through Italy, but I was glad we added two Croatian cities into the mix because they were truly beautiful and full of their own history and things to do.
As the one who organized a good deal of the logistics of the trip, I now feel like a far more proficient travel agent of sorts, and I have learned a lot about how to successfully plan and execute an independent trip with your friends while abroad. I am going to list and discuss some of the highlights and low points of the trip in the form of the good, the bad, and the ugly, though I would redefine the “ugly” as the unexpected or far too exciting, you’ll see why.
Food (and budgeting). I could pretend there is something better about traveling than the food, but that would be a lie, especially since we went to Italy and Croatia. Every meal we had was fantastic, whether we were grabbing something on the go from one of the many cheap bakeries in Zagreb or sitting down for a 3-course meal in Florence. It is totally possible to eat well while traveling on a student budget- you just have to be thrifty. We saved considerable amounts of money by traveling with FlixBus more often than flying and staying in Airbnb’s, which meant we had more spending money for food and souvenirs along the way. We also spent a lot of time doing research about attractions and restaurants online, including checking the cheap eats lists! We got to try delicious regional specialties everywhere we went and we never needed to spend more than €15-20 each to do so (not bad, especially when you factor in having to pay for drinks, including water). Don’t underestimate bakeries as breakfast or lunch options, either! In both Zagreb and Split, almost everything in the bakeries costs less than $1 and all tastes wonderful. Grabbing a cheap slice of pizza to tide you over until a nicer evening meal will certainly keep costs down.
Recommendations from friends. Always ask your friends who have traveled what their favorite things/places/restaurants were! Collectively, we had friends and family who had been to all the cities we were traveling to and by following their advice, we were better able to navigate and plan our time! I had a friend who spent an entire semester in Florence and she sent me a PDF full of recommendations for everything we could have possibly needed! With her guidance, we found great places to eat and fun things to do around the city.
Cats. Okay, so this is just a personal highlight of the trip, but the stray cats, particularly in Split, were truly the best. They were super friendly and would actually approach people, which is very different from my experience with stray cats in the States. The locals feed and take care of the cats in their neighborhoods, which leads to the cats being well socialized and trusting humans. I always miss my cats when I am away, so I was thrilled to make some furry friends abroad!
Cheap transportation. I would not describe all of our transportation experiences on this trip as bad, but certainly anytime you book with only money in mind, you don’t end up with the best out there. FlixBus is by far the cheapest way to get around most of Europe, but it does mean spending long periods of time cooped up on buses full of strangers. We had to take an overnight bus back to Vienna from Florence because there really are not any other direct options between the two cities. 11 hours on a bus at the end of a week of traveling = an exhausting night. The buses do have free Wi-Fi, though only in limited amounts per person, and plugs for charging phones. We used a mixture of busses and flights on this trip, which was nice because you can easily tire of getting on those bright green buses. I would recommend thoroughly researching all your options when you travel and basing your decision not only on cost, but also overall convenience and how well it fits into your itinerary. Also, make sure everyone has all their tickets purchased and loaded on their phones. Communication with your travel mates on this issue is crucial. Do not almost lose someone because they never bought their bus ticket to the first city. (It worked out, no worries. I was very stressed for a few minutes, though!)
Tourists. Everywhere. This was mostly an issue in Italy, where the tourism season never ends, but it is not something you can avoid or really prepare for. Although, if you plan to go to a really touristy city like Rome, I would 100% recommend looking into buying tickets or reserving times for big attractions ahead of time. We were given the advice to buy our tickets to the church and museums in Florence ahead of time because the times for climbing the Duomo, something we were planning to do, were almost completely sold out. Sure enough, we snagged the last open time slot available during the time we were there! Unfortunately, we didn’t get to go inside the Colosseum in Rome because the line would have taken almost 2 hours! Plan to get an early start in busy cities and to do the most important things on your itinerary earlier rather than later.
Public transportation. This was truly the only “ugly” thing about this trip. Never did I miss Vienna more than when we experienced the horrors of public transport in Croatia and Italy. Okay, so it wasn’t THAT terrible, but the lack of any metro systems was a real bummer. In Split, we had to figure out the bus system without the help of Google or labeled stops. It was interesting. In Florence, the buses did not run efficiently and the bus never came that was supposed to take two of us to the FlixBus station, which caused a whole mess of problems. In Vienna, the U-Bahn runs like clockwork and is available 24 hours a day, not only until about 11 or 12 at night. Be aware of how and when public transportation works in each city you visit- you never want to get stranded at a bus stop and have to walk 2 kilometers in a tropical rainstorm to your AirBnb. Not speaking from experience or anything…
So, there you have it. One whirlwind week of traversing new territory. Many life lessons learned along the way and memories made to last us a lifetime. Best of luck to any fellow (or future) study abroad students as you plan your own independent trips and attempt to navigate the big, wide world on your own! I have confidence that you can do it, but it sure doesn’t hurt to keep Google Maps close at hand.
More Blogs From This Author
<p>Hey, y'all! I'm a cat-loving music education major from good ole Fort Worth, Texas. I sing Brahms and Mozart, but I listen to Taylor Swift, Hamilton, and much more! (My Spotify playlists says a lot about me!) I enjoy traveling because I get to meet new people, experience new places, and try new foods (okay- I'm mostly in it for the food). Follow along to see what kinds of adventures (and mishaps) I find myself involved in!</p>