Andy Steves Travel Tips Series: Part 1

Millennial Tips That Work for Boomers, Too

GEAR UP FOR YOUR ADVENTURE

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I’ve spent the last six years traveling and living all over Europe while running my young travel company, WSA Europe. I’m passionate about helping Millennials travel smart, intentionally and with the right mindset. While my dad has covered all the basics with his Europe Through the Back Door, my guidebook, Andy Steves Europe: City-Hopping on a Budget picks up where his book leaves off. And this month, I want to share a handful of my insider tips picked up from a life on the road.

Technology and traveling culture is changing fast, and with the right tools, you can maximize your time and budget even further. Balancing digital tools like apps and websites with the classic resources like guidebooks and on-the-ground resources is your single best way to ensure an unforgettable adventure in Europe.

I graduated from Notre Dame in 2010 and founded Weekend Student Adventures, a weekend tour company for students studying abroad in Europe. When I spent a semester abroad in Rome, I witnessed exactly how crucial trip planning was, and how detrimental failing to plan ahead actually is. As a kid growing up and tagging along with Rick Steves, there’s no such thing as a wasted day—we’d dive into the museums, local restaurants and zipped around the continent with hardly a wasted minute. When I studied abroad and traveled independently with my fellow ND students I learned not all travelers spend their time and money so effectively. I saw just how big the need was for efficient and redeeming travel. I’ve channeled every ounce of effort into developing and refining travel tips and itineraries for students who exist on the leading edge of technology with my company, WSA Europe.

From my time on the road, it’s become clear to me that having a great travel experience is really about two things: bringing the right mindset with you through your adventures, and knowing how to get from point to point, where to stay, what to do and knowing what’s worthwhile when deciding how to spend your valuable time abroad. It’s all about mindset and practical know-how. 

Over the next several weeks, I’m breaking down all the pre-trip, during-travel and post-trip tips I’ve mastered from my years running WSA. We’ll be digging into how to start researching for your trip, what to pack for your time abroad, what reservations are worthwhile to make and which plans can be left to the last minute. We’ll discuss how to maximize and customize your travel experiences and how to tailor your trip to your own interests. And lastly, we’ll run through how to collect memories and share them with friends and family back home.

WHY & WHEN TO GO

Technology has upended the way young people travel today—it’s a double edged sword that has both the potential to make travel more efficient, but also place barriers between you and the culture visiting and the people you’re there to interact with. The multitudes of information available can be overwhelming, but with a well-honed perspective, you can cut through this jungle of information and long to-do lists.

Most importantly, you’ve got to have a general idea of your itinerary or purpose of travel. With Malia Obama now publicly taking a gap year before starting at Harvard, many of today’s Millennials are following suit by taking time off to explore the world. I anticipate this worthwhile practice of exploring the world, going on a journey of self-discovery to only get more and more popular. The Aussies have been doing it for years, and I know it’d be a great thing for more Americans to open their minds through Gap Year travel before starting university and careers. Other travelers are seeking volunteering, interning, studying, service opportunities or simply good old-fashioned tourism. Whatever your desire is, nail down the primary reason and goal of your trip to get started. 

Your next step is to consider seasonality—when you go is just as important as where you go. Southern Europe is mostly shut down in August. October offers less crowds, ‘shoulder-season’ prices and still-acceptable weather. January and February are miserable to slog through the snow and ice in cities like Prague and Edinburgh. If you love visiting the beach, stick to the summer, and remember that swimsuit weather doesn’t roll around until June. Conversely, if you want to experience the slopes in the Swiss and Austrian Alps, February is your prime time to shred them.

Today’s "flashpacker" defines their trip by flight availability and price first rather than dates. Rather than pick arbitrary dates far off in the future, they jump on the cheapest flights they can find. Download ‘Hopper’ on your smart phone to set up price alerts that will give you notifications if your preferred destination has a more affordable option. Google Flight Search is also a great resource to search entire continents for flight prices. Flexibility in dates will reap financial rewards in your long haul flights. Snatch your flight then request your time off. Use these long haul flights to anchor your itinerary, and remember that search engines may get hung up on a final destination if you’re searching all the way to your desired starting point. Instead, focus on the main airline hubs of Europe (Amsterdam, London, Paris, Frankfurt, Copenhagen) and look for connections to your desired starting point (like Dublin, Krakow, Rome or Barcelona) from there. We’ll discuss city-hopping flights in a subsequent blog entry.

As you establish your starting and ending points, it’s up to you to decide on pacing of your trip. Many friends and acquaintances come to me with ambitious lists of cities they plan to visit all the time. My first piece of feedback is nearly always to reduce, reduce, reduce. Aim for an average of one city every 4 days in your trip. That accounts for 3 days in the city and one travel day. Anything less than three full days in a city will really only allow you to scratch the surface and you’ll be spending a lot of time in transit on your trip. Another things to remember: Certain major sights may be closed on a couple days of your visit, and if you have extra time, you’ll have the flexibility for a day trip. 

If there are certain events that you’re dying to see, whether it’s music concerts, festivals, sporting events or otherwise, mark those into your calendar early on and make accommodation reservations around the same time you book your flights. In other words, as soon as you know the trip is happening, make reservations to stay at the events important to you, because prices skyrocket and availability plummets as soon as you near the event and people get around to making plans. The same goes for important holidays like New Years, Christmas, Easter and other national holidays.

Another point I always remind young students and adults alike: be selfish with where you plan to travel. Make sure that you’re going to each destination for your own reasons, not just because it’s ‘the place to go’. Every European city is different. The culture and activity options are different. Food is incredible in certain cities, while the nightlife is the highlight of others. Some are famous for architecture and art, others are famous for graffiti and grunge. Come to terms with the fact you’ll never have time to see them all on your first trip, so make sure drill down to cities that get your most excited based on your interest, not because it’s just where everyone else goes.

Look at your trip like a blank canvas: establish the outlines with your long haul flights, work on your foundation colors and shading with selecting your cities and the order you want to visit them. Map out important event dates well ahead of time and use those as check points in your itinerary. Leave the details like restaurants and sights until later in the process.

As you establish your list of cities to visit, start considering your transportation options ahead of time. Group the cities in an order that makes geographical sense so you’re not zig-zagging back and forth across the continent. The only reason to ignore that advice is if you discover an excellent flight cost. Eurail passes are only a good deal if you really plan on using them. Determine your itinerary and do a cost comparison for cost of a Eurail pass plus about 20 eur for a seat reservation each leg you plan to use that. Compare that against about 100eur/flight that you would plan to take otherwise. That should give you a strong direction based on the cost analysis. Don’t forget to quantify your time en route as well!