first off, tripadvisor - yelp - lonely planet forums are your friends. they often will tell you the best places to go and the best methods to go about doing things. the way i plan travel is first 1) thinking of a place 2) researching the location 3) researching travel 4) look up a place to live. this process is not easy and can get more hairy the more people there are going on the trip. let's start.
regarding transportation, there are a couple ways to go about it. airplane, bus, and train. going by air will always be the fastest way to travel. there are two main budget airlines than function in europe: ryanair and easyjet. the ticket prices vary dramatically and can double on the more desirable days. if you are studying abroad, this is a bit of an issue because the tickets usually are the cheapest during tuesday-wednesday...aka when we have class. flying in europe won't take longer than a few hours, and you'll arrive at your destination pretty refreshed and ready to take on the day. problems? your luggage. remember, weight limits! when traveling (the cheaper way) on ground, it takes longer and you have to factor in your mental state when you arrive at said destination. i'm took easyjet to prague and i've taken ryanair from dublin to london. you get what you pay for, and people have varying opinions on these budget airlines so it's up to you.
traveling by train in europe is the second fastest - but can get rather expensive at times. if the prices work for you, go for it. i took the eurostar from london to paris (and back) and it was amazing. within two hours we were there, and the stations are located in prime locations. eurostar tickets are normally very expensive, but we bought it months ahead of time and snagged a deal for around £60. during my spring break, i took a train from berlin to budapest and let's say it wasn't as enjoyable. i thought i booked a cabin (no beds) for an overnight ride with my four friends, but when we got to the train they turned out to be regular joe seats - which resulted into a terrible's night's sleep. take a gander, it's up to you!
bus, i think, is the most affordable way to go about - but not the most enjoyable. it's actually not bad at all, you're just sitting on a bus for around 5-8 hours. companies like megabus will have awesome bargain prices ($10 to paris!) but the times have to coordinate with your schedule. national express has really good prices too and runs in a lot of european countries. although buses are the cheapest, remember it's not the best way to get a night of sleep and it's tiring when you arrive at a place on little/no sleep. just keep that in mind especially if you take things like "sail and rail" that ask you to take trains, ferries, and buses on the same trip - it's very time consuming and often not worth the amount of money you save. (in me and my friend's humble opinions after taking a 7 hour trip to dublin vs the 1 hour pain free flight).
when planning travel, i think the most important thing to look at are the domestic websites. it will take you away from the well designed and comforting area of english sites, but often times if you take the domestic buses (that have international lines) you'll save a lot of money. ex: a hungarian bus line called "orangeways" has great deals but none of the times worked for us. we're took a train called mav-start from budapest to zagreb, and although the site isn't the most english friendly thing in the world it's got great deals.
for students there are two options for living in europe. hostels or airbnb. hostels seem to have a negative connotation in american society - but they are not bad at all. rather, they're an awesome way to live while traveling because many hostels are geared toward young travelers on a budget. you'll meet people traveling around just like you and it's honestly a ton of fun. we met a ton of people traveling solo who befriend people in their hostel and end up hanging out in that city, or even another one because everyone is traveling around. sites like hostelworld provide extensive reviews and information on hostels around the world. things to note are: reception times and whether or not the hostel provides towels/breakfast/sheets/etc. hostels are usually the cheapest option - going for ~$10 a night - and many hostels arrange events as well. so all in all, make sure you read the reviews and research the location. there are also higher end hostels if you have the money for it.
the second option is airbnb. airbnb is basically a site for apartment rentals. basically someone has an apartment in which you pay a certain amount for a night - there is an allotted amount of people who can stay at said room, it's usually the best option if you have large groups and you're all traveling the same amount of days. i have had great experiences with airbnb, but like always make sure you read the reviews and double check the location in relation to the city.
hotels aren't really something you need to do, but if you want a hotel go for it. it's not as immersive as the first two, but it's an option for sharing as well.
- other general tips
- esp when traveling in a group - establish up front what places you want to go to and make sure you guys have similar priorities. do not embark on trips with big groups. it will not work. (or it might, as long as people are ok with splitting up and are flexible)
- shit happens. don't get caught up if mishaps occur, just keep an open mind and know that freaking out gets nothing done. find a wifi source (cafe), sit down, and figure it out. it's okay that if you lose sometime, rather you lose a little bit of time than the entire weekend.
- if you need to nap, nap. if you want to go bed early one night, do it. wake up earlier the next morning and get a headstart. if you are tired and grumpy no one will have a good time, and it puts your body at a higher risk of getting ill.
- building on that, it's impossible to fully comprehend a city in just one weekend/a few days. you have to know going into the city, you are not going to do everything. just try and accomplish the things you want. maybe do some touristy things and then just walk around. in amsterdam, we did not end up going to the anne frank house but we got to wander the canals and go to various different places to eat.
- just walk around with a loose idea in mind. it helps if you have a destination in mind, but slowly wander your way there and absorb the city along the way.
- on the flipside, it does help a lot if you do prior research, but it doesn't have to be super extensive. that might depend on the size of the city. smaller cities simply need you to walk around for a day and you might see everything. like cardiff and amsterdam are perfect for a leisurely wander. larger cities, you have to pick which tourist destinations you want to check out and then map out walking "paths" you can take. cities like london, paris, budapest are much larger and have much more to see. you'll have to pick a neighborhood to wander in if you have less time, for example. you have to check the opening times of the places, whether or not you need a ticket, if you can buy said ticket online for cheaper, etc. everything in europe closes early and sometimes on random days. it sucks.
- asking friends who have been to those places is the best advice - they'll let you know places to see and places to eat and which areas have the best nightlife/culture/vibe.
- if you have a friend (no matter how close) that lives in the city, ask to stay with them and/or take you around. their tours will be better than anyone you could find or do on your own.
- GOOGLE MAPS CAN LOAD OFFLINE. it's called okmaps! when you have wifi, type in ok maps - select the city or area you are in, and download! the gps will work on airplane mode. if it does not, turn off your cellular data and don't use airplane mode. don't worry, you won't get charged.
- money wise: take out cash when you get there. many cards will work abroad, make sure you double check before, and will ask you to pay a transaction fee. go to the ATM in the beginning and withdraw money once - so you won't have to continually get charged the fees. (they're usually under $5 i believe. and don't click the converted amount! click the US dollar amount.)
- as always, bring adapters that suit your country.
- when traveling around where some places won't have towels - don't bring your entire bath towel. either cut a square off or buy a hand towel, it's really all you need to dry yourself.
- HYDRATE YOURSELF. we forgot this so many times because most of the time i don't consciously think about drinking water. always have a water bottle with you and drink liberally, you'll get randomly fatigued from dehydration.
- sneakers. sneakers. sneakers.
- no one cares how you look like, pack light! find nice basics that you can wear over and over. my friends and i basically wore one outfit per city (and we went to five or so places). you will never wear all your clothes, so pack light pack light!
all in all it's not as intimidating or expensive as it seems to be - it just requires patience, planning, and a relaxed approach and u basically got it~ often times it's not the relaxing vacation you think it'll be, but an adventure. and it's 100% worth it.
okay! that's all i have for now - please leave comments if you have anything to add and i hope this sort of helped. weeee.