Note, this article originally appeared in the Berkeley Beacon on Feb. 1, 2007
One of the best parts about living in somewhere is getting the hell out of there once in a while.
Blame it on New England winters, Pacific Northwest rain, Southwest heat or Southeast storms.
If traveling far and wide seems limited to rich kids a la My Super Sweet 16, think again. With a little determination and patience, a change of scenery doesn’t have to emaciate the wallet.
It can, however, leave the student budget traveler feeling like a million bucks.
Here is one trip that left me relaxed for less than half a semester’s price for an on-campus meal plan–including spending cash.
Beware, though. This kind of trip isn’t for the upgrade-needy or lovers of luxury.
Two months into a six-month internship at a Boston newspaper, I realized 26 weeks of many 12-hour days made necessary at least one week away before starting back to college classes. Four roommates and another friend decided to join me on what at first seemed like an impossible quest: Two European cities in seven days for under $750.
We needed two cities that had cheap options for travel in between. They couldn’t get boring for three or four days each and one also had to offer a great New Year’s Eve atmosphere, as we wanted to ring in the new year abroad.
Amsterdam and Paris were too expensive and interest was low for any Iberian itinerary.
We decided to stick to cities in Western Europe that were at least somewhat known to everyone, even if only third-hand.
After a few days of searching the usual online travel sites, I stumbled across two meta-search gems: SideStep and Kayak.
Both offer the same kind of search technology that allows travelers to search over 100 other ticketing sites at once, allowing us to find a steal on a round-trip fare from Boston to Dublin for only $335, including taxes.
We paired that with a good deal we found from RyanAir, one of Europe’s most established low-fare carriers. For $94 round-trip, we sandwiched in a four night visit to London, one of the world’s most notoriously expensive cities.
Luckily, though, the cost of the additional destination was well worth it. And because we had saved so much by starting our search early–we finalized our reservations four months ahead of departure–we had enough spending cash to thoroughly enjoy two of the best cities the British Isles have to offer.
Our three days in and around Dublin were a great start to our trip and a perfect introduction to Europe for those taking part in their first overseas adventures.
We first went to the birthplace of Guinness’s famous stout at the St. James Brewery and enjoyed a free pint of the brew atop the building–one of Dublin’s highest–at the aptly-named Gravity Bar. After resting up for New Year’s Eve celebrations later that evening, we headed out on the town.
Six hours and countless pubs later, we joined an impromptu–and quite inebriated–parade down a cobblestone street, chugging champagne bought from a convenience store, reveling with kilted Scotsmen in town for the holiday and forgetting all about the angst-filled semester that just preceded.
Day two provided us ample opportunity to explore the catacombs and crypts of a nearby cathedral, check out the beautiful neighborhood around Temple Bar, the city’s center of touristy kitsch, and make plans for a cheap–just more than $20–guided tour of County Wicklow, a stunning swath of hilly countryside south of Dublin.
Our guide, Damien, offered an eccentric commentary to a most relaxing day that included visits to beautiful glacial lakes, the majestic Jameson family (yes, the whiskey people) estate and an authentic country pub.
We ended our last evening watching step dancers at an Irish pub on the banks of the River Liffey.
Our hostel, the Avalon House (+011-353-1-4750001) offers rooms for as low as $17 per night. It’s noisy, the beds are shoddy and uncomfortable, but the bathrooms are far above the European hostel standard. Keep your time there limited to sleeping and showering and its location near everything in central Dublin will make up for its massive shortcomings.
London was a whirlwind of museums, visits to historic sights and taking in as much of one the world’s finest cities as we could.
As we found out, it’s impossible to fully understand London in such a short period. It was, however, easy to begin getting a pulse on this essential destination, much of it for much less money than we expected.
Sidestepping the great expense of London is easier than one might think. Most museums and historical sights of interest have “free days” or no admission at all, meaning keeping yourself occupied will almost certainly always cost less than filling your stomach or paying for a place to rest your head.
That allowed us to spend money exploring special sights like the Tower of London and some of the royal palaces, all of which charged admission but were well worth the price.
A word of caution about London: check again if something seems too cheap. Our flights between Dublin and London were definitely inexpensive, but we arrived and left using Luton Airport, a considerable distance from the heart of London.
Getting back to the airport for a 5 a.m. flight was no easy task, either.
Some less scrupulous operations will sell what seem like great deals on guided tours of historic places in the surrounding outer areas of London, but don’t include admission or entry fees.
The London House (+011-44 (0) 207-243-1810) has beds available for under $30 a night–unheard of in a city where even the dinkiest hotel rooms regularly go for over $200 a night.
It’s truly no-frills, but the superb location near Kensington Palace put us in a great spot to explore places to spend all that money we saved on our travel basics.
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