Help me navigate the world of planning a trip abroad.
March 14, 2013 9:19 AM   Subscribe

I'm going abroad this summer. What advice would you give to someone who hasn't been abroad in a decade? What resources exist for traveling? Specific areas: Sardinia, Italy (mainland), France, possibly London.

I'll be in Sardinia for a month on an academic trip -- this is organized by others and I have to do no planning. Afterwards, I plan to spend a week or two in Europe. I'd like to do something like fly to London, and then work my way back to Rome (it seems to be cheapest to ultimately fly in and out of Rome). How long is reasonable to allow for this? I'd like to spend 2 weeks, but may be limited to 1 week due to the expense. How can I keep my costs down and maximize my time in Europe? I don't have a budget yet, but how much should I be planning for (excluding plane fare)?

And the places I'd like to see most are southern France and Italy. Is it a bad idea to try to get to Paris and London as well? Or if I fly to London, will I be able to do it all in 2 weeks? I'd like to spend a few days in each place, but don't want to burn myself out from traveling. Should I spend more time in fewer places? I've been to Paris before, but would love to go back (it was on a school trip 10 years ago).

Are hostels the best option for lodging? How safe are they? I am female, late 20s, will probably be traveling alone for part of this (I do know some people also going this summer and may meet up with them, but they're backpacking and don't have their itinerary well-planned yet).

And my general travel preference is to feel relaxed, not obligated to be somewhere at a certain time, see a lot, and really soak up the culture. Also I know French well, but would love to improve it well enough to consider myself fluent while I'm there. Other than just not speaking English while I'm in France, what's the best way to do this? I know about 5 words of Italian, good resources to learn some basics in the next couple months?
posted by DoubleLune to Travel & Transportation (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Hostels ROCK, in my opinion. There's one in London I have been at twice, and it's in a pretty cool neighborhood that is walking-distance to a few nifty things. There is someone at the front desk 24/7, and the staff is usually willing to go above and beyond when it comes to wanting to help. They're also good if you're traveling alone and are worried about being lonely, because you will probably end up in a room with other people, and there's lots of options for conversation (even if it's "can you believe those Spanish girls that just left that brought the two steamer trunks?" or whatever).

Hostels that are affiliated with the Hostelling International Network are usually best in terms of quality and safety.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:49 AM on March 14, 2013

I would say spend more time in fewer places. You will find this much easier if you can either ship home the larger part of your luggage from the month home or leave it in Rome during your travels-- if you have a lighter bag, you will find it easier and less time-consuming to travel, and you will also be able to take advantage of the cheaper flights where luggage comes at an excruciating premium.

It is super easy to get from Rome to London; EasyJet is much better than RyanAir, and even if you fly to Stansted the buses to London aren't that expensive. If you have a week, you could easily do London--Eurostar to Paris--flight to Rome. I would not try to do more than that unless it were a day trip to Versailles or Oxford or something like that, because you'll be strung out on traveling. I would say that Rome is pretty awesome, as is central Italy. (I admit to a strong bias about this.) I would say that hostels and travel will be your primary costs, but an extra three or four days would not add on more than say $230 for sleeping arrangements, so it's probably worth it to take the time to really enjoy the cities you're in.

How much money you spend depends a little more on your budget. Hostels are usually pretty awesome; book ahead if you feel strongly about single-sex dorms, and bring a solid padlock or two. AirBnB is also good for short-term visits, so if you were doing three nights in Paris it might be worth it. You can live quite cheaply when it comes to food-- wine and cheese and bread from a market or supermarket! I sometimes pack ziplocs and an extra knife/spoon just in case it makes it easier to do an al fresco thing. Are you interested in music, in bars, in museums...? There are various budget ways of doing this, but knowing more about what you're specifically looking to do will help sort that out.
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:01 AM on March 14, 2013

Well, here's a werid idea that might work for you. How about a mediterranian cruise?

You can get a VERY cheap cabin and use it for your room, you'll have all of your meals on the ship, and you'll have time to explore when you get in port.

I took a trip that started in Rome, went to Naples (Pompeii), Sardinia, St. Tropez, Palma Majorca and Barcelona. It was amazing.

NCL has a deal for 7 days, with a similar itinerary and I'm seeing prices of $899. That's $128 per day and it includes meals. (You'd need a friend to do a double.) Royal Carribean has one for $549 for 7 days. That one does the Balkins.

Now, another thing would be a low cost air carrier and/or a Eurailpass, the trains are great for seeing the sites and getting to places in dribs and drabs across Europe (or taking expresses here and there.)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:49 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd second a Eurail pass if the price works out right: it would definitely fit your "not obligated to be somewhere at a certain time" preference a lot better than flying. And trains tend to take you to city centres rather than out-of-town airports, and don't hold you up for hours with security, check-in, etc. On my last flight (Vienna-Rome) I spent 90 minutes in the air and about 6 hours to/from/in airports.

Regarding Italian -- English and French should give you a good start. Starting with fluent English and sort-of-OK French, I find I can read most Italian (slowly) and produce bad, ungrammatical but comprehensible sentences. (Understanding it spoken at full speed is far harder, though.)
posted by pont at 12:26 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Why not stay in Italy, or maybe Italy and close environs? Go to Milan, Padua, Venice, Assisi, and obviously, Rome. Maybe add Vienna in, or Budapest, or Ljubliana. It would be both cheaper and in my view better
posted by mumimor at 12:31 PM on March 14, 2013

Also: seconding jetlagaddict on the flights for the Rome-London leg: Ryanair might be cheapest, but they're pretty horrible. I would take EasyJet over them any day, even if it cost a little more. British Airways are better than either, and can be surprisingly cheap to/from Gatwick if you get lucky and book early -- especially if you have hold baggage.

Learning some Italian: the Michel Thomas audio course and are working well for me.
posted by pont at 12:36 PM on March 14, 2013

I know people coming from the US tend to move through countries quicker, but I could (and have) spent three or more weeks in the south of france at a time. The idea of trying to fit several countries into a week sounds far too rushed for me. In your position, I would pick two weeks, I would fly (if possible) to perpignan or Montpellier or Barcelona, then use the train to make your way back along the Mediterranean coastline slowly, seeing some little places as well as big ones.

I personally love Montpellier and the Camargue, Avignon is gorgeous. In Italy there are so many 'can't miss' places - I have spent weeks in Florence, I love Lake Garda and Verona. Rome is worth days by itself.

I found public transport easy in Italy, though it was easier to find out about on the internet.
posted by kadia_a at 12:39 PM on March 14, 2013

Very helpful. I obviously have a lot more research to do :) Also influencing where I go is friends/family I may be meeting up with while I'm there.

If it helps anyone making further suggestions: I'm studying geology, I write fiction, I love art and museums and cemeteries/mausoleums, I like wine (vino/vin), and nature is my friend.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:52 PM on March 15, 2013

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