One of the most under-appreciated benefits of study abroad programs, particularly those based in Europe, are how easy and affordable it is to travel internationally on weekends and breaks. Here I will give a few tips as to how to make the most of this opportunity, a few important reminders when booking flights and other transit, and personal recommendations based on my experiences and observations.
The best way to take advantage of affordable travel is studying up on the locations you are considering studying abroad in to gauge how convenient and affordable various modes of transportation are from different locations. Independent research on the location you are traveling is useful, but to aid in this, I have ranked several locations which I have experience with for your consideration.
Note: These are my own opinions, but they have been made through firsthand experience factoring in concerns I believe to be universal. Also, this does not factor in Covid restrictions or other concerns, and just evaluates travel opportunities
Rating of Locations to base your study abroad in based on accessibility, affordability, and convenience of international travel:
The Mecca of international travel hubs, London boasts the largest selection of airports for you to travel to and from, and the cheapest and most flexible flights as a result. Although certain airports are less accessible than others (the last train to Stansted, where many Ryanair flights to and from Ireland are based, leaves at midnight—making for a fun wait for a 7am departure 😬), it is still the best hub in the Atlantic by far. The Underground and famous double decker busses make transit to and from the airport easy and affordable. In addition, if you prefer a train, you can travel anywhere in England or Scotland quickly and affordably, as well as to Brussels or Paris via the Chunnel. The only downside of London is that it is an expensive city to live in—but if you are a dedicated traveler, the savings in transit cost goes a long way in balancing out the higher living expenses
Honorable mentions (places I have not been but heard are comparable travel hubs): Singapore
Athens might be a surprise to you, but my experience traveling to and from has been excellent overall. Flights to and from Athens are typically pricier and less numerous than London, but access to cheap flights and ferries to the Greek Isles makes up for this. In addition, getting to and from the airport is easy via the metro, and only costs 10 euros. For a National capital, Athens is a very affordable city to live and study in—adding to its appeal as a home base. Connecting flights from Athens, however, have a sneaky downside: you have to go through security to get back to departure gates, so make sure to allow 1+ hours layover to ensure you don’t miss a connection (like I did).
Honorable mentions: Barcelona, Spain, Istanbul, Turkey
Brussels, Belgium, Paris, France, Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Berlin, Germany
These are major hubs like London, but lack the same amount of flights and airports. Trains and busses between these cities and their neighbors can be especially reasonable, however, and each is an excellent city to study abroad in.
Honorable mentions: Hong Kong, China, Madrid, Spain
Shanghai and Beijing, China
Looking East, international travel is not nearly as easy as in Europe, but these major cities come the closest to Europe’s in travel accessibility. Without the EU and Schengen, entry and exit protocols between countries can be stringent, but the extensive high speed rail network between China’s cities helps make up for this. China is larger than the US mainland and equally biodiverse, so in country travel can range from urban Nanjing and Chengdu to rural Xi’an and Tibet, as well as warm, Florida-esqe Xiamen and frigid Harbin—where water freezes in midair! Don’t rule out these eastern hubs when considering a study abroad program.
Honorable mentions: Mumbai and Delhi, India, Tokyo, Japan
As a study abroad student based in Rome while writing this (after previously being based in Shanghai and London), Rome has been a huge disappointment in terms of travel accessibility. Although there are a decent number of cheap flights available, getting to the airport from the city center makes travel much less affordable and accessible. A 45 minute ride to and from the airport is the quickest option, but it will cost 50 euros one way; alternatively, for half the price you can take a train to the Roma Termini station and connect via metro or bus (or vice-versa) but this can easily take an hour and a half. Although Rome is a great place to study—particularly classics, art, and history—if you wish to travel often during your program, it might be best to visit Rome for an extended trip rather than choose a study abroad program based there.
Relatively small cities that are not major hubs, such as Dublin, Ireland, Edinburgh, Scotland, Granada, Spain, and Florence, Italy
As expected, these small cities, while excellent places to visit or study, are not ideal as travel bases. You will often have to connect to a major hub for reasonably priced and readily available transportation, adding to travel time and cost. This is not a dig on these cities—several I have named here are some of the best places I have every been to—but they reflect the realities of travel between non-hubs. Select cities like this for a study abroad program if you are more focused on cultural immersion in one country or region than international travel.
Small towns without airports
This should be a given, but a small town without an airport requires you to train to a nearby city to fly anywhere. These towns can be lovely places to live and study, especially if your focus is immersion and language learning. However, if you intend to travel significantly, prepare to spend significant time and money doing so.
I hope my rankings helped better inform you of considerations to make if you plan on traveling significantly during your program. Before booking international travel, make sure you know your return country’s procedures for reentry and any visa standards they have (if applicable). For instance, countries like Italy and Greece require you to fill out passenger locator forms (PLF) for each trip to and from, while some regions such as the Schengen area have a limit to the amount of time you can spend there without a visa (for Schengen, no more than 90 days in 6 months), while some visas have a limited number of exits/re-entries permitted. Make sure you know how these apply to you and your situation before booking travel. Despite these obstacles, I encourage you to make the most of your study abroad experience and travel as much as you are willing and able to while on your program!