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Contrary to popular belief, hostels are not as bad as they seem. If you've never stayed in one before, I can completely empathize with your fear going into the situation. Just know that I came out alive and am here to share the info that I learned through my experiences to hopefully help you if you're considering staying in them on your next trip to Europe.
What are the benefits to staying in a hostel? The most obvious benefit to staying in a hostel is the low cost, however, they also provide the opportunity to stay in great, central neighborhoods on a budget as well. Another benefit of hostels is that it's an easy way to meet people, especially for those traveling solo. The key to this though, is that you really have to be open to meeting new people. Don't be shy! Of course always go with your gut when it comes to safety and make smart choices, but something to remember is that most people in hostels are in the same boat you are, and it's a much easier environment to make friends as a solo traveler since you are literally sharing a living space with others than it would be at an Airbnb or hotel.
Obviously hostels have their drawbacks and it's something to consider when looking to stay in them. Most hostels have several options available when it comes to the type of room you want to book. From personal experience, having stayed in various types of dorm situations in hostels ranging from 4-person all-female to 16-person male and female, it's really not as uncomfortable as you'd think. Most people are actually quite friendly and sometimes others just keep to themselves, but it's usually pretty relaxed. The only exception being the 8 year old French boy running around the hallways of my London hostel. There are of course bathrooms available to change in for privacy, which seems to be what everybody does.
Anytime you sleep in the same room with other people, there is always the possibility of a snorer disturbing your precious sleep time. I'm very sensitive to snoring, so it can sometimes be a problem trying to fall asleep when the person below you sounds like they are a cruise-liner coming into port in the middle of the night. It doesn't happen all the time necessarily, but it can occur from time to time, or maybe not at all if you're lucky. And if you don't experience any snorers during your trip, then you are super lucky and I'd like to take you Vegas sometime later this year.
Another drawback to consider is a lack of secured storage space. This varies from hostel to hostel and when researching them, make sure to look in to whether or not they provide lockers in the dorms. Most lockers won't fit everything but you are able to at least put your valuables inside. Now, living in LA, I'm unfortunately more jaded than most, so I'm more of the mindset of making sure things like my passport, money, phone, etc. are locked up or with me at all times. However other items like toiletries and clothes are totally safe. I really can't imagine someone having much of an incentive to steal my $5 t-shirt from Target. The thing is though, it is still a shared space and it's probably best to avoid bringing unnecessary expensive items with you that you don't really need.
What should you bring and what you don't need to bring. Let's start with what to bring. Make sure to bring good earplugs; this will greatly help you when it comes to not only the snorers but general noise in the building and outside. You should also bring a lock and key, or combination lock, to lock up your belongings in the lockers available. While many hostels provide lockers, they do not provide, or may charge for, a lock. Make sure that the lock meets flight-travel standards; basic ones used in locker rooms are OK. Since hostels are a public place with multiple people using the same showers and bathrooms, absolutely make sure to bring flip flops. Even if you are traveling to a colder climate, flip flops are a must to use for the showers.
Now onto what not to bring. You do not need a towel. Most hostels will provide towels for a very small deposit, which is returned to you when you check out. Towels take up a lot of unnecessary space and may not be dry yet when you have to relocate to your next destination. You can also avoid bringing any linen and/or pillows. This is all provided by the hostel. Sometimes they may require a deposit, but like towels, it is returned to you upon check out.
A good rule of thumb regarding each hostel you stay at is to thoroughly research what each one provides, as they can all be different. Most provide laundry facilities but you will have to pay a small fee to use them as you would at an apartment building, as well as pay for detergent if you do not have your own.
My hostel recommendation for Scotland is the Budget Backpackers Hostel located in Old Town Edinburgh. This hostel is right in the middle of town and is walking distance to everything, including a short 15 minute walk (20 minutes for my short legs) to the Waverly Train Station. The hostel is safe and the location is incredible. They even provide meal and drink coupons to use at their hostel.
If traveling to London, I recommend the YHA Youth Hostel Oxford St. located near London's West End. It is a secured building located in a safe neighborhood. It is a short 10 minute walk to the Oxford Circus subway station or just a block behind London's busy Oxford St. where you can catch buses as well. The hostel is clean and well-maintained. Do not let the title fool you; you do not have to be under 30 to stay here. I actually saw quite a few families staying there during my trip.
For Paris I suggest the Young and Happy Hostel. The location was incredible. It was on a street called Rue Mouffetard, not to be confused with 'Dotard'. Rue Mouffetard is a local market street in the Latin Quarter. It is close to both bus stop and subway stations and is central enough to even walk over to Notre Dame and around central Paris. The biggest drawback though to this hostel was that it was the only one that did not provide in-room lockers. The only lockers provided were very small ones in the lobby area. Though my stuff remained fine, I made sure to have my valuables with me when heading out around town.
These 3 hostels worked well for me during my trip, but as always I suggest that you research different ones to see what's important to you when it comes to what they provide and the location. Always be sure the location is safe. For example in Paris, I learned that it's best to stay within the first 10 neighborhoods. Their system is a little different and they have numbered neighborhoods from the center of Paris heading outward. The more central, the better.
My upcoming post will focus on the gorgeous Scotland and my recommendations for what to see and do while you are there.
In my previous post I mentioned that the airline I flew, WOW Air, provided me the challenge of fitting everything for my backpacking trip to Europe literally in just a backpack. This post will focus on how to save space, pack light, and the things that you should bring with you on your trip to Europe.
Most of us have a bad habit of over-packing for trips, and if you're staying at one location the entire time, it might be fine to have some extra baggage, but I can tell you from experience that for backpacking around Europe, the less you have the better. Not having to drag a giant suitcase makes transitioning from different locations much easier, not to mention you don't stick out quite so bad as a tourist.
When it came to clothes, I found it helpful to focus on layers and simple, basic items. I brought along t-shirts, several sweaters, jeans, a jacket, and a pair of tennis shoes for my main day-to-day wardrobe. So what happens if I decide to have a night out on the town you may wonder? Well, my trick was to pack a pair of flats instead of heels, which wasn't a hard choice considering I can barely walk in heels anyway, but flats really do take up far less space. Also bringing along a good red lipstick can make even the most chill wardrobe more appropriate for a night out. You can also pack a small cross-body purse for nights out or simply if you don't want to carry the whole backpack with you when exploring around town.
To help accommodate space in my backpack, I made sure to wear layers on my flights over. I wore a t-shirt, sweater, jacket, and then my extra sweater around my waist. When it comes to toiletries, finding solid alternatives to liquids helps as well since there is a limit to the amount of liquids you can bring. A bar of soap instead of body wash, or facial wipes instead of face wash can help save space. Also try to look for items that have more than one function. There's a great product I found in the travel section at Target called Dr. Bronner's Pure-Castile Soap. This soap can be used as a body wash, shampoo, for shaving, and even laundry.
Sometimes sleeping on a plane can be impossible, so I made sure to bring along some books to help pass the time. Another way I saved space was to carry the books myself instead of putting them in the backpack. Obviously carrying a bunch of books around Europe isn't particularly light, so what I did was purchase several $1 clearance books prior to my trip and whenever I would finish one I would leave it in a public place for someone else to hopefully want to read and thus lighten my load. Hey, if Emma Watson can randomly leave books around town, then I might as well do it too.
Also make sure to pack a good charger. Best Buy has excellent ones available for purchase. I recommend getting an all-in-one charger that has multiple settings that you can use for all different parts of the world. They are available for around $40 and are well worth it.
Aside from other basic toiletries, make sure to bring along some aspirin too. If you are going to a country where the main language isn't English, it might be hard to find the proper medicine you are looking for if a headache pops up. Also, many places in Europe don't have a 24hr CVS or Rite-Aid around for any late-night medicine runs, so having that stuff ahead of time can really help.
If you are considering staying in hostels, check out my upcoming post which will include recommendations for places to stay and what you need to know, and bring, for your hostel stay.
I'm Dutch, which means I enjoy two things immensely: windmill cookies and a good deal. So when it came time to find a flight to Europe, I was looking for an inexpensive one to accommodate my non-Julia Roberts level actor budget. How to find cheap flights? Well, as it turned out I found a great deal with a European airline.
The airline I found is called WOW Air, perfect for budget travel. Ah yes, that giant pink vessel floating across the Atlantic. This Icelandic airline offers low-cost flights to and from Europe, usually with a layover in Iceland. While it's a fabulous airline for travelers looking to save money on the flight itself, something to note is that they can make up for this by charging for pretty much everything else. The charge for luggage can be an extra $40 or almost $100 if purchased at the gate, and even carry on suitcases are not free. The only luggage not charged extra is a personal item, which can be a purse, briefcase/laptop bag, or small backpack. Never one to back down from a good travel challenge, I was determined to avoid that extra luggage cost and fit everything into a small backpack, with the knowledge of course that I'd have to do laundry several times while over in Europe.
Something to consider when booking flights to Europe, especially if you'll be traveling around to different countries, is to book 2 one-way tickets as opposed to a round-trip ticket. Initially I had booked a round-trip ticket from Los Angeles to London thinking that was the best deal, but in reality it would have made my journey more expensive and inconvenient. Had I stuck with a round-trip ticket, I would have had to get from London up to Edinburgh and then back down, and then at the end of my trip in The Netherlands I would have had to get back to London just to fly home. Thankfully I was able to get a refund and instead booked a one-way ticket to Edinburgh, worked my way down to London, Paris, and then The Netherlands, and then I just flew home from The Netherlands. This ended up being the same price as the round-trip ticket and much more convenient overall.
Back to WOW Air though, in addition to the baggage fees, all food and drinks are charged as well, so my suggestion would be to purchase a large water bottle and snacks to bring with you on the flight. Although sometimes an in-flight wine purchase is necessary, as it'll totally help you fall asleep and pass the time quicker. Two glasses of wine if there's a screaming child.
My last note about WOW Air is that sometimes their layovers in Iceland can be quite long. My layover on the way to Scotland was almost 18 hours, so depending on your interest and budget, it does allow the opportunity for extra exploring in Iceland as well. If you have an overnight layover and need somewhere inexpensive to stay near Iceland's International Airport in Keflavik, I recommend the Base Hotel. This former American military base has been converted into a hostel and since hotels in the area can be expensive, this place offers the best deal around, however shuttles to and from the airport are not included and need to be purchased separately through Shuttle Iceland for around $20 per trip.
Up next I'll cover my packing tips for Europe and also how to keep things light.
A great way to end a backpacking trip is getting to visit with family you don't have the opportunity to see often, and in this case family who live all the way across the Atlantic ocean. I stayed with family from my dad's side in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Though it wasn't my first time in The Netherlands, it was my first time staying in Rotterdam.
Our family has Jewish roots and so we visited the town of Strijen which has a monument dedicated to the Jewish families who died in the Holocaust, including ours. It happened that while on my vacation the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia took place. It was strange to hear about all the turmoil back home in the States, yet feel so distanced from it at the same time. Though our family had visited Strijen back in 2008, the recent events especially made me want to visit again. In 2017 it feels surreal that we have to still be dealing with Neo-Nazis and the KKK, but because of that, it's important to look back at reminders of the past to see how destructive hate can be and how important it is to stand up for what's right.
While also in The Netherlands I had the opportunity to see Madurodam. It is a popular attraction in The Hague that has a bunch of miniature replicas of various Dutch cities and landmarks and even has some Dutch history shows there as well. The tiny towns were great, especially since they made this short girl feel tall.
If you're looking for adventurous Dutch food, I recommend checking out the outdoor food market in Rotterdam. You can even eat Herring by the tail, but I don't recommend that portion for any first dates.
I had an incredible time getting to catch up with family over in The Netherlands, even though it was brief, and I am so grateful to them for allowing me to stay with them and for showing me such a fun time. The Netherlands feels like a second home whenever I go there. My only wish is that I would have gotten to experience it with my Oma, but I was lucky enough that she brought a piece of The Netherlands to me all my life with her stories and Dutch traditions.
That marks the end of my big 30th birthday trip backpacking around Europe. It was incredible and I'm so proud of myself for doing it on my own. I'm also proud of myself for also managing to sleep on the airplanes. Every accomplishment counts right?
If you're reading this and thinking I must have been nuts to go on my own, it's not nearly as scary as you'd think, and I met amazing new people along the way. Life is meant to be an adventure, and I definitely had a great one.
Next up, I'll be posting about my recommendations and things I learned along the way for Scotland, London, and Paris for any solo travelers on a budget, as well as specific tips for female solo travelers. If you're looking to head to any of these places in the near future and want some suggestions, check in on this blog and I'm excited to share what I've learned with you. 'Til the next adventure!
There was a film literally named Paris, I Love You, so you figure it must be doing something right. To be honest, as great as it is to experience Paris, I was actually kind of nervous to go. I barely speak any French and I'm an awkward American, which seemed like a recipe for disaster in a city with a vibe of effortlessly cool chain-smokers who somehow dine on bread and cheese and never gain weight. Everyone told me how much I would love Paris, and I was just hoping to get by without being yelled at by a disgruntled bus driver.
I get it now. The city is absolutely magical. You totally understand why people like Hemingway loved it so much. It's one of the biggest cities in the world, yet remains so calm at the same time. It was a relief not to be around a bunch of neurotic Angelenos. No offense LA, but we are kind of crazy.
I stayed in the historic Latin Quarter, which I later found out is the same part of town Hemingway lived, which made me feel all the more cool as I wrote about my trip. We're both writers right? Yeah, I wish.
My hostel was called the Young and Happy Hostel (I know, cheesy right?) but it would have been better suited as the Old and Bitter Hostel. Seriously, why are all the employees so grumpy? You live in Paris, not Guantanamo. I felt like I had to apologize for being there.
My first stop was a local cafe down the road. Now, for someone who is a Lucille Ball fan I never thought I'd actually live out an I Love Lucy episode. Thankfully not the one where she goes to jail in Paris, but the one where she tries to order food at a cafe yet has no idea what she's ordering and tries to overcompensate. I'm not one to make a snap judgment of all Paris waiters based on one place, but I somehow wandered into the cafe with the service industry equivalent of a root canal. Luckily, a Parisian lady with a kind heart helped me order and even gave me lots of great advice for getting around the city.
Next up, it was time to check out the Eiffel Tower. As great as the Eiffel Tower is to see up close, it's a puzzle trying to figure out how to get yourself in a shot with the full tower in the background when you're that close. Tourist problems.
The Eiffel Tower was incredible, though in all seriousness you do notice the increased security in the area now due to terrorism threats, and for someone who is nervous around guns, it's quite intimidating. At the end of the day though, they are there for our protection, which I am grateful for.
The next morning I ate my first Parisian croissant, and I was slightly disappointed when I didn't morph into Brigitte Bardot. It wasn't life changing, but it was inexpensive. I moved on to the Louvre Museum where thanks to the magic of cinema, the theme from The Da Vinci Code was stuck in my head for the majority of the visit. It was when I went to see the Mona Lisa though that I realized I forgot my glasses. Since you have to see the painting from behind a bar at a distance, it made my semi-tragedy of forgetting my glasses while at one of the most famous museums in the world all the more pathetic. You can bet I've never squinted harder in my life.
The Louvre is absolutely gorgeous. The museum itself is a work of art. In addition to the Mona Lisa, I saw the Venus de Milo. For me, it was important to get photos of the major artworks, but I saw tourists taking photos of practically every single painting and sculpture. It's art. You are actually there. Take it in for crying out loud.
My last full day in Paris I had the opportunity to see the Notre Dame. And no, it is not pronounced the same way we pronounce the university here, nor is there a hunchback lingering in the bell tower. It is, however, an incredibly beautiful, historic church. You can even venture to the top of Notre Dame and check out the view of the city. I didn't even care that my legs turned into jelly after walking up all those stairs; The view is totally worth it. Plus you even get to go inside the bell tower. Again, no Quasimodo.
Finishing out my time in Paris included seeing the nighttime light show back at the Eiffel Tower. As cool as the Eiffel is during the day, it is a must to see it lit up at night. They don't call it the City of Lights for nothing. Just be mindful of the rats when sitting on a bench in a park. Seriously.
Last but not least on my 30 Flirty and Traveling blog series, my time with family in The Netherlands!
Merry ol' London. My love of history, Shakespeare, and British accents was finally culminating. It would be a trip filled with amazing sights, excellent theater, and my tourist-self reminding my actor-self NOT to say "Bond, Jill Bond" or "Cheerio".
After a train ride in which the lady sitting behind me was taking out her frustration on her laptop keyboard, I had arrived in London. My first stop after settling into my hostel would be the famous Abbey Road crosswalk and studios. But first, I had to get to my hostel, which was just off of Oxford St. If you're not familiar with Oxford St., it is one of the busiest shopping districts in London. I could feel my budget cringing at the thought of being so close to so many stores, but thanks to glorious WOW Air, I couldn't buy much because then I'd have to pay extra to take it on the airplane home. All was right with the world.
The thing about navigating Oxford St. is that it's sort of like going into battle with your fellow pedestrians. There's a Seinfeld episode in which George buys a super-puffy Gore-Tex coat, which I'm convinced would have been perfect armor for me on Oxford St.
Next up it was Abbey Road. Obviously the thing about the famous crosswalk that people forget is that it's still a working crosswalk with cars driving through and no traffic lights. But if you've ever met a millennial with an Instagram account, you know they'd rather die trying to get that prime Instagram shot than not try at all.
We all took turns asking each other to take our photo, while simultaneously trying not to get hit by an oncoming car. For any music fans out there, the cool thing about Abbey Road Studios itself, is that a lot of famous musicians have worked out of there. So while it's legendary because of The Beatles, lots of other artists have recorded there too.
The next day I had the opportunity to explore more of the city with a friend from college who resides in the area. Our first stop was the Notting Hill neighborhood. The film Notting Hill is one of my all-time favorite films, especially in the romantic comedy genre, so you can imagine my disappointment when the location of Hugh Grant's travel book store from the film is merely a tacky souvenir shop still banking on the success of the film. I walked in literally thinking 'You guys couldn't even have made this into an actual travel book store?'
Throughout the day we saw the Thames River, which I had no idea how to properly pronounce, Shakespeare's The Globe Theater, Big Ben, Parliament, and the Tower Bridge. I even had the opportunity to have more Guinness. It's the little things in life sometimes...
The following day I hit up the spectacular Westminster Abbey. It houses some of history's greatest monarchs and influencers, and when I say influencers I'm not referring to people famous on YouTube for prank videos. I'm talking Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Isaac Newton, and Charles Darwin, which means it's not only a celebration of leadership and religion, but also of science and innovation. The abbey is just about 1000 years old, and is now more friendly to science than the Republican party. I even got to say hello to the (priest, I think it was), who I'm pretty sure moonlights as a musician on the weekends with his man-ponytail that can conveniently turn into a man-bun when the occasion calls.
The Tower of London was something I had never actually looked up images of prior to going, and truth be told, I imagined literally just a giant tower surrounded by grass. But subtly is not the case here. It's in fact quite huge and looks more like an enclosed town with multiple buildings than a mere tower. They even had actors playing guardsmen there, and I genuinely wondered how many times they've wanted to punch a tourist. Something to remember is that this is a place where numerous people were beheaded throughout history and many of them carved their names or messages onto the walls of their respective prisons inside. So while it's an exciting place to see, there's also a lot of dark history there too, but thankfully there's a gift shop and ice cream stand to liven up the mood if need be.
My final big London activity was definitely the one I was most excited for: seeing Shakespeare's King Lear at The Globe. Though the original Globe Theater burned down, they built an exact replica which is still a working theater today. As an actor, this was a memory I'm really grateful for and inspired by. Though I work in LA, which is mostly on-camera jobs, there is nothing quite like the theater, especially Shakespeare. It was an excellent show and I'd recommend anyone looking to see theater in London to check it out. The Bard would be proud.
All in all, London was great. I learned that 'fetch' is not actual British slang, and I still haven't figured out how to properly say Thames.
Next up, Paris!
Jill Zwarensteyn is an actress, comedian, and writer who has been featured on Amazon, TruTV, The New York Times, Matador Network, BUST Magazine, Thought Catalog, GoMad Nomad, Mashable, The Daily Mail UK, the Cannes Film Festival, LaughFest, Women's Lifestyle Magazine, and the Funny Women Festival LA. For more info visit: http://www.jillzwarensteyn.weebly.com