Planning my weekend trip to Toronto

Toronto-Branch

So I have a confession: I am teensy bit obsessed with Canada. When I was a kid, I visited Nova Scotia with my parents and fell in love with the adorable, quaint town and the alarmingly polite people. My trip to Niagara Falls two years later left me with the same impression. Fast-forward 10 years, and I’m ready to experience it again. I think it was the Winter Olympics and rooting for the Canadian hockey team (don’t hate me!) that finally reignited my love for the country. I finally told myself enough is enough — I’m going. 

1.) Picking the Date

After begging a friend to go with me, I started making a plan. First item on the agenda: pick a date. It honestly stinks that I am still in school and my only time to travel is on weekends. I could go during spring break, but I need that time to work so I can continue to save up for my trip to Europe this summer. Given this, I chose the first weekend of spring break as the optimal time to go — I won’t be missing work, and I won’t have homework to worry about.

2.) Choosing the City

Some may argue that this should be the first step, but I’m a spontaneous gal. I’ll go wherever the wind — and my budget — takes me. My decision really came down to Toronto versus Montreal. I wish I could say I conducted extensive research, carefully weighing the pros and cons of each city and making an educated decision, but ain’t nobody got time for that. I asked a few friends who have visited both places and reached out to some Twitter followers for advice. Essentially, this is what I collected:

  1. Montreal is a vast, dynamic city that demands much longer than a weekend’s visit.
  2. Toronto is bustling and enticing, but is doable in a weekend.

So, off to Toronto it is.

3.) Finding Transportation

Okay, maybe the greatest factor in selecting the city really was the accessibility. Being based in Washington, D.C., I felt like I could find cheaper transportation to Canada than flying. I looked at trains and bus services in the area, but none had direct routes from D.C. to Montreal. A trip there would require transfers and possible delays, which I would not have time for in a short weekend trip. Luckily, my go-to bus service, Megabus, offers direct routes to Toronto at exponentially cheaper rates than airfare: $75 round-trip. This was a huge selling point for Toronto.

I relayed this information to my friend and she and I booked Megabus tickets for that Thursday night. Because it’s a 14-hour drive, we’ll get to Toronto Friday morning.  Then, to be back at work on Monday, we had to choose the return bus that leaves Saturday night in order to be home by Sunday. This gives us the greater portions of two days and one night in Toronto. I mean, it’s something, right?

4.) Hostel, Hostel, Hostel!

I think it was all of the great experiences in European hostels that made me actually prefer to stay in them rather than budget hotels. Naturally, I went to my favorite hostel-finding site, Hostel World, to find a place to stay in Toronto. Since $75 on transportation is already taking away from my Europe fund, I could not spare much more money on accomodations. Using the site, I found a high-rated hostel that will only cost us $25 each for a Saturday night. The Only Backpacker’s Inn is located just on the outskirts of downtown Toronto, and is central to all of the attractions we want to visit. The bonus is that it’s built ontop of The Only Cafe, a supposedly awesome bar with over 200 beers from around the world. As it stands, I’m 20 years old, but the drinking age in Toronto is 19. When in Rome…

5.) Figuring Out What to Do

Ah where to begin. Like I said, Toronto is bustling. I checked out the city’s official tourism website for ideas for what to do, but I was pretty overwhelmed by the possibilities. I wanted to know what are the top must-see attraction in the city than my friend and I could knock out in one day. That’s when I stumbled upon Tripomatic. It’s most likely not the first site of its kind, but it is the first I have found, and I am quite jazzed about it. This website is the ultimate trip-planning helper. It swiftly guides you through its operations making it superbly easy to use. Once I entered my destination and dates,  Tripomatic presented me a map of Toronto with all of the major attractions, restaurants, hotels and public transportation routes pinpointed. All I had to do was choose a spot and a day and Tripomatic would add the attraction to my itinerary as well as show me the travel time from one spot to the next. The site even has filtering options for most popular attractions. I used this positioning software to determine what was sights and activities are nearby our hostel and our bus terminal. After adding a few items to our itinerary, such as the CN Tower and Casa Loma, I think I have devised a plan to get the most out of Toronto in 36 hours.  After I saved the itinerary, Tripomatic generated a personalized travel guide with maps and travel tips, including currency information, where to eat and how to get around, all available online and in a printable PDF form.  Visit my itinerary here.

Tripomatic

6.) Waiting

Somehow, I managed to plan all of this in literally a few hours, and now, I think I am all set. With the trip only two weeks away, all I have left to do is pack and try not to spend money in the meantime. One of those things will be more difficult than the other.

Top 15 Destinations on My Travel Bucket List

From Rio to Zurich, I am drawn toward cities with beautiful, colorful architecture and waterfront cityscapes. The following are 15 places on my before-I-turn-30 bucket list, apart from the ones I get to check off my list this summer — Rome, Paris, Barcelona, London and Montecarlo.

1. Prague, Czech Republic

Prague_Castle_at_Dusk-1

2. Berlin, Germany

berlin-pakete

3. Amsterdam, Holland

aaa2Amsterdam.Holland1

 

4. Venice, Italy

Venice_Italy8

5. Dubai,  United Arab Emirates

Hotel-Dubai

6. Stockholm, Sweden

stockholm

7. Zurich, Switzerland

Zurich-Switzerland-Wallpaper

 

8. Cape Town, South Africa

cape-town-south-africa

 

9. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio-de-janeiro-hip-hop

10. Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo_odaiba

11.  Positano, Amalfi Coast, Italy

14173315

 

12. Edinburgh, Scotland

edinburgh

13. Dublin, Ireland

dublin_ireland

14.  Jungfraujoch, Swiss Alps, Switzerland

jungfrau

15. Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul-2 

Hostelworld: Best site for finding reliable lodging on a budget

Hostelworld.com is the only tool I use to search for and book hostels. It has everything I need wrapped up into one convenient website. And they offer more than just hostel bookings. On the site, you can book campsites, tours, group hotel rooms and more. Plus they show you the reviews and ratings right on the page.

HOW IT WORKS

Similar to other sites, when you first visit the site, you’re prompted to enter the location, dates and type of accommodation you’re looking for:  Hostels  Bed and Breakfasts  Hotels  Apartments  Campsites.
About 4 out of 5 times, I search only for hostels, but sometimes I find that I can get a better deal at a bed and breakfast or budget hotel.

Hostelworld’s directory consists of 35,000 properties in 180 countries. Once you search, you’re presented with a list of hits that you can arrange by price, rating, availability or name. Most of the hostels have hundreds of reviews. Typically, I don’t give too much heed to reviews, since everyone has different standards, but these are pretty useful. In total, there are over 3.5 million guest reviews, according to the site.

WHY IT ROCKS

Along with reviews, Hostelworld provides general information, facility descriptions, rates, and even a map with directions for how to get to the hostel. They give you everything you need to make an informed decision on where you want to stay. Then, they have sample itineraries, local guides, Hostelworld events and a travel blog where Hostel World staffers write about awesome deals, travel tips and adventure spots.

hostelworld

Once you book, Hostelworld does the processing. For most hostels, you only have to pay a booking fee, then pay the rest once you arrive. So, if something comes up, you’re not losing all of your money. Plus, they have occasional deals and sweepstakes for extra savings. They even offer a 100% booking guarantee:

“It’s very unlikely that something will go wrong with your booking. In fact we’re so confident, that if your booking details cannot be found at check-in, we’ll credit your account with your full deposit and an additional $50 towards future bookings” (http://www.hostelworld.com/guarantee).

So basically,

I love Hostelworld.

StudentUniverse: my go-to site for cheap flights

I cannot speak more highly of StudentUniverse. It’s absolutely my favorite resource for finding the best deals on flights. The company is a Boston-based travel agency focused on providing college students with discounts on flights, hotels, tours, activities and rail.

HOW IT WORKS

Before you can access the deals on the site, you have to create an account using your school’s or institution’s information to verify your status as student. Once StudentUniverse’s technology confirms your status, it connects you to hundreds of companies offering discounted products and services to StudentUniverse customers.

The company has over 65 major airline partners, including American Airlines, United Airways, Virgin America, British Airways, AirFrance, Jet Airways and numerous others. It’s travel company partners include the following:

Travel Guard Rail Europe HostelBookers G Adventures G Adventures

Student Universe has also partnered with travel sites such as Kayak, TravelZoo and Fly.com, so that those sites can redirect you StudentUniverse for discounts once you find your flight.

THEIR JUSTIFICATION

“It’s about getting the most out of your time in school. We believe in the positive effects that travel experiences can have on a person’s character and that having those experiences early on in life is critical in personal development. We believe that travel enriches education and that students should be able to experience their world without breaking the bank.” (http://www.studentuniverse.com/about-us)

FLIGHTS

My favorite feature on the site is the flight flexibility grid. When searching for a flight, you have the options of making your travel dates flexible and choosing from multiple airports in an area. If you select those options, StudentUniverse displays a grid comparing the cheapest flights on the market for a range of days around the departure and return dates you indicated. I’ve been able to save $300 on a flight just by flying out the night before I had planned.

grid

Thanks to StudentUniverse I was able to book my round trip ticket to London for my Mini Rider tour in June. I saved hundreds of dollars by picking an earlier departure day. Now I’ll be flying in to London a few days before the tour begins, so I’ll have more time to explore the city. Next, I’ll have to look into budget hostels or some place to Couchsurf while I’m in London!

My Upcoming Contiki Tour: The Mini Rider

I browsed through the Contiki tours and discovered on somewhat within my budget and target duration. It’s the Mini Rider, a 15-day tour through London, France, Spain and Italy. I want to see the major Euro tourist attractions — the Eiffel Tower, Colosseum, London Eye, etc.– since this will be my first trip through Europe. When I go back after graduation, I’ll explore the off-the beaten path spots.

TOUR TYPE

This is a camping tour, which means I will be sharing a tent with another traveler. It’s not as glamorous as staying in hotels, but camping is more adventurous and fun– and it’s a fraction of the cost. Along that note, I am assuming my tour mates will also be adventurous and open — and hopefully as broke as I am, since they, too, chose the budget tour.

COST

The tour is $1,620 with an additional $250 for food. In total, it will cost $1,870. I didn’t purchase the traveler’s insurance, which was another cost. Luckily, Contiki has a layaway option, so I can pay two to three hundred dollars toward the trip every month, or as often as I would like. Contiki layaway also allows other people to donate money to the fund through a link that users can email to others. On that note — I am writing this post on Dec. 24 and hoping tomorrow may bring some monetary gift from my parents (I’ve been good this year, I promise!)

TRAVEL PATH

Commencing on June 16, 2014 and concluding on June 30, the tour follows a curved path though southern Europe. Travelers are to fly into London on June 16, meet the tour mates and receive a Contiki orientation, then depart for Paris on June 17 (I plan on flying into Europe a day or two early to have more time to explore there). We’ll spend a few nights in Paris, then head to Pamplona, Spain. After leaving Pamplona, we will head to Barcelona for two days before traveling back to France, along the French Riviera. We’ll stop in Monaco along the way, then embark into Italy, where we will spend a few days in Florence and then swoop down to Rome. After two nights, the tour ends, and travelers are responsible for getting ourselves home.

 

the-mini-rider-map-600x600
From contiki.com.

As many of the reviews mentioned, the trip involves a significant amount of time on the bus. As someone who spent her childhood on road trips, though (and who, even at age 20, is rocked to sleep like a baby on any mode of transportation), I am fine with long bus rides. As long as I am sitting where a video is visible, I’m set.

ATTRACTIONS

But along with those long rides, there are also tons of sightseeing and cultural immersion opportunities. These are the major sights and destinations the tours covers:

Paris

Image from wikimedia.org
Image from wikimedia.org

Arc de Triomphe

Eiffel Tower

Louvre

Notre Dame Cathedral

Champs-Élysées

Château Versailles

Loire Valley

Pamplona & Barcelona

Image from independent.myreaderoffers.com
Image from independent.myreaderoffers.com

The Lighthouse & Bay in Biarritz

Sagrada Família

Rio Ebro

Montjuic and the 1992 Olympic Games complex

Zaragoza

Gothic Quarter

Parc Güell

French Riviera 

Image from royalcorrespondent.com
Image from royalcorrespondent.com

Côte d’Azur

Arles

Royal Palace in Monaco

Monte Carlo

Florence

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Duomo Cathedral

Statue of David

Image from thewondersoftheworld.net
Image from thewondersoftheworld.net

Ponte Vecchio

Medici Palace

Duomo

Basilica Santa Croce

Giotto’s Bell Tower

Baptistry

Piazza della Signoria

Rome

Vatican City

Image from destination360.com
Image from destination360.com

Colosseum

Roman Forum

Piazza Venezia

Trevi Fountain

Pantheon

Piazza Navona

St. Peter’s Basilica

Sistine Chapel

This extensive list of sights is, of course, paired with a list of night clubs, restaurants, bars and shops for souvenirs and nightly outings. I am beyond excited. As more plans unfold, I will be adding posts with details regarding the Contiki Mini Rider Tour!

 

 

Contiki Holidays: afforable tours for young travelers

Image from www.tntmagazine.com
Image from http://www.tntmagazine.com

I’m sure most people prefer to make their own travel plans, selecting their own destinations, accommodations and traveling pace, but I’m not prepared for that yet. This will be my first time traveling abroad by myself, and I would prefer to do it as part of a group. I’m cognizant that I’d be able to meet people while staying in hostels or joining day-long activities, however, my preference is to spend an extended period of time with the same people to build relationships and, hopefully, lasting friendships.

CONTIKI HOLIDAYS

Hence, through my quest to find an inexpensive trip, I stumbled across Contiki Holidays, a company that provides tours for travelers ages 18 – 35. As a 20-year-old, I am part of the younger crew, but I was very pleased with the age range. It looks the tours are geared toward people who are agile and love adventure — which is definitely me!  Their tagline is:

TWENTY YEARS FROM NOW YOU WILL BE MORE DISAPPOINTED BY THE THINGS YOU DIDN’T DO THAN BY THE ONES YOU DID DO.

YOU ONLY HAVE ONE LIFE, ONE SHOT, SO MAKE IT COUNT #NOREGRETS

Cheesy, yes, but it’s still the kind of sentiment I’m seeking.

THEIR TOURS

I looked into the tours Contiki provides, and found they have a dynamic and reasonably priced selection. They have tours through North and South America, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and, of course, Europe. Most of the tours are multi-city and entail sightseeing during the day and free-time during the night. The tours range from two days to several months, and they come in different accommodation options:

Superior Easy Pace (hotels & relaxed pace)
Superior (hotels)
Budget (a mix of hostels, cabins & budget hotels)
Camping
There are also different methods of tours, including sailing, snorkeling and skiing. Contiki even plans trips based around events such as New Years and Oktoberfest.

Image from lukehimself.net
Image from lukehimself.net
Prices, of course, vary according to length, type and accommodation. Lengthy “superior” trips are way out of my budget, but fortunately Contiki compensates for expensive trips by offering the budget and camping tours. They’re fairly cheaper, and provide most breakfasts and dinners — though I cannot vouch for the food yet.

REVIEWS

The reviews of Contiki are mixed, but generally positive. The majority had fantastic descriptors. These are a few from the review page on Contiki’s site:

“I could not speak more highly of Contiki if I tried. It was an absolutely fantastic trip.”

“Incredible experiences, Booze, Friend for life”

“Party, Long-Lasting Friendships, Adventurous”

“You’ll be tired and you’ll want to sleep for days but it’s all part of the experience. YOU’RE IN EUROPE! This may or may not be a one in a lifetime opportunity, so make the most of it. Seriously, have NO regrets… do everything you want to do and I promise you’ll have an amazing time.”

My personal favorite:

“I have travelled a ton before, but never with a tour, so I must say Contiki is great for new travellers and experienced travellers! The great thing about Contiki is that everyone is young and wanting to experience the same things as you. Everyone has the love for travel and adventure!”

Of course, with every positive review there are the negative ones:

“You will spend a lot of time on the bus—about 40% of the trip…A lot of people spend their time on the bus sleeping off their hangover or socializing.” (thesavvybackpacker.com)

“I have heard from multiple sources that many of the tours quickly turn into drunken parties with lots of sex.”

“…tours on Contiki tend to be filled with parties, young people, and alcohol.” (nomadicmatt.com)

“I was not happy with the accommodation…The tour guide and bus driver were awesome, and they tried their best but the group dynamic was poor and awkward at best.”

Image from broke.travel
Image from broke.travel

Essentially, it sounds like Contiki tours will be drinking-heavy and action-packed, but I am definitely okay with that. Most of the negative reviews were written by people who said they preferred solo travel or were not fans of drinking –but they did have positive comments otherwise. I think Contiki Holidays will be able to suit my needs for my first time travelling to Europe alone, and I am looking forward to the adventures I am going to have.

I’m going to Europe!

1185602_10151896540593203_1457359941_n

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m young, and I’m broke. As a 20-year-old college student, though, what else would you expect?

But the thing is, I am dying to travel.

I studied abroad in Madrid, Spain last summer, through a program with my school, and the experience undoubtedly changed my life forever. Leaving the States for the first time, I was not prepared for the awakening the trip would spring upon me. The ensuing wanderlust when I returned has been so extraordinary that it is almost unbearable. Each night before I sleep, I browse through pictures of Santorini, Prague, Mahcu Picchu, Granada, Johannesburg, Nice, Zurich, Buenos Aires, Lagos, Dublin and every other beautiful city abroad. I have dreamed of returning the Europe since the day my plane touched down in at Newark Liberty International Airport.

So I started planning. I spent the rest of my summer working part time during the day and researching at night. I looked for every possible opportunity to return to Europe. I searched for other study abroad opportunities, teaching English abroad programs, volunteer trips and international conferences. Every single one though, cost thousands of dollars and was completely out of my budget.

I left for Spain with about $1,500 in my bank account after purchasing my $1,450 round trip plane ticket to Madrid. I returned with $100. I had to beg my parents for rent money, and the thoughts of buying new clothes, going to concerts or eating out for the rest for the summer were completely out of the question. Albeit, every penny I spent in Spain was completely and utterly worth it. I just did not know how I could ever afford to travel again while still a student.

By some strange, twisted stroke of luck, however, I received two part-time job offers at the start of the new semester. I already had one job, but the thought of increasing my weekly salary was enticing. I now work about 27 hours per week along with classes, but I would not change anything for the world. I happen to love all of my jobs and am using them all to boost my resume — the most significant benefit, though, is that now I can afford to travel again!

I found a trip through Contiki Holidays, a company planning trips for those aged 18 – 35, which is a 15-day camping trip this summer through four European countries: England, France, Italy and Spain. Sure, we will be hitting the most toursity destinations, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum, but those spots were on my bucket list anyway. Reasonably priced at $1,650 plus taxes, the trip was something I could afford. I have to pay for the flight to and from London, plus food and souvenirs once I get there, but if I start saving now, I should be fine.

And now my head is bursting with excitement, anxiety, and above all else, anticipation .Consequently, I created this blog for organizing my thoughts, plans and ideas for the trip.  I plan to post my research and discoveries on this site in hopes to help and inspire other young, broke travelers.

Stick with me kids, and you’ll go far.