Where do I start to plan a trip?

Many people have asked me when I started planning my weekend trips in Costa Rica. I started planning my weekend trips around 5 hours after I arrived to my host home. Luckily, my roommate had done her research and had hostel recommendations, and a clear plan. I definitely recommend researching before and compiling a list of what you want to do while in the country. However, even with the numerous hours she spent researching we did not accomplish all we wanted and some of the information was false.

Our tico tour advisor was immensely helpful in getting us deals and recommending hostels for the weekends. We would usually on Monday send Jason a list of what we wanted to accomplish for the following weekend and where we wanted to go. We would list the prices we had found and he would send back cheaper deals for possibly different places. He would also let us know from connections and other students if the ratings were true to the hostels.

For example this past weekend we knew we wanted to go to La Fortuna. We sent him a list with hot springs, waterfall, hiking trails, and the Arenal Volcano. We also sent him the duration we wanted to stay and the bus schedule we had found through online.

He replied reassuring us of the correct bus station and a hotel for one night that we requested that included everything we wanted except for the waterfall for 60 dollars. This was a great deal because hot springs are usually 40 on their own and the hiking trails range from 8-12 dollars. The waterfall was only a extra 8 dollar fee. This also included an all inclusive resort that fed us a buffet breakfast, had HD tv, wifi, ziplining, horse back riding, butterfly garden, alligators, 6 waterslides, 5 hot springs, wet bar, and 4 pools. The deal for 60 dollars was too sweet to pass.

These are the essentials you need to know to plan a trip:

Budget: How much am I willing to spend?

Packing: How much do I need to bring? (For example some places provide towels and shampoo)

Duration: How long do I want to stay there?

Transport: How am I getting there? (Refer to last blog post) How much is the bus and how long is the ride?

Food: Is any food included? (Many tourist areas are very expensive for food… don’t let the menu price trick you they add on an extra 13% and 10% fee after you make that purchase)

References: What have I heard about these places? Are these reliable sources?

*Always ask the tour expert with your university or program if there are any deals or student discounts! These are life savers and money savers!

Now that you have the main questions answered what do you do next?

Consult with your program representative and double check the transportation schedule the day before you leave. Many of the buses can change stations or times because low passenger quantity or bus strikes. Always double check the night before that you can get a bus. Arrive 30-45 minutes earlier than the departure time to ensure you have a seat (sometimes they over sell and you have to stand for hours), and in case there are any last second changes for the stations.

I also recommend if you are timely to get your bus ticket before the day of leaving. Our last trip we had to leave at 6:15 and they usually fill up buses 30 minutes before prior departure. We had to leave our house at 5 am to make it to the bus stop and get our tickets. This is why if you can afford the inconvenience to get the tickets earlier please heed my advice and do so.

Now that you have consulted with the expert and you have your ticket your almost ready to leave. The last step before leaving is packing (assuming you have already booked your hostel). Pack a small backpack or duffel bag for a weekend trip. You will recognize even on weekend trips its easy to over pack. Only take the essentials. You can put duffel bags under the bus so you will not have it in your way. Also if you have Spotify download songs before entering the long bus rides (found this out the hard way).

And with that your ready to embark on your journey!

Enjoy your weekends with these few steps you’ll be a pro weekend planner!

 

Transportation in Costa Rica

There are 5 main ways to travel in Costa Rica:

1. Bus

2. Taxi

3. Uber

4. Walk

5. Car (Possible to rent)

For long trips to the Pacific Coast or Caribbean I advise taking a bus. Our bus prices have been $4,500 (Manuel Antonio), $2,450 (La Fortuna), and $2,750 (Monte Verde) for the trips. You can also take the public bus to close by towns like Heredia or down town. The bus price for down town is $265 and $600 for Heredia.  (All prices in Colones (mil))

Most people take a taxi around town or to the mall. However, I suggest taking uber instead because it is cheaper and the drivers have to use WAZE which is an app I would suggest you download before coming to Costa Rica. Also download Uber with a card that is able to work out of the country. You may use a taxi but make sure that Maria is on. Maria is the meter that keeps the distance and price in check. Some taxi drivers will give you a flat rate and usually it is more than the actual rate.

Uber is frowned upon here by the locals because the Taxi drivers have been on strike from uber because people are flooding to use uber. Uber not only uses a gps and is cheaper but you can easily split the fee with another person and you can also get candy and usually a person who speaks some English. This is great for people coming that do not speak Spanish fluently.

For school, I often walk about three blocks. I have walked from the mall and have walked to downtown and it is possible but if you are not good with directions I would not recommend walking to a new place. There are some areas of town that you need to avoid and walking and getting lost is not the best situation. If you are wanting to live a healthier lifestyle while here than I definitely recommend walking every time you have the chance. The distances are fairly long but not difficult. Do take an umbrella or rain jacket with you if you decide to walk anywhere because the rain is unpredictable.

If you are having a long weekend and feel comfortable driving a stick shift I would recommend using a car rented instead of taking the bus. You can make it there with an hour or two to spare because of the various stops the bus makes on its way to the location. Having a car is also convenient if you are staying in a hostel away from town or other activities. The buses have broken down and they do not have A/C. A car can be very handy but also a lot of responsibility. They are around $5 dollars a day.

You should travel when you have the chance and weigh the pros and cons and prices of how you will reach your destination. I have used all of the above methods other than renting a car. However, a friend here has rented a car for ten days to travel the country with her boyfriend and she is nervous. She is from Denmark where they grow up knowing how to drive a stick shift so I highly advise if you are not comfortable driving a stick shift that you hold off on renting a car for safety.

If you have any questions about traveling with transportation in Costa Rica feel free to email me or comment below and I would be more than happier to help!

Small-Town Living

Unlike many exchange experiences, the location of my University is in a tiny town. I’m talking 10,000 people split between 5 villages tiny; median age of 60 (and I’m not sure I’m exaggerating). A few of my friends and I were discussing this the other day; that EBS university wasn’t properly explained or even advertised to us before we came, and that even google maps wasn’t much in terms of a warning. This blog post is about the huge disclaimer to that sentence.

It’s true, when you look at the maps, Frankfurt is about a 30 minute drive away, “right around the corner” by any America standard–but it’s not close. With a car, sure, it’s reachable, but this is from an American perspective (and from what I can tell, Australian and Canadian as well). Here, there are cars, but only the Germans and French have them, and even then, someone has to drive home, right? The actuality of the situation is that you take a train, which takes you an hour and seven minutes, to the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof (main train station), and from there you walk or take a bus to your destination. You’re probably thinking, “alright, not ideal but not a deal-breaker.” It’s true! Getting to Frankfurt or Wiesbaden or Mainz is never the issue, it’s about getting home. The last train arrives in oewi (Oestrich-Winkel) at 12:05 from all locations, the last bus leaves Wiesbaden at 2:40, and the last car is few and far between. Sure you can go out, but can you get home? For those who can’t wrap their head around the first train at 6 in the morning (yes clubs are open until then), the last bus is typically the answer, or staying in our lovely town. 

When you think about your dream exchange, you think about travel, you think about adventure, you think about new experiences; you DON’T think about a sleepy village, nuzzled in wine country next to the river Rhine. I’m here to tell you that you should. Big cities are big cities, and yes, they offer more night options, bright lights and bustling streets–but they don’t offer you the opportunity to understand the culture. Here in Oestrich-Winkel, where the curfew is 10pm and the groceries are a 5 minute walk (there are a lot of them), students are a captive audience. There are only a few places to gather, so gather we do. Human interaction becomes your greatest form of entertainment, and personally, I love it. For such a small town, there are NEVER a shortage of things to do, and most of the time, you have TOO MANY options.

So yes, when you get here, you won’t be overwhelmed with city lights, but when you leave, you’ll be overcome with memories, and stories, and friendships. This place becomes your home in a way that a big city never can. You’ll learn to love the lazy Sundays where shops are closer, but you’ll also learn that if you take the train to Wiesbaden, you have a 9 minute turn-around before the train comes back to buy whatever your arms can carry from McDonals and Rossmans. You’ll get the disapproving grandma scolds and stares when you’re crossing a street when the sign is red or being too rowdy past bedtime, but you’ll also learn that your actions impact others, and that social responsibility is something that goes both ways; you’ll learn to covet this and, surprisingly, begin to wonder why your neighbors think that playing music past 22:00 is at all acceptable. There are things about living in a small town that city dwellers never get to experience.

So yes, when you get here, you’ll wonder how you ever made the choice to come, but when you leave, you’ll wonder how you will ever bring yourself to go.

Hey Mom! What do I pack for Costa Rica?

Three must brings to Costa Rica:

  1. Umbrella and rain jacket
  2. Bug spray and sun screen
  3. Colones and American dollars

Now why do you need to bring these three things?

Well let’s start with the umbrella and rain jacket; if your coming during the summer at all this is the rainy season for Costa Rica. Although August to September has the most rain it still rains frequently and randomly during May-July. I would not worry about rain boots but instead wear old shoes or Chaco’s / flip flops that can handle the rain.

The bug spray and sun screen are an absolute must. With the amount of bugs that enjoy eating us we have to put bug spray on at least twice a day. The sun screen is mainly for the trips on weekends such a  Manuel Antonio.

Using your card abroad because expensive very fast. I suggest bringing 300 American dollars in colones which you can acquire from any major bank in Kentucky such as pnc or fifth third. If you choose to use your card while in the country make sure that you do not charge in dollars but in the country’s currency,this eliminates some fees for exchanging the currrency. If you decide to pull out money while in the country do so wisely. Do not go weekly to pull out small amounts because the fees for ATMs can be outrageous. Budget correctly and maintain self control and you should be able to pull out larger amounts and eliminate a majority of ATM fees.

 

My next post will be about planning trips and transportation in Costa Rica. Read on tomorrow to know more about the planning behind trips and the best uses of transportation.

Top 10 things to do while in Costa Rica

These ten things are in my opinion some of the best memories I have had in Costa Rica as I reflect on being half way done with my time abroad.

1. Get to know your tico family and roommates right away. Don’t waste time dilly dalling. Dive into the culture and begin to use the language, no matter how uncomfortable you are.

2. Visit Monte Verde; While in Monte Verde go to the Natural Cloud Forest. You will take pictures literally in the clouds! Below is an example from this past weekend.  IMG_9619

3. Also while in Monte Verde go Zip lining, ATV riding, Horse back riding, whatever your wallet will allow. You must do Zip lining. I recommend 110% Aventura, we got a deal for $40 bucks to do 9 zip lines, 2 superman’s, and the Tarzan swing (which is basically bungee jumping but sitting down). A terrifying experience for someone like me afraid of heights but totally worth the risk and I did live to tell you to do it. So you should try!

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4. Eat REAL Costa Rican food, many places are called Sodas and they provide regular average food, while the sabor tico is to know tico. This is the way to know the culture by eating the food.

5. Visit Manuel Antonio. There is a free public beach which is pretty awesome, but typical like most beaches. I recommend paying $16 bucks to go into the national park where there are private beaches that are beautiful. Almost as blue water as the Bahamas. In the park you will come across lizards, monkeys, sloths, raccoons, and occasionally if lucky like us maybe a snake or two. Make sure not to bring food into the park and keep an eye on your bag because the monkeys will steal your stuff.

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6. In Manuel Antonio you should stay in the hostel Vista Serena if traveling in a small group. Its about $15 a night and provides breakfast and a view so incredible. Below is a snip it of what you’ll see.

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7. In Manuel Antonio be prepared for over priced food that is taxed with service 10% and another 13% for preparation. I recommend you eat at El Avion. This sight of eating on a cliff and in a plane is pretty neat! There is also a restaurant a few blocks down called the wagon where you can sit in a train and eat. Both restaurants offer great food at an affordable price.

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8. If staying close to the airport or San Jose I recommend you visit the land of the strays which is a puppy park essentially. This park has over 900 puppies that are strays waiting to be adopted. If you are getting close to finals and need a stress reliever this is the place to go!

9. One of the most beautiful places we have been is La Fortuna. This scenery of the Arenal Volcano outside and huge waterfall maybe 10 minutes away is gorgeous. While in La Fortuna the tourists (aka us) usually enjoy the hot springs if not offered by your hostel or hotel there are some free ones to the public, however they can be crowded. I recommend you get there early if you go the free way. I also recommend staying at Mayol Lodge (another hostel) in La Fortuna. It is close in proximity to town, the waterfall, hot springs, and volcano.

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10. Lastly, have a good time. Balance the school work and free time and plan ahead for these trips. I hope if you are planning a trip abroad and especially to Costa Rica that you will check out these places and heed some advice. Best wishes to all those who are traveling soon or in the future!

Strong, Independent Woman…. and Abroad?

So I’m finally writing this after being back in my Kentucky home for almost a month. Why did I wait so long? Well how am I supposed to describe the most incredible experience of my life in a short blog? I don’t know either but here’s my best shot at it and I decided the best approach to take was studying abroad as a female, one who always travels alone.IMG_4894

If you knew me before I went to Europe, you would know that I often travel independently all across the nation with my marketing job but it’s not quite the same when you’re gallivanting around Europe and even Africa. So here’s a few tips and stories of my experience as a woman who is too stubborn to travel with anyone else.

  1. DO NOT EVER let anyone tell you to not travel alone because you’re a woman; you just have to take a few more extra precautions to stay safe.
  2. Check out the area of the hostel/Airbnb before you pay to stay there. Even though it’s closer to more attractions, it does not always mean it’s a safe neighborhood. I made that mistake when I traveled to Athens. According to my taxi driver, I was in an area overran with “prostitutes and drug addicts”; he even warned me to not walk alone at night because men would stab me with heroin and then steal all my stuff. Yeah, talk about a warm welcome to Greece. So learn from my experience because even though I didn’t die, I was terrified every time I left my apartment and would run from wherever I was so that I could get back before nightfall.
  3. Get used to guys catcalling you (in multiple different ways). You may think it’s bad in the US but it’s absolutely annoying overseas. Just ignore them and keep walking. They might be bothersome, but they’re harmless.
  4. No matter where you are, try to be back to wherever you’re staying before it gets dark. I don’t know why, but I swear all the real creeps hide during the day. If you do stay out late, just try your best to stay on well-lit streets, even if that dark alley way will cut 15 minutes off of your travel time. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
  5. When you’re walking around, act like you know what you’re doing even if you’re completely lost. I promise they will smell your fear and confusion. But as I say that, know it’s always okay to ask for help. For me though, I always ask someone who I feel like can’t easily overpower me (but I’m probably just paranoid).
  6. Watch for pickpocketers– they’re smarter than you think. For most of them, this is their only job and they are very good at it. Keep your eyes peeled 24/7, especially since you’ll most likely be carrying a purse. Children are a concern too, and I speak from experience. While I was in Rome, I caught a 9-year-old girl with her hand down my purse and I even had my hand on the front of my purse. They’re incredibly sneaky. Also watch for planned schemes because they have tons of them. They’ll have kids or a “family” asking for directions and while you’re distracted another person will be pick pocketing you. Also watch for fights in large areas. They’re usually staged to get you focused on something else. Be super careful!! Because you may think that’ll never happen to you but it could; I even got mugged in Venice (which by the way is not even worth the trip, I hated that city, it was disgusting).
  7. Please oh please do not dress like an American tourist. Try to blend in because if not, then you are a bullseye for anyone who wants to rob you.
  8. IF you do go to Africa be EXTRA careful. I went to Morocco and the culture is very different. You are not seen as a human, you are seen as an item and you are especially vulnerable if you do not have a man with you. Do not show any part of your skin. Everywhere you go, keep your head down and do not make eye contact with any male. Do not smile at them, they take that as an invitation to come and talk to you. I even wore a hijab to try and fit in to keep attention off of me. I always came to my hostel at dark, always. If you want to be extra careful, wear a ring to make it seem like you’re married. The men there are very abrasive, so just be careful. I was proposed to five times and I even had a guy ask me how many camels it would take for him to marry me. Just be polite and walk away. Also, always bargain– the price they give you is way above what they’ll take, even bargain with the taxi drivers.
  9. Do not let a man buy you a drink. Yes it may be a custom in the US, but overseas if a man buys you a drink, they expect something in return. To just avoid all confusion, buy your own drinks.
  10. Just relax and enjoy the experience you’re creating. I loved traveling alone and overall I felt pretty safe. Don’t fret; statistically speaking you’re more likely to get assaulted in the US than you are in Europe. Just be smart.

Honestly, I could go on and on about my experience abroad but I’ll keep it short. Just don’t take even a second for granted. Barcelona has my heart and I definitely plan on returning. Hopefully you’ll find a city that you love just as much. Just remember safety so that you make it back in one piece and to not be afraid to go on adventures because that’s what you’re going to cherish in the long run.

Den Haag – Spring Semester

When you come to the Netherlands during the Spring there are two must do activities everyone must do.

1) Kings Day. This is a national holiday on April 27 to celebrate the kings birthday. Everyone is out at festivals wearing orange and celebrating Dutch culture. This something you don’t want to miss.

2) Keukenhof. When people think of the Netherlands most people think of tulip fields. Well Keukenhof is the ultimate spring garden experience. You can spend all day here and never want to leave. I suggest to bring a picnic and find a nice sunny spot and enjoy the flowers and nature around you. It truly is one of the most beautiful and peaceful places I have seen. If you are in the Netherlands or anywhere in Europe for that matter, make sure to visit. You will not regret it.

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Home Sweet…What Now??

I am writing this blog post in the comfort of my own home in Louisville, Kentucky after returning from Barcelona a little over a week ago. I have had time to reflect on my semester abroad and all I can say is “what now?”. I was “go go go” for four months straight and now I am unemployed and living at home! That’s reverse culture shock for ya! BUT, as a I think back to the 20 plane rides, 30 trips, too many nights out and the constant feeling of not knowing what’s next, I can’t help but be thankful to be home. I look forward to returning to the University of Louisville for my senior year, as a cultured, more independent woman and I have the amazing Study Abroad Program to thank for that.

Since I have had so much time to reflect on my semester abroad in the past week, I have compiled a list of “lessons,” that will be helpful to me in my future travels and everyday life, as well as, to all the readers out there.

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1. Enjoy the Little Things: I say this because, when spending your weekends traveling Europe, you think that you must visit every museum, landmark and cathedral in just 3 days. But, I have to tell you, that is impossible and extremely draining. My advice is to allow yourself to enjoy a long lunch or sit in a park and people watch if you want to; the museum will probably be like the one you saw in Paris last week and the cathedral will never live up to La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (; By taking time to enjoy the little things, you will create better relationships with your travel partners, get a better grasp of the culture of that country and probably save some money along the way.

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2. Walk Everywhere: This is the best way to acquaint yourself with the city and the most healthy option if you are like me and ate a croissant everyday. Comfy shoes will be your #1 travel companion with the app, Citymapper, or just maps on your iPhone taking close second. I walked up to 13 miles a day on every weekend trip and close to 6 miles on a daily basis in Barcelona. It sounds exhausting but you will miss the option once you return to the states where everything is spread out.

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3.  Don’t Just Visit the Biggest Cities: One of my regrets was not traveling to enough small, quant places. I didn’t realize this “mistake” until I came home and was asked “what was your favorite place you traveled?” My answers all had a reoccurring theme; they are all small cities, unaffected my massive amounts of tourism. The list includes Interlaken, Switzerland, San Sebastian, Spain and Lagos, Portugal. I love these trips because I allowed myself to absorb the beauty and simplicity of the cities as well as take advantage of the nature that surrounded me. Also, go skiing in the Swiss Alps. Just do it.

4. Money is a Factor But Not an Ultimatum: In my first couple weeks abroad I was extremely stressed out about money. I wasn’t used to spending so much everyday, plus I was planning all my weekend trips and my bank account was quickly dwindling. With that IMG_4974being said, my mom gave me the best advice and I will relay that to you. Now is the time  to spend your money. You have the rest of your life to make up for any money lost while you were abroad. Not to mention, it is only four months of increased spending. You and your bank account will recover. So if you can’t decide if you should treat yourself to the infamous steak in San Sebastian, spend the extra 10 euro to go to the top of the Eiffel tower or go to an over priced Barca game, JUST DO IT. Those memories are worth a thousand more euros and you may not get the chance to do it again.

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5. Be Thankful: Not many people get to say they spent a whole semester abroad. Throughout my time in Barcelona I had to remind myself of how rare of an opportunity this is and that missing a flight, bad weather or being crammed onto a metro is nothing to complain about. I became much more laid back because in the grand scheme of things, I was abroad and nothing could ruin that for me. So all in all, go abroad with an open mind. Embrace the culture, embrace your roommates, embrace the course load because you are abroad and you are lucky.

I have many more lessons but I will end it there. While I have a mixture of feelings about being home, these important lessons remain constant and will be with me for life. My “home sweet home” in Kentucky is now shared with my home in Barcelona and I am looking forward to finding out what my “what now” has in store for me.

Flocking together in Costa Rica

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Costa Rica

One of the things they tell you not to do is get comfortable with the other international students because that is your first thing to cling to. Other people who know English. Other people from the united states or your own state. This is VERY GOOD advice. I have only been abroad for 4 days and I find everyone I am hanging out with are Americans. I am in Costa Rica to study Spanish and although having those friends to hangout with and explore areas like the supermercado (super market) and centro (downtown) is awesome, having ticos (natives) to talk with and help show you where to go is even better. I would recommend you listen to the advice that the faculty give you about the trend to be with other Americans. Luckily, I have a service program with all natives and that will stretch me and challenge me to use Spanish more, I would advise that you in your first week get a tico friend or national that you build a relationship with.

Don’t be stuck flocking together with other birds like you in another country. We study abroad not only for the cool sites and getting away from American culture, but for the differences. Embrace the differences. For example here we are on tico time. Meaning everything takes up to an extra hour. Rushing is not a thing in Costa Rica. For someone who rushes and is busy often embracing tico time has been sort of awesome! I would suggest you embrace the culture you live in. Don’t try to fight it, but embrace it.

Not only do you flock with those similar to you, but you flock with those who you are comfortable around. Even if you begin to build relationships with locals, I would challenge you to go another step beyond that. Continue to push yourself out of the comfort bubble. For example, I am not a dancer, nor have I ever taken a dance class, however I am taking a dance class with ticos and international students on Thursdays while in costa rica to learn the salsa and other ballroom dances. This is something completely out of my comfort zone. I would challenge others to do the same whether it be yoga, cooking, dance classes, riding a bus, etc. Continue to push yourself.

Lastly, I would share with those traveling abroad and living with host families to get to know their family. My tico mama is dona Rosa. She is 76 and she has one sibling and many children and grandchildren. Your families will not only help you to learn a language and culture but they can become helpful for directions, and many other things. Have dinner or breakfast with your family. Share a meal daily and maybe watch a show together once a week. This will help you not to flock to Netflix, books, facetime, etc.

Together lets flock in all kinds of directions.

Money, money, money…

The best advice I received before leaving for my study abroad came from my mother, of course. She had told me to travel as much as possible and don’t worry about the money because you have your whole life to make money. I am a very frugal person… yet a very adventurous and travel hungry person so this advice may have been very hard to swallow from my standpoint.

Oh how I wish I would have listened to her in the beginning… now I am wanting to go so many places but I do not have as much time to do it, my time here is coming to an end and there are so many places untouched. I want to make it to Portugal, Sweden, Israel, Morocco, Poland, Greece, Ireland, and London. Well I had many chances to go to most of these places but I was too frugal wanting to save up my money for another adventure. My adventures have been my favorite time here! Skyscanner is now my best friend and the price of American flights are now even more astonishing and quite frankly ridiculous, why does it cost so much to fly within our own country?

I have however made it to France! That is a huge step in itself (achieving study abroad and making it here at all.) While in France I have traveled to Arcachon (holding the biggest sand dune in Europe), Bordeaux (where I live <3), Saint-Emilion (Wine, wine, wine), Toulouse (home of cassoulet), Bayonne (DA BEACH), Paris (you should know this one), Nice (beautiful beaches, tons of brand names), Aix-en-Provence (famous for parfume), Monte Carlo (Monaco), Bergamo (home of stracciatella), and Milano (Italia)!!

All in all this semester has been a success and Italy is my favorite place so far, if you ever get a chance, GO TO ITALY!! Before leaving I will get to go to Germany, Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Spain. I am definitely not disappointed but I am convinced that the best way to come to Europe is on a backpacking trip just taking trains everywhere ! That is the best way to get the best prices and the best experiences!

Have fun, don’t be afraid to spend money because experiences are priceless! Listen to the wise words of your mother, or in this case my mother. 2016-03-26 11.48.50