Thanks to budget airlines, travelling to the continent from St Andrews has never been easier – or cheaper. If this is your first opportunity to travel to Europe then it could be overwhelming to pinpoint exactly where to visit on the mainland. As someone who both adores travel but likes to spend as little time in airports as possible, I’ve found the best way to maximize a trip to Europe is to use a singular city as a hub – whether it be taking day trips from this city or staying for a few days and moving on to another – and travelling out from there via rail travel. This series will look at using this travel method across Europe, but will begin with Central Europe.
I like basing myself in a singular city for many reasons. The first is that it means once I
check in to a hotel, I can settle there. Knowing once I arrive in my room I won’t have to repack until I leave for home makes the whole experience a lot more enjoyable for me. Secondly, I always try to book a hotel or apartment with a kitchen so that I can save money on the trip and cook lunches and dinners from there. It means that even if you cross a border to visit a more expensive city, you can treat yourself to one meal there and know that you can make dinner once you get back to your room. I also have found that the longer a stay with a hotel, the cheaper the price for it per night tends to be. As students, we’re all looking for ways to stretch our budgets as far as possible, and this in conjunction with saving on flights helps with budgeting.
In terms of rail links and geography, Brussels is the perfect hub for a Central European trip.You can affordably access France, The Netherlands, Germany and other parts of Belgium all in under two hours and can curate a trip itinerary based on art and architecture, partying, shopping, sport or history. If you’re looking to travel on a budget, you can fly round-trip to Brussels from Edinburgh throughout January for as little as £20 and stay in hotels from £40 per night. In terms of costs once there, I would compare Brussels as slightly cheaper than St Andrews in terms of food, drink and public transport. The city has plenty of free sights to see such as the Palais de Justice and the Grande Place and at this time of year you will be spoiled for Christmas markets, decorations and stalls dotted around the city.
Within Belgium you can travel to Ghent and Antwerp in under 45 minutes from Brussels for under £10. Ghent’s architecture is centuries older than that of Antwerp and Brussels and offers a more quaint perspective of the country than the other more metropolitan cities. A small medieval town built on a port, the university town is a window into Old Europe and is rich in history, art and cuisine. Antwerp is arguably the most artistically rich city in Belgium, from its churches and cathedrals to museums and notable buildings. There’s also a great bar and restaurant scene, as well as a football stadium for those interested in sports.
Travelling West from Brussels, you can be in Paris in around an hour and a half from around £25. Although this is a little steeper than the other train routes listed in this article, considering money saved in hotels in Brussels as well as the difference in flight prices this will most likely save you some money. If that doesn’t appeal to you, another option is to begin your trip in Brussels, take the train to Paris and then fly home from there. As one of the staple European cities to visit, Paris really does have an air of magic about it around Christmas time. It is more expensive than St Andrews for food and drinks, but many of its tourist attractions are free to students or those from the European Union under the age of 25. If you don’t want to travel as far into France as Paris, the city of Lille is 45 minutes from Brussels and sits on the border between France and Belgium and is perfect for a less expensive day trip.
Trains to the three largest cities in The Netherlands (Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam) all depart from Brussels several times a day and take at most two hours to reach their destination. For those looking for a taste of Amsterdam, visiting for the day is perfect and costs around £16 each way and the train station (Amsterdam Centraal) is just minutes away from the busiest parts of the city. As one of the most expensive cities in Europe for accommodation, food and drink I really cannot recommend travelling through in the morning and taking the last train back to Brussels enough. You can rent a bike for the day or walk around easily on foot, dipping in and out of coffee shops and museums.
This is only a small selection of the cities you can visit from Brussels for the day, but those that, from my experiences, I think are most appealing to the average student traveller. Basing yourself in a city allows you to break up your time spent there and ensures you won’t get bored with it. However, with a hub with transport links as strong as Brussels, if you feel you’ve seen all you want to, you can travel an hour in any direction and be in a new town, city or even country.
The author, Caitlin Russell, writes a blog discussing student travel tips. If you wold like to learn more, here website can be found here.