How to spend time in London without spending all your money

IMG_5962Early in June, Pav and I decided to go to London for our high school reunion. And since London can be fairly expensive, we wanted to be as smart about spending it (and to still be able to shop).

Considering our trip was planned fairly last minute, we managed to get great deal on both flight and hotel. So, how did we do it all?

The flight

Here, we decided to look for the best deal that was available. Two weeks before the trip, this meant Ryan Air. For the same price we could have ticket with other airlines, we had two with Ryan Air. Their flight times were convenient for our itinerary. The downside was their baggage policy (as is with most low cost carriers), so we each had to pack into a carry-on. Which, for us, is a challenge. But we managed! And after a fairly uneventful flight, we arrived and London Stansted airport. (Ror a full Ryanair review, click here)

Public Transportation

Having never been to Stansted, we had to figure out beforehand, how we’d get to London. We decided National Express buses were the best way to go (even though there are a bunch of other options). The bus was comfortable, had Wi-Fi and the journey would have been a pleasant, if there hadn’t been an accident on the highway, causing us to spend two hours in stand-still traffic. Finally, we got off at Liverpool Street station and quickly navigated the tube and bus system to get ourselves to the hotel.

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The Hotel

Since we were, trying to stay on budget, we decided to stay in EasyHotel Old Street. You get what you pay for – good location, easy public transportation access and decent sized room are offset by the loudness and lack of space. But, let’s face it, if you’re in London for two and a half days, you really won’t be spending that much time at the hotel anyway.

The Activities

Our first trip was to Oxford Street, with its Marks&Spencer cafe and their jacket potato we just can’t get enough of. As an added benefit, we had lunch under £5.

Since we were already on Oxford Street, we ducked into our favorite stores – New Look, Forever 21, M&S, and then landed in Boots and Superdrugs to buy some makeup, that we recently learned we needed. We peeked into Primark, but the crowds looked too menacing for us to venture inside… thinking “maybe tomorrow”, we backed out as soon as we hit the entrance.

TIP from Alena – if you want to shop on Oxford Street, go in the morning on a weekday, you’ll avoid most of the crowds and save a lot of time by not having to constantly wait in line.

And while we were at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street, we couldn’t resist and went to see the newest statue, the She Guardian. If its purpose is to frighten people, it definitely succeeds. In real life, it’s even bigger than it seems on pictures and makes even less sense. The tube ride wrapped the day up in a fairly uneventful day and we were excited to get back to the hotel. You might think that that’s a bring way for two girls in their twenties to spend a Friday night in London, but it was just what we needed. And we always knew that there were a few charming looking pubs within a few blocks if we suddenly changed our decision.

On Saturday, we got up bright and early (as far as we could tell in our windowless room) and headed out with no specific destination in mind. After a stop in Starbucks to fulfill our coffee quota for the morning, we knew what we wanted to do – go to Kings Cross and take a picture at platform 9 3/4.

We got there surprisingly quickly and found the famous Harry Potter spot – along with a line of about 50 people waiting to take a picture. You can stand at a cart that is partly “inside” the wall and you even get a Gryffindor scarf to put around your neck. Or, you can be like us and sneak in a picture while people in the official line are switching places. Security is not fond of this though, so we soon got shooed. (Pav’s phone decided to not work, so I had to do the sneaking)

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Our next stop was Buckingham Palace and changing of the guards – or so we thought. After I admitted to Pav, that I STILL haven’t seen changing of the guards, we decided it would be a necessary stop – the timing was perfect, we had time, so why not. Only after deciding against it and turning to leave, we noticed the TV cameras. So we doubled back and caught a decent place in front of the palace. And then we found out that it was not changing of the guards, but dress rehearsal for Trooping of the Colour parade. It was definitely worth it – and we even saw Prince Charles. We got lucky – not only were we standing near the front and had a good view, the police officer that was stationed near us was providing a group of tourists with very detailed information about the event, so we even learned something.

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From here, we took a walk through St. James’ park towards Westminster Abbey and Big Ben and took the mandatory selfie there. Even though it was colder than expected, it was a bright and sunny day and those are always great in London.IMG_5969

Our last “touristy” stop was St. Paul’s Cathedral and with sunset lighting, it was breathtaking. We spent Saturday night at our high school reunion and flew out via Ryan Air and Stansted Airport at 6am on Saturday, which required a 2:30 am wakeup.

IMG_5461  Overall, we didn’t spend a lot of money, and if we hadn’t shopped as much as we did, the whole weekend would’ve been a bargain. So London is definitely possible on a budget, you just have to know where to look and not insist on amazing locations for your hotel.


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How we flew with Ryan Air

Festival survival tips


How we flew with Ryan Air

Our trip to London with Ryan Air was quite entertaining. True, we probably found it more interesting because of the coffee/sugar high, but even now, looking back, I laugh at the thought of the Ryan Air employee and their wonderful safety cards. We’ve done low cost airlines before, but this was our first trip with RyanAir. And we were not disappointed.

The journey started normally enough, we went through passport control and security checks to our gate, where we waited. After quite some time, two buses arrived and took us to the airplane. Like I said, everything was normal. Once I got used to the fact that there is no seat pocket in front of me, things were good. They actually started looking up when we had the three seats all to ourselves.

The first sign that things were, let’s say, a little different was the grin on the flight attendant’s face as he tried not to crack up during the safety briefing. I understand that after doing the briefing so many times, the seriousness of it might not be so clear. And I know that I shouldn’t judge since I haven’t actually paid attention to this procedure in years, but is it appropriate to laugh while showing where the emergency exits are? Probably not, but like I said, who am I to judge?

When everyone finally buckled their seat belts and cross check was completed, we took off.
Only once we were in the air did we notice the one of a kind safety card on the seat in front of us. Since pictures are worth a thousand words, here are the pictures we took of the card:

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Since this was a low-fare trip, you had to buy the food. When you buy cheap tickets and it’s a short flight, you usually don’t get food. But what struck us as a little strange was that they went around twice. First the flight attendant asked if we want food and the second time he asked if we want “fresh food”. Suddenly, we had serious doubts about they food they offered from the first cart.

Overall the journey was quite enjoyable. The service was pretty good and once the caffeine dissipated a little, we even stopped thinking everything around us was so strange. It was a smooth ride across the board and if you’re looking for cheap tickets to London, Ryan Air is definitely a great option.

If you want to know how the rest of our trip went, come back later this week!


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9 tips for train travel in the summer

Festival survival tips


How to Become an International Student at a College in the United States of ‘Murica in 15 STEPS!

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Step 1: Researching Colleges – Though this is something all students have to do, it is even more difficult if you live in another country. This struggle comes in different degrees. The first degree is faced when you go to an international high school. In this case, there is some connection between the counselors and the colleges, which allows for much easier research. The struggle of the second degree is faced when you go to a local, public school in your country. In this case there are usually limited, if any, connections to colleges in ‘Murica. This means that you are left alone to survive through the entire research process. Living far away from the ‘Murican colleges also means that in most cases it is extremely expensive to visit the college. This way you cannot base your selection on personal experience, but rather on the experiences of others. Start preparing early and make use of the college search engines.

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Step 2: TOEFLS and SAT –In order to become an international student at a ‘Murican College, one must take a series of standardized tests. Not only does this include the SATs, which all applicants have to take, but it also the TOEFLS, which test your English skills. There are no, I repeat, NO exceptions, even if you have been speaking fluent English since you were two years old. Be prepared to learn many words that you will never see or use again.

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Step 3: Acceptance dance and partying (and popping champagne) – Once you have finally applied, you can get accepted. Acceptance to a foreign school (and especially to your first choice) is usually followed by a lot of bouncing, jumping, giddiness and yes, even dancing and partying. Some people go for the champagne (which is legal in most countries) and some people prefer to calmly share the news with their friends and family and sometimes (most of the time) post their success of facebook. Decide what fits you best and go wild!

pic4Step 4: “Picture Yourself” and other perks – Refer to point 2. Not being able to go to any of the events before arriving on campus is a little disappointing You cannot simply attend a “picture yourself” weekend. Also, you don’t get anything in physical form. Since shipping is pricy, many foreign students do not get to enjoy things like the Emerson Beanie or the Boston Strong t-shirts. Some of the letters/forms (yes even the acceptance letters) aren’t physically sent, because it is cheaper to do it digitally. Though we do receive some of these after arriving on campus, it would be nice to have something from your college before starting the school year. The sooner you come to terms with this truth the better.

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Step 5: Receiving I-20The I-20 form is the first physical thing we, as the international students, get. It is what we need to get our student visas to be able to actually go to the college. Along with this we receive the packet for internationals, where they outline the customs and possible differences between the foreign culture and the US culture. Though some of them seem kind of ridiculous, like “when someone asks you, ‘how are you’, they do not expect an actual answer or your life story”, some of the reading is actually helpful.

Tip: Guard your I-20 with your life! That piece of paper is very important!

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Step 6: Visa forms and procedures – Once you have received your (precious) I-20, you have to fill out all the necessary forms to apply for your F-1 visa, starting with the long, long, long questionnaire that every applicant has to fill out. There you have to write all the dates of entries and exits into the USA and all the different types of visas you have held in the past. You will also be required to answer if you plan to fund a terrorist organization, or bring drugs into the US. Yes, we don’t understand the point of these questions either.

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Step 7: Figuring out how to actually get to the college – Trying to figure out the simplest, cheapest and fastest way to actually physically get to your college can be quite challenging as well. You have many different options. Do you fly with Air France, even though they lost your luggage last time? Or is Swiss Air better, even though it doesn’t quite match your ideal schedule? If you fly with Lufthansa you will have a layover in an airport you have never been to! These, as well as countless other questions cloud your mind as you browse through the available flights. Make sure to book your tickets as soon as possible!

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Step 8: Packing and trying to fit the limit – Airlines have a limit to how much luggage you can have and how much each can weigh. For the economy class it is usually one luggage per person and each luggage 23kg (50lb). This is an issue. How do you pack everything you will need for the next year? How do you pack your entire life into ONE or two suitcases?? Simply impossible… You have to get creative; fill every nook and cranny in the suitcase, while also managing to stay within the weight limit. I guess it’s bye-bye to your diary from elementary school.

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Step 9: The actual trip to the college – Now that you managed to pack up everything, you have to get it across the seas and mountains. You arrive at the airport with one large suitcase, one carry-on and a backpack, hoping that somehow you will get through the TSA check points without anyone noticing you have too many and too heavy carry-ons. At the security points you have to take out the laptop, the liquids, the iPads, potentially jewelry, take off your shoes and jacket and then manage to quickly put everything back on (because you are kind of holding up the line) and get to the gate on time. How will you ever manage an hour-long layover in Charles de Gaul airport in Paris? No one really knows!

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Step 10: Meeting all the other internationals – Since you didn’t get to meet anyone from your college over the summer now is your chance to share stories with people like you and bond over your lack of understanding of the strange habits of this foreign land. Though at the beginning it may be a little awkward, soon enough you make friends for a lifetime. Though throughout the first couple of days most sentences you say begin with “in MY culture…”, soon enough you will find other topics to talk about.

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Step 11: Visa meetings and restrictions– Youhave had some fun, now you have to focus on some serious things, like the visas. It’s time to get your I-94, which proves that you entered the country with the right type of visa, and turn it in to the office of international affairs. You then listen to all the lectures on what you can and cannot do, which takes me to my next point: Restrictions! Not only do you have to fill out lots and lots of paperwork, but you also can’t have an internship unless you go through EVEN MORE paperwork and even when you do, you are limited to 12 months during your studies, which is next to nothing, especially compared to those who can get unlimited amount. This internship has to be related to your major in one way or another. Also, you can’t work off campus, why? Just cause….no reason given. I guess they found out that you came to the US specifically to steal the jobs of its people! Oh, and if you do get a job on campus, guess what? MORE PAPERWORK! Our advice: take a deep breath and move on to step 12.

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Step 12: Breakdown because of restrictions – Does this really need an explanation? Whether you like it or not, the stress of your visa status will catch up with you. To feel better, rant to and cry with other internationals that understand you. DO NOT turn to ‘Muricans. They will never get it.

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Step 13: Meeting the domestic students (the ‘Muricans, as they often call themselves) – For many of us this means meeting our roommate and potentially the rest of our suite. This can be awkward. You are already accustomed to the flow of the college, whereas the domestic freshmen just came and have a lot to get used to. You have to establish old friendships, while also starting new ones. This balance can be hard to accomplish, but sooner or later you will get the hang of it.

 

pic14Step 14: Coping with not understanding all the cultural references – You don’t want to look uncultured, but you can’t follow along, Lizzie McGuire simply didn’t make it to your home when you were a child. So how are you supposed to join in the conversation when it turns to these cultural references? This can sometimes make things difficult and might even make you homesick. You start missing your own childhood movies and TV shows and you realize that there isn’t anyone you can share these references with. Look for a resident of a country close to your own with which you might share these memories.

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Step 15: Learning how not to get offended by stupid questions –Is that next to Yugoslavia? Do you take camels to school? Some people might ask stupid questions which at first will annoy you and even offend you. You might think to yourself “how come they don’t know about my country? How come they don’t even know where it is?” However, later in the semester you will learn to ignore these questions and even jokes like “Czech it out!”. You still won’t think they are funny, but you have decided it’s not worth it getting mad over such small things.

CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE FOLLOWED A LONG AND HARD WAY BUT YOU ARE NOW OFFICIALLY AN INTERNATIONAL STUDENT AT AN ‘MURICAN

Co-written by Cornelia Tzana and Pavlina Vecerova

Drawings by Cornelia Tzanapic16

 


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9 tips for train travel in the summer

Festival survival tips


Festival survival tips

Festivals are cool. Who doesn’t love seeing three days’ worth of music for the price of less than one concert? This year, I felt like I might be a bit too old for a three day festival that opens up the season in the Czech Republic (and is mostly attended by teenagers), but Pav convinced me. And I didn’t regret it.

Pav and I started going last year. So, if you’re not fifteen and no longer think the lack of plumbing romantic, and you want to survive these things with a little sanity, follow our tips.

  1. If you’re staying in a tent, pay extra for the VIP area. Its cleaner (no trash waiting for you as you crawl out of your tent in the morning) and chances of survival are much higher – less people means smaller chance of your skull being bashed in by a random passerby who loses his balance and falls on your tent.
  2. Be nice to your tent neighbors. You don’t want to come back at 3am to find your tent in a pile on the grass. Offer them a shot right off the bat to cultivate good relationships. When the time comes for one of them to throw up, they will be more inclined to lean the other way.
  3. Whether you’re sleeping there or not – antibacterial gel. Toilets, grass, railings…who knows what you’re going to touch. And let’s face it – best festival food is eaten by hand. This leads me to…
  4. Don’t forget to eat. It might be fried and it’s definitely far from your normal healthy food lifestyle, but let’s face it – if you’re drinking there, you want to eat.
  5. Water, water, water….do I really need to elaborate?
  6. Go to bands you don’t know or aren’t really interested in. Worst case scenario, you’ll walk away. You might also find new music you like OR you might catch the interprets attention since you will causally be standing there fairly indifferent to what’s going on onstage which will make him try to catch your attention (true story).
  7. Have fun. Dance. Because when else can you let go than in an open field in the middle of the summer with some of your favorite bands playing?
  8. Packing list: antibacterial gel, hairbrush, water, warm socks and enough hair ties. What duct tape is to some, hair ties are to others. I recommend bringing a bunch. And tissues, there can never be enough tissues. Don’t forget to check out the weather forecast to see if you need a bikini top or rain boots. Or both :)

So, send this article to your friends and check out what festivals are coming up. You might even have unexpected fun :)


READ MORE: 

9 tips for train travel in the summer

How to become na International student at a college in the United States of ‘Murica in 15 steps


9 Tips for Train Travel in the Summer

 

train 1Everyone loves travelling by train. It’s easy, cheap and you don’t need a designated driver. Here are a couple of tips to make your travels even better, whether you travel alone or with your friends.

  1. DRINKS! – Always have enough drinks with you! You never know when the train will stop in the middle of nowhere, s o you have to hydrate the whole time.
  1. Entertainment – Whether your side is short or several hours long, make sure you bring magazines, a book or anything else that will make your journey more fun and distract you from the blistering heat.
  1. Get a seat! – Some train companies charge extra for a designated seat. Pay the extra money! Its more relaxing and at least you won’t have to keep moving out of people’s way when they walk down the aisle. Standing for the duration of a five hour journey isn’t fun either.
  1. Book early – If you will buy a seat, book early! Especially when travelling in groups, you don’t want to get separated.
  1. Try to sit far from families with little kids – The kids WILL have energy and WILL make it obvious to the whole train, so if you can, stay away from them and their inevitable sticky fingers.
  1. Noise Canceling Headphones – If you fear the families, bring noise canceling headphones. They won’t change the sticky fingers, but your music will drone out their high-pitched screams.
  1. Plan well, but be flexible – Know what time you will arrive, but know that thatrain3t could easily change. So be flexible with your plans and try not to get too frustrated when they change.
  1. Sit in the right direction – If you get motion sickness, don’t ravel backwards. If your bought seat is in the wrong direction, ask someone to change, it will save you a very uncomfortable ride.
  1. Air conditioning – Seems obvious, but pick a train company that has the AC.

Do you travel by train a lot? Do you use any of these tricks or are you planning to try them out? Let us know in the comments!


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Festival survival tips

How to become na International student at a college in the United States of ‘Murica in 15 steps