The small crowd dimmed their applause as the next comedian stepped onto the stage. For the fourth time that evening, the first words out of this new comic’s mouth was “How are we doing tonight?”
Fine. We were fine. He followed up the resounding silence with “Anyone from out of town?” The four of us uneasily raised our hands.
“Where are you from?”
“Michigan,” I said, speaking for the group of us.
“Duh, should have read the sweatshirt,” the comedian said, pointing at my shirt, sporting my university logo. “Why are you here?”
“Then why are you here?”
We had been asked that question so many times since we decided to take a road-trip five hours east to Toronto. Most of our peers were headed south for the week to escape the winter weather, but it seemed like we had just driven the wrong way. My best friends and I weren’t confused – we were being frugal. For the price of one plane ticket to Miami, we had an amazing five-day vacation. Here’s my tips for broke college kids filled with wanderlust!
1. Safety first! Keep a loved one up to date with your general day-to-day plans and where you’ll be staying. Check in at the end of every day. If travelling internationally, check in with the State Department so they know you’re in the country in case of emergency.
2. Go during off-seasons: Our hotel was actually a rental condominium, which meant it came with a fully furnished condo, with all the perks of a hotel, in a high-rise. We got an amazing view of the city, free coffee in the morning, and free parking– all for $106 a night. We can attribute this to the fact that very few people are brave enough to venture up to Canada in February. Wherever you want to go– be it the Florida Keys, Seattle, or New York– go during the off-season to save a Tremendous amount of money, but still live it up in Insta-worthy style.
3. Don’t eat every meal out: Before we left, we took a massive grocery shopping trip to buy road-trip snacks and breakfast and luggage. We agreed that we wouldn’t eat breakfast out in the mornings. This saved us time to do more things in the city and saved us money! We also carried snacks with us while we walked around during the day so we wouldn’t be tempted to stop in every ice cream shop we saw (although we did that a lot).
4. Make a shopping list: If you’re anything like me, souvenir shopping is half the fun. Before you’re tempted to buy that shot glass you won’t really need, make a list of the souvenirs you actually want to buy. Limited yourself makes shopping more like a scavenger hunt than a shopping spree. Another pro tip: leave the downtown area of any city to buy souvenirs. Typically, souvenir prices will be reduced by half if you venture out to other neighbourhoods. For Toronto, we visited Chinatown for souvenir shopping.
5. Plan, plan, plan! I love to plan trips and research places to go. You don’t need to have your trip planned down to the second, but do get a general itinerary for what you want to accomplish each day. In big cities like Toronto, it’s easiest to plan your day by neighbourhoods. Find one or two sites you definitely want to see within that area and make an afternoon of exploring that area!
6. Don’t plan everything: It seems counter-intuitive, I know. We found on our trip that some of the best times we had weren’t from scheduled events, but from last minute changes to my beloved itinerary. We ended up spending our last night in that sketchy basement comedy club rather than doing another night of bar hopping.
7. Say no to the zoo: It can be tempting to go to an aquarium, zoo, or extreme attraction, but your vacation is meant to be adventure. My rule of thumb for travelling is if you can do it within fifty miles of where you live, skip it. Find the unique things of a city! For Toronto, we visited the University of Toronto’s campus, Graffiti Alley, and the Harbour front Beaches.
8. Find the free stuff: This is similar to the last point. Our hesitation with that typical tourist attraction is that they tend to be extremely pricey. Blogs from people living in that city are a Great resource for finding these places– locals isn’t going to pay to have fun every weekend. This is the best way to learn about what the culture of a city really is.
9. Find a tour: After years of travelling internationally, I’ve learned the value in a good tour guide. This can be an exception to your “free only” rule. Find a cheap tour in the city and try to do it on your first day. Tour guides are a great resource to the layout of the city, notable attractions, and hidden gems. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but don’t forget that tips are generally expected. Luckily for us, Toronto has a free tour guide service (with an expectation that you tip), so we got to know the downtown area pretty well before we even started exploring on our own.
10. Set limits for yourself: Be realistic! Before travelling, set a budget for yourself and stick to it. For us, we set a limit of $40 a day for food, $30 for a hotel, and $10 for transportation. That meant that in all, we spent about $200 a piece for five days in a big city.
11. Avoid ride-sharing apps: This tip works better for large cities that are walk able or have good public transportation systems. It can be tempting to just call an Uber when you’ve got to hike across town, but save those few dollars and take a walk. The best way to see a city is by walking.
12. It’s okay to get lost: See a side street that looks interesting? Go down it. See a cool shop? Go in. Does a bakery smell good? Go inside to get a better sniff. Want to pet a cute dog? Just ask. Obviously, use your best judgement while travelling, but it’s also important to take advantage of the time you have in a city.
13. Keep track: This is another one of my favorite parts of travelling. Take tons of photos; don’t be afraid to Instagram your food! I also recommend keeping a travel journal. We used the app BonJournal for our trip to Toronto which was an amazing way to keep track of each stop of the trip and upload photos all in one convenient place. If you’re more artsy than me, you can also keep a physical journal and add photos later.
14. Pack well: For graduation, I got an amazing luggage set (read more here), complete with a set of packing cubes. I packed five days worth of clothes and toiletries in a carry-on – an impressive feat for a High-maintenance girl like me. I recommend luggage with lots of pockets for organization and using packing cubes to maximize your space. Bring basic colored clothes with accents to mix-and-match. Being a college student should not be a limit to travelling. Use your breaks to see the world and learn what no textbook can teach you!