by Jessi K. Stafford
I get it. You’re nervous. Well, nervous or a robot. You’ve made the decision to study abroad and have no idea what to expect.
Directly after ending an engagement, I impulsively walked into my school’s study abroad office and signed up to spend a semester in Spain. That was it. No expectations, just the urge to explore.
I soon read various “How-To” lists about making the most of your experience. Travel. Drink. Soak up the sun. Make the most of your experience. The usual. However, after actually spending time abroad, I learned many things I wish I would have known prior to going abroad.
So here you go human, enjoy!
Get it out of your head that this is vacation
Too many students I have met through my travels have seen their study abroad experience as a little pause from reality. Life paused at the stamping of their passports and, Hakuna Matata, would continue when they returned to the U.S. YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!!! Studying abroad is not just a time to vacation, develop a fresh perspective, or learn about another culture, it should be seen as part of your functioning life. You still need to plan for the future. You still need to make connections. You still need to figure out how your time abroad will fit into your long-term goals. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did when you need that reference in the future and you’ve set yourself apart from others.
Don’t live for the party. Wake up early. Go to the museum.
You can drink in Texas. You can drink in California. You can drink in Spain. You can drink in Timbuktu. I am not suggesting not going out with friends or having an unforgettable night meeting people from all over the world, just don’t make it a habit. By sparingly going out at night, I was able to squeeze an extra side trip to Paris. I was also able to avoid the line at the Vatican by going to bed early and waking up bright and early to beat the lines. Walking through the Sistine chapel alone made a much bigger impression on me than dancing till the morning hours with fellow students.
When booking travel… plan, plan, plan.
Seriously. Take your time. Don’t immediately book your dream locations. By searching for several days and searching every destination possible, I was able to string together extra destinations I had never dreamed of. It would not have been possible if I had booked my top three choices. By doing my homework, I ended up paying an average of $40 per flight.
When actually traveling… plan, plan, plan.
You’re phone may or may not work at each new destination. You’re phone may or may not die. I quickly learned to physically write detailed directions from the airport to my accommodations. This included subway stops, walking directions, the address, and phone number. Public transportation will save you money and knowing where you’re going will keep you slightly safer. (I kept my notes in a book in my hand to not look too obvious. I also studied my directions during my flight). If all else fails and you get lost, you have the address and can catch a cab. On that note, always take a cab if you’re worried about safety.
Pre-pay for any necessary shuttle from the airport to the city. Know how to get from that shuttle drop-spot to transportation, and ALWAYS have a printed copy of EVERY receipt. After arriving, spend about fifteen minutes scoping out the area of your accommodations.
In the same way, pre-plan your visits within each city. I saw more of London in three days by studying the map, planning accordingly, and knowing public transit than most do in a week.
However cautious you think you need to be in big cities, multiply it by 100.
I did much traveling alone and gave my family a little heart attack each time they saw me “gallivanting” to a new location.
I was in Paris and about to exit the subway by the Eiffel tower. I had my purse on my shoulder holding my two cell-phones (don’t ask), my passport, all my credit cards, and the equivalent of about $350. A man approached me and pretended to take pictures of me with his cell-phone. I was alarmed and stepped back into a corner. The train then stopped and a screaming woman ran passed me as the man ran in front of her with her purse. It could have been me. I could have lost all my things and spent my time in Paris nervous in the embassy. Wait? How would I have figured my way to the embassy with no cab money, no cell-phone, no French, and no identification? Pretty creepy.
Here’s how I traveled since: My purse across my shoulders as a “decoy.” Keep about $20 in it for a cup of coffee. One credit card deep in my back-pack. One in my front pocket. Another in my jacket pocket. Passport? My bra of course. If any item were to be stolen, I would have plenty of back- ups. However, simply keep your wits about you. Be confident. Be alert. You’ll be fine.
Meet locals and don’t be afraid of developing deep friendships.
Recall, this isn’t a vacation. Live your life while abroad! Mingle with locals! Meet an older local and learn about the way life used to be. I had my favorite bartender who would give me free glass of wine and old stories in exchange for conversation. I met a French girl on sabbatical. We had a lovely evening and exchanged numbers. Months later, it was nice to have someone to join in and muddle through life’s questions, confide in, travel with, and even come along for a slumber party. You will always need those kind of deep connections in life. You also want to meet locals and experience their city through their eyes. You will see much more than tourist spots and it will definitely be lovely to have a place to stay next time you decide to visit that part of the world.
Learn the language
Ok. So perhaps this one is on most “how-to” lists, but it belongs there. Don’t just learn the language of your host country though; learn basic phrases of the spoken language of every country you visit. You will be respected and less likely to get ripped off.
To everyone. To everything. This is part of your life and when the opportunity to do good arises, take it. Spread love wherever you go and know that each place you visit has the opportunity to not just give, but receive. Give it a little piece of you. Give it a good piece.
So there you have it. Go conquer the world!
Sending all the good vibes and positive energy your way.
P.S. Oh yea…
The hostel pub-crawl usually isn’t worth it.
The free walking tour always is.
Study. A lot.
Class is just as important as that museum.
Learn a new skill.
Join a local club.
Go to the gym.
If you’re in Europe, always use Ryanair.
If you’re scared to travel alone, there are cheap travel agencies.
Don’t be loud on public transportation.
Many Americans are.
Look out the window, not at your phone.
Take trains and see the countryside.
If you’re in Europe, get a European Youth Card.
Buy day passes for public transportation, it’s cheaper.
Reading is not a waste of your time.
Have a little lock if you stay in shared accomadations.
Hostelworld.com is the way to go.