Studying or traveling abroad is one of the most rewarding experiences that you will ever have. If you are about to embark on a trip, I guarantee you are experiencing at least one of the following:
-nausea (heartburn, indigestion… you know the rest)
-attachment at the retina to Google
That about covers it, right? If this hasn’t happened to you, fear not my friend. All in due time.
My job here is to ease some of those qualms. I plan to give you some advice to take advantage of every minute and penny you have abroad. Namaste, Grasshopper. Take a deep breath, a nice swig of Pepto Bismol, and read on.
Suggestion 1: Buy a Guidebook
The internet is great, but can you guarantee you will have internet on a train when it would be a perfect opportunity to do some research on where you should eat that night, or what you should do later that day? There is something so reliable and easy about having a little guidebook in your pocket. Now Frommers and Fodors are great, but when it comes to a budget-friendly traveler, Lonely Planet is the guide to have. They even sell little pocketbook guides for all the major cities. Although these guides are a bit pricey, it will save you way more in travel error. After you visit a city, you can always donate your pocketbook guide to your hostel, hotel, or bed and breakfast in exchange for another book. Many places, especially hostels, offer book exchange.
“I love reading TripAdvisor before, during and after my trip. I mostly use it for discovering new attractions and restaurants but the forums are also a great resource. After your trip give back and contribute to the site with a review!” -Meredith, studied abroad and teaches English in Spain, 23
Suggestion 2: Buy your flight well in advance
You should book an international flight 8-12 weeks in advance. For more advice on finding budget-friendly international flights, read my article here!
Suggestion Mandate 3: Trip Insurance: GET IT.
Do NOT make the mistake of not getting trip insurance. I use Allianz, but there’s dozens of choices. Also check to see if your credit card company or AAA card covers international travel. Note: Make sure that if you do some adventure travel like zip-line, ski, white water raft, etc. that you get the level of insurance that covers adventure activities! That way, you can go on that once in a lifetime ski trip with your new buddies and rest easy knowing you won’t spend the next 10 years paying off a hospital bill when you fracture your wrist on the slope. Think stuff like this doesn’t happen? IT DOES. Even that one time you went to Europe.
Suggestion 4: Pack an extra set of clothes in your carry-on
Have a short layover? You might make it, but there’s no guarantee your clothes will. This happened to me the one time I didn’t pack extra clothes. I wore the same set of clothes for almost 2 full days, no joke. It was horrific, and enough to never go anywhere without an extra set of clothes in my carry-on again. Also pack your toothbrush and deodorant in that small bag. I promise you won’t regret it. Read that tale here.
Suggestion 5: Get the Right Bank Cards
Get a Charles Schwab Account. With this card I have 0 ATM fees at any ATM (seriously!) and no foreign transaction fees. You have to open an investors account to get a checking account, but never need to touch that account. Also there’s no monthly fee to keep the account open, and no minimum balance you need to have in the account. Plus, their phone customer service is absolutely INCREDIBLE. I can’t think of a better way to take advantage of being abroad than not spending money on those stupid extra bank fees! Tip: Make sure you get money out ASAP when you get to a country whether it be in a train station, airport, or where ever. You’d be shocked how many places do NOT accept credit cards.
Another thing I suggest before you come over is you apply for a travel credit card. I spent a year earning flier miles, which helped me get a couple flights for free while I was over here! You can get some pretty awesome start-up miles, and I also continued to earn miles while booking all of my travel. Credit Card Insider is a good resource when it comes to picking your travel card, and I suggest reading this article here to start the card deciding process! They could also be of help finding a card that has no foreign transaction fees and has chip and pin technology (which is prevalent through-out Europe)! My card of choice is the Capital One Rewards Credit Card.
Note: As much as I wish it were true, there is no such thing as free money. A credit card is not meant for someone without self-control. It is also a lot harder than it sounds to keep it up and not get into trouble. When I use my credit card, I pretend I am using the exact money I would spend directly from my debit account, only the charges post a little bit late. I have a habit of paying off what I spent almost immediately to avoid troubles. Needless to say, I have pristine credit, and I’m proud of it!
Suggestion 6: Pack half, pack snacks
Pack half the clothes you planned to bring, and don’t forget to pack some snacks! You will NEVER miss the extra clothes! If you say “what if” before putting it in your bag, don’t put it in. You won’t need that fancy dress, and you won’t need that 4th pair of shoes. And if you do find yourself wanting, you won’t mind buying it on the road, because when someone asks where you got it, you can say “oh, Paris” in the most nonchalant way possible.
I also can’t stress more to bring a couple snacks. Not only will those Pringles or Oreos be a good homesickness fighter, if you travel at night and get to your hotel and hostel in Berlin at 11pm and every single place to eat is closed, you won’t slowly rock yourself to sleep with a deep-pitted hunger in your stomach after traveling for 5 hours. True story.
Suggestion 7: DON’T OVER-PLAN!!!!!!
Yes, I did put 6 exclamation points. If there is one piece of advice I could give a soon-to-be traveler about their upcoming trip, I’d say DO NOT OVER-PLAN YOUR TRIP! It is better to under-plan than over-plan. I cannot count the number of times I have been shown an itinerary for a trip and seen it planned down to the HOUR. You want a guaranteed way to absolutely miserably FAIL at a trip? This is the first way to make it happen. When you travel, literally nothing goes as planned. And if you do have your day planned down to the hour and you SUCCEED, you and/or your legs are going to be so tired that you’re going to wish you failed going to everywhere on your list.
“I remember the first year or so I went traveling I wanted to see EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE. As I went on I switched my goal to “I want to enjoy myself everywhere (and still see a lot). Effectively this means that you can have an off day where you are hung over in bed and not consider it a wasted day” -Erik, extensive traveler, 28
I suggest to cut your list in HALF. Have 2-3 “must-sees” at most, and fill in the gaps with your guidebook for bonus. You will be shocked at how hard it is to see all of Paris in 2 days. Plan a come back trip for all the extra stuff, and get to your must-sees.
My other suggestion is to go on a “free walking tour” to get oriented your first day in the city. If you are going to Europe, my favorite tour company for this is the Sandeman’s Walking Tour which runs in most major cities around Europe. These tour guides run on tips at the end, so you can bet they are going to give you the best tour they can possibly give. Depending on your budget, I recommend giving the equivalent of AT LEAST 5 dollars (or 5 euro) to 20 dollars to the guide. This is how they make their living, so make sure you give them something! Your planning will come much easier once you get an oversight of the major sites of the city.
“A few of the big cities in Europe have “free tours” which is part of a company that sets up tour guides. All you do is show up and they walk you and who ever else shows up around the major sites (I did it in London over spring break). They do ask that you tip what you can or think it’s worth, but the guy I had was really good and very friendly. They work hard to give a good tour so they make more tips.” -Mike, traveled Europe, 22
Finally, I suggest you avoid buying tickets to things in advance. Many times, the big museum or “city passes” are a rip-off unless you plan on going to every single one on their list. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but make sure you read forums like Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor, or Fodors before you go off and buy a ticket to every museum and event. I understand buying tickets to a very popular theatrical play in London in advance, but besides this I would try to avoid many before-trip ticket purchases. You never know what could come up!
“Research/ being prepared is good, but each thing you plan is one more thing that could go wrong.”– Allison, Long-time traveler and past study abroad student, 23.
Suggestion 8: Keep a Journal or Blog
When I was 18 years old, I found an old little leather-bound book in my mom’s house. As it turns out, it was her journal from when she went on a trip to Europe when she was 18. We were headed to Europe 2 weeks later. She re-read it as well, and made me keep a journal during our trip. I still have that journal from 5 years ago, and it is already incredible to look back on. Now, I keep a blog and look back on memories I had just a few months ago and it already reminds me of things I forgot. Make yourself write once a day or once a week. Make it a reasonable goal and keep it. You won’t regret it.
Suggestion 9: Download Apps
There are 101 apps you could download to help you take advantage of your time abroad and to keep in touch with your loved ones back home. I’ll just touch on a few big ones. Skype, Whatsapp, Viber, and Magic Jack. Skype is the obvious one to chat with friends/family, Whatsapp is one of the most popular free texting applications in the world, Viber can call other users with Viber for free, and with a Magic Jack account, you can call any phone number for free. No Kidding! If you get phone service abroad, great. But if not, iphones can connect to wifi at any cafe (Hint: Nearly every McDonalds and Starbucks around the world has free wifi).
” If you load google maps on your iPhone while you have Wifi (at the hotel/hostel, a McDonald’s etc) you can usually still pull up just the map even once you turn data off.” -Mike, traveled Europe, 22
Finally, don’t forget these days you can download offline city maps, metro maps, and comprehensive city guides right onto your phone.
“There is an app called ‘maps with me’ that if you download the country in wifi, it’ll show you exactly where you are in that country! Helped tremendously!” -Trudi, took an extensive trip around Europe, 30
Suggestion Mandate 10: Safety is key
Obviously, this is the most important item on the list. There is about a hundred things that fall under this category, but I’m just going to touch a couple big ones.
–Beware of guys in bars, ladies. Even that cute one that is trying so hard to impress you with his English. This especially goes out to those study abroaders. Many locals stereotype “Erasmus students” as partiers who are down for anything because, well, YOLO. Whether or not these rumors are true for you (Hey, I’m not here to judge) the locals believe it to be the truth. Most steer clear of study abroad students due to their reputation. And then there’s the ones who don’t. Beware of the men trying to pick you up. I understand alcohol clouds judgment, but this is the number 1 sure-fire way to get yourself in trouble. And guess what ladies, chances are the police aren’t going to care what you have to say because you are a “stupid study abroad student”. Be careful the situations you put yourself in.
If you want to meet locals, try CouchSurfers. Again, with this being the safety section, I have to stress to err on the side of caution. If it doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t.
“Meet up with couchsurfers, they are local people interested in foreign contact. Especially in places off the beaten path they are generally super excited to meet anyone who expresses a mild interest in their village. Staying with Couchsurfing is not for everyone, but meeting up with locals is arguably the best part.” -Erik, extensive traveler, 28
–Pickpockets are rampant. Chances are you’ve heard this one before. But do you really understand it? There are actual professionals who work circuits, especially in big cities in Europe. They have 1001 tricks that they use to take your eyes off your possessions just for one second. Don’t give money to beggars, don’t sign any papers, and if you think the woman is handing out rosemary stems for free, they are not. Use your brain. If it is too good to be true, it IS. This is literally almost a complete non-existent problem in America compared to Europe, which is the reason so many Americans are victims of pickpockets. I was extremely lucky to only get a phone stolen out of my unzipped satchel purse at a bar.
-Separate all of your important belongings. That way if you lose some credit cards, you won’t lose them all. If you lose your passport, at least you still have a photo ID, etc. Make a copy of every credit card, ID, health insurance card, etc. Also leave this with someone you trust. If you lose something, it will be 1000 times easier to replace. Plus, you should only carrying around a notarized copy of your passport anyway.
“Don’t keep all your money / credit cards/ important things in one place, if you lose your wallet you don’t want to be totally screwed. “ -Kristen, Teaches English in Spain, 23
–leave your itinerary with someone you trust. You know, just in case we need to call Liam Neeson. Seriously though, tell someone when you are supposed to arrive at your next location, then contact them when you get there.
–Make a paper list of emergency numbers. Especially credit card companies, your embassy, your study abroad coordinator, etc. You won’t regret it.
Suggestion 11: Transportation
Make sure you weigh cheapness vs accessibility. Sometimes that extra 50 dollars is worth getting there in an hour instead of 6 hours. There are many different types of transportation you can take. I will talk generally from the most expensive to the cheapest.
–Plane: skyscanner.com is a great flight search engine for finding budget flights (especially around Europe). Just make sure the site you are booking through is reputable and if you are flying a budget airline (like Ryanair) that they aren’t flying you to an airport 2 hours outside the city. Also, check the baggage allowance. Some airlines only allow a carry-on the size of a small backpack, and charge an obnoxious amount to check on a bag. Beware and do your research!
–Train: Check for train passes. Also, for some European rail trips, you can get a “table” with 3 other people and cut the price of your ticket more than half! The earlier you book for the train, the better the price usually is.
–Bus: probably your cheapest public transportation option, and actually a very easy way to get anywhere. Drawback, time.
–Metro: Usually one of the best and fastest ways to get around inside major cities. Check for multi-day or multi-ride passes.
“Even if the metro operates on the “honor system”, buy a ticket. A ticket is way cheaper than getting a fine and once my parents saw an elderly couple get carted off to jail because they didn’t have enough cash on them to pay their fine.” -Kristen, Teaches English in Spain, 23
–Taxis: Beware! Negotiate a price before you get in, or make sure the meter is on. I try to avoid these as much as possible.
–BlaBlaCar.com: Some people are skeptical when it comes to riding with a stranger, but there is absolutely no reason why you cannot do this and still be safe. It is the cheapest option on the market. BlablaCar connects to Facebook and is a site that allows others to post that they are driving from point A to point B. You can hitch a ride for just a cut of the gas money. It is hitchhiking of the future. The reason it ends up relatively safer than just hopping in the car with a stranger is that people build up reputations with reviews on the site. You can find a seasoned driver and see sometimes dozens of reviews saying “this guy checks out” and “he is a safe driver”, and even see if you have mutual friends who have taken a ride with them before. I recommend skeptics to go with 2-3 other friends in the same car with a high-rated driver. Use your common sense, and if something doesn’t seem right, trust your gut and don’t get in.
“[Do] not be afraid to use public transportation like trains, subways or buses. They’re much nicer and cleaner in Europe (at least the places I’ve been) than they are here and really easy to get around on. Trains are also a great way to travel throughout Europe in general because you get to see all the small towns, most of which have beautiful little churches, which I always found to be one of the best parts.” -Mike, traveled Europe, 22
Suggestion 12: Stay at a hostel
There is no other way to truly maximize your time abroad than to stay at a hostel. Not only is it one of the cheapest ways to travel, but it is a sure-fire way to make new lifetime friends, find some inspiration, and to feel at home while traveling. Feeling antsy about staying in a hostel? I recommend the sites hostelworld and hostelbookers. For each hostel, you can see their overall rating, individual reviews, and the amenities the hostels provide. When you stay at a good hostel, you will arrive feeling like you are in a safe-zone after feeling the culture shock of the outside world. My recommendation is to find hostels that have reviews that say something like “good for solo travelers”. That means the atmosphere is conducive to meeting other people. I also recommend smaller hostels versus the big chains, which can feel like a hotel and quite lonely. Please feel free to contact me for hostel recommendations!
If you absolutely cannot or will not stay in a hostel, I recommend you check out airbnb.com, which is where people rent out apartments, a room in their apartment, or bed and breakfasts. You can find some incredible deals, and it can offer more privacy than a hostel.
“Make sure you know how to get to your place to stay from wherever you are arriving. In your hostel/hotel/couchsurfing place there are people you can trust so it’s essential you can get to your base of operations by yourself.” – Erik, extensive traveler, 28
Suggestion 13: Try the Food
As a foodie, this one is super important to me. If you want to truly experience a different culture, there is no better way than through their food. You obviously are going to travel, so I suspect you like to try new things. If you just don’t know how that traditional dish sounds, order it anyway. Even if you end up not liking it, you can always say you tried it.
And please, by all means, avoid tourist trap restaurants. They are overpriced and disgusting. I promise. A rule of thumb: If the menu has pictures or if the restaurant has “We Speak English” on the door, run away! This is where that Lonely Planet guide comes into handy. Also, your hostel people will know where to send you.
Finally, make sure you check that guide of yours for the tipping custom for the country you are in. America has one of the highest tipping rates in the world! In many countries you don’t tip at all. Don’t spend money you don’t need to spend, and use it to maximize the next adventure on your list!
Suggestion 14: Learn the language
There is nothing more embarassing than going to a country for several months and coming out speaking 4 words. Do yourself a favor and attempt to learn the language. If you are traveling for a short time, just learn the basic phrases and don’t be afraid to use them!
“Try to speak like 5 words of the local language (Hello, goodbye, thanks, cheers and “where is xxx?”). It is a minimum effort and people are superexcited to hear you speak Icelandic for example “NOBODY LEARNS OUR LANGUAGE, YOU ARE OUR BEST FRIEND!” (of course, make sure that it is clear that you do not actually speak the language or you are in for some awkward conversations).” -Erik, extensive traveler, 28
Suggestion 15: Ask for Discounts
Don’t forget to ask for student/age discounts! Many museums, transportation services, and more have large student discounts or discounts for those under 26, even if it isn’t posted. It never hurts to ask!
Suggestion 16: Mail Yourself a Postcard.
Instead of buying yourself that 50th shot glass, mail yourself a postcard with a couple cool things you did in the city you enjoyed! Not only will you then not have 10 pounds of shotglasses to carry around for the rest of your trip, but you’ll have something awesome waiting for you when you get home. You can also do some DIY projects with the cards, like frame them or hang them on a photo “clothesline” to show all the places you’ve been. The possibilities are endless!
Suggestion 17: Bring Weapons to Battle Homesickness.
I’m looking at you study abroaders and long-term travellers. I do not mean actual weapons. Unless you consider Twizzlers a weapon, which very well may be in my opinion. I think I went 2 years without eating Peanut Butter before I moved to Madrid. Then 3 months in after knowing I couldn’t get JIF in the store, BAM. I almost died by peanut butter craving and homesickness in one very painful week. My heart literally hurt for home and that creamy smooth mixture. 6 painful weeks later, I got a care package of peanut butter from my mom, and I was cured! It sure would’ve been easier if I had brought that can with me!
One of the best cures for homesickness for me was the following ritual:
Step 1- Curl up in bed and cry for a good 30 minutes.
Step 2- Call Mom and cry.
Step 3- Cry and stuff my face with pringles, oreos, and peanut butter.
Step 4- Cry and watch a Friends marathon until the Finale, then cry more because Friends still ended.
Step 5- Pull myself together, put on a cute outfit I bought while abroad and go enjoy everything that made the country great I was staying in, surround myself with friends, and have one long fun night out.
Step 6- BAM. Cured.
Homesickness is inevitable. Give yourself a day, and then when you don’t feel like getting out of your apartment/room, do it anyway. MAKE yourself do as much as possible while it is still possible. Because soon enough you’ll be back at home wishing you could just close your eyes and open them and be traveling again. Trust me.
“Bring your favorite movie or two for those nights when you’re homesick/tired/over traveling and just want to pretend you’re back home (also good for entertainment during layovers).” Sara, studied abroad, 23
Suggestion 18: Laugh at Your Mistakes.
And don’t worry, there will be plenty. The only thing I can tell you to do is be light-hearted and positive. Anything that goes wrong, just think of it as a learning experience and move on. You are now smarter because of it.
“Things won’t always go right, and that’s okay. Embrace the things that go right and the things that go wrong, both are part of the experience.” –Elisa, Teaches English in Spain, 23
So how are you feeling? Do you feel less green in the face? Less jittery? Feeling totally empowered and ready to start your adventure right this minute?! Whether you are or aren’t, your time is coming soon! Try to sit back, enjoy the process, try not to obsess too much over Googling every possible thing about your trip and get ready to have one of the most incredible experiences of your life.
“You can always make more money when you get back, but your time is what’s really limited. Go. Explore. Enjoy.” -Jonette, studied abroad and traveled extensively, 24
After you come back, tell me how I did. You’re going to be the new travel sensei, and I want YOUR advice.