Advice for Students Studying Abroad (Or Planning To)

Coliseum panorama

Panorama from the inside of the Coliseum in Rome

I have several friends studying abroad next semester, and I’m equal parts jealous and excited. I’m excited because I plan to live vicariously through their adventures, and I’m excited because I know they’re all going to have the time of their lives. I’ve given a couple of them some tips – especially those participating in the Presidential Global Scholars program like I did. I figured I would write a post full of advice for students studying abroad since there’s more (hopefully) useful information than anyone would be able to remember, and since I can’t talk to everyone.

All of this is coming from someone who has only been to Europe, but I think most of it should be useful whether you’re going to Europe, New Zealand, or Australia. I know this is long, so skim it, read any that stick out to you, and hopefully you’ll walk away with something.

First off it’s all about the people.

You’ll miss friends and family back home, but you’re never again going to be living, traveling, eating, and hanging out every day with the people who are there with you. Make the absolute most of it.

On a different note, meet the locals. There is no better way to get a sense for a country or city than to talk with the people who live there. I met locals and other tourists on trains and planes, in hostels and bars, and even in line for the Coliseum. Get past the small talk. Learn to create and enjoy conversations about things you don’t normally talk about, and figure out how to ask good questions. You never know what striking up a conversation can lead to. When you look back, it’s great to be able to put a face with a place, and to know you made a friend you can visit when you return.

If meeting and getting to know locals or other world travelers is something you want to do, consider joining CouchSurfing. It’s a social network for just that – travelers and locals who want to meet interesting people. The idea is that you can find places to stay (people’s couches to crash on) in exchange for conversation, building a friendship, or even helping one another with learning a language. If staying on a stranger’s couch is a little too adventurous for you, you can still use it to find group meet-ups or else locals to hang out with, no matter where in the world you are.

Also, get to know the faculty. If you’re there with Virginia Tech professors (or professors from your respective university), that means they’re taking time away from their families and responsibilities at home to be there, teaching you. Of course you can get to know your professors back at your university also, but those with you made a special effort to be there with you, so make a special effort to get to know them. Chances are they’re pretty awesome people.

Canadian Mounties in Switzerland

Posing with some Canadian Mounties in Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum!

Take pictures.

I am incredibly grateful for the memories I captured on camera. However, after a few photos in a given place, put it away; it takes time to take it all in, and life does not through a camera lens. Keep in mind that sometimes less is more. I discovered this the hard way when my camera partially broke, making it harder to take pictures, but I learned to enjoy putting more thought into each photo.

Go off the beaten path (but stay safe.)

The Eiffel Tower, The Coliseum, and The Vatican are famous tourist destinations for a reason – by all means, go see them. But make your experience your own. While you might finish someone else’s checklist by going to the top tourist destinations, you should make your experience your own. Find a cheap flight to somewhere you’ve never heard of, and spend a weekend there with a friend. Take a day trip to a small city 60 miles from yours. If you’re in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, visit Como, Italy with a few friends and keep an eye out for George Clooney.

I traveled to a few Central European countries (Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, and Croatia) and never felt particularly unsafe, but it’s crucial to research countries before you visit them. Check the U.S. State Department’s International Travel Information site for any information American tourists need to know, and it may even be a good idea to register with the American Embassy. Also, travel with a friend or two whenever possible. Make sure that other people from your group know where you are traveling, and follow other common safety tips (Google around for other things to keep in mind when traveling.)

In experiencing cultures, there is breadth and there is depth. Don’t discount either one, but understand how the plans you make will influence what you take away.

A few days is not enough time to get a sense of a country – or a city, for that matter – but it is enough to whet your appetite. If you want to get a sense of a culture, it’s going to take more than cramming the Top 10 Places to Visit into your schedule. If you’re confronted with the decision to spend five days in one country or two and a half in two different countries, there’s no right answer. Just be aware that there is value in digging in and spending as much time as you can in one place. However, if you want to see as much as you can, and hope to come back later to spend more time in the places that fascinated you the most, make it happen! But each destination should be more than a mark on a checklist, or else you’ve robbed yourself of part of the experience. Also remember that travel takes considerable time, energy, and money – all of which are precious and should be invested in the places that you are visiting.

Go early, or stay late.

If possible, go see another city/country before or after your program. People pay thousands of dollars to vacation where you already are. Travel is cheap and you don’t know when you’ll be there again, so take advantage of that.  It’s amazing how much you can do in a short time, so whether you have a few extra weeks or three days, go somewhere and make the most of it.

Write. Write what you do, and write what you learn.

Chances are, you’ll encounter difficulties, make incredible friends, have thrilling adventures, learn from costly mistakes, and experience disappointment. Write it all down. If studying abroad changes the way you think about the world or yourself (and even if it doesn’t) you’ll be glad to have your writings. When it’s all said and done, they may just mean more to you than the pictures, because no amount of pictures show how your mind interprets the experience.

There will be times where you’re not traveling and you feel like there’s nothing going on. You might be going to class, eating, dong homework, and talking with friends – nothing out of the ordinary. STILL – write it down. I did my best to write down something that made each day unique, whether it was going to the local gelateria or taking a short bike ride. When you get back, it will feel like the semester flew by. You’ll have pictures from traveling and maybe a few from wherever you stay, but you’ll wonder how 10+ weeks passed as quickly as they did. Writing can make each day something to remember – you might not have pictures of that soccer game in the snow but in a few years when you look back on the chronology of your time there you’ll be glad to remember it again.

Research, research, research.

Find cheap flights by looking at every possibility. Find the best hostel by reading countless reviews. Make the most of your time by knowing ahead of time what is available (even if you don’t decide until you get there what you want to do.) The farther ahead of time you do the research, the better off you will be. However, I often saved the Wikitravel page of a city to my phone (using the cross-platform app Pocket) and read the article on the plane or train that took me there. Figure out where to exchange currency ahead of time. If you have time, also look up some words in the local language. There are few ways to feel as stupid as arriving in a country and not knowing what currency they use or what language they speak.

Some hostel advice:

You want a cheap hostel, but location matters, too. While you may not care if you’re 1 or 3.5 blocks from the city center, you don’t want to end up on the outskirts of Rome an hour away from everything you want to see, or in the Museum district of Amsterdam if you don’t plan on going to any museums. The latter wasn’t as big a deal, but when I visited Amsterdam a second time and paid almost twice as much to stay in a much nicer hostel in the Red Light District, I was thankful I did.

Read reviews to get a good idea of what the place is like. Hostels are all very different, so make sure you know how to get there, what the check in times are, if you need a code to get in, etc. You don’t want to end a day of travel by spending the night in a train station or on a park bench.

Consider bringing your smart phone or tablet, even without international coverage.

I required my computer on some trips, but on weekend excursions the weight and risk aren’t worth it. However, having a WiFi enabled device that fits in your pocket has many benefits. Although I couldn’t make phone calls, I could cache Google Maps for offline use, text using Google Voice, download articles using aforementioned Pocket, or take a picture when my camera was inaccessible.

“Let it flow.” Spontaneity and flexibility are crucial when it comes to traveling.

Not everything will go exactly as you planned it, and you need to be ready to make adjustments (for better or for worst) and make the most of every situation.

Whether you get on the wrong train, miss a flight, have travel plans rejected by the powers-that-be, arrive in a city with nowhere to stay, or find everything in a city closed because of a holiday, and learn to change your plans quickly. You can get through the difficult situations. Even if your situation is less than desirable and you have trouble finding an alternative with a positive outcome, at least it will be memorable. (And yes, all of those things happened to me, some more than once.)

Milan baggage deposit closed

The baggage deposit in Milan’s airport was closed, so we had to take extra luggage to Morocco.

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, so if you’re scared or worried, don’t be. You’ll get through it – just keep your wits about you and stay safe. We are the culmination of our experiences, so what would a semester abroad be if you don’t have any mistakes to learn by when you get back?

Lastly, some useful websites.

There are plenty of travel websites, and you can find what you’ll need on your own, but here are some that I used frequently:

Air travel (discount airlines):

easyJet

Ryanair

Wizz Air

Accommodations:

CouchSurfing (if you decide to join, add me if you know me and I’ll leave you a positive review!)

HostelBookers

HostelWorld

Airbnb

Figuring out what to do and where to eat:

TripAdvisor

Wikitravel

If you have any questions about advice here, wonder why I wrote something, or have another question, please leave a comment! If you’ve already studied abroad, what’s a tip or two you’d pass on to someone heading into the unknown for a semester?