This time last year, I was speeding through finals and looking forward to my semester in France. Now that a new group of students are preparing to depart in a couple of weeks, I thought I'd compile a few lessons I learned about traveling and making the most of a foreign experience.
Before I arrived in Strasbourg last spring, I'd never left the U.S. or flown on a plane, so the pressure to have the best abroad experience possible was nerve-wracking, to say the least. Below, I'll share my best study abroad travel tips to help you have an amazing experience.
1. Prepare for serious jet lag.
Emphasis on this if you've never had experience flying. Jet lag was something I understood in theory, but since I'd never flown to another country before, it walloped me in the face once my group landed in Paris. I'd perused all the tips: sleep if you can on your flight and stay awake for as long as possible once you land so you don't fall asleep during the day.
Honestly, my downfall was hubris. I've stayed awake until 4am before, I thought, drowsiness won't affect me! I spent most of the flight marveling at the world from above and slept for about two hours. Once my group arrived in Paris, I took a nap mid-afternoon. I thought that would be good enough. It wasn't.
We stayed in Paris, Amsterdam, and Cologne before arriving in Strasbourg, and I spent most of my time in the first two cities nursing my exhaustion. I'd been sleep-deprived before, but I'd never experienced my entire body screaming for sleep. I passed out at 8pm in my hostel bed several nights in a row before my body finally began adjusting to the time difference.
Because of that, I missed out on fully experiencing some cool cities, particularly Paris and Amsterdam. And since I didn't go out at night with the other people in my program, it took me longer to get to know them and make new friends. (I did eventually and it worked out, but you deserve an exciting, vibrant experience from start to finish!) Cities take on different, maybe even their real, personalities at night, and the best stories come from those weird, unpredictable nights you spend trawling around an unfamiliar city. It's such a quintessential college experience: You don't know who you are in this new place and you're wandering wide-eyed with no cues except to absorb yourself into the life that's unfolding around you. And it's truly a privilege.
So, my best advice is to follow the classic jet lag advice. Sleep as much as you can on the plane (take a sleep aid if you have to and bring a neck pillow, eye mask, earplugs, etc.). Once you land in your new city, do your best to stay awake and keep in mind that it'll be worth getting through those excruciating hours.
2. Budgeting is your friend, but so is learning to deal with not having a lot of money.
This one was tough, and I struggled with this to the end of my semester. No one likes to talk about money because oftentimes it means owning up to embarrassing financial habits. I got caught up in the fantasy of living abroad and was convinced I needed the wardrobe to match. I wanted aspirational-blog-quality items on a student budget and found myself draining my account on a regular basis.
The fact that I was now living in France already felt like a dream, so I lost connection with the reality of being a first-generation college student from a lower middle-class family. And in a way, maybe I wanted to. Both my parents work as limousine drivers, and I'm grateful for everything because I know the cost of my semester abroad was an immeasurable amount of hours spent driving clients back and forth. Even so, I dealt with a complex about not having much money to work with.
I was envious of the wealthier students in my program who not only packed expensive, stylish wardrobes, but could afford to shop and travel to a degree I could only imagine. Some of them would jet off every other weekend and return with lush photos in the south of France or Ireland.
I felt like I was missing out, which I now understand is natural. It's especially easy to lose perspective if you're already overwhelmed by being in a new country without the traveling skills (yet) to make the most of it. You might not even be sure what you want out of being abroad yet, so of course you find yourself wanting it all. The plus side is you quickly find the cheapest food and which places the students flock to. And there's something to be said for sitting by the river with a good (three Euro) bottle of wine with your friends.
In hindsight, I had a wonderful experience and grew more than I realized; I just didn't know how to appreciate it then. To avoid overspending while abroad while still having money for fun, try listing some major trips or expenses you want to take on during your time overseas, and plan the rest of your spending around them. You could even print out pictures of your dying-to-visit destinations to remind yourself that being frugal now will have a major payoff later.
3. Plan where you absolutely want to go, but also leave room for exploring.
And on that note, plan, plan, plan, but leave some free time to get to know the cities you visit. Try to visit a mix of famous landmarks and activities (as cliched as they are, it's something else to see them in person) and more offbeat places.
There were a few instances when I wandered around without a plan and managed to neglect major sights. I regretted that later. Unstructured time can be a major asset in terms of getting to know a city, but it's also easy to lose track of time and miss the classic must-visits.
Here are a few famous spots you shouldn't miss if you ever find yourself in any of these cities. Again, these are mostly touristy but they're on everyone's must-see list for a reason. (Please add your own suggestions in the comments below!):
- Barcelona: Parc Guëll, Sagrada Familia, Montserrat, Milk Bistro (a tiny hipsterish place that serves a great brunch and coffee)
- Rome: Vatican City, St. Peter’s Plaza, Sistine Chapel (get there early!), the Pantheon
- Paris: Montmarte, the Sacre Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Jardin du Luxembourg, Versailles (if you can travel a bit out of Paris), Notre Dame, the Latin Quarter
- Strasbourg: Cafe des Anges, Barco Latino (a salsa bar in a boat), Exils, L'Academie de la Bière, the cathedral, Petite France
4. Decide what kind of phone you need beforehand.
This may be obvious to you seasoned travelers, but I wish someone had filled me in on this before I set off. You'll want to stay connected while abroad, so consider buying a cheap phone with a card that you pay as you go when you get there. Or, check with your carrier for an international plan so you have data while you’re traveling. (T-Mobile offers free data in many countries, so they're popular with students studying abroad.)
I got a cheap phone that had basic texting and calling features when I arrived in Strasbourg, but I would’ve preferred to get the international plan with Verizon since there were several times I needed to check directions or look up important information and didn’t have ready access to wi-fi. While you can always duck into a McDonald’s or cafe for free wi-fi, having a data connection on hand is vital in an emergency.
5. Take out the biggest amounts of cash possible at a time.
You'll most likely have to deal with international transaction fees (sometimes multiple ones on the same transaction) each time you withdraw cash. Therefore, you can lessen the number of fees you have to pay by taking out large amounts at once, rather than withdrawing as you need. Foreign ATMs will take small amounts of money here and there, but the fees add up quickly.
Of course, you shouldn't carry all of this cash around with you as pickpocketing is a concern. If you don't have a safe place to stash your money where you're staying (like a hotel room safe), consider the classic traveler's money belt and dummy wallet.
Also, do not exchange currency at airports! The rates are terrible. You're better off exchanging money at a post office, using an ATM in the city, or asking your program staff for recommendations.
6. Mingle with the people who live there or even better, other students.
I can't emphasize enough how much better your abroad experience will be if you interact with people outside of your program.
I was lucky to live with a host mom who also hosted students from other programs. My roommates included a pastry chef from Japan, an intern my age from Dijon, and an Argentinian woman who used to edit news footage for a station in Buenos Aires. French was the only language we had in common. Other students had host siblings who took them out to parties and introduced them to their friends, and some even studied at the University of Strasbourg alongside French students.
It's worth it to push yourself outside your comfort zone to meet new people. Yes, it's scary to talk to new people, especially if you're not familiar with the language. It's also tiring because your brain is working harder than ever to process and communicate. And sometimes, people will still not understand you or even be rude to you for having an accent. But still, the rewards outweigh the challenges here.
You'll probably feel discouraged at several points in the semester, but push through. It's an amazing feeling to interact with people outside of your study abroad group. And it's always okay to fall back on your American friends to recharge your batteries.
7. Take as many photos as you can.
And take the time to find the perfect shot! Even if you feel silly and touristy taking pictures of yourself posing in front of the Eiffel Tower, you'll love having those photos later on.
If your parents or family are helping you out with the cost of going abroad, make sure to send them photos and updates as you go. They’ll not only love experiencing your travels with you, but the photos serve as a nice thank you.
What are your study abroad travel tips?
Have you ever gone abroad? What kinds of lessons did you learn? What else would you suggest for people traveling to another country for the first time?