Many students, if given the opportunity, choose to study abroad at some point during college — most often in some glitzy European city like Paris, London or Florence. The experience may seem like some strange mixture of exciting and nerve-wracking before you go, but guaranteed, it will be one of the most life-changing things you’ll ever get to experience. Living in a new city, traveling, meeting new people and attending school all at once may seem completely overwhelming since it’s so different from what you’re used to, but once you get your bearings it’s an adventure that can’t be beaten. In order to make the most of your situation, you need some concrete information. Here are some of the best tips that any student who wants to study abroad should know before they go.
1. Planning Ahead
Leaving your routine at home is hard, but covering all your bases before you go will make the transition much easier. There are quite a few things you need to get in order before leaving for an extended trip outside of the country. It’s not just making sure your passport is up to date and you know the conversion rate. There are things you use every single day that you hardly even think about.
If you regularly take any prescription medicine (even birth control), you need to make sure you’ve got enough of those pills to last you throughout your whole trip. Other countries may not have the same accessibility and it could be pricey trying to find what you need abroad. With appropriate documentation from your primary doctor, you can have all of your medicine prescriptions filled for an extended period of time to bring with you. This way, you don’t have to worry about running out and having to refill at a foreign pharmacy.
Unless you’re planning on bringing a ton of cash with you to get converted to the local currency (which we would not recommend), you’ll also need to take a trip to the bank to figure out what kind of foreign transaction fees your cards carry. You could be charged hefty conversion fees at the ATM or any time you use your credit/debit card. Some banks will suggest a credit card with no foreign transaction fees so you can avoid wasting all that money. (PROTIP: if you do use your debit card at an ATM, a lot of banks will reimburse you the fees if you ask nicely.)
Lastly, we’re addicted to our cell phones. Most of us know that we can use iMessage to text family and friends when we’re on Wi-Fi, but using your data plan abroad can mean major fees from your phone company. Check and see what they are. If that’s going to be a no-go, get your smartphone unlocked. This will allow you to put a foreign phone service’s SIM card into your phone, meaning you can do a month-to-month plan with a local company in the country you’re studying in. You’ll still be able to iMessage, but this also means you can get data plans so you’re not restricted to texting your friends (and parents) from your homestay/apartment. This also means that — for safety reasons — you’ll be able to call a 2 AM Uber or use the included talk fan to reach out to your local friends when you’re trying to meet up at some park without WiFi. Also, Google Maps… need I say more?
2. Packing Smart
You want to know the general weather for the city you’re visiting, plus that of any of the other cities you’ll be wanting to take a trip to. It’s possible to be in freezing cold weather one weekend and on a beach the next. While you’ll probably feel the urge to pack everything you own, DON’T! Not only is it totally unnecessary to bring all eight of your favorite black sweaters, but overweight baggage fees are expensive, and European airlines can be strict. Also, the shopping overseas is top notch, so saving a few extra spots for new purchases are a must. Make sure your carry-on luggage is properly sized for your airline because some foreign airlines tend to have smaller overhead compartments. When it comes to packing, think weather and think space. Then don’t forget an outlet converter. Your phone will need a charge and so will your laptop.
3. Weekend Trips
While your weekdays will be filled with school and exploring your home city, the weekends are your time to discover even more. There are a bunch of budget airlines that offer cheap flights around Europe — for a small price and short flight, you can spend a few days in an entirely different country. The best websites to search for deals on hotels are Kayak and Expedia, or airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet, which are more local. Seriously, you’ll be shocked by the prices. Check out Rome2Rio to figure out the cheapest way to get from point A to point B. Sure, you could take a roundtrip flight from Paris to Amsterdam for $120 — but you could get a roundtrip bus for less than $50. Rome2Rio will let you know that.
Ask some friends to join and book up your weekends. There are so many places to see! YOSAO! (You only study abroad once!)
4. Don’t Stress it
Stepping out of your comfort zone is a must when studying abroad. Whether you’ve traveled before or not, living in a whole new country is daunting and can seem really effing scary. But you have NOTHING to worry about. As long as you do your research about the place you’re going to and find some good people to spend your time with, you’ll be fine. Take this time to become independent, understand yourself, see the world and learn about new cultures. You might not get another chance like this for a while so be sure to make the most of it.
Also, know that you will get homesick at some point and you will get culture shock. That’s normal and it’ll pass. And if you need to take a “sick day” watching Netflix while it does (thank god it exists in other places), don’t beat yourself up over it. You have a whole semester to explore, don’t force yourself out when you need to take care of your mental health — even when you know you should be taking advantage of the experience.
5. Looking to the Future
When the post-abroad depression kicks in after studying abroad, you’ll want to make sure you have enough momentos to last a lifetime. Document everything. Not just the pretty sunsets and beautiful artwork, but the small details in-between. Some of the best photos are from funny taxi cab rides, airport concession stands, and hotel lobbies. Save the business cards and ticket stubs from everywhere you go — and consider getting a token from each place you go, too. It makes for an incredible scrapbooking project when you’re home and reliving the glory days.