Study Abroad Travel Tips

Thinking of studying abroad, but not sure what you need to do to have the best semester you possibly can?

Whether you’re going to an non-English speaking country, participating in a formal study abroad program, or thinking about doing a master’s program abroad, here are 101 ways to make your semester memorable.

  • Choose your study abroad program carefully. Consider location, size, cost, opportunities for studying in the local university, tutoring offered by the program, and activities and excursions when deciding which program to choose.

  • Try to finish most of your core and major requirements before you go, or plan to do them when you’re not abroad. This way, you can take any course you like while overseas.

  • If you’re a highly motivated, type-A student from the U.S. and want to save some money, look into how you can do a year abroad directly enrolled in a foreign university or whether you can do your master’s abroad in a public institution. The tuition will be far cheaper than in the U.S., so your main expense will be the cost of living (which you would have anywhere).

  • Check whether or not you can use funds in a 529 plan or a federal student loan or take a tuition tax credit for direct enrollment in an overseas university by checking to see if the school is eligible on the FAFSA website.

  • Think hard about whether you’d like to live with a host family, in a local dorm, or in an apartment by yourself or with a roommate, and stick to your guns. Being in an unhappy living situation can make you miserable.

  • Book your plane ticket through a student travel agency that allows you to have an open-ended return date or charges minimal fees for changing your return flight. If you prefer, to book online simply use HipMunk.com.

  • Don’t bother getting the International Student ID Card. It won’t do anything for you outside of North America.

  • Skip the traveler’s checks and don’t bring cash. These are the most expensive ways to exchange currency. Instead, check to see which foreign banks have an agreement with your bank to allow you to withdraw money at the ATMs without paying fees, and your parents can transfer money easily into your U.S. bank account.

  • Raise your daily and weekly withdrawal limits as much as possible so you can withdraw the rent money before your foreign bank account is set up, and get money from your parents easily in an emergency.

  • Notify your credit and debit card companies you’re going abroad, and notify them again every 90 days. You don’t want your card to stop working suddenly while you’re overseas.

  • Pack lightly. No matter how good your intentions are, you’ll accumulate lots of stuff during the course of a semester abroad.

  • When you arrive, register with your home country’s embassy to let them know where you live. In case of natural disaster or civil unrest, they may be able to help you get out. Also, remember to register trips that you take outside of your host country.

  • Read the travel warnings for your host country on the State Department’s website, and if you’re going to ignore them, at least know you’re not 100% safe.

  • If you have an ongoing physical or mental health condition, notify your study abroad program before you leave, and ask them to help you set up a consultation with an English-speaking professional. Better to know you have a doctor available if you ever need him than to have to find one urgently.

  • Make sure your medical insurance covers you while your abroad, and figure out whether or not you’ll have to front the money and get reimbursed, or whether the insurance company can pay a foreign provider directly if needed. If there’s any chance you’ll need to pay for medical costs out of pocket, look into travel insurance policies that would pay the provider directly pending reimbursement from your health insurance.

  • Bring a complete supply of any prescription medications with you, along with a copy of the prescription. Similar medications can have different compositions around the world or be hard to get, so it’s better to have them on hand. Worst case scenario, have someone visit you and bring a refill. (Prescription drugs cannot be sent through the mail).

  • Bring a supply of Ibuprofen, Aspirin, and other over-the-counter medications you use regularly, as they might be prescription-only in your host country.

  • Don’t bring electric devices like appliances, hair dryers, or electric razors, as these items need a converter to work properly on different electric currents. Computers, cameras, and other electronic devices should be fine with just a plug adapter.

  • Don’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend while you study abroad. Especially if you’re going for the whole year.

  • Decide before you leave what your priorities are: traveling in Europe? Seeing as much of your host city/country as possible? Having a great academic experience? Making lots of friends? Having a job or an internship? Honing your language skills? Pick what you want to focus on the most, but don’t expect to be able to do it all in such a short time.

  • Carry around a little notebook, and write down words you don’t know or questions you have about the local culture, so you can look them up when you get back to your apartment.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions about language and culture. Ask everyone, from your host family to your program administrator.

  • Join a student group in the local university to make friends and practice your language skills.

  • Exchange email addresses with at least 2 students in your local university class, and ask them if they’d like to study for the exam together.

  • Scrap the English language tourist guidebooks (or get one) and go for the guidebooks geared towards locals in the native language at your neighborhood bookstore. (Free Things to Do in Your City). They’ll be a more geared towards a student budget than a tourist budget.

  • Before you make major purchases, ask a local or someone from your study abroad program where the best place to buy is. Study abroad students often end up paying more for basic goods and services (hair cuts, clothes, plumbers, makeup…) because they don’t know where to go for the best price.

  • Use the AngloInfo directories to look up English speaking service providers and businesses if you’re anxious about using a provider in a foreign language.

  • If you have a class shopping period within your program, use it, and attend a few classes that interest you. When you go to class, try to talk to students who specialize in that field and ask them which professors they recommend.

  • Take course recommendations from your program advisor seriously; she’ll know which professors generally appreciate your program’s students and who is especially hard on non-native speakers.

  • If academics aren’t your priority during your semester abroad, let your program advisor know before you choose classes. She’ll appreciate your honesty, and be able to steer you towards courses that are less academically demanding.

  • Corollary: don’t complain to your program advisor about not having enough time to do the work and then talk in the halls about your awesome trip to Rome last weekend and how excited you are to leave for Berlin on Thursday right after class. Program administrators aren’t stupid, and she’ll be less likely to cut you slack later.

  • Don’t hesitate to talk to your professors if you don’t understand something.

  • When you talk to your professors, or any adult you don’t know well, make sure you understand and respect your host country’s rules of politeness so you don’t accidentally offend them.

  • Similarly, email your professors if you like, but understand that email etiquette might be different in your host country and try to follow the rules.

  • In general, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Even if you don’t understand some custom or etiquette rule (such as email, or formal speech), follow the rules anyway so you don’t make an ass out of yourself.

  • If you can’t keep up with taking notes in the language of your host country, record the classes on a small digital recorder. That way, if there are parts you don’t understand, you can play them for your academic advisor or tutor and ask questions later.

  • Try to learn at least one new word in the foreign language every day by picking a useful word from your class notes and trying to use it at least 3 times during the day.

  • Take a class on one of your hobbies: music, art, photography, knitting, basket weaving… You’ll pick up the vocabulary quickly if you’re interested in what you’re doing and find having conversations easier when you’re talking to people with whom you share a hobby.

  • Watch foreign language movies with subtitles in the foreign language. Seeing the words while you’re hearing them will help you learn the language faster and understand better.

  • Even if you’re not subject to a language pledge, try to cut English out of your life as much as you can, watching TV, listening to music, and speaking with friends only in the foreign language. Again, it will help you to learn the language faster and solidify the neural connections between your native language and foreign language in your brain.

  • Try to speak in the foreign language without translating from English. Your expressions will sound more natural that way, and people will ultimately think you’re a native speaker, even if you have a bit of an accent.

  • Get a list of all the museums, public parks, and monuments in your host city, and visit each of them at least once.

  • Cross reference your list of museums with a list of museums that are free to students and youth. In Europe, most national museums are free to those under 26 with a valid student ID (that shows your birthday). European nationality not required.

  • If you like to bike, get a bike pass or buy a used bike while you’re there. You can sell a used bike at the end of the semester for close to what you paid for it, in many cases it’s almost as fast as public transportation, and it’ll give you lots more time to see the city.

  • If you buy a bike, spend a few minutes learning the rules of the road for your host country; it could save your life. (And buy a helmet).

  • If you plan on driving while abroad, get an international driver’s license from the DMV before you leave.

  • Also, learn to drive a stick shift if you can. Automatic card can still be hard to come by outside of North America.

  • Write a journal or a blog about your experiences, even if it’s just a few sentences logging what you did each day.

  • If you write a blog, print out all of the entries so your children and grandchildren will be able to read them.

  • If you write a blog, sign up to blog on a student traveler network like TravelerVoice or TravMonkey. They’ll share your stories with other students abroad and you’ll find blogs with other students’ experiences.

  • Whether or not you write a blog, look up the top blogs for your country by going to Alltop.com and searching for your host country’s name. Add a few of the top blogs to your Google Reader so you can see when the blogs are updated with new events in your city.

  • Do a google search for “free things to do” plus “your city” to come up with a few websites where you can search a calendar of current events.

  • Check to see if your university has an alumni association in your host city or country, and try to attend one or two of their events to network.

  • Bring a good camera and take lots of pictures.

  • Get your best pictures printed out and make a photo album or scrapbook, again so your grandchildren will be able to see them some day.

  • Send postcards to your parents and grandparents regularly, even if you call them on Skype all the time. They’ll love it.

  • Buy a few postcards yourself every time you visit a tourist site. They don’t cost that much, and they’re almost always pictures you’d never be able to take yourself. Put them in a scrapbook with your own pictures.

  • Take time to fill out honest course and program evaluations at the end of the year, to help other students decide whether to attend your program and which classes to take.

  • If someone sends you a gift while you’re abroad, make sure the declared customs value is below the taxable threshold in your host country (check with FedEx or DHL). If it’s listed in U.S. dollars, a tax could be assessed due to fluctuating exchange rates.

  • Similarly, if someone sends you a gift abroad, have them send it either by private carrier (DHL, Fedex) or regular postal mail (no tracking number or insurance). For whatever reason, national postal services can’t track packages outside of their borders, and if it’s ever lost, each country will blame the other. Regular postal mail also seems to get lost less often than registered international mail (this may not be true if you’re in a country with dubious postal service).

  • Get a job for a few hours a week tutoring or babysitting. It will give you some pocket money for exploring and traveling.

  • Don’t get a job with a sleazy English teaching company that wants you to pay for your own “training.”

  • Before you get a job, clarify whether you’re allowed to work with the visa you have and whether or not you’ll make enough to have to file a tax return.

  • International treaties state that students are residents of their home countries, so if you do make money abroad, declare it as income in your home country.

  • If you get an official job abroad, keep all of your payslips to show the retirement contributions that were paid on your behalf. International Social Security Totalization Treaties between most western countries allow you to count quarters worked abroad towards retirement benefits in your home country.

  • Divide your city up into sections and visit one section thoroughly every weekend you’re in town. That way, you’ll make sure you see everything.

  • Make it a goal to visit a minimum of 3 other cities in your host country per semester. Visit as much of your host country as you possibly can.

  • Don’t plan to spend every weekend traveling outside of your host country. You’ll never get the opportunity to be anything more than a tourist in your city if you’re never actually there.

  • Accept all invitations to eat at friends’ houses or visit friends’ houses in the country. You’ll get to see more by visiting with people you know.

  • Don’t accept any invitations from suspicious people. Meet all dates and tutoring/babysitting clients in a public place first.

  • Avoid doing anything illegal, especially drugs. Different countries have varying levels of restrictions on different illegal drugs, and the last thing you want is to end up in a foreign jail because you didn’t know the rules or understand what you were buying. Brokedown Palace, anyone?

  • If you do end up doing something illegal, your embassy will NOT bail you out or help you in any way. So follow the laws of your host country. A French expression says “Nul n’est censé ignorer la loi” – Nobody should be unfamiliar with the law. When in doubt, ask.

  • If you’re going to a country that could become unstable or hit with a natural disaster, get travel insurance. They’ll help you get out if you need to. The embassy may or may not.

  • Do a little bit of research and ask around to find out what neighborhoods you should avoid for safety reasons. Don’t go there unless you’re in a group or better yet, with locals.

  • Learn the emergency numbers and program them into your phone. 9-1-1 isn’t universal, and not knowing who to call in an emergency can be the difference between life and death.

  • Don’t take out your cell phone, ipod, ipad, camera, or wallet in or around public transportation. It’s too easy for thieves to grab it and jump off the train or the bus as the doors are closing.

  • Learn how to make a few easy recipes from the local cuisine. You’ll eat better and impress your friends once you go back home.

  • Unless you attend a language immersion program once you get back home, your semester abroad is the best opportunity you’ll ever have to hone your foreign language skills. Don’t waste it.

  • You don’t have to like everything you do or everything you eat, but you should try as many new things as you can tolerate.

  • A loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese from the grocery store is the least expensive, most delicious lunch you can buy. Do that most days so you can save your budgeted money for more traveling.

  • Get an internship with an international company in your field. It will look fantastic on your CV.

  • Stay in your host country as long as you possibly can before and after your semester, to travel or work. Even if you move abroad after college, you’ll probably have a job and maybe a family, so you won’t get this experience again.

  • Write an article about your experiences for your hometown’s local paper or your college blog to encourage other students to study abroad.

  • Make sure to schedule plenty of down time, to reflect on your experiences and recover from language overload and culture shock. Speaking a foreign language 24 hours a day can be exhausting at first.

  • Volunteer to do some kind of work with children. You’ll learn best from kids because they won’t hesitate to correct you and will assume that you have at least the same vocabulary they do.

  • Don’t let your friends correct your language mistakes all the time, because it will get tiring and annoying. But do set times with them that you can correct each other and ask questions.

  • Try not to get annoyed with people who do correct you. They’re usually just trying to help.

  • When you get a paper back from a tutor or professor with corrections, spend half an hour going through and making a list of the mistakes you most commonly made. Then, look over your list before you write the next paper. Taking a few minutes to recognize your most common mistakes will improve your writing immensely.

  • Go on dates with locals.

  • Don’t give your phone number to random guys on the street or in bars. Especially in France. They’ll keep calling you forever. Stick to people you’ve actually talked to and spent time with.

  • Read up on your host country’s dating culture before you go so you have an idea of what to expect. Then, let romance take over, and experience that romantic walk by the Seine or the magical gondola ride.

  • A Turkish proverb says, “To learn a tongue, two tongues must touch.” Remember that when you’re on your dates.

  • Buy a piece of clothing or an accessory in every country you visit. Then, when people at home ask you where you got that beautiful scarf, you can say, “Oh this old thing? I got it when I was in Milan.”

  • Try to buy an outfit or two in the local style, and improve your fashion horizons.

  • Use Memrise to help you study a foreign language, and WordReference and Google Translate to help you with your homework.

  • Keep track of what you spend on groceries and and rent so you’ll know how much you can spend on travel, eating out, and sightseeing.

  • Download a currency exchange app and a translation app onto your smartphone.

  • Keep an eye on the exchange rates. Transfer money out of the U.S. when the dollar is strong, and into the U.S. when the dollar is weak.

  • Don’t buy anything in your host country that you could buy in your home country for a fraction of the price.

  • If you’re of age, visit a winery in your host country and bring a few bottles of local wine back to your family as gifts. It’s a much better gift than Eiffel Tower keychains or Berlin Wall salt and pepper shakers. Wrap them in bubble wrap and put them in your checked luggage. They won’t break.

  • Media Mail works from abroad and is a lot cheaper than regular mail. Send your course books back at the end of the semester by bringing open, filled boxes of books and papers to the post office, along with a big roll of packing tape. It’ll take a few months for your books to get home (they ship by boat), but you’ll save lots of money. Just make sure to wrap the boxes shut very thoroughly with packing tape, so nothing goes missing.
[Image credit: bjornmeansbear on Flickr]

Allison Lounes writes about living and studying abroad in France at www.parisunraveled.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @parisunraveled, or on Facebook at Study Abroad in France. She is currently completing a Master’s Degree in Anthropology at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, in Paris, France.