Study Abroad Masterpost

With fall study abroad exchange programs coming up, I thought I’d make a sort of masterpost with all my pearls of wisdom on packing, traveling and life abroad through previous posts!

Feel free to ask me about any of the places I’ve been: an exhaustive list is here and my travel category outlines my trips in detail.

Some general study abroad tips, what I did well and what I wish I did differently (please, learn from my mistakes!), packing tips, what I put in my scrapbook to document my time abroad, expectation vs. reality of studying abroad.

For those studying in the United Kingdom specifically, I wrote about the differences in stereotypes, concerts, student housing and university compared to the United States. I also spoke about the reverse culture shock I felt coming back to the United States, a typical day in the life of an American student in England, geographic terms of the British Isles explained, and fresher’s week. Finally, here’s a fun quiz you can take to test your knowledge of British slang before you head across the pond.

For those hoping to do some traveling during their program, I wrote about tips for solo female travelers, what a good travel buddy looks like, the pros and cons of traveling alone, hostel life, hostels I’ve stayed in, symptoms of my post travel blues, my top five European destinations (so far), travel essentials, quick A to Z travel tips and how to master a weekend away.

Remember that no matter how savvy of a traveler you are, you’re bound to run into some problems you can’t avoid, like I have. Fret not, you quickly learn to roll with the punches.   

Note: this is a queued post.

Mastering a Weekend Away

With the pesky “study” part of my study abroad program, most of my trips were limited to the weekends. However, after spending many weekends abroad, I like think I had it down to an art, and here is how I did it:

How to get there: With such limited time to spend on holiday, it’s best to weigh your options on timeliness of different modes of transport and cost. For all my weekends away, I flew, and with budget airlines such as easyJet and RyanAir, it can be quite affordable. If you’re taking a weekend away based in mainland Europe to another country in the mainland, I would suggest looking into buses or trains if it’s 300 miles away or less (that will take about 3-5 hours). However, if you’re traveling from the British Isles to the mainland (or vice versa), flying is your only timely and budget option.

What to pack: I usually travel with just carry-ons because budget flights usually charge quite a bit for checked bags (that’s where they get you). Be sure the check baggage size restrictions for carry-on luggage. I find it really useful to make a list so you can pack quickly, not forget anything and use it for future trips. Here is a list of my travel essentials.

Where to stay: If you’re hoping to travel while you study abroad, you’re more than likely going to want to travel on a budget. With that, I highly suggest you stay at a hostel. I use HostelWorld to find my accommodation, I wrote a bit about staying in hostels here (I have also written about every hostel I’ve stayed in here, as well). As a quick recap: I (personally) search for the city, filter by rating and price, then use the map to choose hostels close to public transit and then, finally, compare pictures and facilities of the remaining hostels. Your own search method will differ by your priorities, however, I highly suggest you stay somewhere close to public transit routes. I can’t tell you how great it was to live near local train lines in big cities like Berlin and Paris.

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Study Abroad Packing List

With summer study abroad programs just around the corner and fall semester exchange programs fast approaching as well, I thought I’d share some pearls of wisdom on what to pack for your study abroad journey.

Packing smarter is something I definitely wish I’d done differently (read about my trials and tribulations in my Study Abroad: What Worked (and What Didn’t) post), so please learn from my mistakes!

I have made a few similar posts including packing tips (more of how to pack) and travel essentials, but this is specifically for students on more long-term academic study abroad programs than weekends away.

Your luggage: Packing smart starts with your luggage! Think about what you want to get out of the bag (storage space, easy to carry around, durability, etc.) and that can help you decide what kind of bag you want to buy. I personally took rolling suitcases and put smaller bags inside of them, but students on summer programs might want to consider a travel backpack if they think they will be traveling before, after or during their program. I strongly recommend name brand luggage. You can find great quality bags for discounted prices at stores like Ross and Marshalls (for my American friends). A valuable lesson I learned: rolling suitcases can be great for getting through the airport with minimal effort, but other places may not have easy accessibility and your boyfriend gets stuck awkwardly carrying a 50-pound suitcase down stairs the to the tube during rush hour (thanks, honey!). Don’t forget to save space in your bag for things you might bring back and get luggage tags.

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Study Abroad: Expectations vs. Reality

I thought I was well-prepared, but no amount of pre-departure meetings and countless e-mails to my ever so tolerant adviser could have prepared me for the realities of studying abroad.

You don’t get as much attention for being a foreigner as much you think. When I first came abroad, every time I checked out at the grocery store, asked a classmate a question or spoke for any other reason, I was holding my breath for someone to make a comment about my accent. I was told that would be a good way to interest people and make friends. My accent was commented on exactly once in my first term abroad, and I’m pretty sure the commentator was drunk.

You quickly realize your host country is over romanticized. When I tell people I’m studying in England, they probably think of the hustle and bustle of London, handsome British people with accents to die for and drinking tea. Okay, the tea part is totally true, but England isn’t just London, in fact, London is crowded, overwhelming and expensive and I try to avoid it at all costs. While a lot of British people are easy on the eyes, the novelty of the accents wears off and it becomes what you’re used to. It goes unsaid that I still love England, not only because of the good things, but also despite the bad.

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United States vs. United Kingdom: Stereotypes

Being abroad, I obviously got to see if stereotypes about British people are true. I also got to hear stereotypes British people had about Americans and since I was gone so long, coming back to the United States was like being in a new place all over again and I got to experience those stereotypes for myself.

Here’s what I found:

British stereotypes (taken from a variety of sources):

  • British people also drink more than a lot of Americans thanks to pub culture. However, drinking is more of a casual occasion rather than a wild night out.
  • It’s been said that British people especially love apologizing, however, I find that Americans also apologize a lot. For example, if I brush someone’s arms on the train or a question in class is almost always preceded by, “I’m sorry, but…”
  • I find the stereotypes that the stereotypes of terrible teeth and terrible food are grossly outdated. Braces are quite common and with such a wide range of cuisine, there’s food for all tastes in the United Kingdom.
  • A big stereotype is that British people love to talk about the weather, and this is totally true, but I find, not exclusive to Brits. On that note, it’s also thought that it rains a lot in Britain, which is also true, but not as often as you’d think. Most days are cloudy, but rain only rains once a week or so and when it rains, it’s a light sprinkle.
  • Oddly enough, most British people don’t care for the royal family as much as, say, Americans. In fact, a lot of people I know despise the idea of a queen.
  • Yes, people in the United Kingdom have accents, but there is no such thing as a universal “British” accent. Great Britain is composed of Scotland, Wales and England with dozens of varying different accents. What most people consider a traditional “British” accent is very posh and typically found in the south of England.

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Study Abroad: What Worked (And What Didn’t)

With the arrival of international students at Arizona State University this past weekend, I wanted to share what I feel I did right and things I wish I did differently during my time abroad.

What worked:

I made an effort to explore my host country and feel I got to see a large part of the United Kingdom! I got to see a lot of my home county of East Sussex, plenty of London, Southampton, Bristol, Bath, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, Newquay and other smaller towns.

I feel I did a good job of budgeting my travels, but still making them enjoyable. With budget airlines, hostels, cheap meals and minimal drinking, I made sure I had enough money for the real adventures like excursions and museums!

To my surprise, I also did well at making new friends. I hit things off with my roommate almost immediately and my friendship circle grew from there thanks to him and all the societies he joined.

Not so much:

On the other hand, there are a few things I could have done differently or better. I wish I took more care packing. You can read my tips on packing in my Study Abroad Tips and Packing Tips posts. Similarly, with more research, I could have found budget sheets, dishes and more at charity shops or secondhand stores so I wouldn’t have to worry about having them already at my halls.

Although I saw them several times a week, I didn’t do well at making friends in my major. I could have used one when I had questions about the academic system or material.

I regret not joining clubs, both earlier at Arizona State and abroad. A lot are recreational and low commitment, but a great way to take a break from academics and meet new people.

I did fairly well, but I could have done better in my academics (can’t we always?). I could have planned more rather than saving my large assignments two days before they were do and saved myself a lot of stress.

Before I left, I had a foolproof budgeting plan. I recorded all my expenses for several months, until I realized it didn’t change my habits. I don’t have any regrets on my spending habits (besides travel, my biggest budget eaters were transport, concert and event admission, food and drink) per se, but I could have gone without dining and drinking out so often.

When I first started planning my travels, I planned everything to the day well in advance. I quickly realize things change on travel and your plans that were so set in stone might fall through. After a while, I only booked my flight, accommodation and other transport tickets (such as train tickets between cities) in advance to give me a rough itinerary. Then, I’ll plan day trips and museum tickets (usually not for a specific day) in advance online after careful consideration. It’s all about balance: trying to save money by booking in advance, but also leaving room for spontaneity.

New study abroad students, learn from my mistakes and successes and have a wonderful time on what will most certainly be one of the most memorable years of your lives.

Study Abroad Tips

Coming back from a year-long study abroad program, I thought I’d share some pearls of wisdom with people about to start their programs in the fall with a few general tips.

Your host city: A few things you should know a few things about your host country and city before going there to stay.

  • What type of government they have and important politicians and current issues and local attitudes towards all of the above.
  • Important public transit routes you could be taking around the city and what other type of travel options there are, such as the nearest airport, coach station or national rail station.
  • What the local sports and entertainment is, including local teams.
  • Local stores and where to buy what, including food, clothes, school supplies and more.
  • Normal business hours and holidays.
  • Understand the school system, particularly the chronology. For American students studying in the United Kingdom, you can read up on the differences I’ve noticed here.
  • What the local weather is like.
  • You country’s voltage and what you will need a converter for (I only needed it for a hairdryer).
  • Appropriate greetings and friendly (and not so friendly) gestures.
  • How most students manage their finances (how loans work, if they have an overdraft, etc.).
  • Appropriate dress, slang and language and the local attitudes towards religion.

Packing: No matter what, you will probably over pack. But here are some things you should consider.

  • DO pack an appropriate amount of clothes for a variety of weather conditions (lay out what you think you’re going to bring and take about half of that), memorabilia from home (photos, etc.), prescription pills and documents (copy of passport, university acceptance letter, etc.). You can read more of my personal packing tips here.
  • DON’T pack heavy coats, large shampoo bottles or (thick) towels.
  • BUY sheets, kitchen supplies, large shampoo bottles upon arrival in your host country.
  • Avoid buying a lot of (heavy) things in your host country to bring back with you.

Trips: A lot of students choose to travel during their time abroad. Here are a few quick tips for traveling students:

  • Don’t book too far in advance. At least wait until you have your timetable and important due dates before you book any trips, especially ones longer than a couple of days.
  • Once you have your flight and your accommodation, book museums and other activities in advance. A lot of museums will let you skip the queue if you already have a ticket.
  • Check the baggage policy well in advance. A lot of budget airlines have strict baggage size and quantity restrictions.
  • When I get overwhelmed in a new place, I often ask the hostel front desk where to eat and what to do. It’s their job to know all the best places to eat and best ways to experience the city!
  • Explore your host city and country (if it’s small enough) as much as possible.
  • Don’t be caught without a water bottle. If you don’t want to pack a refillable one, buy a plastic one at the airport and refill it for the duration of your trip. Stay hydrated!
  • If you plan on taking several trips, make a basic checklist so you don’t forget the little things. For ideas, check out mine.
  • To each their own, but I like to avoid drinking (excessively) on trips. You can get drunk anywhere and drinking too much will just make you ill, sleep late and miss the real experiences!
  • If you’re like me and too cheap to pay for an international phone plan, it’s imperative to learn how to read a map. Hostels will often hand them out for free. Be sure you also recall landmarks near your hostel and the street it’s on in case you’ve lost your way.
  • Don’t be afraid to travel alone. You can do what you want, when you want, for how long you want! It’s a great way to come outside your comfort zone and meet fellow student travelers. Read up on all my pros and cons of traveling alone here.
  • It’s important to understand this now: nothing ever goes as planned, shit happens, but you quickly learn to roll with the punches. No matter how long it may take or how hopeless things seem in the moment, there’s a strong chance things will turn out just fine.

Personal

  • Avoid hanging out with a lot of people from your home country. It’s a nice to have some similarity in a foreign place, but don’t cling to them!
  • Understand the kind of work ethic it takes to succeed on the “study” part of your study abroad journey.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask “stupid” questions. If you don’t understand what a word or phrase means, ask, and then you can laugh at yourself later. Or just use Urban Dictionary.
  • I will always be thankful I documented (mostly) everything by keeping this blog. I also kept physical memorabilia in the form of tickets, maps and more for a scrapbook. Here is a post on the things I put in my scrapbook.
  • Make time for friends and family at home, but not too much time. They’ll be there when you get back.
  • If you’re struggling in any way, talk to someone. Study abroad advisers are trained to handle homesickness, culture shock and more.

Your time goes by quicker than you’ll ever imagine, don’t let it pass you by!