10 Tips on How to Finesse Your Upcoming Study Abroad Experience

Last spring, I spent my semester studying and interning in Prague in the Czech Republic through University Studies Abroad Consortium. I have spent this past semester reminiscing on the good ole days and have been feeling a bit emo the last few days. These cities become your home, and the friends and memories you make will warm your heart every time you think about them. Despite all of these warm and fuzzy feelings, I wish I had known some things before I left. Here is a quick 10-tip guide I’ve put together.

1. Pack appropriately

It is incredibly important to pack according to where your destination is. First and foremost, you should take weather into consideration (remember: layers are always your best friend). It’s also a good idea to know how many seasons you will be abroad. I stayed in Europe from January through June and traveled all around the continent. I experienced winter, spring and summer and participated in things from skiing in the Czech Republican to burning my entire body on the Barcelona beach. I know I packed well for the colder seasons, but really struggled and sweated during my last month abroad. I also want to emphasize how important it is to try and blend in with the people from the city you’re living in. Pay attention to the culture to insure your clothing will not offend them. Don’t pack high heels because you won’t wear them and most countries have cobblestones (and those are not your friend). Try to limit the number of shoes you bring to those of necessity because they’re heavy and it truly isn’t a fashion show. I know you are probably thinking you should pack workout clothes, but honestly don’t, unless you’re truly a dedicated athlete. I knew one girl out of 80 that went to the gym frequently abroad. Also, avoid leggings (I’m a complete hypocrite for this, but I deeply regret packing leggings), brand names on clothes and anything that screams “I’m American.” Pickpockets target Americans in every country because they think we’re all rich and not paying attention.

Pro Tip: Always make sure you have your purse or bag clutched in front of you and nothing in your pockets!

2. Leave unnecessary things behind and bring appropriate luggage

You can buy shampoo, a hair straightener and all of those little things once you arrive at your destination! Plus, you want to buy things like straighteners there because the wattage is different and it might break. My advice on the luggage situation is these three things:

  • Check one large luggage that will carry all of your stuff
  • Pack a carry-on luggage that has NOTHING in it. That way you have saved luggage space for the things you will accumulate abroad and won’t be stuck paying extra fees for more or overweight luggage.
  • You are typically allowed to have one carry-on bag. I suggest this bag should double as a weekend travel bag, as well as a bag you will take to classes. For me, I had a really big backpack I took to class and then took with me on my weekend trips. Also, make sure to pack your electronics, chargers, toothbrush, face wash, an extra set of clothes, snacks and books in it for your plane ride! I know a lot of people who had lost luggage for a while, so those extra clothes may come in clutch!​

3. Explore

Prior to your arrival, make a list of all of the museums, parks, restaurants, sights and places you want to see and go. Then, make actual plans with your new abroad friends to go and see them. I know it’s easy to say you’ll do it later, but those few months fly by. I still have things I wished I did in Prague!

4. Apply to Every Single Scholarship

A lot of people think studying abroad is expensive and they can’t do it – FALSE! There are programs that are more affordable than others, so definitely look into a lot of different options and let your study abroad office know your financial situation. Also, many universities and study abroad programs have scholarship money that nobody ever applies for! I submitted my applications late to a bunch and ended up getting a lot of last minute money! Because I chose a program that equaled my cost of attendance at Iowa, I was able to take this money and travel to countries every single weekend. Apply to everything, even if they say the deadline has passed!

5. Make a New Friend in Every City You Visit

While it’s cool to explore the city, the best part is the people! Shout out to Paul and Elaine (my new Irish parents) from Belfast, Isla from Scotland, Nives from Croatia, Femke from Amsterdam and so many more friends! When you make friends with a local, even for a few short days, it makes your experience so much more authentic and fun. The locals are always so friendly and excited to show off their home city to you!

6. Selfie Appropriately

While it’s totally understandable to want to document all of the awesome things you will be doing and seeing abroad, please remember to be courteous to what you’re photographing and in the manner in which you’re doing so. I still shudder at the man who whipped out his selfie stick and took pictures smiling inside the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland. The most respectful way you can take a photo is to take a simple photo of the object or place, and do not place yourself in the photo. When you put yourself in the photo you are taking meaning away from it and showing off that you were there, which is incredibly insensitive.

While we’re on the topic of photos, make sure you are traveling for the experience and not for an Instagram aesthetic. There is nothing more frustrating than traveling with someone who requests an entire photo shoot in front of everything. Your pictures should be to look back and remember the good times, and not to show off to everyone. Don’t give into the toxic comparison culture.

7. Do Something Fun in Every City

I decided that I would eat ice cream in every country I went to, and I can successfully say that I completed my goal. I think it gives your trip a little edge if you try implement a fun activity to do in each country. This can be with food, drinks, museums or whatever else you can think of. It’s fun to compare when it’s all done! So far, Italy has had the best ice cream in my opinion! 

8. Actually Learn About the Places You’re Visiting

While there are a million things you could do on your trip, I strongly encourage you to take the time while you’re there to learn a little bit about the region or history. For me, I took peace tours in Belfast, went to concentration camps, visited many World War II museums, art galleries, memorials and so much more. You get to stand in the locations that our history books have been writing about for so many years. It would be tragic if you didn’t learn and appreciate the history and culture.

9. Ball on a Budget

It is incredibly easy to spend all of your money right away. It’s no fun to run out of money, so I suggest building a budget before you leave. Try and make smart economic decisions like cooking at home rather than eating out every night, not going out for drinks every single night, shopping only on occasion, taking the metro instead of taxis and Ubers and flying with cheaper airlines (Easyjet, Ryanair, Vueling, etc.). When flying, insure that you are following their silly policies and avoiding their ridiculous charges for breaking those policies (print out your ticket, your only bag must meet their exact size, etc.). Another safety policy is if you have $3,500 in your account, only tell yourself you have $3,300 in your account. Lying to yourself about having less money (and budgeting with less money) will provide you a safety net in case you run out of money at the very end. Always know in the back of your mind things will probably cost more than you anticipated. There is always something that happens, like a really expensive train ticket, you messed up with the airline and have to pay 50 euros, you paid for a museum that you could have gotten in for free and so much more. Try and be flexible and plan for the worst. I also would encourage you to get an emergency credit card, and always keep your debit and credit cards separate because pick pocketing is REAL.

10. Self-Care and Mental Health

Studying and/or interning abroad will often bring out so many emotions before, during and after your trips. Planning ahead for self-care can be something that saves your experience. Have a support system and try and “take” them with you to Europe. I forced everyone in my family to download WhatsApp, so that I could continue to video call, call and text them when I was abroad. Know how you best handle stress because you will definitely encounter it. I know writing out my plans and lists helps me with anxious feelings! If you’re currently seeing a counselor or mental health professional, work with your program to see how you can continue that during your time abroad, or see if your current provider can continue care (video calls) when you’re abroad. Make sure you continue to self-care while you’re abroad through getting sleep, working out, eating a balanced diet and keeping up with classes, so that you don’t feel like you’re falling behind. My last piece of advice is to know that you will get upset, you will get homesick and you will cry. Know that many students often feel isolated and lonely when they’re abroad, so don’t feel like you can’t reach out to other students in your program! They are likely experiencing similar feelings.

For me, the hardest part was transitioning back to my home. I cried more when I was at home and felt more isolated than ever. I had just had this amazing life-changing experience and literally nobody cared. If anyone mentioned it to me, they would just compliment my Instagram photos or ask what my favorite country was. Instead of answering those questions, I really wanted to tell them about what I learned and the people I met. I soon realized that I sounded “pretentious” and nobody actually wanted to hear about it. I suggest you continue to communicate and stay in touch with the friends you make abroad because they will value your stories and help you avoid these feelings.

Have so much fun and good luck with your travels! May you learn lots, grow as an individual and travel safely.