Living and studying abroad is one of the most unique experiences I’ve had in my life. At Wake, swarms of Juniors study abroad in the fall—it’s basically a rite of passage to have an experience abroad at some point in your college career.
While it’s fun to fantasize about saying prost at Oktoberfest and lounging on the beaches of Positano, a bit of foresight can save you from some major travelheadaches.
Here are my top practical tips for making the most of your time abroad.
1. Make a financial plan now.
Abroad can get expensive—fast. Have a conversation with your parents and set a reasonable budget for your time abroad. I think a good way to frame a budget is to divide it into daily living expenses and “fun money.” Daily living expenses would include things like groceries, books, and toiletries. In Barcelona, these items were at comparable prices to Winston. Fun money is there for nights out, weekend trips and clothing. It’s important to think about how much you can spend on trips before you start committing yourself—and your money. It’s also good to consider how often you want to be able to shop in your host city and enjoy eating out as these are really important aspects of enjoying your time!
I loved going out to eat with my friends regularly in Barcelona! This is the roof of our favorite restaurant, Paisano Cafe which is across from the Sagrada Familia.
Another key financial plan to make is to determine what credit and debit cards you will use, In Europe, cash is king. Debit cards are necessary in order to be able to regularly withdraw cash for daily use. It’s a good idea to apply for a debit card without international transaction fees—one of the most popular cards amongst my friends was a Charles Schwab card. An international credit card can also be helpful for bigger purchases but is not necessary on a day-to-day basis. Be careful to make sure that if you plan on using a credit card that you get familiar with any fees associated with it so you don’t encounter any surprises.
2. Unlock your cellphone.
The most common way to use a cellphone abroad is to buy a sim card once you arrive. They’re pretty inexpensive—in Barcelona it was about 20 euros for a gigabyte of data a month which you can use anywhere in Europe. Although they are extremely easy to find in major cities, some students find that they are unable to use their cellphones because they are “locked” by their carrier. It is necessary to call your carrier to determine if it is unlocked or not for foreign sim cards. FYI, you may have to pay off the phone first in order to unlock it.
3. Plan key trips in advance.
Most people studying abroad in Europe try to make it to Munich for Oktoberfest. This can become a really expensive weekend if you don’t plan before prices shoot up. Get a group of friends together and book flights over the summer if you can! Hotels and Airbnbs are really critical as well, as prices can reach well over 500 dollars a night even for basic accommodations.
Being a huge Disney fan, I wanted to make sure to make it to Disneyland Paris! In fact, it was such a priority for me I went twice.
Ibiza and other popular seasonal vacation spots can be similarly expensive. Although I personally didn’t go, many of my friends said it ended up being their most expensive trip overall. I think a good strategy is to plan 2 trips that are really important to you and then to go with the flow when you get there, depending on what is economical and what your friends want to do.
Along those lines, it’s good to spread out your trips according to weather. For example, Barcelona beaches stay warm through September, so it’s valuable to have at least one weekend there. Meanwhile, if you want to enjoy skiing or Christmas markets, you want to budget that in later on. My advice is actually to enjoy your host city at least for half of September (Oktoberfest and maybe one other trip) so you can do all the touristy things while it’s still warm.
4. Invest in quality luggage.
A classic black Longchamp Le Pliage is a reliable choice for exploring
It might seem like luggage is one of the least important aspects of your trip, but I would argue it’s actually one of the most important. Since you’ll be abroad for four months, you’ll have a lot of stuff. It’s worthwhile to get a light set of luggage that’s easy to carry—especially since you’ll have to lug it from the airport and potentially carry it up stairs. Anyway, the less your luggage weighs, the more you can put in it!
If you’re planning on taking weekend trips, having a great weekender is key. European standards for packing are quite different than American ones, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the size difference. (A lot of bags will advertise themselves as “international carry-on” size.) I used a Nomadic bag which is great—it can be carried as a duffel or a backpack which is ideal since you’ll often want to carry it up and down metro stairs and run through airports with it.
Finally, a great purse is really paramount to daily life in Europe. Many cities (particularly Barcelona, where I studied) have a big pickpocketing problem. I highly recommend investing in a nicer cross body that can fit at least a wallet, sunglasses, house keys and maybe a water bottle or small umbrella. The most important features are really a zip close and durability. Getting a sturdy black bag is the surest bet as light colors are likely to get dirty on metro floors, under restaurant seats and rubbing up on jeans.
I hope these trips prove helpful for you while you study abroad! Best wishes and safe travels.