It’s over, and I’m back. It’s wild to think that this time last year, I was getting ready for my year in Germany. I was so caught between being nervous and excited that I felt like a bundle of unsettled energy. I had almost no idea what to expect, and it would be the first time I was on my own in a foreign country. Add the fact that English wasn’t the first language, and I felt like I was going in way over my head. I was excited, though. I’ve always tried to push myself into situations that I’d be slightly uncomfortable in if I knew that on the other side I’d be better for it. And, I can now confidently say that I am better for it.
This past year has been a whirlwind, and I have grown so much as a person. My confidence has grown in certain aspects, and I know how to deal with stressful or uncomfortable situations better now. I’ve made new friends and engaged with and learned about different cultures. It’s difficult to put everything into words, but here are some of the best tips and tricks that I’ve learned from my year abroad.
Learn to Roll with the Punches:
I’m going to be upfront with you. Things will go wrong. There is no way you’re going to make it through an entire year living in a foreign country without any hiccups or rough patches. For me, it started before I even got to Germany. I missed my transatlantic connection in Charlotte (something you can read about here). When these type of situations come up, don’t panic. It’s not the end of the world, and when you start to freak out, it’ll only make the situation that much more stressful.
Instead, work with all the information you have, and make the best decision you can at the time. Also, especially if it has to do with travel, communicate with your point-person at the university and in the station/airport. They’re typically incredibly understanding and will often help you in whatever way they can.
Communication is key. This especially holds true if the semesters of the foreign university don’t line up with UF’s. This is what happened with me. My first semester (that was recorded as my fall transcript) didn’t end until halfway through February, and then there was about two weeks of processing before the transcript was sent back to UF. It caused some problems on my account. UF’s system is highly automated, so if your semesters don’t line up, it can cause some unforeseen problems by immediately processing you with incorrect or not-up-to-date information. Be sure to keep an open line of communication with both international advisors from UF and your exchange university. Also, try to establish a point-person in UF’s financial aid, registrar, and bursar offices. If you have somebody you can go directly to, you won’t have to deal with the general submission on their help site. This is especially helpful if, like me, you don’t have the ability to make calls to these offices internationally. Things are bound to go haywire, but having people you can communicate with openly will help minimize the problem and get it dealt with and resolved quickly.
Not everything is within your personal control, and there are a lot of plates in the air when you go on any study abroad or exchange. It’s important to keep on top of things while still realizing that sometimes there is only so much you can do. If you show that you’re making an honest effort, people will almost always be more than willing to help you get everything sorted out. Plus, these stressful situations will seem more like funny stories in hindsight.
Burst that International Bubble:
More often than not, as an international student, you will be grouped with other international students. I understand why universities do this (i.e. it’s easier to keep track of us, the transition is a bit easier, etc.), but make a concentrated effort to break out of this bubble. This especially holds true if you’re going on a study abroad for language immersion. English is often the international working language of choice, and while this is pretty convenient for ease and comfort, it’s not effective for immersion. Often times, the university will have clubs or organizations in place that are meant to connect international students with local students. I joined Bonn University’s International Choir the first semester I was there, and it was a great way to be around regular students of the university.
If none of the university’s clubs interest you, break out Google, and see if you can find something within the city that strikes your fancy. I found a local theatre troupe, that yes spoke English, but were comprised of people who had been living in Bonn for years. I was able to find more local spots, and sometimes, if I asked, I could practice my German with a few of the members. I even met some Bonn University students through the group.
It’ll be a bit nerve-wracking at first, especially if you’re like me and struggle to approach new people, but I promise that it’s worth it. You’ll have a group outside of the International Students Bubble and it’ll make you feel more integrated in the city.
Day-Trips are Underrated:
While you’re in a foreign country for an extended period of time, I’m pretty confident in assuming you plan on traveling. A LOT. I’m sure you have weekend (or week-long if your schedule allows) trips planned out and a list of must-see cities. This is great! Those will be amazing experiences and this is the perfect opportunity to fulfill them. However, don’t knock day-trips.
Day-trips are, in my opinion, some of the most under appreciated and underutilized aspects of doing a study abroad. There is typically so much to do right in your own backyard, and exploring your local area not only makes you feel more like a local but also reveals little wonders that typical travelers may otherwise miss.
Some of my favorite trips I took were day trips around my area. I was especially lucky because my student ID for Bonn University doubled as a train pass. It allowed me to travel throughout the entire state of Germany I was living in (Nordrhein Westfalia) for free, if I used regional trains or public transportation. My friends and I would often take a day of a more relaxed weekend and head up to Cologne (see cathedral above) or Düsseldorf, two major cities that were only 30-60 minutes train ride away.
The farthest I ever went on a day trip was a city called Aachen, a 3.5 hour train ride one way on exclusively regional trains, but it took me almost all the way to Belgium and the Netherlands. It was a cute city where I was able to see the entire main center in a day and make it home by dinner time. Each city I visited in Germany had such a unique feel to it that I never got bored hopping on a train for a few hours to explore a new one.
Take a hike. Literally. It’s a great way to see the local area and feel like a resident. Sometimes you’ll even get a little bit of local history thrown in, too. There was a load of trails near where I was in Bonn, in a place call the Sebengeberge (or the “seven mountains”) and along the main trail that most people take, there’s Drachenfels (above) and Drachenburg (below). It was an awesome insight to history of the area, a nice time in nature, and a great view from the top.
The last perk to day trips that I’m going to touch on is also the most obvious: they’re cheap. Because you’re not going far and you’re returning home to sleep, the transportation ticket is usually cheap, and you save money you would’ve spent on a hostel. If it’s close enough, you could even pack some food to snack on so you don’t have to pay for a sit down meal. All you need to worry about paying for is whatever site or attraction you plan on seeing, and typically they will offer some sort of student discount. Almost every European city has a cathedral and going inside is typically free. Just be careful about the type of clothes you wear. Some cathedrals require you to be covered from your shoulders to your knees, so keep that in mind. Long, flowy skirts or dresses are your friend. What I did when it was really hot and didn’t want to wear longer bottoms is bring a scarf or shawl, and I tied it around my waist while I was inside. The shawl-trick works for covering your shoulders as well, if your top has thinner straps or a shoulder cut-out.
Concerning Overnight Trips:
Despite how great day trips are, there are going to be cities or other places where it just isn’t feasible. Great! That’s awesome that you want to explore some more distant places, but if you aren’t smart about your booking, you run the risk of ending up in someplace either crazy expensive, kinda dirty, or sometimes, a little bit of both. You want to do a little bit of research and book smart. There are a few sights that I’ve found are great, reliable resources for booking your travel.
Omio (formally GoEuro but they’ve expanded outside of Europe), is the best booking site I’ve found for finding inexpensive, reliable transportation. When you enter your search you can choose if you want a round-trip or one-way ticket, select your desired dates, as well as change the currency display. If you’re paying with something that operates in US dollars, you can choose that, or your country’s currency if you had to open a local bank account and want to use that instead. Before you hit search, uncheck the “add accommodation with booking.com” box. This’ll affect the price shown on your tickets and, in my opinion, one of the worst ways of searching for accommodation.
Once you submit a search, it’ll give you results for trains, buses, and planes (if the distance is far enough). It’ll also show you the cheapest as well as the quickest options, which are sometimes the same thing. One of the many things I love about Omio is their mobile tickets. More often than not, when you’re on a study abroad, you won’t have a printer readily available, and the printer shops in town will cost you and sometimes have odd hours. It quickly becomes difficult to print off tickets. If you get Omio’s app, you just put in a code they send you in the confirmation email, and it’ll upload the ticket so you have off-line access to it.
One of my bigger tips: be careful about getting night trains. It may seem like a great idea because you think, “Oh, I can just sleep on the train, and then I’ll wake up and be there.” Yes and no. Night trains are notoriously hard to sleep on unless you pay a little extra to book a bunk room or you’re just one of those people who can fall asleep anywhere. You also run the risk of missing your stop if your train doesn’t terminate where you’re getting off. Night trains do have their appeal, though. You won’t be missing anything because everything will be closed while you’re traveling, and it’ll give you more time in wherever it is you’re going. Just be sure to set an alarm so you don’t miss your stop and be prepared to drink lots of coffee because you will be tired afterwards.
Also, don’t be scared of getting a bus, especially a Flixbus. They may seem a little bit sketchy while booking because they are so inexpensive, but they’re typically really nice. When I went to Prague in June, the last leg of my journey was on a bus, and it was a pretty pleasant experience. There was wifi, a decent enough bathroom for being on a bus and even a vending machine (that was first for me). They do take a little bit longer than a train because they’re slower and have to deal with traffic, but if you’re looking to stretch your dollar farther, a bus is a solid option.
As far as accommodation, the best sight I found is Hostelworld. They have a wide range of options and they operate world-wide. They have a huge selection of places, and typically run much cheaper than anything you’ll find on Booking or Airbnb. It doesn’t hurt to check these sights though, especially Airbnb if you’re traveling with a larger group and can find something cheaper after you divvy it all up. For this post, though I’m going to be talking primarily about Hostelworld because it’s what I used every time I booked.
What I love about Hostelworld is it’ll give you a rating, 1-10, that is made up of multiple facets (i.e. security, location, cleanliness, staff, facilities, value for money, etc.) and is created by ratings from people who had previously stayed there. It’s honest, open, and I always felt like I had some idea of what to expect going in. They also have a feature, which I think is pretty standard for most booking sights, that lets you see where the hostel is on a map of the city. I like to find something that is usually within walking distance of the train station that I’ll be arriving in and leaving from so I don’t have lug my bags through the city or pay for some sort of transport there.
Also, as a female traveler who sometimes traveled only with other women, something I appreciated about Hostelworld was that they often offered hostels that have female-only rooms with little to no up-charge per night. It made me feel safer and more secure while I travelled. Of course, you could book a private room through Hostelworld, but these rooms typically ran around the same price as a hotel room. Plus, spending the night in a dorm-style room affords you the opportunity to meet more people from different places and make friends.
I’m Traveling Somewhere, Now What?
Once you figure out your transportation and accommodation, I trust you’ll be able to find the things you want to do wherever it is your going just fine on your own. Each place is unique to itself and usually offers things specific to that place, but there are a few things that I can recommend that are usually available everywhere.
The first, and one of my favorites, are Free Walking Tours. They’re offered in almost every major city and provide a more in-depth look to the city’s history and culture. They’re technically free, but its polite to give the guide $5-7 per person at the end because this is usually their primary income. Plus, tours usually last 1.5-3 hours each and they give you as much information, if not more, as a regularly priced walking tour and it’s so much cheaper. The tour guides are usually locals who have lived in the city for a majority of their lives, so you can ask for eating recommendations and they’ll usually point your towards a great priced, less touristy place. The English spoken here may be a little so-so sometimes, but you’ll be fine. Break out Google translate and dust off your charade skills. Also, pointing at the menu is a sure-fire way of ordering something correctly.
Another of my personal favorites are museums. I quite partial to art museums as well as local history museums. If you go to a capital city, there’ll be a museum about the country’s history, but if you’re visiting a city that isn’t a major political head, look out for museums that offer an insight to the history of the city or local region. You’ll learn about the place you’re visiting more and it might give you some ideas about what else to go see during your time there. Like I mentioned earlier, museums usually offer a student discount, too.
If you can, try to book tickets ahead of time, especially if it’s a popular museum for the city. If you’re looking to visit several museums in a shorter amount of time, see if the city has a museum card. It’s usually cheaper and gives you access to multiple museums, but they typically come with a time limit of somewhere between 24-72 hours. Just make sure to double check that the museums you want to visit are included on the card and make sure you plan your time in each one accordingly. For example, I know that I usually spend 3-ish hours in an art museum but not as long in a history museum of the same size. So, if I want to hit more than one art museum in a city, I’ll try to do them on different days so I’m not having to rush through.
So there you have it. Some of my top tips and tricks that I’ve learned over the past year of studying abroad. This post has barely scratched the surface of what the experience is truly like, but I hope it’ll help you and ease some of the navigation you’ll experience while abroad. It’s an adventure like no other to live in a foreign country, and it’s something that I’ll keep with me forever. Even with all my rough spots, I wouldn’t have changed anything about my time abroad. It’s made me into a better, more confident person and I’ve learnt so much about not only the world but also about myself. I can only hope that your experience will do the same for you.
So go be bold and push yourself into situations you’ve wanted to try but felt scared to do. Make yourself slightly uncomfortable and navigate the struggle (Side note: Know your line between being uncomfortable and feeling unsafe. It’s different for everybody but always there, so don’t push yourself into situations where you feel unsafe in the name of adventure. It’s good to be a bit umcomfy to help you see the world differently and become a better person, but never compromise your safety to get there.).
Continue to explore and relish the time you have while you’re abroad because it’ll fly by much quicker than you think it will. I can’t wait to hear about your adventures, and don’t forget to send pictures!