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5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Studying Abroad

June 21, 2018
Travel, Vacations & Trip Planning
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Nothing quite screams “College!” more than a semester abroad.

There are the cliché reasons to go: Learn new languages, connect with strangers, soak in the attractions, and, of course, indulge in the nightlife. Or maybe you just want to take your Instagram game to a whole new level — I won’t judge.

But before you pack your bags too hastily, here are a few tips for your study abroad experience, based off my own time studying in Prague in the fall of 2011, when I was a junior at Northwestern University.

Recent travels to Portugal and Spain brought back memories of my semester abroad. Here I am in front of Casa Milà in Barcelona.

Recent travels to Portugal and Spain brought back memories of my semester abroad. Here I am in front of Casa Milà in Barcelona.

1. Realize that choosing a location is not that important

It’s easy to find yourself a little overwhelmed by all the study abroad options out there. Hike with locals in Chile? Eat tapas and party in Barcelona? Explore the wonders of Asia? How can you even begin to choose?

If you find yourself beginning to get stressed by all the choices, remember that this will be an amazing experience no matter what.

I spent hours debating with myself and friends on where to go, and in the end, I realized I would have been happy no matter what. It would’ve been nice to not have spent so much time agonizing over the decision.

2. Write down why you are going abroad

OK, fine, I know I just told you not to stress about location too much, but in all honesty, you will have to make sure the location you pick “checks the boxes” of what you want out of your abroad experience.

My recommendation is to simply ask yourself this: “What is the most important thing I want to get out of this trip?” Forcing yourself to answer this and write it down will make subsequent decisions a lot easier to make.

3. Get a travel rewards credit card

Going abroad is not a cheap endeavor. During your budgeting and planning processes, you’ll probably learn that most banks and credit cards charge you a fee for foreign transactions — commonly 3% of the transaction amount. That’s like being 3% poorer before you even leave the country! Over six months that could be hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

Sadly, I knew this before I left for Prague but had no idea that there was an alternative. Now that I’m older and wiser, I realize there are tons of credit cards that waive foreign transaction fees. While some of these cards might have an annual fee, it may be well worth it to avoid all the other fees from foreign transactions.

As a bonus, most of these cards will give you extra reward points or cash back for travel-related purchases like planes, trains, buses and even dining, so you’ll be earning money back with almost every purchase. Free money, literally.

4. Take fewer pictures

I know this one might be controversial, but seven years after studying abroad, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve looked through my old pictures. If I had a dollar for every picture I took of a fancy European church … well, I’d probably doing something else right now.

Of course, you gotta do it for the ’gram. I get it. But just remember you’ll never truly be able to do any of your experiences justice with a picture. If I could go back, I’d throw my digital camera in the garbage (yes, this was before the iPhone had a legit camera) and throw myself full-on into the experiences in front of me.

5. Leave the city

My final piece of advice is to find ways to get out of whatever cities you study in. And don’t just go to another city; try to get a taste of slower, less urban life. It took me too long to realize that the differences between major urban cities are slim.

Sure, the food is different and churches are slightly different in Paris vs. Barcelona vs. Berlin, and each city will have a slightly different vibe. But I promise you, there will be no more remarkable memory than eating with locals in the French countryside or sharing beers with Bavarians in a small pub in Germany. You’ll learn way more about the food, culture and people … and you just might walk away with some of your craziest stories.

Photos by Dev Patel.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of NerdWallet or its partners.

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