Now that I’ve been back in America for three months, I’ve really been thinking over my study abroad experience. It was everything that I could have asked for and more, but there is definitely advice that I learned along the way that I would love to share with anybody who is getting ready to embark on the study abroad journey. Studying abroad has the opportunity to be the best experience of your life, and there are a few things that you can do in advance to make sure that that is the case.
Decide where you would like to study:
For some people this comes as an easy decision; for other people, it takes a little more thought. At first, I was insistent on studying in Barcelona; however, after some research, I realized that it didn’t make as much sense in terms of my major. The next place I was researching was London, but finally decided that I wanted to be in Italy (specifically Florence). When picking a host city, think about what is important to you. Decide on the country that you would like to be in, and then narrow it down based on different factors (these factors could vary based on what you consider important).
- Would you prefer a big city or a small city?
- Does the city offer classes related to your major, and will you stay on track for graduation?
- Would you like to live in an apartment, or would you like to live with a host family?
- What types of food do they typically eat? (This might sound silly, but trust me, it’s important. You will be living there for four months, so it’s important to like the food!).
Florence had everything that I wanted: it was the perfect size city for me; I could study classes focused on my major, eat the most delicious food, and live in a beautiful and picturesque city. Do your research, and you will surely find a host city that is right for you.
Plan your trips ahead of time:
It is inevitable: there will be more places you want to visit than you have weekends. Make a list of places that you want to go, and prioritize them in order of importance. Next, look at a calendar and decide the weekends that you will want to stay in your host city, and which weekends you will want to be traveling. I traveled nearly every weekend, but it was also nice to spend a few weekends in Florence. When you get to your host country, discuss with your friends if they have the same “top trips” in mind, and begin to plan your weekends! It will be much easier and less stressful if you plan your trips at the beginning of the semester rather than waiting until the last minute. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to a few of my must-see destinations solely because of poor planning – I guess that means I’ll just have to go back!!
Utilize student travel companies:
In previous blog posts I have mentioned student travel company, Bus2Alps. They are a company that takes study abroad students to top destinations in Europe, and they make traveling so much easier. Bus2Alps has trips that depart from Florence, Italy; Barcelona, Spain; Rome, Italy; and Prague, Czech Republic, and they take you to countless destinations throughout Europe. Throughout my semester in Florence I traveled with Bus2Alps to Greece (Corfu, Athens, and Santorini), Cinque Terre, Prague, and Munich. They also offer trips to Budapest, Morocco, Barcelona, the Amalfi Coast, Interlaken, Croatia, and Ireland, just to name a few. When you travel with Bus2Alps, you pay the trip cost, which covers round trip bus transportation, accommodations, Bus2Alps tour guides, an extra tour, and occasionally a few meals. The trip leaders are knowledgeable on the destinations, and are able to tell you the best places to eat, party, and visit. If Bus2Alps does not depart from the city you are studying in, you can always travel to one of the departure cities and jump on a trip from there! If you want to book a trip with Bus2Alps, use the discount code RBERG and you will save 5% on the trip cost!
Save, save, save!!!:
This is crucial, and needs little explanation. Europe is expensive. At first it might seem like you can travel throughout Europe for what looks like small costs, but trust me – it adds up. I traveled nearly every weekend and spent close to $8000 during my semester in Italy. I wouldn’t trade any part of my experience for even a penny back, but it is important to recognize that studying abroad is a big investment. Be smart about your money and decide where you want it to go. One of my roommates went shopping every single day, and didn’t travel at all, while I preferred to spend our money on traveling. You will learn how to best utilize your money in your host country, but for Florence it was pretty simple: do not go out to eat every night. Florence is a tourist city, and restaurant prices are through the roof. Also, make sure that you have a job lined up for when you return to the states; trust me, you will need it!
What to pack:
Before I studied abroad, I looked at countless blogs, websites, and reference books to try and get some insight on what to pack. I am the absolute worst packer in the entire world, so I was really nervous about over packing and having to pay for overweight luggage (which is something that you definitely do not want in Europe). When packing, take a look at what the temperatures are typically like during the semester that you will be there, and base what you pack around that. From what I’ve experienced, fall semester is usually the warmer semester, but make sure you pack clothing for both warm and cold weather.
When I studied in Florence, we had a very unexpected winter. It was the coldest that it had been in over 26 years, and it even snowed a few times. From researching the weather, I learned that it would probably get into the 40s, but not much lower than that (being from Boston, this was nothing). I did not pack an appropriate winter jacket, and ended up having to purchase a lot of cold-weather clothing upon my arrival in Florence. While this was something out of my control – how was I supposed to know it would drop 30 degrees below the norm the one semester I go there? – it would have been nice to pack more appropriately just to be prepared.
I always over pack; so when it came to packing, I was so nervous to over pack, that I actually ended up under packing. In terms of basic things, this is what I would suggest* (keep in mind, you will definitely do some shopping overseas and will go home with much more than you came with):
- Winter jacket
- As much underwear as you want (I find it bizarre when people say to only pack 7 pairs, and would never do that, so in my opinion, bring as much as you want).
- 3 pairs of jeans (I brought 1 blue, 1 black, and 1 grey)
- 2-3 pairs of leggings (I lived in my leggings practically every day)
- 1 sweatshirt and 1 pair of sweatpants
- 2-3 gym T shirts; 1-2 pairs of gym shorts
- 5-6 sweaters
- A few sundresses/skirts/shorts (whatever you prefer for warm weather)
- LOTS of going out tops. They are (typically) lightweight, easy to roll, and thin materials, making them very easy to pack. I did not bring even close to enough tops to go out in, and ended up ruining a few while there (do not bring dry clean only tops) so ended up with fewer than I started with.
Shoes are a little bit more tricky, because they take up a lot of room and are typically very heavy. This would be my best advice in terms of what shoes to pack:
- Rain boots
- 2 pairs of boots (1 black, 1 brown) or 1 pair that you wear with everything
- Slippers – the apartments (especially in the winter) will be very cold, and you will want something heavier than socks to keep your feet warm.
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 2 pairs of flip-flops (1 pair to wear out, and 1 pair to wear when showering at hostels)
- 1 pair of ballet flats
- 1 pair of heels/wedges. Everybody tells you to not bring heels when studying abroad, and I definitely agree with this statement, but it does depend on where you are studying. If you are studying in Italy, bring ONE PAIR that you can wear when you travel to other countries. I promise you, you won’t wear them in Italy; you will walk out of your apartment, catch your heel in the cobblestone and either roll your ankle and fall or snap your heel right off the shoe. Heels and cobblestone do not mix. If you are studying in a city like Barcelona, where they have regular streets, bring 1-2 pairs that are neutral and go with everything.
- 1-2 pairs of sandals
*For the record, I am probably one of the worst packers in the entire world, so for some of this list I would say to do as I say and not as I do (you might not feel that you need 10+ pairs of shoes) but for the most part, I feel that this is a very realistic list. I was able to fit everything that I brought in 2 suitcases and also brought 2 towels, shampoo, conditioner, contact solution, other toiletries, etc.
Be prepared for your living situations:
Living situations in Europe are much different than they are in the states. It is very likely that you could be crammed into an apartment with 6 other people, that would typically be the size of a two-bedroom apartment in the states. It is also very likely that you will be sharing a bedroom, and practically be sleeping on top each other with very little personal space. The kitchen will be small, and you will most likely have a very small refrigerator, no microwave, and no toaster oven. These are all things that I experienced while living in Florence, and it is a very big adjustment.** Florence is a very old city, so things like elevators do not exist. Be prepared to carry your luggage up what could be 10+ flights of stairs, and take this into consideration when packing. In the winter you will be freezing, and in the summer you will be sweltering. They use their heating and air conditioning systems very sparingly, so rather than turning up your heat when it’s cold, you will need to wear layers. This description makes the living conditions abroad sound horrific, but this is what the Europeans live in year round and they have survived just fine. It is different from the states, and it is an adjustment to make, but it is all part of the experience.
**I go to school at the University of South Carolina, where I feel like I live in a mansion. My housing at school consists of a 4 bedroom, 4.5 bathroom house with walk in closets, laundry in each unit, a full kitchen, 2 swimming pools, and 2 workout centers. I am spoiled living here. Adjusting to living in such tight spaces was very difficult, but I made it home in one piece!
Studying abroad has the potential to be the best experience of your entire life. You will gain a new sense of independence, wanderlust, and a love for new places. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about studying abroad, or if you would like more information on Bus2Alps, what to pack, or travel suggestions. You can email me at Bergan@email.sc.edu and I’ll be happy to answer any questions!