Guest Blogger: Cristina Valdez
Studying abroad is an adventure filled with new and exciting experiences that will challenge and inspire you in many different ways. It’s the perfect opportunity to learn about yourself, the culture you are living in, as well as the different perspectives the world offers. While I cannot emphasize enough the study portion of studying abroad (how else would I have learned how domestic politics influence Sweden and its international relations?), the simple art of traveling is a great way to accomplish this kind of depth of self and world exploration, and it’s usually a big part of a student’s time abroad.
When I studied abroad in Sweden, I had ample time for traveling around Europe. While there, I took some short trips to the Arctic Circle, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Russia, Spain, France, Croatia, and the U.K. Taking these trips with my friends (who included people from all over Europe, Australia, South America, and even Africa) allowed me to develop a sense of independence and cultural knowledge of others that I didn’t have before. Traveling helped me compare Swedish culture to that of its neighbors. It also helped me expand my way of thinking, so that I not only focused on “things of America” or “things of the Dominican,” but rather on “things of the world.”
When planning a short trip, there are a few easy steps that I recommend. You should choose a destination, figure out the best way to get there, find a place to stay, plan what you want to see, and set out overall goals of what you want to learn about the local culture while you’re there.
One might think that choosing a destination is easy, but when you have the entire continent of Europe at your fingertips, it can be a bit challenging. Talk to your friends, host family, flatmates, or International Student Office to see if they can recommend locations that students have enjoyed in the past. Nothing beats a local’s perspective! Try visiting a local bookstore to fan through pages of images and histories of a few countries to see which cities might interest you most. Certainly you can do this part online, but why not get away from the digital world and enjoy a library every now and then? While the obvious answers are usually large cities (Rome, Paris, London), I recommend getting off the well-beaten path and explore smaller countries and cities you may not have heard of before, like Verona, Helsinki, or Zagreb. They, too, offer amazing sights to see and a valuable cultural experience. I never thought I would end up kayaking on the coast of Croatia, but I found myself there during my travels, and it was life-changing!
Once you find a destination, getting there is simple! Look at affordable airlines such as RyanAir and NorwegianAir. These airlines offer specials as low as 50 Euros round trip. That’s $67 dollars to take a trip to another country, amazing! BUT beware of the hidden fees and drop off locations. You may be charged outrageous prices for overweight baggage among other things, so read the fine print. Additionally, the drop-off airport may be far from the city center, and you’d have to grab a cab anyway, adding to the cost of a trip. Don’t forget that the railways of Europe are not only fast and reliable, but rarely have hidden fees. Seeing the landscape and visiting with other passengers are another perk of the rails, and the trains usually drop you off right in the center of town. However, remember that the mountainous region of Europe may not be the smoothest or shortest ride. In summary, it’s good to explore both air and land travel before settling on either. Friends, family, and even travel guide books (found in the Resource Room!) can offer additional recommendations as well.
After finding a destination and organizing your plan of arrival, it’s time to find a place to stay. As college students we are often on a budget, so I recommend staying in a hostel. Hostels are inexpensive food and/or lodging for groups of travelers, just like students. Because they cater to the group, there are often 4-12 beds in a room, and the bathrooms are usually shared, much like the dorms here (bring flip flops!). Besides being very affordable, they are a great place to meet other travelers because of the room/lounge sharing, and are usually located in the heart of a city. Hostels also offer some great resources like free maps, guided tours, and self-service kitchens (more money saving options!) Google “hostels” and you’ll see all the booking sites that surface.
Upon arrival in a new city, what will you do? Plan what you want to see before going. Before traveling, my friends and I researched the country separately and then collectively agreed on the places we would visit. This ensures that everyone gets a chance to see what they want. Hit up the popular sights like the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, La Sagrada Familia and others, but also find local, quaint spots in the city to get a feel for the lifestyle and the true culture of the country outside of the touristy areas. Some of the neatest places are ones that are frequented by locals.
So why set out goals for what you want to learn as you travel? Simple: studying abroad is not an extended vacation, and your parents, employers, and professors want to know that what you were up to was impactful for you academically, culturally, and professionally. Make it count by discovering the histories of the cities/regions, and getting past the typical concrete aspects of culture like food, sites, and landscapes. Instead of taking pictures, discover the arts and the history of the Sagrada Familia. Ask your self “Why is this significant? Why doesn’t something like this exist in the US? Why is it in the center of town?” Or ask locals/hostel-mates what they think of a current trending topic. Unemployment, higher education (it looks differently everywhere!), impacts of Gap Years, etc.
No matter where you decide to travel in Europe, it will be a breeze as long as you stay safe and plan effectively. Use your common sense, and be conscious of your surroundings. Traveling is an amazing part of the study abroad experience, it helps you discover new qualities within yourself, and makes for some unforgettable memories and friends from all over the world.