18 Ways to Prepare for Your Study Abroad Experience

You’ve made the decision, you’re jumping through the hoops needed to get there, and now it’s time to prepare for your time abroad. Is such a thing really even possible?

Emotionally, no. Mentally, not really. Financially, sure—you can put in some extra hours for the season that leads up to your study abroad experience. But logistically, preparation is most definitely possible.

To prepare for my trip abroad last fall to Bilbao, Spain, I frequented various travel blogs, but I mostly relied on word of mouth from those who studied abroad before me, particularly those who participated in the same program I was planning to do myself.

So, I guess I’m now a combination of a travel blog and a reliable word-of-mouth source for your experience abroad. As such, I’ve come up with a list of 18 things that I think will help you (logistically) prepare for your study abroad journey.

1. Don’t be afraid to go alone

I remember thinking that I was making a mistake by going by myself. I pictured landing in Spain and everyone would already be in their friend groups and I would just be awkwardly like “hi, please be my friend.”

Which, honestly, isn’t completely untrue. There will definitely be groups of people who decided to go together (which is totally fine and actually adds a fun dynamic to the group), but I cannot recommend enough going at this alone. I just know that I wouldn’t have made the same friends (and hence the same experiences) if I had my best friend(s) from home by my side.

In the same way, one of the reasons I feel like I learned so much about myself on this trip was because I went by myself. I was able to surround myself with people who knew nothing about me, which eventually reminded me what it is that makes me, me. That was a lot of “me’s” in a single sentence and I hope it makes sense.

2. Wait to book your weekend trips

UGH LISTEN TO ME. Three months before I even got on a plane at LAX to go to Spain, I was trying to friend-flirt with people on the study abroad Facebook group and plan every detail of every trip.

You guys, listen. Seriously. You do not need to plan any mini trips before you get there. Okay? I promise. First of all, you don’t even know who you’re going to be traveling with yet. Secondly, you won’t know your schedule. My program offered fun little mini trips on the weekend and it was a bummer to miss out on those when you had plans made months ago. Third, traveling country-to-country isn’t that big of a deal (especially in Europe). It was like going from California to Arizona or something. You’ll get really good at packing and airports and customs and all of that.

I had friends buy flights the day before they left for their trips. Just don’t stress yourself out about that right now, you have other stuff to dedicate your energy to!

3. Invest in a camera

So I’m obviously biased because I love cameras and feel like I’m missing a limb when I don’t have one with me, but please consider buying one.

It could be a set of disposable cameras, a Polaroid camera, a small digital camera, or a DSLR. I recommend the Sony a5100—it takes DSLR-quality photos but is much smaller (which is really huge when you’re walking around and carrying stuff all the time) and takes incredible video—also a must for me. It’s a splurge of a buy, but you will not regret documenting this trip on a device other than your iPhone, trust me.

Also, consider purchasing a nice camera case. I dropped my camera in Germany (thankfully it was one of the last trips we went on), and it was out for the count. I had to wait to come back to the U.S. to repair it, which was not cheap and could have been easily avoided with a protective case.

4. Get a cross-body travel bag

Wearing my cross-body travel wallet through German Christmas markets! See it on my right hip? I was already carrying so many things, so it was nice to have the important stuff in one, safe place.

I resisted this one so hard, but my mom insisted. As always, mothers know best. It was so nice to have all my really important items in one safe, secure, easily-accessible location. I would put my passport, cash, charger, boarding tickets, ID, and credit cards in my travel wallet by Eagle Creek. It’s called the RFID Blocker Holster ($24.95) and I couldn’t recommend it enough.

When you’re in the airport, carrying your carry-on bag, your purse and whatever else, it’s really nice to know that you can quickly and easily access the items you’ll need, while keeping them safe when you don’t necessarily need them.

5. Invest in a portable phone charger

London, England

For my iPhone 5s, having a charger that essentially guaranteed me 2.5x longer battery life was huge for keeping in touch with my travel buds. I used the Anker PowerCore+ mini from Amazon for $10.

6. Bring a travel backpack

“Travel backpack” as in “not a carry-on suitcase with wheels” and “not a Jansport,” although my great friend did manage to use a basic, black Jansport backpack for all our weekend trips, God bless her. I don’t know how she did it. You want a backpack over a suitcase because chances are you’ll be doing a lot of walking and public transport before getting to your hotel or Airbnb, and dragging around a suitcase will really only make your life more difficult at that point.

For the sake of back support and efficiency, it’s worth it to buy one before you leave. I borrowed one from a friend! Check out REI or North Face for great traveling backpacks.

7. Itineraries are your friend

Busy days in Barcelona required (tentative) planning.

It took me a few months to learn this, but having an actual play-by-play plan for the weekend is a GREAT way to get the most of your short time in a beautiful place. Even though it’s great to want to “wing it” and just “go with the flow,” sometimes that can lead to wandering around aimlessly and ultimately wasting precious time.

My friend sent us her itinerary from her weekend in Rome and it was a complete game changer. Every trip after that, me and my group of friends would plan out everything—starting with the places we wanted to see and then checking their hours, ticket requirements, travel routes, etc. until we had a pretty solid plan going in.

Keep in mind, of course, that plans are bound to change. It’s just nice to have a framework in the event that things actually go as planned.

8. Technology is cool, but print your boarding pass, every time

Even though the Passbook app is awesome and I used it 99% of the time, I know RyanAir (a popular airline in Europe) requires a printed boarding pass, and you never know when your phone is going to die or randomly freeze on you. Just in case, I would always print my passes at my university’s printing center before heading out for the weekend.

9. You need a journal and a pen

PLEASE DON’T MISS THIS ONE. Whether or not your consider yourself a “writer,” just bring a journal anyway. While a lot of the time you are busy running around, there’s is definitely going to be downtime in your study abroad experience as well. Whether it’s in a coffee shop, on the metro, in the library, on a plane…reflecting through words or drawings is a great way to get the most out of your trip.

10. Don’t forget your headphones

Triple check that you remember to bring them when traveling, and make sure your favorite albums are available offline—there’s usually no WiFi at 10,000 ft. in the air

Let’s just say I spent an unhealthy amount of money on cheaply made headphones in an airport in Germany when I forgot them in my apartment just so I could listen to my music on the plane.

Double check that you packed your headphones, and then check again.

Not as important as, say, your passport…but still.

11. Spend it all

It took some extra effort to get to this little Italian city outside of Rome, but SO worth it.

This is one thing I learned from someone who studied abroad before me. He said, “If you come home from being abroad with even a penny in your bank account, you did it wrong.”

While you can take that with however many grains of salt you’d like, there’s truth to his point. If you’re partaking in study abroad as part of your college experience, then you’re young, you’re relatively responsibility-less, and you have plenty of time ahead of you in life to work and collect paychecks.

Take it from me—I hate spending money for whatever reason. Well, I like what I get out of spending money, but it made me all sorts of anxious to think about spending 4 months in a foreign country with no way to make money and no way to avoid spending it. I mean, don’t go broke in your first month—try to budget out your money by month and keep track of how much you spend on flights, eating out, etc. so you have an idea how you’re doing financially. At the same time, if you’re debating whether or not to go a trip to Greece for the weekend because you want to have some cushion money when you get back to the States, think again.

I like to keep an excel spreadsheet (you can use Google Sheets, too) to keep a detailed budget. It helps me worry less about where my money is being spent and also helps me plan my activities for the month.

12. Eat it all

Do some crunches before you leave and keep an eye out for a nice running trail when you arrive, but know that life goes on and there are worse things in life than having your pants be a tad tight for a while. Are you looking at this spaghetti? Do you think I regret eating this entire plate, a glass of wine, and gelato afterwards? (Answer: nope). Just eat and enjoy.

13. Have a unique “thing” you do

This will likely happen naturally, but keep an eye out for it. My friend Kat’s phone (and camera) cracked one weekend in Dublin, and the rest of our time abroad she would randomly pull out her phone and say, “Quality pic time!” in the most random moments. Even though the pictures were blurry and had cracks running through the middle, they were freaking hilarious since she couldn’t use her selfie camera and had to point and shoot from the back, which made them more memorable than any high-quality selfie could ever be.

Whether it’s a certain pose you do in every city, a certain item you collect at each stop on your journey, or something similar, having something fun to sort of pin the progression of your trip at different points is never a bad idea.

For us, we also made a music video. We decided early on to film a little bit in every city of us dancing to Beyoncé’s “7-11” and it turned out to be such an awesome video that we can watch for years to come.

14. Don’t forget to enjoy time in your “home” city

No joke—my richest memories were not walking through the Roman Colosseum, along canals in Amsterdam, or bar-hopping in Pamplona. My most precious memories were made right at home in my apartment, cooking and drinking wine with my friends, walking to the beach at midnight, or taking the metro to class together on any given next day.

Enjoy the in-betweens. The moments that seem pointless or just points of transition, but that are actually so precious.

15. Look into volunteer or tutoring opportunities

I’ve just accepted that Pablo (y Carmen) are just cooler than I’ll ever be.

My program offered both teaching and tutoring opportunities, both of which were paid positions to teach English to local Spanish children. I wasn’t sure whether or not to partake at first, because I was afraid my travels would be limited by my commitment to the job.

Let me tell you, being an English tutor to Pablo (15, photographed) and Carmen (10) was hands down one of the highlights of my time abroad. They were cute little surfer kids who loved California and whose parents were just the sweetest. By the end, they felt like a second family to me. It’s so rewarding and not to mention so, so easy. I got paid to hang out with awesome kids and speak my native language! It was not stressful in the slightest.

16. Apartment vs host family

Ahh, the age-old debate between whether or not to stay with a host family. I think since all study abroad programs offer different options, it’s hard to say which is the best one for you. I stayed in an apartment, and I loved it. I loved my roommates, who ended up being some of my best friends, and our apartment was located right near the beach. It became sort of a hangout spot for our program, and we would have people over for game night or just to hang out and then walk to the beach. In essence, it gave me a lot a freedom and I really loved that.

My amazing friend, Grace, stayed with a host family and she also loved her situation, too. They were a sweet, older couple and made great food. Plus there’s always the bonus of being forced to speak the local language, which is essential if you’re trying to become fluent. However, they do want to know where you are most of the time or at least when you’re going to be home for dinner. Some host families “come with” siblings, while others don’t.

It’s sort of a gamble, but I would say that if you’re looking for freedom and friendship, go for the apartment. If you’re looking for authenticity and hospitality, go for the host family.

Either way, if you’re in an apartment with friends, chances are that host families will have you over at some point, and vice versa. My doorbell was ringing constantly with visitors, which I loved.

17. Look into international credit cards

I wish I could be more help in this area, as I am just a member of a small credit union that doesn’t offer international services. I just sucked it up and paid foreign fees and ATM withdrawal fees, but they weren’t hugely significant.

Make sure to call your bank and see what they recommend for this type of traveling.

18. Phone plans – ask your provider or buy a plan when you arrive

This one varied a lot between the people I met in my program. A lot of us stayed with Sprint, Verizon, etc. but switched or upgraded to an international plan. I know Sprint offers a free international plan for texting and calls for just 20 cents/minute, but only for a select amount of countries.

Other people simply used the cell phone companies that were mainstream in Spain, and purchased data monthly.

Keep in mind that you can “call” family and friends from home for ‘free’ by using FaceTime when you’re connected to WiFi. Messaging apps are important, too, such as WhatsApp and Viber. Both allow you to talk to your friends seamlessly, since most of you won’t have access to iMessage when you’re walking around.

You adapt to not being on your phone all the time, which is nice. Don’t be the person who’s asking what the WiFi password is to every store you walk in five seconds after you sit down. The most important thing is that you can communicate with your friends in case something happens.

Closing Thoughts

At the end of the day, no one is going to experience this but you.

Only you will know what your life is like abroad compared to how it is at home—your different friends, different languages, different cultures. They call it “culture shock” upon first arriving to your study abroad destination and “reverse culture shock” when you return home.

Be prepared for people asking, “Oh my gosh, how was it?!” and answering for the millionth time (not joking) “Uhhh *sigh* you know…it was, great!” (Sometimes I would switch it up between ‘great’ and ‘amazing’ but only if I was feeling crazy.) There’s nothing wrong with them asking, because I’m sure these people care about you and saw all your cool Insta’s and want to catch up on your cool life, but know that it’s okay and normal to really not know what to say or how to respond.

After I while, I just sort of came up with the same generic response and accepted the fact that my experience was uniquely mine, and it actually made me feel closer to the people who I shared it with abroad.

Also, you might run into people saying things like, “Wow, you are SO lucky. I could never afford something like that” or “Ugh that’s so cool! I’ll probably never get to travel like you got to.”

I’ve thought a lot about these types of comments and why they affected me so much. It somehow bothered me that people were attributing my decisions (series of decisions) to study abroad as “luck.” Like no, actually, I didn’t accidentally turn in what seemed like 500 forms. I didn’t luckily work my butt off for the months leading up to my departure so that I could afford little trips on the weekend, or take a ton of units at once to make sure I would still graduate on time.

Let me be clear: I am beyond thankful for the opportunity, or series of opportunities, that presented themselves to me that enabled me to make this happen. You should be, too. But don’t let other people discredit your calculated decisions or your hard-earned experience.

Lastly, just relax. Listen to me as I tell you that you are heading into a phase of life that is terrifying, incredible, challenging, sparkling, rewarding, hilarious, special, difficult and trying all at once. There’s nothing like it. I’m sitting here just smiling thinking back on the countless memories I made abroad. Get excited!

What are you most worried about when it comes to planning your trip? Let me know in the comments below! I’d be happy to answer any additional questions you have.

Jenna Hoffman studied abroad in Bilbao, Spain. You can read more about her study abroad on her blog