Life Hacks and Helpful Tips for Studying Abroad

Written by: Peer Advocate Melanie Klaben

I know from experience that studying abroad can be very overwhelming at first. When I landed in Paris last September, I felt like I knew nothing, but I quickly settled into my new home and never wanted to leave. I will share some of the life hacks and pieces of advice that helped make my study abroad experience so amazing.

The Best Apps and Websites

Everything is easier if you know the best apps and websites to use. One of the most helpful apps for my entire study abroad experience was Citymapper. This app is much better than Google Maps or Apple Maps if you’re trying to travel around European cities. I used Citymapper every single day while I was in Paris. It was also very useful when I traveled to other cities in Europe! The reason why it is the superior map app is because it shows a lot of detailed information about public transportation, including the time the next train is arriving, directions for transferring between metro stations, any delays that are occurring, and even the best area of the train to sit on based off of which side of the platform you will exit from. The routes it generates include both walking and public transportation, and it finds the fastest route every time. I highly recommend it! of the other apps or websites that were helpful when I traveled around Europe were Trainline, Skyscanner, and Hostelworld. Trainline is great for booking train tickets, whether it’s a 30 minute train ride or a 7 hour train ride. It also shows options for buses between cities. Skyscanner was helpful when my friends and I were trying to find the cheapest flights for weekend trips. Hostelworld was the best way to book hostels because the app includes a lot of valuable information about each place, such as safety and cleanliness ratings.

Weekend Traveling & Hostel Advice

One of my favorite parts about studying abroad in Europe was how easy it is to travel between countries. I highly recommend trying to visit at least two other countries while studying abroad for a semester in Europe. It is so much easier to travel to those places when you’re already in Europe versus trying to get to them from the United States. My friends and I usually went on weekend trips that cost $200-300 per person with every expense included. This is way cheaper than spending thousands of dollars going to Europe from the United States, so enjoy the more affordable travel while you’re there!

A common mistake that some people make while studying abroad is going on weekend trips every single weekend. It’s important to spend time in your host city and see everything that it has to offer. Even if traveling around Europe is your top priority, try to not miss out on the amazing things in your host city. I went on 6 weekend trips over the entire semester, and I felt like it was a good balance between traveling and staying in Paris.

Even though you may be nervous to stay in hostels at first, they are a really great option for keeping your trips affordable and meeting some interesting people! My friends and I stayed in hostels during every trip except for one, and we never had a bad experience with them. Although, make sure to do some research about a hostel before you book it.

Here is a list of some tips and tricks for weekend traveling and staying in hostels:

  • When you go on weekend trips, it is so much easier to carry everything in a backpack versus bringing a suitcase. For every trip, I would pack up the same backpack that I used to carry my school stuff to classes. It’s great to have something that can be used for multiple purposes, so make sure your backpack can double as a weekend bag.
  • Trains are better than planes! Whenever it makes sense, I would recommend taking a train instead of flying. You don’t have to spend hours waiting in an airport or worry about not packing liquids. Train rides are much less stressful, you get beautiful views, and usually have more room to stretch out.
  • When booking flights or trains, consider leaving late on a Thursday (assuming you don’t have Friday classes). Sometimes there are better flight times or cheaper prices on Thursdays. It’s also nice to wake up the next day already at your destination.
  • In some cases, you can make a trip more affordable by doing a mix of trains and planes. For example, when I travelled to Amsterdam, I took a plane from Paris to Brussels, spent a couple hours exploring and eating waffles in Brussels, and then took a train from Brussels to Amsterdam. This was surprisingly way cheaper than if I had taken a plane or train the whole way. Always do some research and consider all of your options.
  • Choose a hostel that has a free breakfast. Usually, the breakfast is decent and helps to cut down on food costs.
  • Not every hostel includes linens and towels. Make sure you can get these at your hostel! It was pretty common that I would have to pay about one euro for a towel.
  • Bring your own locks to hostels. Every hostel I stayed in had lockers either under the beds or against the walls to keep all of your belongings. However, hostels don’t provide locks for free. Make sure to bring some with you so that you can keep your stuff safe!
  • Hostel showers can sometimes be less than ideal, so bring a pair of flip flops. These are easy to pack, and you can share one pair between all of your friends.
  • Try to book a hostel in the center of the city you’re staying in. They are affordable even when they’re in a prime location.
  • Carry a portable battery with you to charge your phone. It can be a life saver when you’re walking around all day.
  • An easy way to save money while traveling is to buy food at grocery stores instead of eating at restaurants for every meal.
  • Find a group of friends that you travel well with. Not every friend is a travel friend, and that’s okay! Make sure your travel buddies have similar expectations and priorities as you.

Other Life Hacks

There are so many different ways to save money or make your study abroad experience easier! I’ll share some additional tips that I discovered while studying abroad. Some are more specific to France, but almost all of them can be applied to other countries in Europe.

  • In many European countries, it can be difficult to get water for free. I had to pay for water every time I went to a restaurant while I was traveling in Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. However, if you politely ask for a carafe of tap water instead of bottled water, you may be able to get water for free. In France, ask for “une carafe d’eau” to get a glass carafe of free tap water. Otherwise, they will likely bring you bottled water that costs money if you don’t specify “une carafe.”
  • Long-stay visa holders in France can get into many museums and historical sites for free! For example, I could get into the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, and Sainte-Chapelle for free just by showing my French long-stay visa. This might be true in other countries as well. Regardless, do some research about which museums you can qualify for free entrance. Many European museums have lower prices for students or visitors under 26.
  • Another way that people in my program were able get into museums for free was by taking at least one art history course. Their student IDs had “art history student” written on them, and in France if you study art history, you’re allowed to get free entrance into almost every museum that has some sort of art.
  • The most convenient way to carry things around all day is with a cute canvas tote bag. They are currently very popular in Europe, and they can be perfect for everything from grocery shopping to carrying books. It is also easier to avoid pickpockets with a tote bag rather than a backpack. I ended up carrying a small canvas tote bag with me most days.
  • The best way to deal with a phone plan is by purchasing a SIM card from a phone store and changing out the one in your phone. Just don’t lose your American SIM card! Some of the stores where you can do this are Free Mobile, Bouygues, and Orange. These plans are very affordable and way cheaper than paying for international data from Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile. If you change out your SIM card and pay for plans through a European provider, make sure you know how to cancel it.
  • If you want to meet more Europeans who are in their early twenties, Erasmus events are the perfect way to do this. In the European Union, they have a study abroad exchange program called Erasmus. Students from all over Europe study in different European cities. There are many different Erasmus events that bars or other places host, and American study abroad students are welcome to join these too. It’s a good way to meet new people, practice different languages, and get immersed in the culture!
  • When you pack for your time abroad, make sure you leave some extra space in your suitcases. You will appreciate this at the end of the semester when you have more souvenirs and things to bring home than you expected.
  • Prepare for your photos and videos to take up a lot of space on your phone. It might be a good idea to transfer some pictures to google photos.

Additional Pieces of Advice

  • One of the best souvenirs that I have is a collection of different train, plane, and museum tickets from my time in Paris. Another one of my favorite souvenirs is a journal filled with a bunch of memories. So much happens while you study abroad, and keeping a journal is the perfect way to preserve memories.
  • Research the fashion of your host country before leaving. In Europe, people tend to wear a lot of neutral colors and modest clothing. Even in the hot summer, most people will be wearing pants instead of shorts. Also, don’t bring too many warm weather clothes if you’re spending a whole semester abroad. Make sure to pack for cold weather.
  • The best way to spend your time is by going on walks around your host city. This was my favorite activity to do in Paris, and it’s free! I found a lot of cute little spots by accidentally walking past them. Take some time to wander and get lost in your city.
  • Do what the locals do. In Paris, so many people sit for hours in cafés or parks. It can be really fun to just relax and watch the people (and dogs) go by. There’s a reason why Parisians love to lounge around in public.
  • Don’t forget to nourish your body with healthy foods! The diet of your host country is most likely different from what you’re used to, and your body will notice this. It can be really easy to forget to pay attention to the foods you’re eating while studying abroad. Nutritious food, a healthy amount of sleep, and good hydration are very important to keep you energized enough to have the best study abroad experience.

The biggest piece of advice that I can give to anyone studying abroad is to always keep an open mind! Push yourself out of your comfort zone and try new things. Studying abroad is meant to be an experience that feels a little bit uncomfortable and strange. If you wanted to stay in your comfort zone, you wouldn’t have studied abroad. Embrace all of the strange, exciting, and unfamiliar things! It will lead to some of your best memories.


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