After spending my entire Christmas vacation (which was more than a month and a half long) travelling, I have come to realize that several of the expectations that I had for travelling while living abroad were a little unrealistic. With that said, here are the four things I wish I knew about travelling while on exchange.
Which websites are helpful in terms of booking transportation and accommodation.
You always seem to hear that story about that person that once got a flight for one dollar. Although transportation is very cheap in Europe in comparison to North America, it’s actually pretty difficult to find anything that cheap. Regardless, price doesn’t really matter when you don’t even know where to search for a flight in the first place! Skyscanner is probably the most useful website in terms of searching for flights. Skyscanner compares every flight from every airline from every place you could ever dream of going to! (you’re probably now searching for the part where I say brought to you by Skyscanner right?) Now, in effort to sound less like a product placement, other good websites to search for transportation are; Rail Europe, SNCF, Megabus, Eurolines and BlaBla Car. In terms of accommodation; HostelWorld and Air BnB are typically the best options.
Price is going to win the ‘Price vs. Well-being’ debate more times than you choose to admit.
As a student, money (or lack-of) pretty much dictates your choices. If saving twenty euros means taking a 10 hour bus ride that would have otherwise taken you 2 hours by train, who cares? And if saving five euros means eating McDonald’s rather than trying a new cultural dish, let’s be honest…and if saving 15 euros means sleeping in a room with nine other people, who probably all snore and somehow end up of stealing one of your socks, would you go for it? What I’m really saying here is that during your year abroad, your idea of ‘luxury’ will most likely change from a five-star hotel to a hostel that gives you a blanket long enough to cover your toes ;).
As much as you’ll miss the luxury of sleeping in a comfortable bed, the cheap-hostel, long-bus-ride, fast-food combination is worth it! You might find yourself meeting people from other parts of the world who you’ll end up singing the Pokemon theme song with late into the night (true story). Or maybe you’ll enjoy having to take turns rotating between having Subway and Mcdonalds for dinner. You may also be on an excruciatingly long 10 hour bus ride and even though you can’t get the words “I would do anything just so that I could stretch my legs” out of your head, you’ll be glad you did it because it makes you appreciate your barely-a-single sized bed exponentially more (also a true story).
You’re going to make stupid mistakes, and you’re going to have to pay for them.
This is the part where you all learn from the stupid things I have done while travelling on exchange. Firstly, about a half hour before I was about to get on a bus from Paris to Brussels, I realized that I had forgotten my passport. The one thing everyone knows you need to bring. Strike one. And while getting carried away in debating whether or not I should risk getting stuck at the France-Belgium border and just get on the bus, I lost track of time and ended up missing the bus anyways. Strike two. And then when I went to call the hotel to cancel the reservation they proceeded to tell me that there was never any reservation under my name. Strike three.
Then, when another BIB student and I were flying back from Budapest, we got to the airport two hours early as suggested and began waiting in line at check-in. Once we got to the front of the line the woman at the check-in desk told us that, since we didn’t check-in online prior to arriving at the airport, we would have to pay a fee. What she failed to mention, however, was that this fee would be 90 Euros!!! That’s more than double the price of the actual plane ticket. So, if you ever fly with Ryanair, make sure check-in online.
Once again, I was about to board a train from Paris to Lyon for the Fête des Lumières and arrived only about 10 minutes prior to the boarding time at the train station and still had to wait in line at the ticket machine and print my ticket. After running around and finally getting my ticket, I jumped on the train basically the second before it was about to leave. Happy ending, right? Wrong. Since I was the last person to board this train, and it was rush hour, there wasn’t a seat left. So I ended up having to sit in the aisle of the train for two of the five hours on this train ride. Lesson here is to try to be at least a half hour early to any train departure (even though the ticket may say you only need to be ten minutes early).
Even though it seems like I’ve done a lot of stupid things while travelling, there are still others who have done much worse! One friend slept through a flight and ended up paying more than 300 dollars for a new one. Another friend got her wallet stolen, which had almost 200 euros in it. Another friend I was with booked a hostel reservation for the first week of February when it was quite obvious that it was the first week of January. Overall, things may not always go according to plan when you’re travelling, but don’t let it be a big deal because when you think about it, you’re still living abroad and I think that’s pretty great by itself!
Travelling isn’t the only part of your exchange
It seems that every student on exchange seems to say that there won’t be much studying during your study abroad. This really isn’t true! You’ll definitely have much less work that you do at Carleton, but it isn’t so little that it should be disregarded altogether. In fact, there were many times last semester in which I had to stop or make alterations to travel plans in order to complete an assignment on time. Overall, don’t let travelling get in the way or your studying but at the same time make sure you plan for these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities!
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