Things I Wish I’d Known Before Studying Abroad: Part Two
Last week, worldly college student Michelle Castillo shared her tips on things she wishes she had known before traveling abroad. Read on for part two of her handy advice that only comes with experience.
Money doesn’t grow on trees. Really.
You will be surprised at how fast your money goes, no matter how hard you try to save. Plan a realistic budget per week.
Telling yourself that you will save money by reducing your weekly groceries to a block of cheese, a couple of cans of beans and six liters of Strongbow alcoholic cider will result in a rather awkward call to your parents to tell them you’ve contracted scurvy. (True story.)
Cut costs on the everyday stuff you can so you can spend more on adventures you wouldn’t experience in the States. “One way to save money is to have the occasional picnic and not eat out every meal,” says Kathleen Micham, UCLA’s Education Abroad Programs Press Coordinator. “And remember that in some European countries, it costs much more to sit at a table at a bar than to stand at a bar.”
Keep an eye on the exchange rate. Check sites like www.xe.com/ucc daily, and when the dollar is rising, withdraw as much money as you can and keep it in a safe place.
However—and this is a big one—you need to check with your banking institution about foreign conversion and transaction fees. Because some banks (*cough* Wells Fargo *cough*) will charge you $5 each time you use your ATM or debit card—even when purchasing a Cadbury.
Find your bank’s partner institution; for example, Bank of America members do not get charged any fees if they withdraw from British bank Barclays. And that applies to credit cards as well: Visa and MasterCard charge a 1% foreign conversion fee, and the issuing bank can tack on another 2% on top of that.
Another option is to open an account with an international bank when you are still in the United States. “I opened an account with CitiBank about a month before I came to Spain,” said Cyndy Gutierrez, a UCLA student studying abroad in Spain. “Best advice I’ve ever received. Not only do I get the best exchange rate, but I don’t get fined every time I need to go to an ATM to get money.”
However, make sure you open a new account at least two weeks before leaving the country, or you’ll be boarding the plane without your new ATM card.
If your exchange rate is higher than the dollar, try to book as much as possible on American sites, such as Expedia or Kayak, to avoid the fees. This can be tricky: Some American sites will tack on extra fees for international services, so you’ll actually find yourself paying twice the amount for train tickets that you could have purchased at the station. Limit yourself to airfares, and possibly hotels.
You’ve probably already heard that it’s cheaper to fly than to take a train to most places. In general, this is true. Although Europe has several low-cost air carriers, i.e. Ryanair and EasyJet, remember there is almost always a catch.
First of all, you need to follow ALL the rules and regulations. There is no negotiation: If your baggage doesn’t fit, you will have to check it and pay an exorbitant fee; if it’s overweight, same thing; if Ryanair says you have to be there 40 minutes before you’re flight, be there—otherwise, you will find yourself stranded in Germany after Oktoberfest at Hahn’s hotel located directly across from the airport.
These planes often don’t fly into the city that you think they will. Most low-cost carriers fly into neighboring cities and then provide connecting buses and/or trains. It is time-consuming, and often not worth saving a few euros if it will take several times longer than flying to the major city directly.
Many have made the mistake of going to the wrong airport! Don’t assume that your flight will be out of Heathrow when, in fact, it’s leaving from Stansted. You’ll never make it to the right airport in time, and your tickets probably aren’t refundable. Remember, you get what you pay for—don’t expect great customer service when your ticket costs £15.
However, if you’re determined to travel on a shoestring, schedule your flights and corresponding buses/trains during the night. That way, you can just sleep through your travels and not worry about missing valuable touring time.
Look into monthly bus passes and Eurail passes. These cards offer discounts for any subsequent trains that you take in the country of purchase. However, evaluate their worth. Unless you’re traveling frequently or long distances, you may be better off paying each trip individually.
Stay in hostels as often as possible. Not only will you save money, but it’s a great way to meet new people. You can choose all male, all female, and co-ed rooms at most hostels, as well as rooms that range from four to 20 people. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing a room with stranger, you can always book a private ensuite, which is still often cheaper than a hotel. Visit www.hostelbookers.com and www.hostelworld.com for relatively accurate reviews and listings.
However, be warned: Many of these hostels are unregulated.
Certified Youth Hostel International (YHI) establishments have to follow certain guidelines, but non-certified hostels can go either way. You can luck out and get an extremely clean and safe place for half the price … or you might not.
Always carry two things: a towel and a pair of socks. If the place is scummy, you can use your socks to protect your feet (or hands), and if your sheets look like they haven’t been washed since Napoleon was in college, you can use your towel as a barrier between your body and the bed.
Keep the change.
While in the United States we might throw away our pennies, change is a very valued commodity in other countries—not only because it is worth more than U.S. currency, but more importantly, most places charge you to enter the bathroom. That 20 pence coin shines a bit brighter when it is just the exact amount of money that you need to enter the toilet at Victoria Station. Because without it, you’ll have to dance around your luggage while your friend tries to navigate through the mob to break your 20 pound note into manageable coins, or you’ll have to hold it until you get on the train, where at least the bathrooms are free.
Keep in touch with people back home because you love them – and they can supply you with more money.
The cheapest way and best way to have contact with the outside world is to get a cell phone in your host country. With many services, incoming calls are free—even from the United States.
Establish a set time for your family to call you, since it is free on your end, and they won’t call at inconvenient times. “No sense waking them up or disturbing them during a pub crawl,” advised one student who recently studied abroad in England.
You can rent or buy a phone abroad (depending on your length of stay). But if you already have a GSM phone (as opposed to CDMA, which is far more common in the U.S.), for about $15 you can get your phone “unlocked,” meaning it can run on foreign and American frequencies. Then you can purchase a SIM card from a local cell phone service provider.
Basically, SIM cards are pay-as-you-go plans, with a set fee per minute to text/call from your country to another one. Your other option is to go with a company like Cellular Abroad, which rents and sells phones in the U.S. specifically for travel abroad.
Some companies will try to sell you a SIM card that has cheaper rates to call America—don’t buy this. Instead, get the one where it is cheaper to call within your country and have your friends and family call (or email) you. You can “top-up” (or add money to your account) over the phone, online, and almost every supermarket and convenience store. Your phone bill will be cut in half!
Check services such as Skype.com. For a very low fee, Skype allows you to talk from computer to computer. The only trick will be teaching your parents how to use it, but it’s well-worth the savings.
And lastly, if you get homesick, ask your parents to send you something that you are used to from home. You’ll be surprised how happy it makes you to see Oreo cookies and Easy Mac come in the mail!
By Michelle Castillo for PeterGreenberg.com.
Read Part One of Michelle’s Things I Wish I’d Known Before Studying Abroad.
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