5 things i would like to know before studying abroad

Nothing quite screams “college!” more than a semester abroad.

There are clichéd reasons for this: learning new languages, interacting with strangers, soaking up the attractions and of course indulging in the nightlife. Or maybe you just want to take your Instagram game to a whole new level – I’m not going to judge it.

But before you pack your bags too quickly, here are a few tips for your studies abroad, based on my own study time in Prague in the fall of 2011 when I was a junior at Northwestern University.

My recent trips to Portugal and Spain brought back memories of my semester abroad. Here I am standing in front of Casa Milà in Barcelona.

1. Realize that choosing a location is not that important

It’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed by all the study opportunities abroad. Hike with locals in Chile? Eating tapas and partying in Barcelona? Are you discovering the wonders of Asia? How can you even start voting?

If you are feeling stressed out with all of the choices made, keep in mind that this is definitely going to be an amazing experience.

I spent hours arguing with myself and my friends about where to go and in the end I realized that I would definitely have been happy. It would have been nice not to struggle with the decision for so long.

2. Write down why you are going abroad

OK, well, I know I just told you not to focus too much on the location, but in all honesty you need to make sure that the location you choose “ticks the boxes” what you want from yours Expect international experience.

My recommendation is to simply ask yourself, “What is the most important thing I want to take with me from this trip?” If you force yourself to answer this and write it down, later decisions will be much easier.

3. Get a travel rewards credit card

Going abroad is not a cheap endeavor. During your budgeting and planning processes, you will likely find that most banks and credit cards charge you a fee for international transactions – typically 3% of the transaction amount. It’s like being 3% poorer before you leave the country! That can be hundreds and hundreds of dollars over six months.

Unfortunately, I knew this before going to Prague, but had no idea that there was an alternative. Now that I’m older and wiser, I realize that there are tons of Credit cards with no foreign transaction fees. While some of these cards may have an annual fee, avoiding all of the other international transaction fees may be worthwhile.

As a bonus, you get most of these cards additional reward points or cashback for travel-related purchases like planes, trains, buses, and even restaurants, so you can make money back with almost every purchase. Literally free money.

4. Take fewer pictures

I know this may be controversial, but seven years after studying abroad I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve looked through my old pictures. If I had a dollar for every picture I took of a fancy European church … well, I would probably do something different now.

Of course, you have to do it because of the gram. I get it. But remember, you can never really do justice to your experience with an image. If I could go back, I would throw my digital camera in the trash (yes, that was before the iPhone had a real camera) and immerse myself in the experience before me.

5. Leave the city

My final advice is to find ways to get out of the cities where you are studying. And don’t just go to another city; trying to get a taste of the slower, less urban life. It took me too long to realize that the differences between the big cities are small.

Sure, the food is different and the churches in Paris are a little different than in Barcelona or Berlin, and each city will have a slightly different atmosphere. But I promise you there won’t be a more remarkable memory than eating with locals in the French countryside or having a beer with Bavarians in a small pub in Germany. You will learn a lot more about the food, the culture and the people … and maybe you will walk away with some of your craziest stories.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of NerdWallet or its partners.

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