I’ve seen parts of the world I’d never imagined I would see in the last 6 months. I’ve met up with friends from UW and high school in cities I’d never imagined I’d see them in. If this incredible experience has taught me anything, it’s taught me how narrow my view of the world is. For me the experience has been very humbling in that sense.
Every city I’ve gone to—a modest list that includes Barcelona, Florence, Rome, Budapest, Vienna, and Prague, among others—has presented me a new view of the world, and I’ll always remember the cultural perspective I felt in each new place. I think my traveling has now come to an end. My budget is running low and my days left in Paris are numbered, but I am full of great memories from all the amazing places I’ve visited. Looking back on all my travels, there are a few things I can offer up as pieces of advice for a traveling study abroad student.
Me and my friend from high school, Nick, whom I visited in Barcelona
Understand the odds are good that somewhere along the line you’ll screw up in your travels.
My “learning experience” happened in Prague after a 10 day trip to Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic. With a flight scheduled to leave at noon and arrive in Paris just after 2:00, I had just a small window of time to make it to school for an exam at 5:00. After having barely caught every train we’d taken on the trip, my girlfriend and I decided to play it safe and get to the airport three hours early. From tram to metro to bus, we reached the airport as planned. After an hour, the check-in for our flight opened up, and we jumped in line. I handed over our flight confirmation to the airline employee, who looked at it, glanced at his computer, shifted his eyes back to the paper, and in a voice I can best describe as apologetic and sympathetic, he said: “These tickets are for last week.”
Olivia and me in Budapest
You know those little calendars that pop-up for you to choose a date… we’ll I knew I needed a Tuesday flight, but I guess I didn’t pay attention to which Tuesday. Luckily for us, there were still seats available for that week’s flight, which we had no choice but to buy. It was an expensive mistake, but it could have been worse (I still made it to my exam). I’ve heard plenty of other horror stories, but the great thing is that with time, most of them turn into comedies—self-deprecating little anecdotes that perfectly capture the feeling of clueless-ness you can sometimes get when traveling through foreign land.
Wake up early, go to bed late.
Every city you’ll travel to—if you choose well—will offer you something completely new, but you’ll have just a limited time to explore it. The problem, then, is how to get the most out of that time. My solution is an obvious one: spend the minimum amount of time sleeping. Another suggestion to make the most of every trip is to skip the things that you can do anywhere: for me this included shopping (especially at big retailers), going out to clubs, and spending hours on the internet. Before you head somewhere new, pick the sights you know you want to see, leave some time for places/things you learn about once you arrive, and spend the rest in a state of wanderlust.
With all this said, I don’t believe there’s any right way to be a tourist. Everyone has their own desires and will do it their own way. I have tried planning every second of a trip, but then I ended up stressing about fitting everything all in. I’ve tried going without a plan or any knowledge of the destination, but then I ended up feeling lost and worried about what I was missing. In the end I found comfort somewhere in the middle—having an agenda with flexibility.
Skip the skies, travel by train
Full disclosure here: I’ve never been the biggest fan of flying; it’s probably an extension of my fear of heights combined with living in a post-9/11 world. Putting that aside, I still think rail travel beats air travel any day. Yes, rail travel is slower, but the extra time you spend in transit is often cancelled out by the decreased pre- and post-procedures. For a flight, you need to arrive at the airport between one and two hours before the flight. Airports are usually located outside of the cities they service, so it can take half an hour or an hour to go to and from each one. Add in flight delays, time spent picking up your baggage, anything else you can imagine costing you time, and you’re probably right about at the amount of time it would’ve taken to go by train. Then you factor in the views you get from a window seat on a train, the fact that your ears won’t pop, the lack of turbulence, the added legroom, the presence of electrical outlets, etc., and I don’t think you can deny that traveling by train is the better alternative. Even if a train ticket costs slightly more, I’d still usually opt for it. The only time air travel wins out for me is if the distance is so huge that a train would take an unreasonable amount of time.
Oh and I can’t forget about the flexibility train schedules can offer you. I essentially gained an extra day in the French Riviera two weekends ago by booking a night train back to Paris. Rather than leave the beach at 9 a.m. on a Sunday on a train set to arrive in Paris at 4 p.m., we chose to leave at 8 p.m., spend the night in slightly uncomfortable triple-bunk beds on the train, and arrive the next morning at 7 a.m. The sleeping situation (6 people bunking in a small room) isn’t the greatest, but it beats paying for another night in a hotel or missing out a day at your travel destination. And as an added bonus I got to watch the sun set over the hills of southern France as I drifted to sleep.
The view of the Mediterranean through the window of my night train back to Paris
Remember you can still be a tourist in your city
As great as traveling is, it can wear on you. By the end of each of my two 10-day trips I was exhausted and ready to be back at home in Paris where I could live out of a closet and not a suitcase. There’s nothing wrong with spending your weekends in Paris… I’ve been here for almost 6 months and there are still plenty of things that I’ve not done or seen in this great city. And don’t sleep on the rest of France either. By train, you can take day trips to explore Chartres, Versailles, Fontainebleau, or the castles of the Loire Valley, or you can make a weekend out of visits to Mont Saint-Michel and Saint-Malo in Brittany, or to the D-Day beaches in Normandy, or to the famous beaches of the Cote d’Azur… the list goes on and on. Yes, you’ll probably only study abroad in Europe once, but when you tell someone where you studied and she asks you what that city was like and you don’t have anything to tell about it, you might regret spending every weekend in a new city.
Wilson, Andrea, and me in front of Chambord Castle in the Loire Valley