The ultimate guide to getting the most out of your year abroad
Whether you’re organising a student exchange or planning a gap year of action packed travel, our Student Travel Writer, Jamie Doris from Heriot-Watt University shares his top tips to get the most out of your year abroad.
How to decide where to go
Deciding where to go is tough. Studying a year abroad is a once in a lifetime experience and there are lots of things to consider. The first decision that you need to make is what you are wanting to get out of your year. Is it meeting new people? Learning a new language? Soaking up some sun? Experiencing new cultures? All of the above? As an exchange student I was also very interested in the quality of the universities and how a year abroad could affect my future career prospects. When you have identified your main motivations, choosing your exact location is a lot easier. I chose to study at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology as Australia is a country that I may choose to work in in the future, the university is great and not to mention the sun, surf and national obsession with sport!
How to stay on top of your finances
Living in a different country means using a different currency. On the surface this seems pretty simple though with an array of different banking options, exchange rates, withdrawal and transfer fees it can get very complex very quickly. Banks offer a range of products that are suitable for travellers however I found the easiest way to manage my finances was to open up a bank account in Australia. Having a local bank account is essential if you are intending on working during your year abroad and it also allows you to negotiate better deals if you are taking out a mobile phone contract or internet package.
If you are receiving a student loan or bursary, transferring the payment from your British bank account to an international account is something that you will need to think about. I have found that for small amounts PayPal can be a quick and painless way of moving your money and for larger amounts it is more economical to pay your British bank to make a transfer. Foreign exchange rates can also influence how far your pounds can go when you are abroad and you should keep an eye out for when the best rate becomes available. My year abroad began shortly after the Brexit vote and in hindsight I wish that I had made my arrangements earlier!
How (and what) to pack
Trying to compress your life’s possessions into a suitcase is one of the more challenging stages pre-year abroad. The most generous airlines allow a maximum weight of a little over 30kg which fills up surprisingly quickly. When you’re packing it’s important to focus on your priorities; anyway, chances are the local style will be different to your current wardrobe and when you arrive you will want to pick up some new clothes to suit.
Make sure that you visit the pharmacy and stock up on any medication or toiletries that you will need when you’re away. Medication can be very expensive when abroad and it can be hard to find an exact match. A travel adapter will become one of your more prized possessions to make sure that you can keep all of your electronics charged and operational. It is also important to think of the practicalities of packing. You will have to be able to carry your luggage when you first arrive so it’s important that you have a combination of suitcases and bags that you can easily manage. A useful piece of advice I was given when I was packing for my year abroad was to tightly roll my clothes and pack them together to fit more in.
How to find a place to stay
When you know the location of your destination and the dates you are going to travel you will most likely turn your attention to firming up your accommodation and transport arrangements. There is something settling about having a fixed itinerary as well as a sense of excitement as you can start to imagine where you could be living and how you will spend your time. That said, my advice would be to book as little as you can.
You will obviously need to book your flight and somewhere to stay when you are fresh off the plane but even with all the research in the world, you are unlikely to get as good a feel for a place as you do when you actually visit. If you are going to commit to signing a lease or sharing a flat, it’s important that you take your time to find the right place. When I arrived in Melbourne I lived in a hostel that was set up for short term stays for two weeks whilst I scouted out different areas and spoke with locals until I found a flat that I was happy with. If you are spending your year abroad as part of a student exchange, your destination university is likely to offer a variety of different forms of accommodation and will be able to provide you with advice.
How to make friends for life
Making new friends and experiencing new cultures is one of the best parts of your year abroad. If you are on a university exchange, there are plenty of ways to meet new people. When I arrived at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology the university organised a week’s worth of events for exchange students who had also just arrived. This was a great opportunity to meet similar people and really helped me to settle into Melbourne life. Joining a group or sports club is another great way of making friends who have similar interests or a chance to try out something different.
Search social media for groups that have been created for travellers as in addition to meeting people these are often great sources of advice and places where people may offer great deals on accommodation, jobs or goods that they no longer need. My biggest tip would be to really put yourself out there. It can be daunting arriving in a country where you don’t know anyone but chances are everyone else is feeling the same way!
A year abroad when you are a student is a fantastic opportunity and can have a great effect on your future. If you get the chance, go for it and embrace the challenges, opportunities and new experiences wherever you choose to go. As Hans Christian Anderson once said
To travel is to live.
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