Celeste Guhl is one of CAPA's Official Bloggers for Fall 2014, sharing her study abroad story in weekly CAPA World posts. A University of Massachusetts Amherst student, she is studying abroad in Sydney this term.
At the moment, Celeste is still in the States, just about to head of on a long journey to Oz. She's taken some time to put together a few tips she's picked up to help other students prepare for a study abroad adventure.
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When you're getting ready to travel, it's easy to overlook or be overwhelmed by important pre-travel work. By reviewing the things on this list, though, you'll get a good idea of most of the basics you'll need for traveling abroad. It's not just about the packing!
MAKE AN OUTLINE OF YOUR TRIP.
Getting at least a rough idea of where you will be and when and what you'll do there is critically important to traveling. This might seem a little obvious, but this bit often gets overlooked when you're studying abroad. Get a calendar that you'll take with you, or, even better for saving space, get a calendar app on your phone that you can customize. Add your program and travel dates, flight details (including confirmation numbers and maybe even notes on transportation to wherever you're staying), class times, and anything you have concrete plans for to this calendar. Not only will it give you a sense of what you will be doing and a "This is really happening!" feeling, but a calendar will also give you an idea of how much time you have to do all the things you've dreamed of while you're abroad.
From there, start looking up things you might want to do and making lists. A notepad for traveling or a notepad app will help. Write down dates, times, and costs, and bookmark or write down web pages related to these things (for a place to start, look at CAPA's MyEducation calendar - note that this link is for Sydney so if you're traveling to a different destination, check your program materials for the correct link). Pintrest can really come in handy here too--just make a board for each travel destination or activity category and add pins to keep track of websites. It's a lot less messy than a bookmark folder, you can access it anywhere there's internet, and you can even make notations on the links!
Image: My Sydney board
Organizing your plans like this will help you in two other important prep steps--budgeting and packing. Once you know what you'll be doing, it's a lot easier to set limits on your spending, decide which costs and activities are really worth the money, and save up for specific goals. You'll also have a much clearer picture of the specific things you'll need to pack (or not pack, or buy there) to make your trip successful.
MONEY / BUDGETING
Speaking of budgeting, now that you've gotten all excited about what you'll be doing, your next important step is to make sure you have all the money you need in all the right forms. Our CAPA program has provided a great resource (again, this link is for Sydney, so please check your pre-departure materials if you're going to another destination) for understanding money abroad and making a budget.
The key takeaways as I see them are:
1) Let your financial institutions know you're going abroad.
2) Make copies of your credit cards in case they get lost/stolen.
3) Make sure your PIN is only 4 numbers.
4) Have/get some cash upon arrival.
5) Know your approximate currency conversions.
6) Have a good bank that you can use abroad effectively (more on this later)
7) Make a budget that includes both necessities and fun stuff.
One of the more complicated things is fees. There are fees everywhere, so know what you're getting into, and maybe open a new account with a place that will charge you less. Most credit/debit cards charge a percent on foreign purchases. A few that don't are Bank of America's travel credit card (which also earns you free travel) and Simple's debit card (both are with Visa).
Moreover, almost all checking accounts will charge you two fees when using an ATM abroad--one is a flat fee for use of the ATM, and one is a percentage of the currency conversion. Bank of America (checking) has a sister bank in Australia and New Zealand (Westpac) that waives the first fee on their ATMs, but they charge 3% for currency conversion. Simple charges $2 per ATM transaction and 1% for conversion. So if you're taking out small increments every week, BOA is better, but if you get all your cash at once and budget well, Simple is better.
Also, avoid a useless third fee by refusing to withdraw money from an ATM that charges a fee in and of itself, independent of any banks. Just go find a different ATM.
If you have Simple or another bank with small ATM fees, I recommend just getting some cash at an airport ATM when you arrive (only $50-$100 because you don't want to carry a bunch of cash around in a new place with all your luggage). ANZ bank ATMs are scattered throughout the terminal. Other options are to pay your U.S bank to exchange some money for you before you go or to use a currency exchange kiosk at the airport.
Lastly, your budget. Look up cost of living estimators for your necessity spending, and think about how you spend money at home and how that will change abroad. Think about setting a hard weekly limit on things that you're liable to overspend on (alcohol, eating out, shopping), and think about how much the other things you want to do will cost (see your travel outline). Personally, I'm aiming to spend $1,000-1,500 in Sydney (I'm living in a homestay and will have most meals provided) and another $1,500-2000 on travel during the program.
I also recommend setting aside about $1,000 that you can commit to not touching in case of emergency. I'm putting mine in a backup Chase checking account and leaving my card at my homestay all the time in case I get robbed or lose my other cards. My mom is also a joint holder of the account so that she can deposit money and it will be readily available to me.
As tedious as this is, you should make sure you understand what is and what is not covered by your insurance while you are abroad. If you need to, buy insurance for your expensive electronics and any health needs your insurance doesn't cover. ISIC (International Studnet Identity Card) provides basic travel health insurance (if you travel before /after the program) and student discounts (including for travel phones!) for only $22. Print out or make documents on your computer that have details of your insurance policy, and make sure you know the process in case you have a health emergency.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Relatedly, you should stay on top of your health and be aware of what will make you less or more safe while you travel. Sorry, but it's time for research. Read up on travel safety tips, and look up the hospitals closest to where you live, work, and study. Also, register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program within the Department of State to get safety updates, let the U.S. Embassy contact you if there is an emergency and let your family contact you in an emergency.
Also, if you take any medication, bring a doctor's note explaining it and /or a prescription. Then write down (or use a note app) the names of medications you take, the active ingredients, and instructions for use in case your documentation gets lost.
Remember to carry your meds in your carry on.
A PHONE AND A PLAN
Important to feeling safe, not getting frustrated, and not wasting your precious time abroad is having a phone and plan. This means: put the phone numbers and addresses for places you are living, working, studying, and traveling (and the people who accompany you to these places) in your phone along with the phone numbers for local taxi companies. This way, you will never be stranded and lost. Before you leave for any given destination, make sure your phone is charged and you have directions for getting to and from your destination (bus/train info, address, #). *This is especially important if you will be drinking.* There is almost nothing more dangerous than being drunk and lost (and female) at night in a foreign country. Don't let it happen to you.
Don’t forget adapters and a converter!
Now, you'll need both a phone and a sim card. You can get both through online companies like Piccell ($50) or ISIC ($30 with card) before you go; or you can unlock your current phone and purchase a sim card in-counrty; or you can purchase both in-country at kiosks in the Sydney airport (Vodaphone or Optus) or around town (CAPA can tell you where to find one close by at your orientation).
Finally, something simple! Have the originals and copies, whether paper or electronic, of all of the following: passport, visas, credit/debit cards, insurance cards and policies, medicine descriptions, and important phone numbers/addresses. It's also a good idea to have all the information you might need while traveling (all the above plus CAPA's pre-departure pages; the internship/class/living arrangement papers CAPA sent two weeks before departure; your phone contract if you got yours online; your resume, screenshots of google maps, etc.) saved in a folder on your laptop so you can access it without internet.
I saved the best for last, right? The most important things you need to remember while packing are that 1) you will be buying things to bring back with you 2) weight restrictions and 3) you really don't need as much as you initially think. The two key ideas that have helped me are 1) pack things you plan to not bring back (i.e. older clothes that have minor defects or are getting too small/worn out, and more expensive toiletries (save money and force yourself to save space for souveniers)) and 2) pack things that overlap in function (i.e. clothes that you can wear to work and school and when you travel and when you go out).
Let’s hope I can carry it…
So look up some packing tips (there are too many for me to list here!), maybe check out my packing pinterest (which has many packing tip articles), and this CAPA packing post and then research what weather and conditions you will face when you go abroad. Remember the things you plan do while you're abroad and pack with them in mind!
If you've covered all these basics, you are exceedingly well-prepared for your trip. Enjoy your travels!
Stay tuned for another post from Celeste next Wednesday!