Both employers and students feel studying abroad is one of the best choices a student can make during his or her academic career. Living in a foreign country can be a key part of one’s self-discovery. The abroad experience grows cultural competence, self-awareness, self-confidence, and can even clarify career goals. Perhaps that’s why 300,000 American students study abroad every year!
However, any life-changing experience has potential to transform into a scary one if safety measures are not met. This guide was created to help students travel safely as they embark on their adventure of a lifetime.
So Many Countries, So Little Time
The world is your oyster! Where shall you go? Australia? Costa Rica? Brazil? Germany? It sounds like the World Cup all over again. Truthfully though, this is your time to be creative. With Google at your fingertips, images and websites give you access to the most incredible places all over the world. Connect with your university’s study abroad office and see what programs they offer. Or, if you can’t decide on just one country, a popular option for the indecisive student traveler is to visit 15 different countries with Semester at Sea’s cruise ship style abroad program. Another great resource to get started can be found here.
Before you leave, make sure you notify the bank about your travel plans. Otherwise, they might see your sudden payments in Europe and cancel your card. Also, purchase a money belt to use on your trip. No country is exempt from pick-pocketing, so make sure your money, ID, passport, visas and other important documents are on your person, not in your purse or pants. On that note, ensure that all important documents are duplicated and that you have a backup copy safely stowed away in your suitcase.
Do Your Research
When visiting a foreign country it is crucial to know what is acceptable and unacceptable in their culture. Research what foods the locals eat, what to wear, common phrases to know, and what hand gestures are or are not acceptable. For example the common “thumbs up” American gesture carries a variety of different meanings around the world. In Germany, the gesture is positive and means “number one.” In China it’s “excellent”, and in Japan it signifies a “boss or husband.” However in Greece, it is an insulting “up yours” and likewise if used in the Middle East the hand motion is interpreted to be an “obscene gesture.” Arriving with a general awareness will keep you safe and culturally sensitive. The last thing you want to do is to greet someone in an offensive manor by accident, or wear something inappropriate. After all, this is your new home, make sure you treat it with respect.
If you are going to a country that speaks a different language than you, it will be wise to remember these tips. Let’s say you plan to visit Thailand. The beautiful thing about the tech world we live in is the amount of available apps we have at our finger tips. Download the “Thai” or “Vietnamese” translation apps on the digital devices you are taking abroad. Just like that, Southeast Asia instantly became a lot easier to maneuver through!
Map It Out
Next, always remember to travel with a map of the area. Point to locations on the map you desire to travel to, that way the taxi driver can understand where to go, even if you can’t understand one another. It’s a great idea to bring a business card of the place you want to come back to. This makes it easier to explore the area and come back to your hostel, hotel or university dorm safe and sound.
Withdrawing money in your country’s currency is a necessity, but should be carefully done. As a general rule, do not exchange currency with anyone on the street. They are likely using a false currency and lying about giving you “better exchange rates then the bank.” Be cautious and only give your debit card to ATM machines that are inside a bank lobby or directly tied to a bank. Cover up your pin when you type it into the machine. This will protect you from getting your information stolen through the “chip and PIN” scam. Keep in mind that ATMs in tourist areas or in outdoor locations are easily targeted by scam artists. CBS News shed light on this issue and encouraged tourists to avoid ATMS that seem to be alone, or tampered. Overall, pay attention to where the locals go and follow their lead.
Power in Numbers
Traveling in a group is not only more fun, but it is safer as well. Sticking to “the buddy system” provides natural accountability. If you want to leave, have your friend go with you. Be a team and look out for one another. Especially in regards to taxi cab rides and nightlife. If you choose to engage in the club or bar scene, it would be smart to develop a nonverbal signal and use it to communicate. This way you can signal each other across the room if the music gets too loud. For example, making eye contact with your friend, and then tapping two fingers on your forehead might mean “hey- are you okay?” Your friend can then nod or shake his or her head in response. Maybe your sign means that it’s time for you to go or that you don’t feel comfortable with some guy who keeps talking to you. Whatever it is, come prepared when you come together.
Eye on the Environment
Being aware of your surroundings is a lifelong skill. If something does not feel right to you, chances are you feel uncomfortable for a reason. Trust your instincts and listen to your gut. Make sure you take note of the people around you, and distance yourself from someone or something that is out-of-the-ordinary. Treat the night time with even more precaution. Avoid dimly lit areas, alleyways, empty parks, train stations, and subways.
If you are of legal age and feel comfortable drinking alcohol, sipping Sangria in Spain might sound like a perfect evening for you. That being said, one of the most important rules to drinking alcohol abroad is to do your research beforehand. How does the country treat alcohol? Is it acceptable, like it is in Ireland? Is it looked down upon, like it is in India? What are the cultural norms? Depending on which country you choose to study abroad in, the cultural acceptance of alcohol might look different than it does back home. No matter what, keep others safe on the road by never getting behind the wheel after you have been drinking. If you choose to drink in a club or bar scene make sure you watch your drink. Never put yourself in a situation where you have had too much to drink in an area you are unfamiliar with. Be smart, be safe and have fun as you know and respect your personal limits.
Remember the Home Front
Don’t forget to update your loved ones on your fabulous journey! This is a great time to create a blog and share some of your favorite tales and photos. Download Viber, WhatsAP or other international texting and phone call apps so that you can talk to loved ones for free. Another option is to buy an international phone. If you do this, don’t forget to freeze your cell phone account to save a 4-month billing cost! All in all, as incredible as it is to Skype people from half-way around the world, don’t forget- this experience is for you. Be present, and embrace the little details of your new life abroad.The time will fly by and memories you make will be worth far more than the likes blowing up your Instagram account. Carry a pocket journal with you and jot down a few bullet points about what you see outside the bus or train window. Once your plane takes off remember to value yourself, to be wise, and to stay safe as you enjoy the next chapter of your life abroad!