Pre-planning helped me get the most out of my time in a foreign country. 

By Marina DeLuca

Photo credit: Marina DeLuca

[Note: this post was written pre COVID-19.]

Studying abroad in London the last trimester of my junior year was the highlight of my college career. That said, there were a few things I did right in advance that made a difference, and a few I learned along the way.   

Understand exchange rates, foreign transaction/bank fees and service charges Part of planning for a term abroad is figuring out how you’re going to pay for things. I saved so much money by making sure my bank had a partner bank in London where I could withdraw British pounds from that bank’s ATM without fees. While you’ll still lose money due to the exchange rate (if your destination’s currency is valued higher than the U.S. dollar), there won’t be a charge for withdrawing money.

I also needed a travel-friendly credit card to avoid expensive foreign transaction fees. I paid by credit card at many establishments and for larger travel expenses while abroad, like flights and train tickets, without additional fees because I had the right card. Keep in mind, when using a credit card abroad in-person, you are sometimes asked whether you want to make the purchase in dollars or Euros. I always chose Euros, never incurring fees. A friend with the same card chose dollars and was charged fees. Clarify this in advance with the bank issuing your card.

I used cash for daily expenses because I found it easier to budget that way. When traveling to a country with currency valued higher than the dollar, plan your budget in the local currency. This way you’re not constantly tracking the exchange rate and you won’t feel like you’re always losing money.

Although I advise against exchanging much cash in advance, definitely bring some dollars in case of emergencies. Whether you’re going to exchange money in the U.S. or abroad, shop around as rates vary among vendors, as do the fees they charge for this service.

Choose the right cell phone, service and adapters Almost as important as preparing your financials, is figuring out phone service. Having a plan with data is extremely beneficial because you can use map applications to get just about anywhere without relying on WiFi. Before I left home I purchased an “unlocked” smartphone (I was due for a new cell phone anyway), which works with any service provider. If you don’t have an unlocked phone, check with your service provider about whether your phone will work abroad and how best to do it.

When I arrived in London, I purchased a phone plan and inserted the new SIM card they gave me. (Do not lose your U.S. SIM card because you’ll need it when you return home.) As far as phone plans, in London I recommend giffgaff as they are super user-friendly and worked everywhere I went within the European Union, which made traveling outside of London pretty pain-free. [They run on the O2 network, which is a major carrier in the UK.]

Don’t forget adapters so that you can charge your cell phone. Though all foreign plugs are different than what we use in the U.S., England and the rest of the United Kingdom use a different plug shape than the other countries in Europe. If you are studying in England and traveling around Europe, make sure you purchase both a European and a British adapter because phones need to be charged! Bringing an extra charger with you isn’t a bad idea either.

Also, if you’re bringing a hair dryer, hair straightener or similar electric appliance, purchase a voltage converter so you don’t blow out your machine on first use. Or you can by a cheap dryer or straightener for 20 pounds in a Tesco, then split the cost and share with your roommates.

Marina train
Photo credit: Jenna Smith

Plan your wardrobe, for the fashion-conscious The one piece of advice I wish someone had given me before studying abroad in a global city was to bring a pair of heels. London is a fashion capital—everyone owns a signature leather jacket, some unimaginably awesome pair of pants and an umbrella (which you can buy at the pound shop for literally a pound and its entirely worth it). But if you’re wearing leggings and a pair of running shoes while strolling through the city (the athletic, “travel-friendly” clothing most travel guides advise), you will stand out like the tourist you are. You’re studying abroad—you want to look like you live there.

I packed my comfortable shoes and left behind my sparkly blazer, my favorite pair of pumps (which I can in fact walk miles in) and opted for more versatile pieces. I was never more upset. I got so frustrated that I actually went out and bought a cheap pair of heels in London because I wanted to blend in.

The point is, if you love fashion, or have any interest in dressing like a local, don’t compromise for “sensibility” because, if you’re anything like me, you will walk six miles in shoes that feel like hellfire just because they look that good.

Remember to bring clothing for the different seasons you will experience during your time abroad, as well as for the multitude of climates across Europe (layers are key!) because they vary greatly. Of course, make sure to bring your favorite pair of heels or, guys, break out your craziest jacket because you will not regret it for a second.

Share your advice about studying abroad in the comments section below.

Marina DeLuca is a senior at Union College studying Biology and Music. She is a singer-songwriter and you can find her first EP on Soundcloud and Bandcamp. After college she hopes to spend a year working on her musical endeavors full-time. She also hopes to be actively involved in environmental causes and to continue to travel to new places.