After you have selected a study abroad program, chances are you will have an urge to plan your downtime in advance and right away. Whether you are abroad for three weeks or three months, you’ll likely want to make the most of your time. Don’t get me wrong, there is a certain level of planning and organizing required, but I would advise that you avoid booking weekend trips, making restaurant reservations, or buying tickets to see a show before you arrive.
Here’s why you should wait to plan study abroad activities or trips until after you reach your destination(s):
1. Expect the unexpected
School is your top priority when studying abroad, as it is the reason you are there in the first place. Especially if you are embarking on a very short program like I did with AIFS, you may want to reconsider planning out your downtime in advance because of this. In my personal experience, I found that the itinerary was ever-changing and that classwork took up more time than I had imagined.
My plans changed often and what I woke up thinking I would do is not exactly what played out. Challenges arise and the timing of events can change quickly, so pre-purchasing show tickets or paying to reserve a table in advance at a highly desirable restaurant is not in your best interest. But, these changes were ultimately for the best. Though there were places and things I had in mind that I wanted to cross off on my “bucket list,” I found that there was beauty in going with the flow. Once I was caught up in studying abroad, I found that it was much easier to let go of the schedule I had in my head. I was able to stop to enjoy the moments that I was able to realistically achieve.
2. Making new friends
Without a doubt, you are bound to meet and befriend people who are traveling in your program. My best friend Brooke and I were lucky enough to meet and grow close to five girls from the University of Alabama. Some of them knew one another prior to our study abroad program, while others did not. Though each of us had different ideas for how we wanted to spend our downtime and had each tried to plan activities in advance based on recommendations from friends who had studied abroad in the past, we stuck together and combined our recommendations. If we had booked tickets or reservations before going abroad, this would’ve been more complicated to do.
Each day we would try and prioritize one activity to do or place to visit, but this became challenging with class, schoolwork, and our strict itinerary. Traveling to four cities in three weeks was hard because there was so much we wanted to do, but we eventually decided it was best to see where each day took us. Some of the best dinners and most exciting experiences we shared together were entirely unplanned. Taking a local’s recommendation or pursuing spur of the moment adventures added a sense of thrill to our experience. If I had stuck to my previous and/or pre-booked plans, I would have missed out on an incredible journey with some of the greatest people I have ever met. In my opinion, wait to form a “Must See/Do” list until you make friends in your program!
3. Don’t be afraid to explore
With a packed itinerary and minimal downtime, I found it challenging to travel quickly between class and planned group activities. Whether you travel via car, bus, or the underground transport it always takes longer than expected. This posed as a challenge when trying to plan out what we wanted to do in-between visiting museums and completing schoolwork. It was often easier to use our program’s itinerary as a guide.
For example, my friends and I stumbled upon Vinegar Yard, a London street fair after we visited the Fashion & Textile Museum. If we hadn’t explored the area further, we wouldn’t have found such a wonderful spot to shop and grab lunch. Because it is usually exhausting to travel in densely populated cites like the ones I visited, it was nice to relax and simply explore the boutiques and restaurants around us.
I may not have checked everything off of my “bucket list,” but I came to terms with that very quickly. I have a collection of moments and memories to reflect on that would have otherwise ceased to exist if I tried to stick to plans I made before I touched down in Europe.