One of the perks of studying abroad, aside from having the opportunity to live in a foreign country, is having the freedom to be able to travel. Some of my favorite memories from my past semester in London have been of exploring new cities—from Copenhagen, to Prague, to Dublin, to Amsterdam, to Paris, I’ve fallen in love with each of the cities that I’ve visited. As exciting as traveling may be, though, you can only truly appreciate a new environment if you feel safe in it.
Preparation for travel is crucial to ensuring a safe and stress-free (or, at least, stress-reduced) trip. Before you go anywhere, follow these steps and take note of these suggestions to make sure that you’re fully informed about your destination and prepared for whatever circumstances may arise:
What to Consider When Booking a Hostel
Read reviews of your accommodation before booking: If you’re a student, then chances are that you’ll be staying in a hostel. Don’t underestimate this timeless rule: you get what you pay for. When it comes to hostels, this rule couldn’t be more accurate. I’m a huge proponent of Hostel World; its rating system is reliable and the comments are invaluable. A couple months ago, I didn’t take the comments about a hostel in Copenhagen seriously enough, and ended up on the same street as several prostitutes and drug dealers—this is a safety DON’T.
Be wary of hostel cleanliness: When reading reviews, steer clear of any hostels that have had reports of bedbugs or any sort of rodent or insect problems. Only book hostels with high sanitation ratings. Even if they do have high sanitation ratings, though, hostels aren’t hotels, so their standards of cleanliness are much lower. A couple of my fellow abroad-ees got nasty cases of scabies in Venice from their accommodation. Do yourself a favor: bring flip-flops, a towel, a pillowcase, and even a sleep-sheet (basically just two sheets sewn together like a sleeping bag). Emily, a junior at WashU, studied abroad in London and highly recommends investing in a sleep-sheet: “After I purchased my sleep-sheet—also known as my sleep cocoon—I slept much better in those $10 hostels.” It may seem like an unnecessary cost, but a few pro-sanitation investments really go a long way when you’re staying in a hostel—you’ll thank yourself when you come home scabies-free. And lots of hostels will charge you for towels, a locker, even sheets and a blanket, so it saves money too!
Make note of the hostel’s operating hours: Like I said before, hostels aren’t hotels. This simple yet significant fact applies to the operating hours of the hostel as well as to its cleanliness. Hostels often do not have a reception desk or a concierge, meaning that—you guessed it—they aren’t open 24/7. There are a couple exceptions out there, as some hotels have their own hostels that are actually part of the same building, but it’s safer to assume that your hostel has limited operating hours and to not only find out what they are beforehand, but also to make sure that your flight or bus arrival and departure coincide with them. Sarah, a student at Boston College, studied abroad in Aix (in the South of France) this past semester, and is unfortunately all too familiar with being unaware of operating hours: “Always check in with your hostel about their hours. We got back at 5:00 am after being out in Norway and our hostel was closed. We had our room-key but were locked out of the actual hostel. We ended up freezing outside until they finally let us in at 8:30 am.” Sarah was lucky that the temperature was her only discomfort; depending on the hostel’s location, her safety could have been jeopardized. To avoid any sort of discomfort, simply make note of the hours before your trip begins.
What to Bring with You & How to Plan for Your Travels
Make photocopies of your important documents: The State Department has a useful website on safe travel for study abroad students that’s definitely worth taking a look at before you take off on your adventures. One of the most important pieces of advice that the website offers regards making copies of important documents: “Leave a copy of your passport identification page, airline tickets, driver's license, the credit cards you're taking, serial numbers of your travelers' checks, insurance information, as well as the addresses and phone numbers of the places you'll be,” the site explains. Making these photocopies is not the only crucial step you need to take to ensure that you have all of your bases covered, though—you also have to make sure that your family and friends have copies in case of an emergency. Make enough copies so that you, too, can have copies with you on your travels. Remember: keep the photocopies separate from the originals, so that if you lose your bag or have any of the originals stolen you’ll have something to fall back on.
Familiarize yourself with the local customs and laws of your destination: Nothing is worse than embodying the stereotype of the ignorant American by offending the locals. Observing local customs can be just as crucial as local laws in terms of safety. The State Department makes note of how crucial law and custom consideration is in their study abroad travel advice for women: “In some countries, wearing the wrong clothes can get you arrested or lead to a dangerous situation. What you think is casual may actually be considered provocative or unacceptable in other cultures. Know before you go, and pack accordingly… Stay away from anything too revealing or tight. Don't wear excessive makeup, and keep jewelry to a minimum to avoid attracting attention. Any fashion statement you DO make should show consideration for the country you are visiting.” Although it may be hard to leave that brand new mini dress at home, looking your best should fall second to staying safe. Make sure to research the customs of the country you’re visiting before you decide what to pack.
If traveling to a non-English speaking country, look up important phrases beforehand: Many major cities, especially in Europe, are filled with English-speakers, but relying on this will make you extremely vulnerable if you find yourself in a situation where you are unable to communicate with people. Sarah dealt with language barriers while in France: “If you don’t know the language, don’t assume people understand English. Bring a mini dictionary or look up a list of essential phrases before you go and keep that on you at all times.” If you don’t have a mini dictionary, I recommend HowtoSayin for basic translations of common phrases. Like Sarah suggests, it’s important to keep a list of these phrases with you at all times so that you’ll be much better equipped to communicate with natives.
Make a trip itinerary: Yes, I’ve gotten made fun of for being uptight by doing this, but I’ve never once regretted it. Creating an itinerary allows you to think through each step of your trip, even details as apparently minute as how you’re going to get from your apartment to the local airport. Although these details may seem unnecessary—they are so much less fun to plan than sightseeing—these are the details that will cause you the most trouble. Amanda First, a Cornell grad, has a friend who didn’t think to look up buses from the airport in Paris beforehand and ended up having to pay 140 euro for a cab to her accommodation. It will save you both time and money if you give yourself enough time to plan out the details before you leave. Try TripIt, which allows you to create an online, printable itinerary, complete with daily weather forecasts and maps of each of your locations.
How to Stay Safe While You’re There
Pick up city and public transportation maps from your destination’s airport or train station: Although you should already know how you’re getting from the airport or station to your accommodation beforehand, you should also pick up maps as soon as you arrive. Even though I try to plan out every detail of my trips in advance, I can’t tell you how many times while traveling I find myself checking maps or rechecking a transportation route. There’s no harm in being over-prepared, and being aware of your surroundings allows you to be in control. It may be your responsibility to prepare for your transportation ahead of time, but you should also accept that there are some situations that might require you to unexpectedly splurge on a cab, especially if you are feeling unsafe while walking. Elyse advises, “It’s always better to spend the extra money for a cab if you feel unsafe at night or are alone.” It’s worth sacrificing a fancy dinner or a few souvenirs to feel comfortable and stay safe.
Take out money in the local currency as soon as possible: Your first opportunity to do this will probably be when you land at your destination’s airport. Take out as much as you think you’ll need while you’re on your trip right away. If your credit card is stolen or lost while you’re there, you need to make sure that you still have enough money with you to cover your expenses (also, taking out a lot of cash at once saves you from having to pay multiple ATM fees as well as allowing you to avoid foreign credit card fees).
Beware of Pickpockets: Laura, a collegiette from WashU, was in Greece last summer and had this story to share about her pickpocket catastrophe: “On my first day [in Greece]…I noticed I didn't have my wallet. That's when I realized there was a giant knife gash on the side of my purse. Without me feeling anything…someone had cut a hole and reached in my purse for my wallet.” To save you from being a victim of pickpockets, Laura suggests, “[W]ear a leather purse that you can wear across your body…It will be much harder to cut through…[and] keep money in a side pocket in your purse. A bulky wallet is an easy target…[T]hese people pickpocket for a living so they are amazingly good at it. I promise you, you won’t feel a thing!” A cross body bag or leather purse will definitely help, but the best way to keep your money and important documents away from pickpockets is a money pouch, which sits against your body, under your clothing, and out of sight from pickpockets!
Keep all crucial contact information on your body at all times: Write down the local emergency phone number (911 only works in the U.S.!), your accommodation’s address and phone number, and anything else that might be pertinent in an emergency situation. Make sure that your family and friends have a way to reach you and that you have a way to reach them, and, especially if you’re traveling alone, be sure to communicate with them as much as you can so that they know where you are and that you’re safe.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that you’re not just taking a fun trip with your friends—you’re also entering into a foreign country. You can’t expect to be able to simply show up and figure things out from there—if you do, you could unknowingly put yourself and whomever else you’re traveling with in unpredictable, dangerous, or even life-threatening situations. Attackers rely on their victims’ vulnerability and ignorance leads to vulnerability. Educate yourself, be aware of your surroundings, and come prepared; this way, once you arrive, you’ll be able to focus on enjoying the vacation that you undoubtedly deserve!
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