There is nothing more rewarding, culturally enriching, and that brings life-changing awareness than studying abroad. Preparing for the trip can be exciting, yet overwhelming and these are the things I wish I would have known before studying abroad in England.
My study abroad experience took me to the quaint town of Cambridge to study at Cambridge University a little over an hour outside London. I stayed on the beautiful campus and became engrossed in the inspiring culture — rich in history and charm. My first day there, I realized I didn’t quite prepare myself for what was to come.
- Take Only What You Need. Pack Mindfully.
Don’t overpack. The more luggage, the more frustration.
I admit, when I arrived at Heathrow Airport I looked like I had my entire life packed into
three huge suitcases, a duffle bag, and a backpack. I packed an outfit for every occasion I could think of, American holidays that England didn’t even celebrate, and enough underwear to open a Victoria’s Secret pop-up shop.
Here’s what happened with that.
By the first week I was already over my wardrobe. I realized I was wearing the same three pairs of jeans, the same tops, shoes, and never digging into any of my “special occasion outfits” my entire stay. There were all types of shops (very affordable like Primark and H&M) that had a cool and modern sense of style unique to England that I just wanted to buy and wear as my new wardrobe for college abroad. The clothes that I brought now seemed old and irrelevant and I ended up just wearing the basics I brought paired with the new and shiny pieces I purchased at the local boutiques. A cool 40% of my suitcase I never even touched and I lugged that 40% back to America along with another duffle bag I had to tote back to the states filled with clothes and souvenirs I bought.
Be mindful when you pack. Only pack what you need, what you know you are going to wear. You can find pieces to supplement your wardrobe if you need it around campus where there are boutiques that cater to the college student’s budget. Know that Boots Pharmacy is the popular drugstore that has every beauty and hygiene item imaginable so no need to pack a ton of products that could weigh down your suitcase (be mindful of the weight as well when flying) or leaks in your luggage. Travel as light as you can so you can live lighter and clutter-free when you arrive to campus. Closet and drawer space can be very sparse at some dorms.
If you are based in a historical college like Cambridge. The dorm rooms are older than the United States so beware of using your expensive curling irons, and other electrical devices, they may burn out and cost you. I have an expensive straightening iron that I decided not to pack and easily bought an inexpensive one (under $20) at Boots Pharmacy that I didn’t need to use my converter and never short-circuited.
2. The Food is Not the Same
Toto, we’re not in America anymore.
I must say, the food in England has definitely improved with chefs bringing in more inspiration from other parts of the world, however know that you are not going to get that juicy burger from your favorite local burger chain (I missed In n Out terribly) or even that pile of nachos drizzled in every cheese, tacos, enchiladas, or any other authentic Mexican food. You might find yourself reaching for the salt and pepper, seasoning everything like crazy, or leaving with an uneasy stomach from the fried breakfast and oily fish and chips. The best thing to try in England is the Indian food. Real, authentic Indian cuisine is a sure thing in England as well as frequenting the gourmet food trucks close to campus and in town squares, farmers markets, gelato shoppesand bakeries, and yes, you must try an authentic English breakfast. Yorkshire pudding optional – not for me. If none of these fancy your belly, there’s always McDonald’s or Starbucks.
3. Public Transportation Is Easy, but Beware
Those late-night trains might never come.
Okay, I admit it, I went to a rave in London. It was my first and probably my last – oh lord the things I saw, but that’s another story. Here’s the problem with going outside your college town for nightlife – if you don’t catch the last train, you might be sleeping in the train station. We roamed the streets and took a little nap in shifts until the first morning train came. We were exhausted, annoyed, and probably the smelliest people on the morning train – wreaking of alcohol and energy drinks. Check the “last train schedule” ahead of time and don’t lose track of time when you are out for the evening.
Another tip. The underground (or Tube) can get really, really crowded during rush hour and certain other times throughout the day and night. You are literally elbow to elbow with passengers and could very easily not see the stop or too crowded to even move to get off on your stop. Prepare ahead and pay attention. Some stops are sketchier than others. Research the Underground schedule, its map with all the stops before you start your day.
There is Uber (but check before you leave for study abroad in England as they are always on strike or having issues keeping their license with the British government), but it can be expensive — $150 pounds to get back to Cambridge. Local travel is easy and cheaper. I actually love taking the taxis which are usually mini coopers. I learned to perfect my British accent when getting a cab to get a better fare.
4. Being Friendly is Optional
Friendly locals in bars, not so much asking for street directions.
I always heard that Paris had the rudest people, but surprisingly English people are not the warmest you’ll encounter in Europe. When out in the local bars (especially in college towns) they are very friendly and fun, but in the city when you are trying to navigate on foot, you’ll find the exchange rushed, short, and even off-putting. Don’t take it personally, remain your kind self and move on. Exchanges between the British can run hot and cold as you’ll find during your stay. When you’re feeling discouraged by the cold reception just remember everybody is in good spirits over a pint at the local pub.
5. Budget for Weekend Travel
It’s so cheap to travel throughout Europe, you’re gonna want to save up!
One of the sweet surprises when you are traveling abroad is not only how easy it is to travel from country to country, but how surprisingly affordable it is. Whether you are traveling by train or by air (Ryan Air has some great fares), you will find that a weekend away is easier and cheaper than traveling in the states.
When I studied abroad, I found that traveling to countries like Germany, Ireland, and Spain were just a quick flight away sometimes less than $100 US dollars round trip. Take note that some of these budget airlines charge for baggage and are often delayed. Pack light and be prepared to hang out in the airport for some time.
Hostels are aplenty in Europe with low nightly rates. Hostels are a great way to meet other travelers and save money at the same time.
- Actually Budget in General
Long term stay in England is pricey – just ask the ATM.
England is probably one of the most, if not the most, expensive place to study abroad. The US dollar to pound conversion rate is rarely ever in your favor making it easy to blow through your study abroad budget within the first month. Prepare ahead by researching ATM fees, get a credit card without any transaction fees or open an account with a bank that has sister banks in England so you will not accrue any ATM fees when taking out money (which is the best way to get British dollars without paying that hefty currency exchange fee).
Budget for travel, incidentals, daily food and drink, and emergencies that may arise. Find out what your study abroad program includes especially meals and take advantage, no matter how unbearable the food may be, in order to save some money. Have family and friends on alert in case you are in a jam and need quick funds through transfer money apps like Venmo or PayPal.
Going out every night will be an exciting new adventure since you are parental-free and you are of age to drink, but those cocktails and beers can add up fast not to mention the hangovers so keep the partying off campus to a minimum and find ways to cut cost when going out with your new college friends like special discount nights, happy hours, etc.
7. Cough. Sniffle. I’m Homesick.
You may not think so, but those feelings of missing home can be brutal
It may not hit you right away, but at some point in your study abroad experience you will feel homesick and towards the end you may be more than ready to come home. Communicate with your friends and family ahead of time as the best (and most affordable) ways to keep in touch — this may include Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp, texts or once-a-week short phone calls. If you are bringing your own cell phone with you make sure you contact your cell provider and switch to an international plan before you depart on your trip so you can have unlimited texts and enough minutes to contact home. If not, there are plenty of mobile phone stores in England where you can get temporary pay-as-you go phones.
Bring a little something whether it is a memento from your bedroom or a personal item of someone you love to put in your room. Postcards, as ancient as they seem, are always a fun way to keep in touch with friends and family and a way of documenting your travels. I actually Facebook-messengered a small group of friends and family daily, almost like a short diary of my experience each day in Cambridge. They probably didn’t read it every day, but I loved sharing my experiences and when I got back home re-reading some of the fun times I had (especially sleeping in the train station after the rave.)
P.S. on getting actually sick, I recommend you bring your own cold, headache, and stomach relief over-the-counter medications from home. The British pharmacy may not always have the brands you are used to from home and at least you know the ones you bring will work.
Tiffany Carter is a food and travel writer for magazines, businesses and colleges like Patrick Henry College. She has studied abroad at England’s Cambridge University. She has traveled to over 15 countries across the globe with her favorites being Italy and Germany. Studying abroad gave her the education and cultural experience as well as knowing which shoppe has the best gelato and which souvenirs not to waste your money on.