If any of you are planning to go on exchange, rest assured, it is the most exciting experience ever! I recently returned from Maastricht, Netherlands after five months. During that time, I visited 10 countries and 21 cities. I learned a thing or two (ten in fact), and some the hard way!
One of my priorities on exchange was to explore as many places as I could. I was under the impression that traveling within Europe is super easy and cheap. That’s a myth! By no means is it cheap, and connectivity isn’t always as convenient as you’d like. Here are some tips to make traveling a little easier for you if you are embarking on this experience of a lifetime.
1. Local bank accounts
Having a local bank account is really helpful to avoid cross-country bank charges. There is at least a 5% surcharge over the XE rate when you use a Singaporean card for online purchases, and I’m sure it is even more for regular transactions. I recommend using TransferWise to set up your local accounts - it has zero commission and uses an exchange rate very close to XE. The only issue is that it can only be used to transfer money between accounts belonging to one person, which means that you’ll have to send yourself money from a Singaporean (or home) account in your name.
The good news for most of you is that Visa and MasterCard work everywhere in Europe. These companies have subsidiaries called VPay and Maestro respectively, which might be the default on student accounts. These work at all shops and restaurants, but not for online bookings, so if you have one of these cards you’ll have to use your home debit card. Make sure you bringit along!
2. Budgeting for food
Food is one of the major expenses abroad, especially in Europe. I won’t deny that there is lots of delicious food available, but they do not come cheap. You often don’t come across affordable options for meals on the road, so one solution is to save for this by cooking more often during your day-to-day living. If you can buy groceries and put together a few meals a week, you could splurge a little more when you’re traveling.
When I was in Maastricht, my friends and I would visit the market every Friday to buy fresh vegetables, cheese and even home-made soup. It was an activity we looked forward to every week as all the stalls in the market square would be bustling with people, the produce was so fresh, and most of all – it was cheaper than in supermarkets. (It’s a separate issue that we struggled to make tasty dishes out of these gorgeous ingredients).
3. Packing for short travels
If you are planning to travel a fair bit, prepare for your trips even before you leave Singapore by packing the right things.
One of your bags should be a sturdy duffel bag, or a small suitcase that you can take for a short trip. The benefit of a duffel bag is that it weighs almost nothing itself, so when you’re trying to squeeze everything under your luggage allowance (which you’re bound to do at some point), it doesn’t add to the weight and doesn’t burn a hole in your pocket when the airline makes you shell out an exorbitant fee.
You should also take small shampoo or soap bottles that contain no more than 100 ml of liquid. Even if you don’t fly a lot, it’s very handy when you have a travel kit ready, instead of lugging around big bottles each time. This is especially useful if, like me, you use two kinds of shampoos, one type of soap, one brand of conditioner and one type of lotion! You can also buy sets of empty small bottles and fill these.
4. Preparing for the weather
This one depends on where you’re planning to go. But European countries and many parts of the US experience periods of cold spells. If you go during the fall semester, you end off with winter; if you go in spring, you reach in terrible weather. My personal lesson was to pack well for the cold. The cold can really get to you, especially long periods of it, and especially to those of us who are used to sunny Singapore. Thick sweaters and jackets will become everyday wear. Additionally, I found a beanie, gloves and a scarf to be the most useful items. Even if the rest of my outfit wasn’t doing a great job at keeping me warm, if I had these three pieces, I could bear the cold.
It can be a challenge to find affordable and fashionable winter wear in Singapore, but you can always go shopping once you reach your destination. These countries have a lot more options - too many in fact! And let’s not pretend that you’re going to hold back from shopping even if you had winterwear anyway!
5. Budget Airlines
Budget airlines are a godsend for traveling students. Beware though, the tickets are only cheap when you book well in advance. One trick is that their websites have a fare finder feature that shows you their cheapest flights from a chosen airport. Even if your exact destination is not on it, you’ll find great deals for similar places.
However, do keep in mind that budget airlines can be absolute pricks. If you don’t check in online (at least two hours before the flight departs), they charge you 55 euros to simply issue a boarding pass at the airport. That’s right, they charge YOU to do THEIR JOB. So always remember to check in online!
Next, about their baggage policy (for travelling within Europe). If you don’t purchase check-in luggage, you are only allowed to carry 7 kg in a purse or backpack (not even a small suitcase). However, since you don’t have to stand in line to drop your baggage, you can go straight through to security with no human interaction - which is easier and faster.
If you do need check-in luggage, weigh your bags beforehand so you don’t have to shell out ridiculous amounts at the airport, or sit on the floor and throw stuff out.
Another major expense as a student traveler is accommodation. If you’re traveling with a group, renting an Airbnb apartment makes sense. However, in places where Airbnb apartments are not as cheap as you thought they would be, it is not a bad idea to check out budget hotels. Even if they’re not actually cheaper than Airbnb apartments, you get hotel service and comfort (which feels like luxury) for the same price.
My main recommendation, however, is to consider staying in hostels, especially if you’re traveling solo or with just one other friend. True, you’re compromising on privacy and maybe some amount of comfort, but they are value-for-money. Most hostels have a free walking tour that starts there, a bar inside, an organized pub crawl and sometimes even free meals! Even more importantly, the receptionists can give you recommendations on places to see or eat at, and how to get there. They can also arrange for airport shuttles, even at odd hours.
7. Free Walking Tours
All European cities have free walking tours. While Sandeman is a popular company, there are many others who run equally good tours. It works like this: the meetup point is usually a popular square or monument, and there is no fee to join the tour. After the 2- or 3-hour tour, you pay the guide what you feel the tour was worth to you. Between 5-10 euros per person is a reasonable tip. For this amount, you get detailed explanations of the history of the city, recommendations on restaurants and bars, insights on the local people, opening hours of places of interest and a lot more. If you go for one on the first day you’re in a new place, you can decide your agenda for the remaining days according to what you liked on the tour.
A word of advice though: if you’re easily bored by history, then this one is not for you!
8. International Student Identity Card (ISIC) discounts
You’ll find that you’re burning through money on exchange, so take any opportunity to save a few dollars. Make sure you get an ISIC card before you leave Singapore - it’s for students all over the world. It enables you to enjoy discounts for all sorts of things in different cities: FlixBus (a company offering intercity bus services), hostels, and activities. Don’t forget to also check for student discounts everywhere – museums, travel passes etc.
9. Prioritize your trips
Plan trips to places that you have been meaning to go! Don’t always rely on friends’ recommendations: I know a friend who visited all the places I did and hated everything I enjoyed the most. Once you’ve settled on a place, spend some time coming up with a rough plan of the sights you want to see, so that you don’t waste time once you have reached.
10. Capturing your experiences
It is exciting to spend a few months exploring new places, enjoying freedom away from home and learning about new cultures. But these experiences tend to fade away after a while, even if they seem crazy and unforgettable at that point in time. Try to write down your experiences somewhere. Each story adds to your exchange experience, so jot it down whenever you can. At the end of it, you can go back and read about how you missed a flight, or absolutely loved a small town in Austria, or had no money left towards the end!
And lastly, remember that you only have to pass your modules, so don’t stress too much about classes. You’re on exchange, you’re there to have fun!
Going on exchange was one of the highlights of my SMU experience. If you are going, consider yourself lucky to be experiencing a whole new world out there. Go all out for these few months, because coming back is not going to be easy! Wishing you safe and happy travels!