When and where did you travel abroad? Did you backpack?
I traveled in the fall of 2011, backpacking through Europe with my best friend from college. We started in London, headed up to Scotland for a few days, then spent 10 days traveling throughout Ireland. We flew to Munich, Germany, staying there for four nights before heading to Prague, Vienna, Venice and finally ending our journey in Paris. We backpacked for a total of two months!
What was the biggest surprise about your travel experiences abroad?
One of the biggest surprises about backpacking abroad was how few Americans we met! We met many young adults from all over the world, particularly Australia, the UK and France, but seldom encountered any other Americans. I suppose it is because hostel culture is very unfamiliar in the States, and traveling around regions of America is more difficult and costly than backpacking through the smaller land mass of Europe. It could also be that American students and young people are not as strongly encouraged to take a gap year or spend a year traveling or volunteering. There is a strong emphasis on focusing on developing your career in your 20s in America. I try to encourage everyone I know to backpack abroad if they have the opportunity. I often think that fear or uncertainty holds a person back from taking the leap to travel, but I believe it is vital to have as many unique and life-changing experiences as you can. I believe in living an extraordinary life.
What made your travel experience abroad a success?
A great choice we made for our backpacking trip was to see more places and stay for shorter periods of time. We wanted to see a great deal of Ireland, so we spent 10 days there; our longest stint in any one country. Ireland was a beautiful and very affordable to travel around using their extensive bus system. In the other countries we visited, we spent three or four nights in each city, which we found to be the perfect amount of time. We were able to see all the major sights, enjoy an evening or two out, and spend time outdoors, often making time to hike or to take advantage of free walking tours.
How did you finance your trip abroad and did you find any creative solutions to stay on budget?
I decided to go abroad on my 25th birthday. I was working as a waitress at the time, so I began picking up every extra shift I could in order to fund my adventure. I worked six days a week, sometimes for over 12 hours a day, but it was worth it. I made over $4,500 within three months, enough to fund my travels themselves, as well as all the necessary preparations, such as getting a passport, a quality travel backpack and other essentials. My friend Ryan and I were great at budgeting! We set our limit at $50 per day, including hostels and transportation. We kept careful daily records of our spending, and adjusted as necessary. To save money, we cooked meals in our hostel kitchen whenever possible, stayed at the cheapest hostels we could find, and did our laundry by hand in the sink if we could! We rarely ate at restaurants, instead packing picnics of fruit, cheese and bread. It was lovely to eat out in the open. We did make sure to have one nice meal out in each country, however, to have a true international dining experience, and taste local specialities.
Can you talk about a particular instance that gave you insight into your host culture or that helped you build cross-cultural communication skills?
While staying in Vienna, Austria, we couch surfed. If you don’t know, Couchsurfing is an internationally recognized program that connects travelers with willing hosts who have an available couch or place to sleep for a few nights. It is a wonderful organization full of like-minded individuals who value travel extensively and who like connecting with locals while abroad. My friend and I stayed with a really kind couple, the man was German and his girlfriend was from Greece. I listened to them speak to each other in German, Greek, English and French, flawlessly transitioning from one language to the next. I was in awe at their multilingual abilities, and wished I had the same skills. I hope to improve in a few languages over the next few years.
Our hosts took us to a party where we met a large group of fellow couch surfers. I don’t think I have ever been in such international company! There were about 25 individuals, all from different countries. It made me feel really lucky to be meeting such a varied group and to learn about their unique homes, languages and cultures. I discovered how travel unites people, and how a common love of experiencing the world makes us a part of a very special community.
What was your return like?
As I left Europe, I felt happy to be going home; the time was right. At first my return was a pleasure, and everyone wanted to hear my stories. But I quickly realized that people often tire of hearing your stories, and it is difficult to communicate what the experience abroad was truly like. I began missing my gypsy lifestyle, and especially missed the beautiful sights of Europe and meeting new, interesting people every day. I don’t feel like my backpacking trip satiated my wanderlust, but rather added fuel to the flame, and increased my desire to travel into a need.
Over the next year, I decided to apply to graduate programs in the UK and Ireland, and in fall of 2012, headed abroad again to spend the year living and studying in Scotland!
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
My number one tip would be to seek out unique experiences in your travels abroad—go off the beaten path, find un-touristy places and most of all, be flexible! One of the best days of our trip was in Paris. We set off to visit the Palace of Versailles, only to discover when we got there that it was closed that day. Instead of lamenting our poor luck and wasted train fare, we headed up to Montmartre to explore bohemian Paris. We had a lovely day discovering this area on foot and had a picnic of fruit, cheese and champagne in the shadow of the Sacre-Coeur.
Describe an experience you had abroad that made a particularly strong impression on you.
One of the most incredible parts of going abroad was all the amazing people I met. Part of the beauty of travel is its ephemeral nature. This holds true with personal encounters. You can come across some awesome folks, either locals or fellow travelers, and you can share wonderful experiences with them, and then in a flash, you part, probably never to meet again. It made me appreciate these moments even more, and be as present as possible. To encounter an amazing person is always a blessing, no matter how brief your time together.
On a side note, while traveling through Scotland, I met another American who was staying in my hostel. We had a wonderful few days getting to know each other in Scotland, and he and I also met up in London at the end of my backpacking trip. We kept in touch, and a few months later, he became my boyfriend! We’ve been together for a year, and are now planning to travel together in the future. Just another example of how going abroad really can change your life!
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
After I complete my master’s at the end of the summer, I’ll be heading back to the States for a bit. Sometime in late fall, my boyfriend and I intend to head off to Australia on working holiday visas for several months. We both want to experience a completely new and exciting place, and have a great adventure. Career-wise, I hope to do a great deal of travel writing and photography, and I would also very much like to work in the field of study abroad. I’d love to help students find that perfect program, or even manage programs at destination universities in Europe.
Amy has offered some great insights in her well-written submission. Brava!
Many people aspire to be travel writers, and while a few select writers do succeed, the competition is fierce and the pay is rock bottom. Amy certainly has a unique perspective and a strong writing style, which will stand her in good stead as she pursues writing gigs while at home or abroad.
In terms of breaking into the field of study abroad advising, she could work with any one of the many service provides who provide study abroad packages to US and Canadian schools, or work directly for a university as a study abroad advisor. The best first step for Amy might be to make contact with her own school’s study abroad advisor for advice, and also to look up the many career services that are available through NAFSA, the US umbrella organization for study abroad and international student advisors.
To improve her future job prospects, Amy should consider traveling to a non-Western country. While in Australia, we highly recommend heading to South East Asia if you are looking for cheap, easy and meaningful cross-cultural travel.
- This article will help you further enjoy and profit from your international experiences: Maximizing Your Travel Experience Abroad
- The articles and resources in The Effective Overseas Employee and Living Overseas will help you consider the skills and traits valued in internationally-oriented positions, both abroad and in North America.
- To benchmark your analysis of other cultures, you should be familiar with your own culture, read our section on The North American Identity.