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One of the best opportunities while in college is the option to study abroad. Programs are available all over the world, and range from a few weeks to a whole year or more. Even if you’re not planning an academic trip, traveling—experiencing another country or region first-hand, being immersed in the language, culture, and community—is a learning experience unlike any other.

To get the most out of travel, there are many things to consider in advance. With careful preparation, your trip can be enlightening, exciting, and safe.

Trip Preparation Checklist

Before Your Trip

  • Make an appointment at a travel clinic.
  • Have a full physical exam. Make sure any medical issues are addressed before leaving and that you have a plan for managing them while away.
  • See a dentist and eye doctor if necessary.
  • Don’t leave medical visits until the last minute. If something requires action, you’ll want time to take care of it.
  • Get your necessary immunizations.
  • Get prescriptions for anti-malarials or diarrhea treatments if necessary.
  • Consider medication for high altitudes if applicable.
  • If you wear contact lenses, bring extras and also have a durable pair of eye glasses (with your current prescription) just in case. If you wear glasses regularly, bring an extra pair.
  • Bring enough prescription medication for the entire time you’ll be gone.
  • Bring any over-the-counter medications you’ll need in their original containers (such as pain relievers or allergy medicines).
  • Get a letter from your health care provider regarding any medications or other medical equipment you will be bringing. You will need this at customs.
  • If you have a medical device like a CPAP, check the electric current at your destination or bring extra batteries.
  • Make sure you have health insurance that covers you overseas. Not all plans do this, but many schools and study abroad programs offer policies you can sign up for.
  • Read your health insurance policy for any exclusions or riders for specific activities or locations.
  • Bring a first-aid kit. As explained by Johns Hopkins Medicine, “The American College of Emergency Physicians and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourage travelers to pack a first-aid kit or a travel health kit so that common medical emergencies can be properly handled should they occur.” A list of suggested contents.
  • Understand travel advisories and other advice from the U.S. Department of State. Look into those pertaining to the place you’ll visit, as well as surrounding areas and countries.
  • Be prepared for making international calls and/or sending texts.
  • Bring photocopies of important documents like your passport, bank numbers, etc., and leave copies at home with your family.

During Your Trip

  • Learn where local medical care options/clinics/hospitals/etc. are and whether you’ll need a translator when visiting.
  • Be willing to consider local remedies, but check with your doctor at home before using anything.
  • Keep first-aid essentials with you at all times.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables with clean water. Ask locals for recommendations about authentic food.
  • Avoid wearing expensive jewelry or carrying valuables. Be discreet when using electronics.
  • Learn the subway, bus, and other travel routes and always have a plan for returning home, especially at night.
  • Use a “buddy system” when traveling and avoid being out alone, especially in an unfamiliar area.
  • Have access to a phone that allows you to make emergency local calls. Also arrange for contacting friends and family back home.

After Your Trip

  • Pay attention to your health. It’s possible to contract an illness when traveling whose symptoms show up later.
  • Don’t wait to see a doctor if you have symptoms. If possible, consult the travel clinic or health care provider you consulted prior to traveling. Make sure to mention all places you traveled while abroad.
  • If you used medical care while traveling, make sure all bills are paid or insurance has covered them. Don’t assume this will happen automatically.
  • Inform banks and other institutions that you’ve returned home. Turn local phone service back on if it was turned off.
  • If you were studying abroad, follow up with your program and the corresponding office at school to make sure credits are transferred, etc.
  • Thank instructors, host families, and others who provided guidance while you were traveling.
  • Share your experiences through pictures, stories, and souvenirs!

Lay of the Land

Before making the decision to go abroad, find out if credits are available for the programs that interest you, and review other ways to keep your academic goals moving forward.

Next, explore the information offered by the U.S. Department of State on safety, security, medical facilities, and political stability. You can read about the specific country you have in mind, as well as its region.

“There are benefits to being flexible and carefree while abroad, [and] proper preparation can help alleviate some unnecessary stress,” says Sarah Bube, a graduate assistant in the study abroad office at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. “By preparing, students are able to have a greater appreciation of their surroundings and feel more secure and safe.”

Read up on local laws in your destination, as they may be quite different from those in the U.S. For example, look into the legal driving age, alcohol and other drug regulations, and even the times when people can be out at night.

Cultural Norms
One of the keys to a gratifying and safe experience is to have cultural sensitivity. You will want to know the appropriate ways to respond to situations ranging from being invited for a meal (and demonstrating appreciation when dining or receiving help) to making eye contact, hand-shaking, dressing, and speaking with people who are older or younger.

Learning about local customs helped Grisel P., a senior at the University of Texas at Austin. “I prepared by learning about the cultural beliefs of Hong Kong residents,” Grisel says.

Students who have traveled abroad suggest trying to shed your Western mentality and being open to new ideas. As one says, “Our [American] way is not the superior way by any means, so keep that in mind!”

People who have traveled to the region may also have thoughts about the experience for travelers of certain ethnic or cultural backgrounds, or the climate for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender visitors.

Other things to consider

Keep in Mind…

Understanding what to expect where you’ll be traveling can help you have an enjoyable, safe experience. Here are some things to consider:

Whether it’s natural disasters or unfamiliar wildlife, you want to be prepared. If earthquakes or monsoons, for example, are common in the region, find out what to do during one. Though you can’t plan for everything, you can minimize your risk of injury and material loss.

Animal Life
Is there wildlife to watch out for? Know how to identify flora and fauna, which to avoid, and how to treat spider, snake, and insect bites. Marc Robin, a registered nurse at the International Traveler’s Clinic in San Diego, California, says, “Learn how to deal with an animal bite [to prevent rabies and infection], and always have a back-up water purification plan.”

Is petty theft or pick-pocketing common where you’ll be? It’s always safest to carry money and other valuables in a front pocket or bag. Neck, waist, and other travel accessories are widely available. Overall, avoid traveling with expensive jewelry and other personal items, and be discreet with electronics. Flashing the newest phone or music player can mark you as a tourist and target.

Take Care of Your Health

It’s essential to visit a travel clinic before heading abroad. Your school’s health center may offer pre-travel consultations or be able to refer you to another local resource. The U.S. Department of State and many travel Web sites provide overviews of the preparation necessary for different countries.

“Always seek a specialist to discuss health risks while abroad [and] obtain medications for diarrhea, malaria, etc.,” says Marc Robin, a registered nurse at the International Traveler’s Clinic in San Diego, California. “A well-prepared traveler will have much less anxiety.”
Make an appointment 4-6 weeks before traveling to allow time for adequate preparation. Some vaccines require multiple doses that need to be spread out, and if you have a physical or emotional health condition, arrange to have extra supplies, prescriptions, and a plan for seeking care if you need it. This applies to things like birth control pills, too.

Emotional Well-Being
Margaret K., a sophomore at the University of South Carolina, says, “When studying abroad, there’s an expectation that every moment has to be exciting. In reality, getting homesick is common. Just like most big changes, it takes time to feel comfortable.”

Santeka G., a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, says homesickness struck in her last month of studying abroad. “Life at home was still going on without me. Keeping busy [and] experiencing new things helped the days go by much faster.”

If feelings of sadness, anxiety, or other concerns are impeding your life abroad, seek support from friends, family, and health care providers.

Planning Ahead for Your Physical and Emotional Health

Physical Health
Davis Smith, MD, a physician at Trinity College Student Health Services in Hartford, Connecticut, says, “If you have a serious condition, such as one that requires medical equipment or special medicines, start planning several months in advance to minimize the likelihood of complications or unforeseen events.”

Anthony Hartzler, MD, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, says, “Students should not assume that they will be able to purchase their medications while abroad. If you take medications regularly, take along an adequate supply to last the duration of your trip. Keep them in your carry-on bag in case your luggage is lost.”

This is true of both over-the-counter and prescription medicines. Also bring a copy of your prescriptions for proof of what the pills or liquids contain, and for emergency filling if needed.

Some schools also recommend that students bring emergency contraception just in case.

If you develop an illness upon returning from your trip, contact the travel clinic you consulted prior to leaving. If you’ve been somewhere with a risk of infections uncommon in the U.S., an infectious disease practitioner or expert in travel medicine may also be a good choice.

Emotional Health
If you have an existing mental health condition, such as anxiety attacks, bipolar disorder, or clinical depression, develop a plan with your health care provider. You’ll want to have your prescriptions on hand, as well as emergency numbers for reaching people back home. Also look into where and how to get help locally if necessary.

Marc Robin, RN, also suggests avoiding excessive alcohol consumption and high-risk sexual encounters. Get regular exercise, eat balanced meals, and stay connected both in your new locale and with those back at home.

Food and Water
One of the best parts of traveling is trying different foods and expanding your palate. But stomach bugs, or worse, are common. Just because locals drink the water doesn’t mean you safely can. A travel clinic can advise you about specifics, and if necessary, you should drink sealed, bottled water.

More about eating and drinking while traveling

“Food vendors on the street are notorious,” says Ben Katz, MD, director of the International Travel Immunizations Program at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois. He suggests avoiding them. You can also ask locals about the reputations of restaurants and other establishments before trying them.

Katz explains that in some places, it’s not safe to eat anything that’s not cooked and still hot, or any fruits and vegetables that you haven’t washed yourself. Davis Smith, MD, advises that thin-skinned fruits and vegetables that grow close to the ground—such as strawberries, carrots, and lettuce—are at high risk for contamination with fecal matter, especially in countries with limited sewage facilities. Thick-skinned fruits that you can peel yourself, such as bananas or mangos, may be safe.

“While we tend to think about tropical diseases, some of the biggest risks to travelers are no different from the ones we face at home,” says Ben Katz, MD, director of the International Travel Immunizations Program at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois. “People are more adventurous when traveling and [are sometimes] more sexually adventurous. Be at least as careful when you’re overseas as you are at home. Use seat belts, helmets, [and] if sexually active, use [protection] every time.” If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation and don’t drive.

Also have a “buddy system” so that you’re not alone in an unfamiliar place, especially at night. It’s healthy to be open to new experiences, but caution is a good policy with new acquaintances.

If the country you are in isn’t politically stable, have a backup plan for getting out. Discuss this with family and/or friends ahead of time.

With plenty of research and preparation, travel abroad can be thoroughly rewarding. Talk with friends, family, and other students who have been to your destination for suggestions and guidance. Understanding the culture of your new locale will enhance your experience, and taking necessary precautions in advance will help you return home safe and sound.

Tips on Handling Money Abroad

This old adage may be a good guide: “Bring half the stuff and twice the money you think you’ll need.”

In most countries, you’ll need to exchange your money. Only use approved money-changing locations and avoid street money-changers.

In addition to cash, have savings and/or a credit card accessible for emergencies. Keep in mind that if you seek medical care, for example, you’ll likely have to pay up front even if insurance will eventually cover the cost.

Also, let your banks and credit cards know that you’ll be traveling. Otherwise, they may flag a charge abroad as suspicious, and freeze your account. Know how to report a lost or stolen card and have it replaced if overseas.

When emergencies do occur, they almost always have a financial cost. Make sure you’re prepared with cash and traveler’s checks (which can’t be used by a thief). ATMs can break down, run out of cash, or may not be available when you need one.

Priya S., a student of South Asian descent at the University of Texas at Austin, was thrilled to study at Oxford, in the United Kingdom. But being followed by two men at 1 a.m. during a weekend trip to Paris wasn’t part of the plan. She didn’t have cash to get back to her hostel, and public transit was closed for the night. She eventually got away, and learned that many South Asian women out after dark in that neighborhood are sex workers. “Never be without cash when traveling,” she says. “Always check when public transportation is scheduled to shut down, especially the route home. If traveling alone, don’t take chances staying out late. Listen to advice from knowledgeable people. Always keep your wits about you and have a back-up plan.”

Take Action!

  • Find out how study abroad will impact your academic goals.
  • Do plenty of research about your destination, including safety, cultural norms, and health risks.
  • Visit a travel clinic for all appropriate vaccinations and to discuss other physical and emotional health matters.
  • Plan in advance for addressing health concerns, accessing money, and handling emergencies.
  • Speak with experts and locals about food and water precautions, personal safety, and cultural expectations.

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