Things to Know Before You Go

Okay, okay. I realize I pretty much dropped off the face of the Earth in terms of blogging. I got home two weeks ago, and the time before and after that has been super busy – my mom visited me in Montevideo, we went home together, and now I’ve spent most of my time in Tulsa catching up with everyone. (And knitting dishcloths while re-watching Parks & Rec. But that’s besides the point.)

Before I left, I posted on Facebook asking what exactly you all wanted me to write about, and the awesome Ivey suggested that I list general tips and suggestions for studying abroad. I would love it if everyone who studied abroad did this, as it’s surprising what little things come up that can be either very specific to your country or very universal. For my list, I tried not to repeat too much of what I’ve read on other travel blogs unless they directly corresponded to my experiences. I hope this is useful for future study abroad students, and anyone else planning a casual jaunt to another continent!

DO: Download Uber and WhatsApp before you arrive at your study abroad destination.

If you’re going to Central and South America, you’ll notice that pretty much everyone communicates via WhatsApp. It’s free and allows you to message non-iPhone users on wifi without cell service, so it’s definitely a necessary app when your friend group is a mix of Americans and Europeans, all with questionable data service. The app uses your phone number, and sends a confirmation SMS to your phone before you can start using it – meaning you need to have cell service when you set up the app. For that reason, it’s much less of a hassle to get it totally set up before you leave the country. (Sidenote: This is based on my experience and observations with the app. I might be wrong, but I… uh… don’t think I am.)

If you haven’t already, I recommend setting up your Uber account pre-departure for the same reason (a confirmation SMS is required to prevent duplicate accounts). While most study abroad locations are likely to have a reliable taxi service, Uber was honestly much cheaper in Uruguay, and it’s harder for drivers to take advantage of your lack of navigational knowledge. Even if you do find yourself traveling by other means most of the time, Uber is a great backup, especially when you realize you don’t have cash. Which will happen. And you will be so grateful that Audra told you to set up your Uber account ahead of time. You can add multiple cards, PayPal, and give yourself and other new users free rides with your referral code. Which reminds me… If you haven’t used Uber yet, be sure to use the code audrab54 for your first ride to get it free! (And yeah, that gives me a free ride too. I have no shame, and y’all know it.)

While we’re talking about phones, I’ll mention that I had a slightly easier go of it because my family uses T-Mobile. I’m obviously not getting paid to say this (but like, hit me with that brand deal fam), but I am glad I had the service that I did. T-Mobile has international data in most popular travel locations, which means that I didn’t have to buy another SIM card for my phone like most of my friends. If you do have T-Mobile, check their website to make sure your plan is covered. When you reach your destination, turn on data roaming to activate service. (It says roaming, but if you made sure you’re covered, you won’t be charged extra). It’s only 2G data, but it allows you to send texts and halfheartedly trawl through Twitter (minus images). If you have a service provider without international roaming, your best bet is probably to buy a new SIM card when you get there. In Uruguay, this was pretty easy and cheap to do.

DO: Order currency before you go.

I brought about $100 USD of pesos with me to Uruguay. I use Chase, and was able to place a currency order at a regular branch the week before I left. (Don’t cut it as close as I did though – try to do it a few weeks ahead of time.) Having cash with me was a huge stress-reliever for the first few weeks, and while I’m sure I didn’t get the best exchange rate, I avoided having to pay massive airport ATM fees. (Speaking of exchange rates, I highly recommend the XE app to quickly convert between multiple currencies at once.) Some countries may take US dollars, but in Uruguay, businesses only accept pesos and many don’t take cards. Cover your bases by having a small cash stash ready to go with you.

DO: Call your bank, I guess.

Okay, so I called Chase like a responsible adult before I left, and told them that my card might be used in Brazil and Uruguay the week I flew in. However, they told me that they couldn’t place a travel alert on my card because those are “high-fraud countries.” I’m still the “okay…… that sounds fake but okay…..” meme about it, but at least I tried? Do it anyway. Be an adult. Jam out to the hold music and again, cover your bases.

DO: Get a portable phone charger.

The running joke of my time in Uruguay became that my phone was ALWAYS dead. I have no comment on the matter. I would, however, recommend getting a battery pack from Amazon. I’m not linking the one I have because I’m not super crazy about it, but they have a ton of highly-rated and relatively inexpensive choices.

DON’T: Overpack.

Listen, there are like 82 million blog posts about this, and you don’t have to listen to me, but this is my blog, and y’all are gonna hear my opinion on this. Packing really comes down to knowing your own style of organizing, traveling, and dressing. I used a capsule wardrobe worksheet and a Google spreadsheet (get on my level) to plan exactly what I wanted to bring so that I wouldn’t just be throwing things in my suitcase without a reason. I flew United, and could check two bags for free. However, I only used one on the way there. This meant that travel was easier, but it did mean that I was completely unprepared for winter weather. Depending on the seasonal shifts and climate of your destination, you could probably pack with a little more foresight than I did. When I arrived, it was summer, which is very hot and humid in Uruguay. By the time I left, it was rainy, windy, and gray every day. I bought two sweaters, three long sleeved t-shirts, and a light coat in Uruguay as my winter wardrobe. Sure, it was money I probably didn’t need to spend, but it saved time and space packing, and let me adapt my later outfits to things that blended in and fit with the climate there. I checked two bags – my original suitcase, plus a collapsable duffle – on the way home.

In terms of toiletries, I would also not recommend an overzealous approach. I brought one regular sized bottle each of shampoo and conditioner. I brought enough tampons and pads to last me my first month, but not a full stock to save space in my suitcase. Realistically, if you’re studying abroad, wherever you end up will have drugstores and grocery stores that have soap, deodorant, and dental products. My approach to packing personal care items especially can best be summed up as: “don’t worry about it, man.”

A few more final takes:

DO: Use an app like CamScanner to save scans of your passport, driver’s license, insurance card, and any other medical or personal information that you’re worried about forgetting.

I don’t think I actually did this, but I should have. You probably won’t need this stuff, but if you do, you’ll be glad you had it readily available instead of shoved somewhere in a dusty file box in your parents’ closet. Also, for OU students, you’ll need to scan and return some important paperwork during your first weeks of classes. I didn’t have ready access to a scanner, but there are tons of apps out there that will let you save enhanced images as PDFs so you can send them off to your lovely adviser.

DON’T: Pack any novels, unless they’re on an e-reader.

see you. Put that hardcover copy of Girl on the Train down. Now. Your back and anyone who has to handle your baggage will thank you. I promise that you probably won’t read it anyway.

DON’T: Feel like you have to record or process things a certain way, but DO try and save some memories.

Pretty much my first time journaling on my trip, I was reminded of how much I hate journaling. It’s just not how I process information best. However, I did find that I loved using my notebook (thanks, Dr. Theriault!) for doodling, scribbling, and gluing down tickets and photos. My Moleskine isn’t the classic diary at all, but it’s a perfect record of my state of mind throughout the trip. Don’t let anyone pressure you into feeling like you have to keep a blog or a meticulously written journal. Find what makes you happy, and figure out how to hold onto it. I didn’t write a lot during quiet days at home, but I do have the things I knitted during those times. Create! Challenge yourself! I know you can do it.

I really wanted to write a post like this, so I hope it was/will be helpful to some of you! It’s not quite as reflective as my next and final post will be, but still important. Thanks for reading!

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