Oh, the places you’ll go!

Pre-packaged study abroad programs are not the only option for students.

Leah Lancaster

Studying abroad is ridiculously expensive. I’ve heard it all — there are scholarships; the cost is the same as tuition so you’re basically paying the same; it’s worth the money; you get opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise. I still feel the same. 

Studying abroad costs too much, and you can have an amazing time traveling the world for a much more affordable price. I can’t speak to the study abroad experience, as I’ve never done it, but I can speak from the experience of planning my own trips and finding my own opportunities for far less money. Without a doubt, going this route has taught me things that a pre-packaged study abroad trip wouldn’t have been able to, at least to the same extent. When you have to make your own schedule and accommodations, you will inevitably run into obstacles that wouldn’t arise if you were part of a program. While this may sound unpleasant, doing it has made every trip extremely rewarding, and it has definitely paid off — personally and financially.

I don’t mean to say that studying abroad isn’t worthwhile. If you can afford it and the program sounds right for you, by all means go for it. Traveling is valuable in and of itself, and many students are attracted to study abroad programs for noteworthy reasons: They offer the chance to travel without delaying graduation, they offer school credit, work and internship experience and of course, the chance to meet new people, see new things and have fun. Most program packages also have lodging, meal plans, insurance, classes and internship placement neatly packaged together, so you don’t have to go through the hassle of figuring it out on your own. But it all adds up. Most semester and summer programs cost between $15,000 and $25,000, and for some that doesn’t even include airfare. Estimated additional expenses are usually listed as between $500 and $1,000, but this can obviously vary from person to person.

What also isn’t explicitly stated in program descriptions is the exchange rate, which usually lessens the value of the U.S. dollar, at least in popular study abroad destinations like the U.K., Spain and France. While there are scholarship opportunities available, most of them offer between $1,000 and $3,000, which doesn’t make much of a dent in program costs. You can also factor out any sort of income you get if you have a job at home; internships abroad are usually unpaid.

If you can’t afford to study abroad, or simply don’t want to spend that much money, there are other options. Over spring break, I backpacked through England, Ireland and Spain with three of my friends for less than $2,000 and had one of the best times of my life. This summer I traveled around the East Coast and Hawaii by staying with friends that lived in or were interning in those places, on a similar budget. Glamorous and relaxing aren’t words I would use to describe these trips — think three layover flights (hey, they’re cheaper), long rides on various Greyhound buses, lots of subways and cramped hostels — but looking back on what I took from it all, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Colleges encourage students to study abroad, and some majors even require it, but don’t think of it as the only option you have to see the world. Find a group of trusted friends, book a hostel, pack a backpack and go. Have an adventure. College is the perfect time to do it, and years from now I can promise that you and your wallet won’t regret it.