For many students, studying abroad can be the experience of a lifetime. Financially speaking, the costs can vary greatly depending on your home school, where you study abroad, and the type of program in which you enroll. Just like a pricey college education, you may find that an expensive program is worth the bill.
The cost of studying abroad will largely depend on where you go. Places with a lower cost of living and spots that are less popular tourist destinations are obviously going to be cheaper. Sites in some regions of Central and South America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Western Asia often have low room and board costs. Tuition is also typically cheaper in locations that are less-commonly traveled. On the other hand, many regions of Western Europe, Australia, and East Asia are as expensive as—and occasionally more expensive than—schools in the US. The cost of living in England, for instance, is greater than in most of the world.
Even within notoriously expensive countries, however, you can often find programs in obscure locations where the cost of living, and sometimes tuition, are more affordable. In some instances, your study abroad program will cost you cents on the dollar compared to your regular school. Still, your college may charge the regular tuition regardless of how much your program costs, and then pay the program itself. The major benefit of this approach is that all of your normal financial aid still applies, while the school maintains a predictable and steady stream of income.
As an undergrad I studied abroad in Italy. While both my college’s Office of International Studies and my particular program were pretty upfront about the expenses I would incur, there were still some things that surprised me and had the potential to strain my financial resources.
One big adjustment was the fact that I no longer had a job. For those accustomed to receiving a regular paycheck, a semester without income can be one of the scariest things in the world. My school ended up cutting me a big check (financed, of course, by a loan) to cover my work-study for the semester, which definitely helped. It is also possible to find employment while abroad, but this can be complicated by language barriers, work visas, etc. A job may also affect your ability to leave town on a whim to travel, a freedom that many regard as one of the best aspects of studying abroad.
Fees associated with ATMs, currency conversion, and traveler’s checks can really add up, so you should plan for them. If you do withdraw cash, be sure to take out larger sums in order to limit the number of withdrawal fees you’ll incur. Use your debit card when you can; you’ll often get the best conversion rate of the day and will rarely be charged additional fees.
Just as it does at home, your food budget abroad will vary depending on your eating habits. Some programs will have cheap dining hall options available and some won’t. Often, home-stay arrangements include meals, which is a cheaper than eating out. Grocery shopping will typically be the cheapest way to go. Aside from saving money, cooking your own food can enrich your cultural experiences as you learn to make local dishes with available ingredients. I found that the nearby farmers market was even more cost-effective and provided higher-quality food than the standard supermarket chains. That said, you may want to set aside some money for eating out and enjoying the local restaurants and specialties. Dining out and socializing in bars and restaurants is a highlight of many students’ time abroad. And in certain instances, such as going out for tapas in Madrid, it’s a cultural mainstay that you won’t want to miss out on.
Traveling was probably my largest expense while abroad. Some of my best memories and most remarkable experiences came from the places I visited during my time overseas. After all, being close to historical sites and other places of interest makes side trips almost a requirement. You may even find that a lot of these trips are financed or subsidized by your program.
You can save a lot of money by staying local. If you do decide to wander, however, there are ways to limit the costs. Never hesitate to ask for a student rate for housing, entertainment, or transportation. Trains and buses are a pretty cheap way to get around, and a lot of places around the world have decent railroad networks. Sometimes you can purchase a pass, such as Eurorail, for a one-time fee that will afford you unlimited travel for a set amount of time within a certain region.
If you happen to be in Europe, there are a bunch of budget airlines (including Ryanair and easyJet) that offer great deals for travel. Hostels can be a cheap and fun housing option, and there are many websites that coordinate hostel stays around the world, some specifically for students and at discounted rates. And for the adventurous, couchsurfing.com offers a free alternative: a network of thousands of people around the world willing to host strangers in their homes. It sounds kind of sketchy, but it works for a lot of people. And hey, the adventure aspect may add to the experience.
After all, studying abroad is not just about studying; it is about experiencing another country. What better way to do that on the cheap than having a local show you around and getting to see how he or she eats, lives, and parties?