When was the last time you traveled? And no, your spring break trip to Florida doesn’t count.
I mean, when was the last time you stepped outside of your comfort zone and visited a completely new place for more than just a vacation? When was the last time you explored, not just toured? For me, this is what travel is all about, and I think it’s one of the greatest opportunities for learning outside the classroom that exists.
In today’s post, I’m going to break down everything you need to know about traveling while in college. First, I’ll cover why you should travel during college. Then, I’ll debunk some common myths about college travel. Finally, I’ll get into some specific opportunities for travel during college, along with resources you can consult to learn more about each.
So grab your suitcase, put on your sunglasses, and let’s get started!
“We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.”
– John Hope Franklin
Traveling gives you an education you could never get in the classroom…if you let it. Going off to a new place isn’t automatically going to open your mind and eyes to unimagined possibilities or “change you.” I know plenty of people who have been halfway around the world and clearly got nothing out of it except a sunburn and a confirmation that “the food is better here” (whatever that means). But if you pay close attention, you’re going to find the experience immensely rewarding. The key is to keep an open mind.
Educationally speaking, traveling is the difference between reading about the architectural wonders of the Sagrada Familia and staring up in awe at the impossibly intricate spires. It’s the difference between seeing a video of the geological processes that created the Giant’s Causeway and marveling at its perfect columns as the salt spray of the North Atlantic stings your face. It’s the difference between studying Spanish in a classroom and using it to check into a hostel at 3 am while you try to decode the unfamiliar bills in your hand.
Of course, traveling does so much more than bring academic learning to life. Travel helps you learn about yourself, about life. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. You’ll learn more about life on a one week road trip with friends than you will during weeks of reading self-help books (and I say this as someone who’s read far too many). You’ll learn self-reliance, resourcefulness, and how to communicate with strangers. And conflict resolution: you’ll learn that quickly when you travel with others.
I hope you’re convinced of the benefits (and there are dozens more I’ve doubtless forgotten), so now I want to move on to some myths and misconceptions that prevent a lot of people from traveling while in college (or ever!).
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
– Maya Angelou, “Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now”
Myth 1: Studying abroad is the only way to travel while in college.
This is completely false. As you’ll see below, study abroad is just one of many ways to travel while in college. A lot of people take this myth as the truth, and because study abroad doesn’t fit their major (though this often isn’t true, either), they never set foot beyond campus.
I think part of the reason for this misperception is that college admissions officers focus a lot on study abroad opportunities when promoting their schools to prospective students. These students then get admitted and carry that perception all the way to graduation, never looking for other opportunities. But don’t worry: today’s post is going to set the record straight once and for all.
Myth 2: You have to travel out of the country.
Now, just because I said that your spring break trip to Florida doesn’t count as travel, that doesn’t mean you have to travel outside your country to have an amazing, valuable travel experience.
One of the most memorable, spectacular trips I ever took was a road trip to Washington, D.C., with two friends in the summer of 2016. Likewise, a weekend camping trip to the mountains can be a huge adventure if you stay away from the tourist traps and keep an open mind.
What matters is that you have a mindset of discovery and a desire to take things as they come. This isn’t to discourage you from traveling out of your country (absolutely do it if you can!), but don’t assume it’s the only way to “truly” travel.
Myth 3: Travel is dangerous.
Whenever I describe my upcoming travel plans to friends or family, I’ll usually find at least one person who asks something like, “Isn’t it dangerous to go to X country/city/place?” And here’s the thing: I totally understand why people think the world is a dangerous place. With the constant connectivity and flood of information that the internet enables, there’s always some story about violence or tragedy in a particular place.
Because of a cognitive bias called the “availability heuristic,” people are more likely to focus on vivid, violent, or shocking imagery in making judgments, and so when the dominant picture in the media is one of, well, violence and shock, it’s perfectly natural to assume that the world is a dangerous place.
The reality, though, is that the place you’re planning to visit is probably no more dangerous than where you currently live (and possibly less). One of the great benefits of travel is that it allows you to form new images of a place, ones that are even more vivid and more positive (or at least more nuanced) than those you see in media coverage.
If nothing else, think about it this way: the evidence is strong that sitting down at a desk all day is actually pretty dangerous. So why not step outside and see the world?
Myth 4: Travel is expensive.
This is one of those myths that just won’t go away, and for good reason. Travel can be very expensive. But again, this has more to do with the way that travel companies, movies, and advertisements portray travel than the reality.
As I’ve already mentioned, traveling doesn’t have to mean spending a month in a château in the French Riviera. It can be as simple (and affordable) as driving up to the mountains for a few days, or just taking the train to a neighboring city.
And even if you do decide to take an international trip, you can make it more affordable than you’d imagine. Optimizing your savings, using flight search engines, and staying in hostels or Airbnbs are just a few ways to make travel fit in your budget. Like most things in life, travel is only as expensive as you want to make it.
Now that we’ve gotten the myths out of the way, let’s get into the ridiculous number of opportunities that exist for traveling while in college. No matter your financial circumstances, your major, or your degree of adventurousness, there’s something on this list that will work for you.
1. Study Abroad
When people think of traveling while in college, study abroad is usually what they think of, so let’s get it out of the way first. I studied abroad at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the second semester of my junior year, and I absolutely loved it! If you can make it work with your major and finances, I strongly recommend going abroad for a semester. It will give you a completely new perspective on yourself, your college, your studies, and the world.
That being said, the way I studied abroad is neither the only nor necessarily the best way to study abroad. For instance, let’s say that going to a different country isn’t possible/practical for whatever reason (and there are many valid reasons). In that case, I encourage you to consider the many domestic options that exist for a spending a semester studying at another college/university.
Technically, this is “studying away,” not “abroad,” but the benefits are similar. At my college, I had friends who spent semesters in both Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Illinois, and had amazing, valuable experiences that helped them immensely in their career goals.
Furthermore, studying abroad may not be as expensive as you think. In my case, it actually cost less to study in Belfast, since room and board were cheaper at Queen’s University.
In many cases, the tuition of the other university will also be cheaper (check out this list of countries with free/nearly free tuition). And even if the costs are equal or higher, scholarships are often available. I got a scholarship from my study abroad program by just entering my GPA and writing a short personal statement, and larger, essay-based scholarships are often available.
Finally, be aware that semester long programs are just one way to study abroad. Your university (or another one near you) very likely offers shorter term programs that allow you to travel and receive academic credit. Often led by faculty members from your university, these short-term study abroad programs take place during breaks and can range from one weeks to a couple months in length.
My college, for instance, offered summer programs in Italy and Greece, as well as shorter programs in Haiti, Thailand, India, and more. If you have a major with a strict curriculum that prevents you from taking a whole semester abroad, shorter programs like these can be a great alternative.
Odds are, your college has a study abroad office that would love to help you explore your options. At the very least, set up a meeting and ask what’s available. You have nothing to lose and much to gain.
2. Service Trips
If study abroad doesn’t work for you, consider the possibility of service trips. A classic example of this in America is “alternative spring break,” where instead of getting into trouble at some sketchy beach, you spend a week helping those in need by building houses, planting community gardens, or doing a whole range of other cool, useful things.
My college has programs like these that go to Tijuana and West Virginia, and your college likely has their own version. It’s also worth looking to places like local religious organizations or other community volunteer networks, as they often organize their own trips along these lines.
Service trips are a great chance to travel while also doing good and learning about people of different backgrounds than yours. And, to boot, it’s a great thing to put on your resume, discuss in an interview, or use as part of a graduate school personal statement.
Internships are another travel option that you should definitely consider. While there are plenty of great internships to be found close to home, it’s worth looking farther afield for both the expanded professional and travel opportunities.
One of my close friends did semester- and summer-long internships in Indianapolis, Indiana, with two companies that he was considering working for after graduation. Not only did this give him an idea of what it was like to work for these companies, but it also gave him a taste of life in a different city and, if nothing else, an expanded professional network.
Bear in mind as well that there are lots of opportunities for internships abroad. I know of students at my college that interned in Vietnam, China, and Morocco, to name just a few.
And don’t assume that you have to find a paid internship to make it work. Many universities offer fellowships and grants to help students cover costs of living while furthering their professional development, so make sure to ask around at the relevant offices of your school (once more, the office of study abroad is probably the best place to start, though also check with career services/planning).
4. Research Assistantships
Related to internships (but definitely different) are research assistantships abroad/away. If you’re considering a career in academia (or just love doing research), these opportunities can be a great way to travel, learn, and (often) make more money than you would at an hourly summer job.
On the domestic side, I have some a friend who spent the summer in Los Angeles doing chemistry research. Looking more internationally, I know someone else that got to spend the summer in Iceland studying volcanoes with a professor from my college. And in both cases, they got paid!
Searching online is certainly a valid way to find these opportunities, but the best strategy is to ask professors in your department if they hire research assistants (and if there are opportunities for travel).
Ideally, do your asking during your first couple years of college so that you have time to build the relationships and learn the skills necessary to qualify you. Professors often don’t advertise these positions, so don’t assume they aren’t out there just because they’re not listed on your university’s website.
5. Club Trips
In addition to study abroad and service trips, there are likely trips that clubs and other campus groups offer. The outdoors club at my college did camping and hiking trips over fall and spring break, for example, and with the subsidy provided by the club budget, the cost was quite low. Your college almost certainly has something similar, as well as other opportunities that are as diverse as the clubs that offer them.
And if you’re part of a club that doesn’t have a trip related to its interests, propose one! Not only will this give you a great chance to travel without having to spend much of your own money, but it will also give you valuable experience in planning a trip, writing a proposal, and leading a group (all of which are skills that employers highly value). Speaking of planning trips yourself, that leads us to the next and final section….
6. Self-Organized Trips
The opportunities for self-organized trips are only limited by your time, money, ambition, and imagination. You could use the time during summer, winter, spring, and fall break (or whatever breaks/holidays/recesses your university has) to sit at home fiddling with your Nintendo Switch and bingeing It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Or, you could use the time you have and take a trip that will change the way you see the world.
Whether you travel alone or with friends is up to you. Both kinds of trips have their merits, as I discussed in my article on summer road trips. Trips with friends increase the amount of money and other resources you have available for transportation and accommodation, as well as providing companionship and teaching you lots about conflict resolution.
On the other hand, group trips offer less mobility than you have when solo, and they also offer fewer opportunities for developing self-reliance and learning to be alone. At the end of the day, I’ve done both types, and I highly recommend you do the same to get the maximum benefits of traveling.
If you take only one thing away from this article, let it be this: a trip doesn’t have to be far to be epic.
Renting an Airbnb and spending a week living in a different part of your city can be a bigger adventure than backpacking on the other side of the world. Kayaking a local river can be just as life-changing as sailing across the Atlantic.
It’s all about approaching it with an open mind and a desire to learn, living not as a tourist but as a traveler.
I hope this article has given you the inspiration and advice necessary to start making your travels happen, and I’m curious to know: What ways have you traveled while in college? Share them in the comments below, or discuss them in the College Info Geek Community.