Tips and Tricks for Studying Abroad: Planes & Airports

*Warning* This post is LONG.

Welp! It’s time to talk about one of the more stressful (at least for me) aspects of studying abroad. It’s probably because you will find yourself forced to click “purchase” on perhaps the most expensive piece of your trip. All in one fell swoop.

1. The plane ticket. I believe I have mentioned this before, but the plane ticket is the most essential (as it is the foundation on which your plans will build) and often the most expensive single piece of studying abroad.

My plane ticket was between $1,600-$1,700 due to some delays in my program (there was a possibility of not having enough people so we had to wait several months for the go-ahead to purchase our tickets). Because of this, I ended up buying my ticket close to a month prior to leaving for England. DO NOT DO THIS!

From research I have done and discussions I have had with others, the best time to purchase international tickets is about four months in advance. In any case, the sooner the better. On average, had I not had to wait, the tickets could have been anywhere from $100-$500 cheaper. That’s a lot of money.

Plan ahead and buy early, this is the best tip I can give you about plane tickets!

2. Airports. I have to say, living where i do has its perks, including the Detroit Airport. It’s marvelous. I have been to numerous airports over the years and none are as nice, clean, navigable, updated, or filled with as many convenient stores/restaurants/food courts as my home airport. Of course, there are other nice airports out there that I have not been to, and people who don’t have as high of an opinion of the Detroit Airport as I do, but hey.

Look at it! It’s so pretty, and it has a really cool fountain. Reason #1 for visiting the Detroit airport–Delta terminal: cool fountain.

All of this to say: don’t expect grandeur at all of the airports you visit. In fact, don’t expect to know what you are doing 100% of the time. Airports in the United States tend to exhibit similar features (i.e. food in the terminals, bag drop-off/check-in directly in front of security, etc.) This is not always the case in the U.K. I took trains to France and Scotland, however I can tell you about a couple of the airports in England and Ireland.

Food: For starters, often there are not restaurants after security. We didn’t realize this and made the mistake of not eating prior to going through security on our way to Ireland and regretted it immensely. Check online about the airports you will be using and see if this is something you might need to address. Either eat before going to the airport or dine at one of the restaurants that are available prior to security. Also keep in mind that, aside from the always-present McDonald’s, most everything else (at least that I saw) is a restaurant. NO FAST FOOD. So if you are expecting a cheap, quick meal, this is probably not going to be the case. Pub style all the way.

Time management: In the U.S. you should be at the airport, on average, about two hours in advance to make sure you can get your bags checked and get through security on time– especially if you are traveling on Mondays or Fridays, the two busiest of the commuter days. We stuck to this rule while we were abroad, and it seemed to work well for us.

Outlets: You need somewhere to charge your phone? Well HA! So does everyone else. In the U.S. they often accommodate this by putting electrical outlets EVERYWHERE. This is not necessarily the case abroad. There is a much larger emphasis on energy conservation. And, in general, the airports are just smaller. Make sure everything with you is fully charged the day of travel. Also, keep this in mind (BECAUSE IT’S VERY IMPORTANT): all laptops/pieces of technology MUST be fully charged and capable of being turned on at an time during your travel. If security pulls your things aside and they cannot turn them on, they can–and most definitely will–confiscate them. Yes, they will take your laptop and not give it back. Luckily, this did not happen to me, but I was concerned due to the fact that my old laptop was a piece of shiz-nit and had a battery life of 15 minutes. It’s okay to have your things turned off, but they must be able to turn them back on–that is the key!

Baggage Check-In: This is not always right next to security. Make sure to ask one of the employees if you are not sure where to go! More than once I found myself standing, unsure, in the wrong line and felt like a total boob after. If you smile and talk nicely people will (typically) respond nicely. Just keep that in mind. No one wants to help an asshole. That’s universal.

Air-conditioning: Due to the mild weather in England and Ireland, air-conditioning is not typically used. Don’t expect it in the airport. It can be hot and muggy by the gates. Or cold. It just depends. Dress accordingly. But at the same time be grateful it’s 70 degrees and not 100 degrees. Ugh. Heat. It doesn’t go with my hair. Or my personality.

Security/Customs: I cannot tell you much about customs for people travelling who aren’t from the U.S. However, as far as documentation, I feel that most of this is pretty general, and something you should be aware of when traveling abroad. I’m going to break this down into two parts: your primary country, and secondary countries. This means the primary country you are visiting (so for me that was England, as it was where my university was located) and secondary countries would be Ireland, France, Scotland, etc.

Primary Country: Customs to get into England was not too bad. You are going to need different forms of identification. Of course your passport is most definitely required. You will also need (unless you have a visa which should have been taken care of prior to your day of travel) “proof of study.” There is probably a much better term for this, but right now my cold-medicine-addled brain cannot come up with it. This should be a formal letter from the university/place of study where you will be attending that has YOUR NAME ON IT, explaining what you will be doing in the country, how long your program will last, etc. If you are going to be staying longer (i.e. for travel) you must tell the customs worker when they ask. They will be asking other questions as well to make sure your visit is a legitimate one. Don’t be afraid of them, although they can be quite intimidating. Definitely don’t be rude–even if they are rude to you. Which sometimes does happen. (I totally get it, though. It would be like retail on steroids–telling people they can’t do something and having them bitch about it–but the thing you are telling them they can’t do is actually get into the country. Rough.) Just smile and say thank you. Easy-peasy. If you are concerned about what you will need, the organizers for your program should be able to answer your questions. Also, if you go out on the airport’s website, there is a list of acceptable forms of identification.

Secondary Countries: This gets a little trickier. I learned this the VERY hard way. As in I was almost not allowed back into England from France. (So, yes, this counts if you are travelling by train too!) Getting into the secondary country is not that hard (expect the same kinds of questions you would be asked going into your primary country–why are you visiting, how long will your stay be, where will you be staying–you should have all of this information!, etc.) Getting back into your primary country from the secondary country is more difficult. You will need to bring with you the plane ticket information for your departing plane from your primary country. For example, when leaving France to get back into England (two days before I was to leave England to come back to the U.S.) they wanted to see my plane ticket information that said when I would be leaving England. This is because my program had ended and they needed to know that I wasn’t going to be hanging around longer than what my visa was dated for. If you do not have this information–a PHYSICAL COPY of it–they may not let you back in. That’s a super-major-huge problem. Luckily, one of the girls I was traveling with had hers, and so they allowed us back through. Also, make sure even if your program has ended that you still have that letter (as mentioned above) that explains what you are/were doing in the country. Again, depending on your length of stay (mine was five weeks) and the type of program that you will be attending, this may vary. Check with the heads of your program to make sure you have everything you need. These people want to help you! Asking questions can only cushion you in the long run.

3. Planes. Planes are horrible, germy places with recycled air. Build up your immunity prior to your flight by taking lots of vitamins. (Vitamin packets like Airborne are particularly useful.) If you are already feeling ill, perhaps consider investing in some of those cheap face masks so that you keep your germs mostly to yourself. On international flights, and depending on the airline, you should receive both food, snacks, and drinks at least once or twice throughout your voyage. I flew to England on July 4th (which was splendidly ironic!) and because of this–and the possibility of storms–my flight was empty. So empty that just about everyone on the plane was able to spread out and claim a whole row to themselves. This also meant that there was a TON of leftover food. I think they fed us meals three times and snacks four or five times. This is definitely unusual. On my flight home we received, in this order, snack & soda, dinner, snack & soda, breakfast, snack. Again, depending on who you fly with, they also bring water around several times. I suggest drinking as much water as possible as the dryness of the plane can be dehydrating.

Now, I don’t know about many of you, but I cannot sleep on planes. At all. Not even a little bit. The fact that I could lay down horizontal helped slightly, but I still only had about 45 minutes of sleep. The night prior? Two hours. I was running on 2 hours and 45 minutes of sleep. It was horrible. Here is what I suggest if you are in the same boat: antihistamine. If you take one antihistamine (Benadryl perhaps) this may make sleepy enough to get some decent sleep. If you are old enough: order a whiskey from the steward(ess). Seriously, it helps. If you can’t do either of these things, there are herbal remedies that are supposed to help with sleep, motion sickness, and anxiety during travel. Sometimes you do have to order these off the internet or go to a specialty store. I know one brand that works (at least for me) is Rescue Remedy. This one is for anxiety not sleep. (It can also be used for pets with travel anxiety! Not to say any of you lovely readers are animals. You are not. Because, if you are still with me, it proves you can read! Yay for superior intellects!)

Also, if you are a paranoid pee-er (which I am) then make sure to use the restroom before boarding. Might not be the best idea to drink a Big Gulp before you get on either. Yes, airplanes do have bathrooms, but you cannot use them while the plane is taxiing, during take-off or landing, or until the plane reaches 10,000 feet. So if you are waiting to take-off for three hours, which sometimes happens due to technological malfunctions, back-ups, storms, etc. then you are going to have to pee REALLY BAD and your steward(ess) is going to tell you to sit your ass down. I once saw a steward tell a 5 year old child she could not use the restroom even though she was screaming and the plane was just sitting on the tarmac. The rules, while meant to keep everyone safe–which is a good thing–are heavily enforced. You will not get away with it. It is not easy to run in the little walkways of a plane.

Okay, honestly I can’t think of anything else at the moment that might be useful to know about this topic (or that I haven’t covered somewhere else…) I might make a miscellaneous post at the end of all of this with things I forget if I remember them. And feel free to ask me any questions, I would be more than happy to answer them!

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