To my American eyes, the British academic calendar is weird. In Edinburgh, where I’m studying abroad, there are only 10 or 11 weeks of instruction, as opposed to 13 or 14 at Brown, and since the two-week spring break comes right before reading period, I have a gap of about a month between the end of classes and my first exam.
So here I am on this new continent with a month to kill, a world to explore, and my dwindling savings just waiting to be spent. I already took a five-day tour around England during the mid-semester break. I have my railcard, I have my £15 backpack, I have experience.
There’s only one problem: I don’t actually like to travel.
I never knew this before mid-semester arrived, because it was something I’d never really done before. I’d traveled a bit with family, but those trips were oriented around events and activities, not experience in its most ephemeral form. Plus, I was young, and the responsibility for making sure I had a good time fell far more heavily on my parents’ shoulders than mine.
My mid-semester trip around England was one of the most terrifying things I’d ever done, made even more so by the fact that I, master planner that I am, organized the whole thing the night before I left. My game plan for each day was simple: visit a new city, choose interesting monuments, wander between them, and find a cute tea place for lunch. And for the first few hours every day, it was incredible. I visited five cities—Durham, York, Cambridge, Oxford, and London—and stepping off the train each morning was like entering a brand new world.
Of course, that was the first few hours. After that—once the novelty had worn off, when my feet twinged and my back hurt, when I had exhausted the most exciting locations on my list—it just became a slog. After four or five hours, spending time in a new city started to feel more like killing time.
So I plan these few weeks between classes and exams with trepidation. Are the few hours of excitement worth the money and time if I just end up exhausted and annoyed?
The answer, I think, is yes. Because study abroad is an experience, and experiences that make you uncomfortable tend to be the ones that teach you the most. Besides, like I said, I learned plenty from those five days on my own. Here are some of the strategies (for the UK, at least) that I discovered to keep myself going:
Bring a smartphone: Getting lost is only fun if you know how to get un-lost; so if you can afford one, smartphones are essential for the GPS functions alone. There are also tons of travel apps that can enrich your experience. My favorite is Triposo. All you do is open the app, type in a city, and a guide pops up complete with maps, historical info, suggested eateries, and even possible tour options. The best part is the entire Triposo guide is stored on your phone, which means it doesn’t require WiFi to work. If you can spare the hard-drive space, this app is invaluable.
Know your tours: No matter how good your app is, it won’t know everything, and for that you need a tour guide. If you get the right one, they can bring the city to life in ways you’d never experience otherwise.
There are two main types of city tours: walking and bus. Walking tours tend to last between an hour and a half and three hours, and are a great way to get that feeling of wandering, but without the aimlessness. A lot of the major UK cities also have hop-on, hop-off bus tours that give you a good overview of the entire city.
Movies, movies, movies: Whether you’re spending the night in a social hostel or a secluded B&B, it can feel like a letdown to return to your accommodation as early as 6pm. The problem is, in British cities that aren’t London, that’s when most establishments tend to close. So if nightlife isn’t your thing, consider dropping into a cinema. Even though it’s something you can do anywhere, it’s a relatively cheap way to find something familiar in the midst of so much strange.
Go beyond the city: If you’re planning to spend more than one day in a place, consider journeying beyond the city limits. One of the best ways to do this is, again, through bus tours. These are great ways to get to more remote sites when you don’t have access to a car. Most of the tour is spent going from place to place, which can feel tedious; but when you’re traveling through the Scottish highlands or along the Irish coast, it becomes a bit more interesting than a simple afternoon drive.
Bring a friend: This might be a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning. Solo travel is enriching and freeing in a lot of ways, but even the most ardent introvert can get bored with their own company. Having a companion to entertain you and push you beyond your limits is one of the most effective ways of keeping the traveling experience enjoyable.
Most importantly, plan ahead: This was my cardinal mistake during my first go-round. Sure, getting lost in a new city sounds romantic, but I found in practice that doing this for most of the day, five days in a row, was the most challenging aspect of my journey. So don’t plan your trip the night before. Spend a few hours exploring the city virtually before you do it physically. Learn the history. Find cheap tours. Make the most of your time in ways you wouldn’t be able to anywhere else in the world.
Traveling is amazing, but it’s up to you to make it that way. You might not become the next Carmen Sandiego overnight, but with some time and practice, I truly believe that even the most reluctant traveler can find ways to make it work for them.