Participating in a study abroad program can be an amazingly fun experience and, naturally, you should make the most out of this opportunity. However, being so far from home in an unknown environment calls for caution. I am sure that if you’ve considered studying abroad and discussed this option with your family and friends, the word safety has definitely come up at least once.
While there are things in life we can’t influence, many dangers can be avoided by behaving responsibly. This article will equip you with five valuable tips that, if you stick to them, will keep you safe and out of trouble.
1. Research your destination, understand the culture
One of the smartest ways of staying safe in Europe is being aware of what is going on around you. Before you go, look up as much information about your destination as possible:
- Country Warnings & Alerts. Firstly, inform yourself about any current country safety warnings. Each country in Europe has its political and social climate, so, general research won’t do it. It’s important to know if there are any special warnings or emergency alerts. You can find country specific travel alerts on the official U.S. international travel website.
- General Travel Info & Cultural Nuances. Next, it’s advised to get as much info about your host country as possible including cultural nuances and info on how things are and are done. You will avoid getting into trouble by accident or thinking you are in trouble while experiencing a typical situation.
- Check Out your Host City. Knowing the country is good, but knowing your city is better. Check out the tourist and social climate in your city. Learn about common scams and find out what are the “bad” parts of town.
2. Be a responsible drinker
One of the most notorious mistakes study abroad students succumb to is irresponsible drinking which, on occasion, leads to theft or assault.
It’s no secret you're going to enjoy quite a few parties during your semester or two abroad, it’s part of the experience. However, given the drinking age in Europe is 18 instead of 21, many of you experience drinking in public places for the first time. Drinking in a bar or a club is different than doing so in the safety of your flat.
- Observe drinking culture. Over-drinking and passing out in public places is not cool. Your first week, take some time to evaluate the country’s drinking culture. How many locals are passing out in public bathrooms or throwing up in the streets on a night out? Crossing the line means drawing too much attention and getting yourself into “asking-for-it” kind of situations.
- Don’t drink just to measure up to locals. Don’t drink as much as the locals. Some countries in Europe have a strong drinking culture (not always in a negative sense). This means that more often than not they have a higher tolerance and more experience. Know how much you can handle and stick to your limits.
- Watch out for new places and new people. It’s common sense. Going past our limit happens to all of us. When abroad, make sure this never happens when you are in an unfamiliar place or city or with people you just met. When it comes to new places and new acquaintances, always let someone know where and with whom you are going and if you can, don’t go alone, take a friend.
Over-drinking abroad puts you at risk of theft, injury or worse. This point is not really about situations posing a danger to you, but rather about you becoming a danger to yourself. Over-drinking abroad puts you at risk of theft, injury or worse.
3. Keep a low profile
In other words, don’t stick out from the crowd like a sore thumb. In your hometown, you can recognize a tourist with one quick glance, no matter how large is the city you are from. Make no mistake; you are no different when you travel.
One of the best ways to keep under the radar of local pickpockets and scammers is to blend in with the locals. This doesn’t mean you have to go into hiding, just keep it cool. Don’t broadcast you are a foreigner by, for example, speaking unnecessarily loudly in your native language, rudely ignoring local norms and practices or always hanging out in tourist-oriented places.
4. Be smart when…
The safety tips that students staying abroad should take notice of:
- Walking home alone at night. It’s common sense this is not the safest thing to do no matter where you are and is best avoided at all times. However, sometimes it happens even if you didn’t exactly plan it. In that case:
- If you have money, always take a taxi.
- Walk in the most public and well-lit parts of the city, even if it takes longer to get home.
- Keep an eye on your surroundings, don’t walk with your head in the clouds. If you see something even remotely suspicious, change direction or wait.
- Always know where you are going, don’t stop in the middle of the street to check the direction, on your expensive phone.
- Going outside your host city. When going on a trip, always let someone know where you’re going, how long and where you’ll be staying. Again, do your research. This is all the more important if you are going alone. It might seem like a detail, but when it comes to safety, it’s the details that matter.
- Meeting someone new alone. Don’t go into excluded unfamiliar areas with a person you just met - duh! So simple but so easy to forget in the heat of the moment. This doesn’t mean you should be paranoid; everyone deserves a benefit of the doubt. BUT, be smart, you will have plenty of time for excluded adventures after you know the person a little.
5. Know what to do in case of an emergency
Sometimes, things happen that are simply beyond our control, and there is nothing you could have done to prevent them. It sucks. However, it sucks significantly less when you have a plan of action in place:
- ALWAYS have the local alternative of 911, the closest consulate and your study abroad coordinator’s contact in your phone.
- Have a number of a couple of local taxi companies or Uber (if applicable) on your phone, so you don’t get stranded. Also, get a number of a local taxi in every city and country you travel to as well.
- Have a digital copy of your passport and bank information stored in a safe place or with a trusted person.
- Don’t underestimate travel insurance! It’s not just about health issues. It usually covers an emergency evacuation, flight cancellation, baggage loss, theft, or any other unforeseen problems.
- Enroll with STEP to keep informed about nationwide emergencies.
- Keep in touch through texts every time you travel somewhere new.
Is that all?
Well, these are just the main study abroad safety tips. The main moral of the blog, however, is to just have common sense, no matter how great or safe you feel. In the majority of cases, staying safe is completely up to you and your decisions. Which means you have a huge chance of having the time of your life instead of trouble.
If you want to share your story or ask any questions please leave us a comment below.