When I talk about my trips abroad, I'm all about sharing the highlight reel (even though traveling was hard for me at times). After spending several months abroad and taking dozens of international trips, I think I've finally found that balance between the good parts and the hard parts (and am here to share some advice).
I was able to volunteer abroad with ILP twice, and also spent a few semesters working abroad — in addition to those long trips, I also took several 2-3 week long trips all over Asia, Europe, Africa, and Central America ... and loved it! I came home with pictures of the world's prettiest beaches, treks into the Sahara desert, and visited everything from chaotic night markets to peaceful mosques and cathedrals ... especially when I was living and traveling abroad on my ILP semesters!
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All of those photos kind of paint a picture-perfect life, where I spend every day visiting the most beautiful parks and cafes, touring world-class museums, and admiring towering palaces. While that's true, there's also a side to travel that most don't see — like showing up at the wrong bus station, getting lost, realizing the only restaurant open just closed (granola bars again for dinner), frustration that I don't speak the local language, and missing my flight.
But if you really have the right skills and mindset, you'll realize that travel should stretch you beyond your limits and comfort zone ... all of those hard parts really do make the trip.
After looking back at my travels (and talking to my other well-traveled friends), I hope this post can help you navigate the less-than-perfect parts of your next trip:
Why traveling Can Be Hard + How To Make It Easier
Living Somewhere New
No matter where you get to spend a semester abroad, it won’t feel like home—not at first, anyway. There's new food, new languages, new people, new sights, new sounds, new smells, new stores, new experiences, and more. It's a huge part of your experience and for the most part, having so many new things around you is one of the most exciting parts!
But sometimes, those new experiences can be hard to handle.
Yep, visiting or moving somewhere new means moments that you feel giddy, confused, curious, frustrated, thrilled, and homesick — sometimes all at the same time. With towering palm trees you might be dealing with a really humid climate and cold showers. With piles of fresh fruit from the local fruit guy comes drying your clothes on a line and tons of bugs that get into all of your snacks and treats if you leave anything open. With new sites on your bucket list comes living with new roommates (some who you definitely get along with better than others).
... but honestly, if you wanted everything to be just like home, what's the purpose of traveling somewhere new?
That realization helped me embrace the culture so much more quickly when I first arrived on my ILP semester in Asia. I looked at it as a chance to fully experience a country that at first, seemed so different than what I was used to.
+ Overcoming Homesickness
Personally, homesickness wasn't something I really felt much while abroad (I felt the most homesick when I was sick and away from home ... when you have the flu, you only want to be in your own bed, trust me!).
But homesickness is a battle that so many of my friends went through, so I got this slice of advice from Abbey: "Most people go through it, so just prepare yourself for it. It's interesting how we dream about traveling abroad and it's all we think about for weeks (or even years) ... but then once we arrive we just start missing home." I love that perspective of acknowledging homesickness but remembering that you're here for just a short time, and to make the most of it.
It can also help to have familiar things in your new life abroad (it's hard to not crave a little bit of normalcy like you had back home!) When I asked around about what made homesickness easier to handle, it came down to these things:
- Bring snacks and comfort food from home
Bring some pictures from home
Have a familiar perfume to wear or spray
- Maintain familiar habits/hobbies (if you run at home, go running abroad!)
- Keep a routine (if you always listen to a podcast before bed, keep it up)
- Find things you love about your new home (a cafe, activity, local park, etc.)
- Make friends and go exploring! Just hanging out at home can make it worse
Handling Some Frustrations
Living somewhere new is going to mean overcoming challenges and frustrations, especially in a new country! For me, it really depended on the location, but I've had my fair share of getting lost, misreading signs, paying more than I planned, having it rain on the only beach day on my itinerary, not understanding directions, showing up only to realize that everything was closed, or that it really looked nothing like the pictures! Yep, I have had quite a few frustrating situations ... but now, they really do make for the best travel stories!
However, in the moment, it's all about catering your expectations. Once you have a few trips under your belt, you know that there are certain frustrations that are just part of the travel experience. You'll also want to know how you handle certain situations and realize that you can take a breath, take a step back, move on, laugh about it, cry in the moment, or focus on what has gone right that day.
Here are some of the shared frustrations to be prepped for (and some ways to help you manage):
WiFi And Internet
This can be a real struggle because no matter where you’re volunteering, the WiFi will probably be slower and less reliable than what you're used to. This gets especially annoying when you're trying to watch Netflix or FaceTime your family back home.
To help, I highly recommend downloading your favorite shows before you leave. I also recommend setting proper expectations when it comes to video calling home: If video calling won't work, try calling with just audio. Then, count on messaging (or calling when you can find a stronger signal, which may not be for a while).
If you're volunteering abroad for a semester, this one won't affect you as it would on just a short trip. Seriously, the lack of energy and urge to sleep has been something that totally takes me off guard — I want to immediately cram in every activity I can on the first day, but more than once, jet lag has meant heading back early to go to sleep, or fitting in a nap so I could stay awake later in the day.
There's nothing worse than being jet lagged and wanting to stay in bed when you only have a day or two to explore that city, right? You will want to make sure you check out these tips to overcome it ASAP.
If you're headed to a country where you don't speak the local language, it will be an adjustment. But don't worry, that's the case for most ILP volunteers so you won't be the only one in your group who doesn't understand what the locals are saying. While it can create some funny situations, it will also remind you over and over again how far away you are from home, which can feel both lonely and scary. Then after a while and a handful of annoying misunderstandings, it will probably get frustrating.
Yes, it's hard, but also remember that it is in your power to practice the language, ask the locals for help, and become best friends with Google Translate.
Will you be primarily taking the bus or metro? It might be nerve-racking at first if you've never taken public transportation before, but that's okay. Don't freak out if you get on a metro going the wrong way a time or two. That happened to my group in Europe, but as soon as we figured it out, we got off and jumped on a metro going the other way. Just don't forget to validate your ticket on whatever public transport you're taking! Forgetting that step cost that same group of mine a hefty fee.
Maybe your town is small enough that your group will mostly be walking or biking? Make sure you understand the rules of local traffic. Merging into the traffic at a roundabout on a bicycle in Thailand is quite the experience!
Are you headed on an ILP semester? This one is for you!
Getting to know your group at the beginning of the semester can actually be really fun! Most ILP volunteers sign up without a friend they know from home, so everyone in your group will be meeting for the first time at the start of the trip! Everyone will be a little nervous, but it's exciting to find connections and create inside jokes together.
The ILP program is set up so that you do just about everything with your group — you often live (and share bedrooms) together, you eat together, volunteer together, walk to the corner market together, explore together, etc. Within just the first week you'll have spent hours and hours with this new group of strangers. We love when we see groups that bond and you might even find some of your best friends ... but just like everything in life, you might also have disagreements with your group about where you want to go on vacations, you might be annoyed that someone doesn't put much effort into teaching, or someone in your group may not have very good hygiene, or another person might make fun of something that is really important to you, or maybe you overheard someone talking about your behind your back? Yep, this has all happened before. And it is HARD to know how to deal with these things and move on without ruining relationships.
Keep these things in mind when it comes to group travel, especially the part about making assignments for what each person is in charge of when planning trips. Try playing some games with your group to make more good memories together! And remember, you don't need to be best friends with everyone. You won't be living with them for much longer, so just make the most of the time you have and learn to love them. Easier said than done, but do your best. Your attitude and kindness will influence the rest of your group.
It's Mentally Tiring
Traveling is a mental game and you have to know how to play. When your homesickness and jet lag kick in, it can do some weird things to your brain. Little things like missing a bus or getting a little lost can all of a sudden feel like the end of the world. Going into a restaurant that doesn't have pictures or an English menu can be exhausting. Carrying everything around in a backpack can be tough, especially if all you want to do is sit in bed and just hang out for a minute. It can be mentally draining, so be prepared to encounter that!
Make it a little easier by giving yourself a break! When you feel those moments coming on, shop at a cafe or a park and take an hour to compose yourself. Chances are good that you're either tired and need a little break, or are hungry. Once you've rested, you'll feel like a new person (or at least strong enough to make it through the next hour or two).
Especially when you are living abroad for a semester, you'll need to see how you're doing mentally and take breaks when necessary.
It's Physically Tiring
Traveling is 100% physically tiring. From crowded plane rides to being jet lagged, it's just part of it. I have severely underestimated the physical toll of carrying around your luggage all day because you can't check into your hostel until later, or how you can walk 15 miles in a day just visiting cafes, palaces, castles, and city squares in Europe!
A few things have helped me on my trips to handle that fatigue (I hope they come in handy for your next trip, too!)
- Pack comfortable walking shoes
- Bring a neck pillow (and sleep when you can!)
- Carry a water bottle and use it (staying hydrated helps)
- Don't skip meals, and pack lots of snacks
- If you have an early flight, head to bed early
- Bring headphones/earplugs for noisy hostels
- Schedule a rest day on long vacations (beach day, pool day, etc)
- Know your limits (it's okay to skip out on something)
You won't be able to experience your new city if you're too tired to really soak it in, so be aware of when you're physically drained and take breaks to keep up your strength.
Traveling is hard no matter what ... but doing it alone can be even harder.
If you volunteer abroad with the International Language Programs, you will get your very own travel group that you will teach with, travel with, and live with. It makes everything much easier when you have someone to go through it with!
Want to become an ILP volunteer? Start your application and get in touch with an ILP rep who can answer all of your questions!