Studying Abroad When You're In College Versus Traveling As An Adult — 7 Things That Change When You Get Older

When I was little, I had three goals: become a dolphin trainer, develop magical powers, and move to England. After eventually resigning myself to the fact that the first two probably weren't going to happen, I made good on the last when I turned 21 and decided to study abroad in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for five months. Studying abroad in college was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and I'm extremely grateful to have been able to have the experience. I spent five months romping around cities, castles, and pubs all over the world, occasionally taking a break to show up to class (sorry Mom!). I realize how incredibly lucky I am to have had those opportunities, and know that not everyone has the chance to essentially run wild around Europe for a large chunk of time.

That being said, I will be the first to admit that although I did travel, I most certainly didn't do it in style. I slept in airports, rooms with 24 other people, and on buses. I flew on planes that looked so unsturdy that I prayed during the entirety of my flight, and have been on more Megabuses than I care to remember. I once stayed at a hostel in Scotland in January that had no hot water. I skipped meals to afford museum tickets, and have lived out of a too-small backpack. I don't regret a single moment of it, but let no one say that I've lived an unduly glamorous life. At the time, however, there were no other options. If I wanted to see a lot of countries, sacrifices had to be made. After a while, it was hard to imagine traveling on anything but a tiny budget.

Recently, I went back to Europe for the first time since studying abroad to visit a friend living in Stockholm. I WAS SO EXCITED, YOU GUYS. The problem was, I only knew how to travel like a college student, not like the employed, adult woman that I am now. As I reached for my little overnight bag, I reminded myself that I no longer had to fit eight days worth of clothes into a bag designed for three days or less. I could now pack AN ACTUAL SUITCASE.

I admit that I went a little crazy (in my mind, anyway). I brought two pairs of jeans. TWO. Who am I, the Queen of England? I also ate three meals a day while I was away, and occasionally bought coffee or beer as a treat to myself. This may not seem particularly extravagant, but when I was studying abroad I was a college kid who was traveling on a shoe string budget, living off of a single pair of pants and squished homemade sandwiches. (Seriously, I tried to live off of PB&J in Brussels and Amsterdam. I accidentally put my sandwich bag next to my toiletries, and they tasted like soap for the whole trip.)

There is a HUGE difference between traveling when you're studying abroad and traveling when you're a regular, adult person.* My fellow study abroad-ers can probably agree that traveling after you've studied abroad is a whole new experience in which you have to throw out most of what you taught yourself the first time around. Here are, in my opinion, some of the main differences between the two types of travel.

*Please note that I use "adult traveling" loosely, as the idea of calling myself an adult is laughable at best.

1. Packing

Study abroad: "I'm going to survive two weeks and three different countries in a single pair of leggings, boots, and however many tops I can fit in a book bag."

Adult traveling: "I should pack a dress, in case we go somewhere nice. And maybe an extra outfit or two in case I feel like changing. Also shoes. And sweaters. And a bunch of other things I obviously won't need but my mom thinks I should throw in 'just in case.' I can do this because I'm bringing an actual suitcase."

2. Food

Study abroad: "I have (insert ridiculously small amount of money) to live on for the month. Must live on packed PB&J sandwiches, hostel breakfasts, and possibly sketchy street food."

Adult traveling: "I'm going to eat three meals a day, possibly with snacks in between, and some of those meals may actually be eaten in a restaurant. If I'm feeling really crazy, maybe I'll even try to make sure there are fruits and veggies in my diet."

3. Accommodations

Study abroad: "I'm going to sleep in a room with 10-plus other people in a small, unstable bunk bed. I'm just going to pray that I'm not put in a room with creepy people, thieves, or people who snore. It's an adventure!"

Adult traveling: "I'm going to sleep in a room with 10-plus other people in a small, unstable bunk bed. I'm just going to pray that I'm not put in a room with creepy people, thieves, or people who snore. This is terrible and I'm never doing this again. How did I do this three years ago?"

4. Meeting fellow travelers

Study abroad: "I'm going to be sure to be really social at my hostel and on tours. Hopefully I can meet some cool people to go out with tonight!"

Adult traveling: "God I hope no one talks to me. I just want to be in bed by like 11 so I can be up for that walking tour tomorrow morning."

5. Sight-Seeing

Study abroad: "This museum/church/historically important place looks cool, but it's 10 euro to get in and that's my entire budget today. I'll just take a picture outside of it and call it a day."

Adult traveling: "Because I'm an adult now with an actual income, I can actually afford to go inside and see things, instead of pressing my nose up against the glass and looking longingly at people inside."

6. Traveling

Study abroad: "I need to see as many countries as humanly possible before I go home, so I'll spend 1.5 days in each city and hope I see everything."

Adult traveling: "Instead of trying to see LITERALLY ALL OF EUROPE, I'm going to pick a couple of cities and try to spend a decent amount of time in each so I'm not running around like crazy trying to see everything."*

*I totally didn't do this. I spent exactly 1.5 days in Copenhagen and had to run around like crazy to see everything. Old habits die hard.

7. Airplanes

Study abroad: "Ryanair is super cheap, so I will ignore the fact that their planes look like they were made out of children's toys."

Adult traveling: "OH DEAR GOD NO, I HAVE SO MUCH TO LIVE FOR."

Images: Gonzalo Díaz Fornaro/Flickr; WiffleGif (7); Shaun Fitzpatrick