If you’re an open-minded traveler on a budget, then Couchsurfing is the #1 site you need to know! While hostels and Airbnb often offer great low-cost options, there is nothing that comes close to the price of Couchsurfing...which is totally free!
Free? What’s the catch?
Couchsurfing is a fantastic platform that connects you with locals around the world who are willing to open up their homes to you. You can often read through hundreds of profiles of other open-minded travelers in the city you will be traveling to and send a request to those you vibe with asking to ‘surf their couch’—or to simply meet up if staying with a stranger feels too strange for you.
The genuine Couchsurfing host does this out of the goodness of his/her heart and expects nothing in return but your gratitude and company. As with any host, a postcard or trinket from your home country is generally well-received as would be an invitation to treat them to a dinner, drinks, event, etc. Use your common sense and etiquette but know that there is not some unwritten rule that you actually have to pay this person (in money or otherwise).
Normally, the kind of people who host are simply outgoing folks who are happy to show you around their town and include you in whatever plans they have that weekend. While it’s not required that you spend your entire stay with them, the idea is to usually connect and get to know each other, so be sure you’re open to socializing if you decide to Couchsurf!
How Safe Is It?
Of course, when you throw out the idea of staying with a stranger for free, many of us get skeptical; I know this is a concern for solo female travelers especially. In my personal experience, I’ve never had a single problem or uncomfortable moment, but that’s also because I’m conscientious about who I stay with. Here are my top tips for ensuring you have a safe experience as well:
2. Read a potential host’s reviews (ideally all of them): In the case that the person you’re looking at staying with is one of the top-listed hosts, they will likely have dozens of reviews, all of which point you towards them being an upstanding citizen. At the same time, someone who is newer to the community might be just as great of a host but only have one or two reviews. I recommend listening to your gut—even if all the reviews are good, if something doesn’t feel right, simply don’t request to stay with that person.
3. Choose a verified host: Now, this is not to say that non-verified hosts are not good choices (most of the hosts I’ve had did not fall into this category and they were fantastic). Still, this is a good indication that your host is genuinely committed to the community because they have to pay for their credentials to be verified in order to give you peace of mind.
A Typical Stay
Although each experience is going to be different depending on the host-surfer dynamic, a few things that I find to be common are the following:
1. Your host will expect to spend time with you: Unless you have something urgent to do right after you meet your Couchsurfing host (which I would give them a courteous heads-up about), be aware that your host is likely going to want to sit down and chat with you and/or take you out on a tour right away. They’re also likely to ask what your plans are during your stay—so he/she can coordinate.
Pro-Tip: I like to include a brief explanation of what I will be up to when I ask a potential host to stay with them. That way they know what I have in mind in terms of the amount of time together vs. activities I’ve already planned (and if it isn’t to their liking, they don’t have to accept me).
Dani's hosts gave her tips on which attractions to visit during her stay.
2. You probably won’t have a lot of free time: Perhaps this is just something I notice as an introvert, but I find Couchsurfing to be a very social experience-meaning that in many (though not all) cases, if your host sees you just relaxing around the house, they’re going to invite you to do something with them or at least join you on the couch and strike up a conversation. I’ve also gotten invited to join for dinner plans hosts have had with friends. All of these opportunities turned into great stories that I tell again and again, but the adventure often ends up being different than what I had initially imagined, so just keep yourself open to the possibilities.
3. You will see/do things you wouldn’t otherwise know about: Of course, one of the great draws of Couchsurfing is the chance to live like a local. Not only are you staying in the home of a local but, if you’re open to it, you’ll likely be incorporated into the life of a local. You’ll find yourself shopping at the open-air market, catching a live band at a hole-in-the-wall bar, or taste-testing craft beers at an off-the-beaten path biergarten. For this reason, even though the introvert in me sometimes comes away from a Couchsurfing weekend a bit exhausted, I keep going back because the experiences are unforgettable and certainly ones I would have never had otherwise.
Q: What's something you wish you'd known before going abroad?
A: I wish I wouldn’t have taken free healthcare for granted. For me, it was normal to go to the doctor for free and get the subscribed medication for free. In the first few months, I was constantly sick because of the AC. Of course, I didn’t go to the doctor right away because of a cough, but I wish I had. The antibiotics, the X-Ray and some other pills were only partly covered by the insurance and the procedure to get the refund lasted 6 months. I’ve never paid so much for (basic) healthcare in my life. If I would do it again, I would go to the doctor earlier.
Q: What's your favorite memory abroad?
A: One of my favorite memories has to be the roadtrip to Nashville in October 2016. The trip lasted less than 48 hours, but we managed to go out twice, see a Burlesque show, ride mechanical bulls, organize a fake bridal party to get free drinks, have brunch & donuts and tour the city. The best part was that most of us met for the first time only two months before. The memories will last a lifetime.
As much as studying a semester abroad is seen as a positive experience, making the choice to move to another country for your whole degree is something that is still seen as a little bit strange. After finishing High School, I took three (yes, three) whole years before deciding to complete my entire degree and masters in Spain, but it was one of the best decisions I made for myself. That is not to say there weren’t moments when I questioned this choice, but at the end of the day, I’m very happy with the opportunities that studying in Spain has given me.
A Little Background
In Spain, I studied Sociology, something that I was interested in before leaving the States. In Spain this is a four-year degree, mostly dedicated to theoretical classes, but with a short internship and some research thrown in. At the University of Granada, one of the top five universities in Spain, I spent around $1,000/year, leading to a grand total of less than $5,000 for a four year degree and yearlong masters.
As a European student, I also had the opportunity to do an Erasmus in Lisbon. In comparison to American study abroad programs, Erasmus is a European funded one where every student who participates receives a scholarship.
However, there is more to keep in mind than how much something costs and how much you can travel.
Q: What's something you wish you'd known before going abroad?
A: Surprisingly I think I was very prepared to go abroad. However, I wish I’d been prepared for American serving sizes and how much weight I’d gain… American serving sizes are enormous! At McDonald's, an American Large drink is double the size of an Australian large! However, the experience of American food was amazing and well worth it – My absolute favorite food was Cinnamon Pretzels from Auntie Anne’s, we don’t have them!
Q: What's your favorite memory abroad?
A: My most distinct memory was over Thanksgiving break. I never understood the meaning of Thanksgiving or what the holiday entailed. My friend Bek and I traveled to New York where I had some family friends. We decided we wanted to go to the famous ‘Thanksgiving Day Parade’. We got up ridiculously early and made our way into Manhattan, quickly realizing why everyone thought we were crazy for wanting to go!
It was freezing cold and we couldn’t get close enough to the fence. We then saw people getting let into a VIP section… We worked our way to the front, and then managed to persuade a very kind police officer to let us into the VIP section as his ‘family’. Shout out to Officer Finnerty, you made Thanksgiving in the USA very memorable for me! The rest of the day followed with copious amounts of food and alcohol, then shopping the Black Friday sales the day after. It was an amazing experience!
Q: What's something you wish you'd known before going abroad?
A: Before travelling abroad, I wish I’d known what the housing was like. I felt a bit isolated with the housing I was provided with, since it didn't have furniture or a microwave - which would've been very helpful since we were pretty far from the food hall. I was told prior to leaving that my housing would be Fairview House (a new dorm right in the middle of campus), but a week later, this was changed to UT ( a 20 minute walk from campus with no basic utilities) for some reason, so I did wish I knew this prior to travelling abroad. Apart from that though, everything worked out so well!
I also found Greek life very unique. It’s clearly a very important part of college life, and I found it to be so much fun. I loved how involved everyone was with charities, traditions and bonding with other members of Greek life, even if it was just friendly competition, like at Homecoming
By Dani Jauregui (Granada, Spain)
As someone who studied abroad in Alicante, Spain during my sophomore year of college, by the time senior year rolled around, I was itching to get back! There is just something incredibly wonderful about Spain and its no pasa nada attitude (I have no doubt Caroline and Lexa would back me up) and I felt like there was something pulling me back. Most everyone who studies abroad romanticizes about returning to those carefree, indescribable days, but I was determined to be someone who actually did it. In realizing that dream, I’ve learned that I’m at my best and thriving now that I’ve let my dream transition into ‘real life.’
Now that I’m doing it on my own, I find myself surrounded by different types of people: Some are Americans; some are Spaniards. Some work; some study. Some are older than me; some younger and we’re all in different stages of our lives. But that variety is what makes my experience unique and beautiful and ‘real.’
Of course, the reality of coming on your own means that there’s a lot of weight on your shoulders. You have to find your own apartment, set up your own bank account, and figure out more complicated paperwork. I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who simply wants a year or two in Spain, but for someone genuinely thinking in the long-term. The truth is, there’s a lot of support online these days. You can find Facebook groups and other forums with a lot of searchable information, as well as individuals willing to answer questions based on your situation. I’ve found this incredibly helpful over the years.
By Matt Del Busto (U.S.-Indiana)
As I’m past the six week mark of my time here in Chile, I’d like to spit some gringo knowledge and share a few essential chilenísmos so if you ever visit Chile (you should), ever move to Chile (why not?!), see a film produced in Chile (it’d be fun!), etc. you can better understand the Spanish here.
I guess an accidental chilenísmo I used without even meaning to is the term itself: “Chilenísmo.” It’s basically a Spanish word/phrase used here in Chile that is more or less exclusive to the country.
Going from what I hear most-to-least often, let’s begin :D
This is a classic Chilenísmo. “Po” means, well, nothing at all.
Stick with me! Chileans use “po” like English-speakers use “like”. It’s a filler word that doesn’t mean anything. It gets added on frequently to sentences, usually at the end of a word or phrase.
Example: ¿Vas al cine hoy? ¡Si, po! (Are you going to the movies today? Yes, po!)
Another common Chilenísmo, “cachaí” comes from the Spanish verb “cachar,” meaning “to catch.” Sometimes the Chileans use the vosotros form (the Spain-Spanish “we” form, as opposed to the “nosotros” form most every other Spanish speaking place uses).
People will ask “¿Cachaí?” at the end of their sentence, basically meaning, “Got it?” or “Do you understand?”
Example: Necesitas doblar a la izquierda en Calle Álvarez, ¿cachaí? (You need to take a left on Álvarez Street, got it?)
#3. ¿Como estaí?:
Another time Chileans like to break out the vosotros form is when they’re asking how you’re doing. That’s right, “¿Como estaí?” is just another form of “¿Como estás?”
Example: Hola, ¿Como estaí? (Hey, how are you?)
#4. Al tiro:
Aw man, another classic. “Al tiro” is the Chilean way of saying “ahora,” meaning “right now.” Literally, this phrase means “at the shot/at the throw.” This is a pretty ubiquitous one in Chile—I definitely haven’t heard many “ahoras” in my time here.
Example: ¿Comemos al tiro, no? (We’re eating now, right?)
Written by Elizabeth Weitzel (U.S.-Michigan)
My experience abroad may be a little different from what you’re used to hearing. I didn’t study abroad through a university, and I didn’t spend time backpacking through Europe after graduation. To fulfill my own desire to travel, I decided to go abroad as an au pair. Now, you may be wondering exactly what an au pair is. Some people I talk to kind of know what I mean because of the classic 90s movie, “Au Pair” (that’s the only reason I knew what it was when I first came across the idea). And some people have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.
On a surface level, it’s a pretty simple explanation. An au pair is basically a nanny, but a nanny who is from a foreign country. The most important part of the job is that you teach the kids you’re looking after how to speak your native language. In my case, I moved to Pescara, Italy, and taught two boys, ages five and three, how to speak English.
As I said before, I didn’t study abroad in college, and I had never been out of the country other than to the Bahamas. Like most young people, I ached to travel and experience a culture other than my own. Being an au pair was the perfect combination of jet-setting and working. I knew I could see some of the places I had always wanted to see, all while being paid to do so.
After chatting with another au pair and doing some online research, I ended up making an account on aupairworld.com. I didn’t end up going with any of the families I met through the internet, but I will say that this is the most common way for potential au pairs to get set up with a host family. Personally, I got a summer internship I had been vying for and decided to go with that instead. Luckily, one of my college friends picked up on my au pairing idea, and found a family herself through the site.
Fast forward three months: I finished my internship and was more confused than ever about what I should do with my future. Coincidentally, my friend was wrapping up her time as an au pair. She reached out and told me that friends of her host family were looking for their first-ever au pair, and she wanted to see if I was still interested. It made me nervous, but I jumped at the chance to do what I had really wanted to do all along.
Before saying yes, I facetimed my potential host family numerous times to see what they were like. I think that doing this, getting to know your hosts beforehand, is crucial. That, and going with your gut. If you don’t click with the family, or the living arrangements don’t seem right, or the kids seem like too much, don’t feel bad saying no. Lucky for me, I fell in love with my host parents, their two boys, and the grandparents I lived with. The language barrier was difficult at times, there were some tough cultural differences to get used to, and I experienced the usual homesickness, but my experience was overwhelmingly positive.
Written by Allie Parker (U.S. - Indiana)
Study abroad changed my life. I know, I know. Everyone who has ever studied abroad claims that the experience changed their life. Here is how it changed mine:
I’ve always been the kind of person who prefers to be busy. I like to feel that I’m doing something or being productive. But, I’ll admit that sometimes I make myself too busy. I’ve struggled with slowing down, until I came to Scotland.
I studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh, through the Institute for Study Abroad-Butler University (IFSA-Butler). The program handled our housing, transportation, etc. I was matched with an apartment for 12 students and these people became my best friends. For many reasons, I chose to stay in Edinburgh with them instead of jetting off to a different city every weekend. Because my friends were from Britain, I was able to truly learn what it meant to live like a local instead of feeling like a tourist, which allowed me to tour and get to know the city like a local too.
While I was abroad, my only commitments were go to class and explore. I knew that this experience was going to end, so I tried to absorb every moment by doing something I’ve never done... slow down. I walked everywhere! Instead of being a tourist in my host city, I embraced the culture like it was my own. I walked back alleys, found amazing views, ate at different cafes every week (although I do have my favorites), and was able to enjoy the present. I was in charge of my life. Not the clock, not my obligations, but me. I found joy in being by myself, in finding my own experiences and taking my time.
Scotland will forever hold a place in my heart, and I am so grateful for the lessons that I continue to learn a year after returning home. Study abroad has changed my life for the better; even though I need a reminder sometimes, slowing down is something I try to practice in my everyday life.
Restaurants & Cafes:
*Hover over each picture to reveal the restaurant's name
Written by Olivia Sutton (U.S.-Indiana)
As a girl who couldn’t even sleep over at friends’ houses as a child, I was the last person you would expect to study abroad. So when it was time to board the plane from Cincinnati to Atlanta and then finally to Stuttgart, Germany, emotions were running high. It was a strange mix of excitement, nerves, and fear, but most of all I couldn’t wait to see what Germany had in store for me.
Now that I'm back home in the Midwest, I can look back on my study abroad experience and know without a doubt, it was the best five months of my life. Here are some tips that I think help in guaranteeing that your study abroad experience is second to none!
1. Pick the right school
Some people have a specific country, language, or program in mind that weighs heavily on which school they pick. Whatever your reasoning is, be sure to research your options thoroughly. I knew I wanted to study in Germany, so I looked at programs with a strong business curriculum, but also schools that weren’t too “American.” Some universities teach exclusively in English or are in touristic cities, so the authentic German atmosphere I wanted would have been missed. Tübingen was the perfect blend of business courses and a whimsical, storybook German town that welcomed me with open arms.
2. Be all in
Before I embarked on my journey, my mom gave me some good advice: “say yes to whatever is offered.” Of course, don’t partake in illegal activities or anything that makes you really uncomfortable, but if something is outside of your comfort zone, give it a shot. A few times when I thought I was too tired or something was happening too late, I remembered that advice and said yes!
My trick to breaking out of my comfort zone was to be all in during my study abroad experience. I wanted to make great friends and experience new things, and if I was afraid of that or always stayed at home, I would’ve missed out on some great people and times. If you always say no to new things, then why are you studying abroad?!
A study abroad trip is so short, so put all of your energy during this little time into your adventures. Live in the present and put your heart and soul into your new home; I promise it will pay off. Leaving Germany, I have never felt so comfortable in my own skin and it’s all thanks to being all in and living it up every day.
TIP: Rainy weather? Grab a trash bag from the hostel before you leave (or anywhere!) and protect your suitcase!
3. Treat everyone you meet as a future best friend
When I landed in Germany, I knew a few acquaintances from Butler, but that’s it. My first priority after surviving and not getting robbed was making friends, which is good because friends actually help you survive and not get robbed. I am not a judgmental person by nature and typically get along with everyone, but when studying abroad, it’s so important to treat everyone as your future best friend because they just might become one! You don’t want to burn any bridges or not put yourself out there. The people I met abroad are the reason my experience was so amazing, and I am so lucky to have a long list of best friends from all over the world.
Written by Emma Frasier (U.S.-Indiana)
As soon as I returned home from my first trip to Guatemala, I knew I had to go back. I immediately began saving my money and before I knew it, I was packing my bags the summer after my junior year to head back for two more weeks. I had such an incredible trip the year prior that I was wondering how this year would compare. Little did I know that this year’s trip would leave an even greater impact on my life. T
his time around was filled with even more laughs, adventures, and above all, a growth in confidence that I had never found in myself before. I spent time with a new host family who I was actually able to converse with (through many bumps and bruises in grammar and vocabulary….) They were a family of teachers and were so patient with me as I fluttered my way through making full sentences. I came to Guatemala this time with the mentality that I would use Spanish whenever I could, because as long as I was practicing and trying my hardest, I knew that people would see my effort.
In addition to having an amazing host family, I lived with my friend Claire, who traveled with me both weeks on last year’s trip as well. We talked about life here in Guatemala compared to the states and because of her, I really began to understand the impact we were making in peoples’ lives. Our entire group this year was so close-knit. We all clicked well and spent our time making the most out of every possible adventure. Traveling with friends is a beautiful thing, and I would not have traded the people I got to know so well and all of the memories we made on this trip for anything.
We studied Spanish for five hours each day again, and I even got placed with my same teacher from last year, Alexander. He was so patient as I struggled my way through conversations. He’s in a Spanglish band called Pa’Que, and a group of us went to a bar called King & Queen and watched him play. They played a mixture of Spanish and English songs and were phenomenal! It was a night I will never forget.
The blog posts featured in this section are written by friends we've made around the globe that want to share their experiences, lessons they've learned, and tips and tricks.