Independent Travel vs. Study Abroad

Going abroad as a young adult is an integral part in becoming a more well-rounded, open-minded global citizen.  The first time leaving home for an extended period of time can be uncomfortable and nerve-racking at first, but with time, the first abroad experience will be something remembered forever.  Seasoned travelers can all recollect with great detail that first trip: stepping off the plane, getting lost, trying new foods and meeting other world wanderers.

Every young adult that has the means absolutely should go abroad.  Whether the funds come from parents, relatives or saved money, every penny spent on a trip is well worth it.  But, when the proposed trip looms as the very first time away from home, deciding how, where and with whom to travel can be difficult.

For university students there are two main choices for the first-time-abroad experience: study-abroad and independent travel.  Each option has its pros and cons, but in the end, a trip is a trip, and both choices offer the opportunity to begin explorations of the world.  The costs, benefits and draw-backs of study abroad and independent travel should be weighed carefully before making a decision.

So, what exactly is study abroad?  Study abroad is an opportunity to travel, live and study in another country through one’s university or college.  Students get to spend a term or more at another university, most likely studying the local language and taking other general courses.  The great thing about study abroad is that participants gain academic credit for their time living in a foreign country.  The trip kills multiple birds with one stone: knock out some academic credits, live in a foreign locale, travel around the region and mingle with other people of a similar age.

Study abroad can be a great way for a college student to begin their world travels because the programs and locales are safe and itineraries are often fully planned.  These sorts of programs can act as a channel to begin further independent travels.  The major drawback to study abroad programs is the price.  At many major U.S. universities, fees for study abroad are exorbitant to the point that many students go in debt (sometimes even further) to travel abroad.  It is true that this money also goes towards paying for academic credits, but spending $20,000 for a term in Spain may not be the right fit for every young person who has the travel bug.

This brings us to the next option: independent travel.  Independent travel is exactly what it sounds like: traveling around by yourself on a trip that you planned by yourself.  Independent travelers don’t go abroad through a company or program… they just go.  The benefit of independent traveling is absolute freedom to go wherever you wish, whenever you wish.  Feel like going to Ho Chi Minh City today? Done.  Feel like going to Cambodia tomorrow? Sure!

Three months of independent travel can also cost drastically less than three months of study abroad (depending where you go and your travel standards).  Independent travelers are usually very budget oriented, staying at cheap hostels, eating street food and taking overnight buses.  If you were to dedicate one term’s worth of study abroad funds to independent travel, the money could be stretched much further, leading to a longer trip.

Although independent travel equates to freedom and is very cheap, it’s not for everyone.  The drawback of independent travel is that you must be very comfortable being alone, fending for yourself and doing your own planning.  When something goes wrong for an independent traveler, there is no study abroad coordinator to make it better.  No one plans your insurance plan or your plane tickets.  This can be an extra hurdle, but it also can make the trip more fun and more personalized.  Independent travel is, of course, different in every country.  For students and young adults not ready to jump head-first into independent travel in, say, India or Africa, somewhere like Australia or Western Europe might be a good choice.

Both study abroad programs and independent travel are good choices for young adults who are vying to experience what the world has to offer.  Although study abroad costs more, the fees also pay for academic credits.  Students who participate will enjoy first time travel with the comfort of knowing that there are people associated with the program there to help in emergencies (parents will probably appreciate this too).  Independent travel can be dirt cheap, but is probably not the best choice for young adults who aren’t too sure about planning a trip alone and being alone for extended periods of time.  Each choice as pros and cons, but both are great options in taking that first step to become a global citizen and a global mind.

Study Abroad:

Pros: Planned out through university, get to be with other students, free-time to travel around region, lots of opportunities to make friends, knock some academic credits out of the way.

Cons: Can be crazy expensive, some people study abroad with friends from home and don’t branch out, can be too planned for some people.

Independent Travel:

Pros: Can be dirt cheap, can spread money out for longer (meaning longer travel), complete freedom to do whatever, meet more people not associated with the university setting, builds independence and self-reliance.

Cons: Might not be right for those nervous about traveling abroad/alone for the first time, no one to fall back on in emergency situations, requires careful planning pre-trip.

5 thoughts on “Independent Travel vs. Study Abroad

  1. Nelson Parobek

    I’ve been exploring all over the place for all of this info… I am happy somebody honestly has the remedy to an extremely straightforward question. You might have zero understanding how many internet websites I’ve gone to over the last hour or so. Many thanks for your details

  2. epicasia

    Backpacking in Europe: I feel ya! Backpacking anywhere definitely requires a nice lump sum of money to start out with, depending on where you are traveling and how long.

    Nelson: Thank you so much for the compliment! I’m glad you found this information useful. I hope it will help with your own travels and worldly adventures! I think it is definitely good to know about the costs and benefits of study abroad, and the great alternatives as well.

  3. GO! Overseas

    I liked this post! A lot of good points here for travelers to consider.

    To add my two cents, I tend to encourage first time travelers to study abroad before traveling independently. You still have plenty of time to travel after school, but studying abroad is a unique experience that should not be missed. You will be surrounded by a good support group and this will be your best opportunity to learn a new language, which I believe is vital to successful independent travel later.


    1. epicasia

      I definitely agree with you. For first time travelers, I think study abroad is a great way to ignite the travel bug and get your toes wet for further independent adventures. I wish all young people could study/live abroad at some point! What a life changing experience it is.


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