Study Abroad

10 Mistakes American Study Abroad Students Make in Europe

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Jessica Smith Soto
Topic Expert

Jessica studied International Relations with a focus on Latin American studies and studied in Mexico, Hungary, and Poland. After graduating with her BA, Jessica lived in Colombia for 6 months.

10 Mistakes American Study Abroad Students Make in Europe
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Europe awaits! The great architecture of Rome; the Polish pierogi; German beer; already there is so much on your list to enjoy. However, before you set off, remember this is a chance to immerse yourself in a new culture, and not just any other trip. Through study abroad, you will interact with your surroundings and community more deeply than as a traveler passing through.

Whether you experience culture shock or not, there will be moments when suddenly you realize you are doing something “wrong.’” It might small bumps like buying yourself a dog bowl instead of the intended people bowl, or forgetting that water here isn’t free. Then there are obvious blunders, like chanting “‘Merica” in the streets or referring to Europe as “the old country.”

Europe is neither the old country, nor is it one country. It’s an entire continent, composed of drastically different customs, languages, and people. And each city or region within a country will have its own rules that you’ll learn along the way. You will make mistakes, and it’s part of learning, but here are some no-no’s that Americans before you have commonly committed. Learn from their blunders, and avoid these common mistakes made by American students who head off to study abroad in Europe semester after semester, year after year:

1. Traveling Too Frequently

Many Americans power walk through Europe like it’s a soon to be closing drive-through. But is four hours in Rome, a day in Switzerland, and a midnight train through the Pyrenees really experiencing Europe? Everyone has their own style of travel, but take time to smell the crepes and the tapas. Yes, the countries are closer together here than from across the big ol' Atlantic pond, but don’t underestimate distances by being overly ambitious and not actually taking time to enjoy them.

Is four hours in Rome, a day in Switzerland, and a midnight train through the Pyrenees really experiencing Europe?

Also, if you're traveling every weekend of study abroad, when will you ever find time to enjoy the city you're actually supposed to be experiencing to the fullest? You know, that city you claim to be studying abroad in...?

2. Assuming Everyone Speaks English

Do a lot of people speak it? Yes. Do they all? No! Unless it's specifically an English speaking country (basically just England, Scotland, Ireland, and -- technically -- Malta), all the other European countries are quite happy speaking their own languages. In tourist areas and capitals, it’s easier to find English speakers, but you shouldn’t expect it. Treat English like a surprise cookie; if you find it, be happy but if you don’t remember there was no promise it would be given to you anyway. Remember not to make your study abroad in Europe like life in America, it's never going to happen.

At the same time, don't assume that no one speaks English either. It's the most widely learned language, and therefore not exactly a secret language you can use to say "that guy smells bad" stealthily.

3. Drinking the Wrong Way

You owe it to your countrymen not to be the wasted American, at least not right away and more importantly, not in the wrong way.

Watch locals for cues on how to consume adult beverages, because loud Americans tend to attract a lot of attention. See how locals drink, what foods they eat while boozing, whether they dance it off or if they pace themselves. Learn from their methods, especially when trying liquors that are new to you, or homemade versions made by your tandem language partner’s grandpa.

Contrary to what American Pie may have taught you, just because everyone is drinking does not imply that everyone is drinking to get drunk.

4. Calling Europe By the Wrong Name

10 Mistakes American Study Abroad Students Make in Europe: the wrong name
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While Europe is a continent, there are many terms to differentiate between regions, institutions, and treaties. It’s a good idea to read up on European geography, politics, and the EU before making the hike across the ocean. Here are some commonly confused terms:

  • The Schengen zone is 26 European states that allow the free movement of people within the area. Not every Schengen zone country is also an EU country, for example Switzerland. The non-Schengen zone countries have their own visa requirements and border controls and include the UK, Romania, and Bulgaria.

  • Continental Europe is the landmass where most of the countries are located- but Malta, the UK, and Cyprus for example, are also Europe, even though they are technically not physically attached to the continent.

  • Ireland and Northern Ireland are separate countries, with separate currencies, passports, and politics.

  • Slovenia and Slovakia are also separate countries, with similar names. The most famous American example of using the wrong name comes from George W Bush, who talked about meeting the “foreign minister from Slovakia.” Former President Bush, in fact, met the prime minister...of Slovenia.

  • Baltic vs. Balkan states. Again, these names sound similar, but geographically they are very different. The Balkan states are located on the Balkan peninsula between the Adriatic Sea and the Black sea, while the Baltic states are by the Baltic Sea.

  • Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, the USSR, and the former USSR bloc no longer exist. For some reason, many regular US history courses stop talking about Europe after WWII, and a lot has happened since then, including a genocide in the Balkans.

  • Whether Russia and Turkey are considered “European” is still controversial and debated.

5. Not Understanding the Fine Print of Cheap Flights

Sure, you got a 40 Euro deal to Amsterdam... well, an hour outside Amsterdam, if you want to be precise about it. Many times, the airports that budget airlines fly into are in the middle of nowhere. There may be only one non-negotiable way and price to get into the main city, via one bus and the line is probably 47 frustrated people long.

Go for the opportunity cost - the time you will actually spend, factor in transportation to and from the airport, and the hassle of it al, before judging the "real" value of your cheap ticket. By the time you add up the time and cost of getting into the main city, it might not be all that different then just flying into the main airport.

And don’t forget... your taxes are added on after Ryanair already sucked you into daydreaming about Budapest, and they will charge for just about everything they can. Though, fortunately that whole pay to use the toilets on their airplanes idea flopped (*phew*). So, don’t be surprised to see a guy wearing 5 shirts at the same time in the middle of a heatwave...

P.S. There are some pretty cool study abroad apps that'll help you find the best travel deals.

6. Forgetting Euros Have Value

Sound strange? Think again. As Americans we hate “pocket change.” That’s the money we leave in tip jars as a favor to ourselves in order to avoid carrying bulky change. But Euros fly like crazy, especially when using metros.

If you have a 2 Euro coin and a 1 Euro coin, it feels like pocket change to get rid of-but that’s almost $4. Spend a day whizzing underground in Vienna or Paris, and you will curse your American ways for hating loose change. You will start to notice every abandoned coin as actual money. US wallets don’t even have a change pouch anymore, so get yourself a zip lock bag if you have to, but hang onto those coins, they are not pennies, folks.

7. Clinging to Other Americans

Students have a much wider range of opportunity than tourists. You can be part of daily life, and don’t waste this by only hanging out with other Americans. Tourists come to see the sites, but you are a student. You have specifically come to learn!

Students have a much wider range of opportunity than tourists. You can be part of daily life, and don’t waste this by only hanging out with other Americans.

Whether it be about EU institutions or pastry making, there’s a reason you came as a student. Whatever your ambitions, meeting more Americans is not one of them. Yes, you all agree that ice is essential and that line cutting is a cardinal sin. You can support each other, and laugh about your blunders, but don’t fall into the trap of your European experience leading to all American friends.

8. Becoming a Living, Breathing, Fashion Faux-pas

10 Mistakes American Study Abroad Students Make in Europe: Fashion
Photo credit: Alexandr Bormotin via Unsplash

Europeans are said to be fashion savvy and beautiful, but realize they actually tend to have less clothing. Maybe one pair of jeans, and a few quality scarves, jackets, belts and shoes. There’s a reason so many girls come back from Italy with only one shirt, but 12 scarves that all match.

And another fashion hint: don’t be a slob either. Jammies are reserved exclusively for bed, not for running errands, going to class, or for trolling parks.

9. Spending Too Much Time on Social Media

Obviously, you'll want some photos to remember your study abroad experience by, and to keep your friends and family up to date on all of your cool adventures, but remember to put down your phone and get off Instagram every once in awhile!

Your study abroad experience shouldn't be spent posting photos and sending clever quips to your friends back home about your glamorous new life in Europe, but rather something you do for you. Furthermore, how much are you really taking in if you're constantly Tweeting or posting on Facebook about it, anyway?

10. Not Practicing Your Foreign Language Skills

You’ve spent months or maybe years studying Portuguese and preparing to actually use it, but now you hear it everywhere and you’re too intimidated to use it. The biggest mistake would be letting all the work go to waste because you're shy.

If you’re in a country where the language interests you, you are in the most ideal classroom and take full advantage of it. Whether it feels scary or not, take every opportunity to practice. As guest blogger Jenny Marshall suggests even eavesdropping on stranger's conversations is an opportunity to learn something new and test your foreign language skills!

Bonus: Forgetting to Actually Study...

It will be a temptation, especially since many EU school have loose attendance policies. However, remember you are a student, not a tourist. While your most memorable learning may be on the streets of Madrid and not within class walls, you gain a fuller understanding of your surroundings by learning about your host country academically as well.

Class is also one of the best ways to meet people, and learn from a professor who may have expertise on subjects your university doesn’t offer stateside. Having a connection with your professors may come in handy, especially if you inevitably decide you want to go back to Europe.

Suggested Study Abroad Programs in Europe

If you've decided to study in Europe, you will make a few mistakes. Don't let this scare you off though. Instead, remember you chose Europe for a reason, and make sure to take full advantage of the opportunities. Immerse yourself in your study abroad experience and grow with each mistake.

When you do mess up, you might not know why right away, so ask locals or friends and when you look back, you’ll probably laugh when you remember the wrong things you said or did!