The very thought of exchange and travel makes me think expensive, so when I started school I didn’t think I would ever be able to afford it. However, when I found out that I would pay the same tuition, I would still get full OSAP, CIE funding, and could apply to scholarships, the goal became a lot more realistic. In fact, after a summer of working very hard I had enough saved not only to go to London for 6 months, but I had enough to travel!
Disclaimer: I did work two jobs that summer, and I work throughout the school year. I also planned out my budget very intensely before I left.
After all the hard work I decided on King’s College, London for my exchange, and it was a dream come true. For me, the most enticing part of exchange was the prospect of travel. This blog post is going to focus on some of the adventures I had on exchange and what travel is like as a student.
The first place I traveled to was of course my host city: London. I can honestly say that I have yet to come across a city as vibrant as London despite being known for being overcast. At my welcome to King’s we were given a quote by Samuel Johnson – “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”…I can honestly say this couldn’t be more true.
The Stand Campus’s most photogenic location: Somerset House
In the U.K. they have their own version of Frosh, (they call it Freshers) where exchange students and even second semester students get to participate. Participating was the best decision I made on exchange because it was during this week I made most of my exchange friends, many of whom I traveled with. On exchange you get to meet like minded people from around the world, people who are interested in travel, and exploration. I made life long friends.
Next up, my new friends and I explored the classic London landmarks. The moment we were sitting on the fountains in Trafalgar Square, seeing the iconic red buses, Big Ben in the distance, with the National Gallery behind us, I knew I had arrived. A life long goal achieved.
Travel Tip #1 – The only way to travel is look for discounts – in the U.K. almost all major Museums and Galleries are free! All the others have student discounts. Your host school student card should be valid, otherwise UofT has an international student card. Get ready to come back 10x more cultured!
I could go on and on about all the amazing landmarks London has to offer: the British Museum (another dream come true), the London Eye (which is the view from the school pub!), Westminster, Buckingham Palace, the Winston Churchill War Rooms, Tower Bridge, etc. The list is so long, and it’s all so worth it.
Travel Tip #2 – Landmarks are great, and because of that they are always busy – save valuable time and go at off peak times! If you have only a couple days in a city try and see if you can get skip the lines passes, or group deals for multiple attractions in the city. Those hours spent in line could be better spent exploring! Plus, those deals tend to elevate the cost of individual tickets! An example is the Colosseum and Forum in Rome – the lines were too long so for a few extra Euros we skipped the line, got admission and a tour for both attractions.
London has a lot more to offer than iconic landmarks; it is a city full of nightlife. Amazing concerts, entertainers from around the world, markets and streets fairs. I saw bands like Toronto’s own July Talk in an amazing venue. Another thing London is known for is theatre, and let me tell you it meets the hype! King’s is steps away from the West End.
Travel Tip #3 – Theatre is expensive which is why no Londoner would pay the regular price for a ticket. You can enter lotteries (this can get you front row seats to shows for a fraction of the cost) or get rush tickets! I didn’t see a show for more than 24 pounds! Plus, if you like the actor stick around till the end and go to the stage door, you could meet your childhood hero.
Another wonderful thing about London is all the small comedy clubs, all the wonderful cafes, and quirky shops you can find. So many places are affordable and fantastic, you just have to look a little. A lot are free including the Victoria Embankment, it was one of my favorite spots to just take a moment and be still in a city full of hustle. The Victoria Embankment is right behind the Strand, and it was one of the many parks in the city that I would go to, to quite literally smell the roses!
Travel tip #4 – Travel blogs are the best resources! Key search words include FREE, UNDISCOVERED, or HIDDEN GEMS OF___. Otherwise ask a local – people love to brag about their city!
Now I could go on and on about just London, but I did travel elsewhere. I started with the U.K., I went to Liverpool (3 times!), Manchester, Leeds, York, Malton, Whitby, Pickering, Oxford, and Norwich! Now this seems like a very expensive undertaking, but I got myself a railcard! It was 30 pounds, but because of it I was getting 10-pound returns!
Norwich, Liverpool, Leeds
Travel Tip #5 – Discount railcards and metro cards across Europe are something to look into. Hunt for deals! I needed to be a bit more flexible but living spontaneously was so much fun.
Travel Tip #6 – So many cities can be done well in a day – book an early train out and a late train back.
I also traveled outside of the U.K.. I went to 6 countries: France, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Germany. Getting out of the U.K. was just as easy as getting around in the U.K. (yay for discount airlines!)
Travel Tip #7 – Fly cheap with companies like Ryanair, and EasyJet. They are not big on amenities, but great for getting you around for cheap. Tickets can be as low as 10 pounds, for example I went to Germany for 14 pounds!
Travel Tip #8 – If you want to avoid airport security, trains are another option in Europe. However, they can be more expensive and you will need to book in advance.
Now all of Europe is wonderful to travel to, but you also have to stay somewhere when you get there. I was fortunate to have a place to crash on a couple of these trips and it’s a fantastic way to save money.
Travel Tip #9 – Hostels and Airbnb are your new best friends! Always check multiple reviews!!!! Hostels are cheap, and since you want to see the city as much as possible they are normally just a place to drop your bag and crash at night. Still, you do not want an awful place (which is why reviews are key)
Another perk is that most of the people staying in hostels are students, so you get to meet a wide variety of people. In Barcelona, we got lucky with the best hostel I stayed at – it had a rooftop terrace, and we met backpackers from New Zealand and Italy.
Travel Tip #10 – A potluck with other backpackers is a great way to hear some amazing stories!
There are so many opportunities to meet people when traveling. My trip to Belgium was the only solo travel I did. I was nervous, but I met people on the plane and we bussed to the city together. You need to push yourself to talk to new people and step outside your comfort zone. The next day I did a free walking tour of Brussels (these are common across Europe! Wonderful way to learn from locals). I met more people as I did tours of Ghent and Bruges. If you are looking for undiscovered gems of Europe, these two cities are unreal. They are frozen in time; Ghent’s entire city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Travel Tip #11 – Always have a physical map of the city you are in – your phone may die or not connect to the internet.
There isn’t enough space for me to tell y’all all my travel stories…and trust me when you are done your exchange you will never be able to stop talking about it either. But honestly, this experience was extraordinary. I met some of the most important people in my life, I attended dream concerts, and I quite literally met one of my heroes. I went from studying masterpieces to seeing them daily! Places I had always wanted to see are now saved in my camera roll. I got to truly understand what it means to be a global citizen. Nothing can compare to sitting on the grass beneath the Eiffel Tower as it is lit up while you are serenaded by one of the many buskers. Nothing can compare to walking through the Roman Forum seeing the still standing legacy of the Roman Empire. Or the amazing resilience of the wonderful city of London, a city I was proud to call my home. It will always be a second home, a place I found that was more welcoming than I could imagine, that was beautiful, wild, and one I only discovered a fraction of.
I leave you with one final travel tip…
Travel Tip # 12 – Be a tourist! Be a tourist in your own city, in your host city, wherever you are…There is always more to discover, alter your perspective, push yourself to see the world, and marvel it’s in wonders.
Written by: Amandip Dhindsa