What To Do When Things Go Wrong During Study Abroad

I have learned the hard way, through roughly 10 years of traveling abroad and two study abroad experiences, that it doesn’t matter how much you plan, things are always going to go wrong at some point or another. It might be that bad weather delays your flight, an unexpected issue causes an excursion you planned to get cancelled, or you simply get sick. All of these things happen a lot more frequently than you would hope, but I have learned a few tricks for getting through these situations without going into full-blown panic mode.

To start, let’s talk about some of the adverse issues that I encountered this summer on my study abroad trip to Australia:

  1. Flight Delays: My very first flight out of Birmingham was delayed for 7 hours due to weather conditions. After waiting in the airport for this long, I was told that there was no way for me to make my connecting flights to LA and Sydney, so I would have to rebook. I spent another 2 hours waiting on my luggage to show back up and to rebook all of my flights to Australia.
    • This caused me to miss everything I had originally planned for my first day in Sydney, including a tour of the Sydney Opera House, a whale watching boat ride, dinner reservations, and the money I paid for my first night in an Air BnB (roughly $150 total)
      • And that is BEFORE I ever even left the U.S.
      • I was able to successfully rebook my whale watching tour, so I did not lose the money on that
    • The flight delays also caused me to have to rebook my second day’s excursion to the Blue Mountains because I was supposed to be picked up at 7:30am, and I was not set to arrive in the country that day after rescheduling my flights until 7am; so this obviously wouldn’t have worked out very well 
  2. Cancelled Activities & Excursions: My second weekend was spent in Canberra (where I was studying) because our professor had planned some excursions for us to attend on that Friday. However, the Australian professor who was supposed to drive us that Friday had to have surgery on her throat two days before on Wednesday. This was an unexpected surgery and required us to move our excursions to Sunday instead. Because of these unforseen, but completely reasonable adjustments to our weekend, I had to cancel a hot-air balloon ride I had scheduled for that Sunday morning; I also had to cancel a glass-blowing class I had planned to attend. Neither activity could be rebooked for that weekend due to high demand (even though I had made bookings months in advance).
    • Further, my last day spent in Melbourne (3rd weekend) was upended when I received an email at 8pm the night before a city tour that it was to be cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances. This left me with no plan on my last day, so I just explored the city on my own.
    • My last weekend was spent in Sydney. I planned this because Pink was set to perform on Friday night that weekend, which I had purchased tickets to months before. The night before I left Canberra and was headed to Sydney, I got an email saying that the concert was postponed because Pink had come down with a throat soreness. Unfortunately, because she postponed rather than cancelled, I was not able to get a refund. Because I was leaving for the U.S. within the next two days, there was no way for me to attend a postponed show in Sydney. I am still trying to sell the ticket for a rescheduled date of 8/26/18.
  3. Getting Sick or Hurt: This happens to me a LOT, so I have basically become the expert in this arena.
    • During my weekend trip to Cairns (4th weekend), I had an allergic reaction after lunch, which I have never experienced and didn’t actually know what I was reacting to at first. I have never been allergic to any foods, plants, etc. so I chalked it up to something I either ate or encountered that was different about the specific area we were visiting. I ended up not really doing anything about the reaction other than wait it out and wait for the swelling to go down. This could have ended up worse though and required me to go to the hospital.
    • The second day I was in Cairns, I went on a scuba diving excursion in the Great Barrier Reef. This may be slightly disturbing, but at some point during this excursion, my entire toenail fell off. This had also never happened to me before, so I didn’t exactly know how to react. The crew members told me that I would be fine, and that I likely stubbed my toe at some point and between that and the salty water, it was enough for it to fall off. I ended up going to the nail salon a few days later and having them cover it up; but WHAT ON EARTH?!
    • About two days after returning from Cairns, I started having some serious stomach pains. I also did not get this addressed by a medical professional at first because I chalked it up to pre-existing issues. It turns out that lasted until I got home, and when I saw a GI specialist, they put me on antibiotics for a bacteria that I picked up while abroad. Makes me wonder if that bacteria was present in the same thing I had an allergic reaction to…who knows!
    • Right around the second to last week of my program, I also started getting a sinus infection. This was a pretty easy fix because the pharmacies in Australia have similar medicines as the U.S., and everything is at least in the same language. I resorted to a box of Sudafed for about 10 days, and it cleared up.
    • Finally, I have a lot of back problems from previous car wrecks. So I had scheduled a deep tissue massage toward the end of my trip so that I could get some relief after all my travels. The massage ended up being great, but the next day, I was so sore that I could barely walk. I missed my last day of class, and a trip to the Australian High Court due to the pain.
  4. Other Random Mishaps: I had a few things happen throughout my trip that you just can’t even plan for, but you have to be able to think on your feet to fix.
    • During the study portion of my trip, we were required to partner with an Australian student to do a case presentation to our professors and the class the law week of the program. My partner was a second year law student who was apparently a perfectionist. We were both very busy in the week leading up to our presentation and didn’t get to meet much; however, we both did our respective research and preparation, and I thought we would be fine. At 8pm the night before we were supposed to present on Monday, I got a message from my partner saying he had just dropped the class and that he would not be able to present with me. I had roughly 12 hours from that point to learn his part of the research, re-do our presentation, and prepare to take on a 45 min. speech alone. Luckily, my professors and classmates were very understanding of the situation, but it was still a very unexpected turn.
    • My last and final nightmare that occurred was on my final night in Australia. I had spent the day exploring the Blue Mountains, and I booked the same Air BnB that I had stayed in my first weekend in AU because it was close to the airport, the host was very friendly, the bed was comfortable, and I didn’t want to have to deal with the issues that come with staying in a hostel on my last night in the country. So after my day-long excursion, I had to get all three of my suitcases from the hostel I had stayed in the night before and Uber 30 minutes to the apartment building I was supposed to spend my last night in. When I arrived, the key I was supposed to use to get in was not there. I waited about 30 minutes before someone showed up and I was able to follow them into the building (still lugging 3 suitcases and a backpack). I get up to the apartment where I am able to connect to the internet (LUCKILY) since I had stayed there in the past. Because I don’t have an international calling plan, this was my first opportunity to try to call the owner, who was unfortunately out of town. After waiting for roughly an hour outside the apartment, the owner finally tells me that there is no way he can help and that he will try to help me find somewhere else to stay. I began calling hotels, all of which were full because it was a Saturday night out by the airport. It took me 2 more hours (total of 3 at this point) to finally find a hotel within a 15 mile radius that had a cancellation resulting in an empty room. The neighbors of the Air BnB apt owner were SUPER friendly and offered to drive me to the hotel so that I didn’t have to pay for another Uber. I finally arrived at the hotel around 10:30 that night. I spent about $100 more on the room than I would have had the Air BnB worked out; however, I got to sleep in a comfortable bed.

Although all of these things went wrong in a span of about 6 weeks, I don’t regret anything about my study abroad trip. The amazing views that Australia had to offer, the experiences I had at the Australian National University, and the people I met all outweighed the negative issues I had. Each time one of these things happened, I had to remind myself of this. The key to getting through all of these mishaps is to stay positive. Here are a few tips that I have found help me to do this during times of stress abroad:

  • Find a relaxing hobby
    • I brought some adult Paint By Numbers to AU that I worked on whenever I had a bad day or just needed a stress reliever. This “hobby” doesn’t have to be painting, but it can be anything you like to do that takes your mind off of stressors. This could be reading, exercise, watching tv, etc. Just find something that you can do while abroad that will help you in a stressful situation where you feel overwhelmed. Below is the painting that I worked on while abroad. There were some days that I only worked on it for 20 minutes, and others where I would spend 3-6 hours on it; it just depended on what I had going on that day.

  • Remind yourself of the privilege you have to be on this trip
    • Not many people get to study abroad or have the experiences you are having right now, so don’t take that for granted. Bad things are going to happen no matter where you are, so just remember that you are lucky to be where you are even if it makes dealing with those things a little more difficult in the moment.
  • Call a family member or a friend
    • Even if you are on different time zones, it is always helpful to call your mom or best friend in times of sickness, distress, or just culture shock. There are people back home that care about you and want to make sure you are okay, so they will most likely be more than willing to talk out an issue with your or help you figure out what to do when you are down.
  • Set aside 3-5% of your total budget for unfortunate events
    • As you can see through my various mishaps, when things go wrong on trips, it often involves a loss of money. There is a balance you have to strike with pre-paying for planned excursions, etc. and potentially losing out due to unforeseen circumstances. I lost about $500 total on all of the things that either got cancelled during my trip or I had to pay extra to rebook. My budget for the whole trip was about $10,000 for everything including my flight, tuition, weekend excursions, food, transportation, etc., so I lost roughly 5% of the money I had originally budgeted for my trip. You may not be budgeting with this much money, but I think roughly 3-5% of your overall budget is a good estimate as to how much you may end up having to just “get over” the financial loss.

These tips obviously don’t guarantee that nothing is going to wrong for you, but hopefully they will at least give you some guidance on things you can expect to happen and what to do when they do. After two study abroad trips, I have found that it is always better to be prepared for these situations ahead of time than to go into panic mode when they occur unexpectedly.

Author: Karli G

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