For students, the benefits of studying abroad are obvious: adventure, the opportunity to travel, and the chance to appreciate a new culture and (hopefully) a new language. For parents of students, the benefit is even more obvious: It’s the perfect excuse for a vacation!
As more than 250,000 American college students study abroad each year (most of them in Europe), many parents are combining their vacations with the opportunity to visit and check in on their children.
Yet visiting a student abroad is not like a typical trip and, done right, can offer much more. When I studied abroad in Paris two years ago, my parents visited twice, so we had plenty of time to figure out what worked and what didn’t.
Here are five tips for making the most of a study abroad visit (trying as best I can to work in both perspectives).
1. Let the local lead.
One of the best things about visiting a student abroad is that you get to use them as your own personal tour guide. Not only will you gain a more intimate appreciation for your destination, but there are few prouder moments for a parent than seeing a cultured, confident son or daughter showing off their new, independent life in Europe.
Besides, as the visitee, I loved showing my parents around. For 21 years, they had taken me on trips all over the world to show me new sights and cultures. It was my turn to pay back the favor.
There are ways to plan your trip to ensure your child can be the best guide possible. Try not to visit at the beginning of the semester, when students are still adjusting to life abroad. A couple months in, though, and your kid should know the city inside out (not to mention that improved language skills could come in handy).
Also, as tempting as it may be to drag your son or daughter off to a beach vacation in an exotic corner of the continent, make sure to spend some (if not all) of your time in the city or town where they’re studying. It’ll be worth it to see them in their element. Which reminds me …
2. Remember that you’re visiting a student.
People often forget (students included, of course) that when you’re “studying abroad,” you’re still supposed to be, well, studying! Unless you visit during the student’s vacation, your child will still have to go to class and might even have homework. (Hey, you’re not paying tuition for nothing!)
So if you expected to show up in Europe and let your kid take over, I’m sorry to say that you may not be able to take a vacation from vacation planning. While your son or daughter will undoubtedly have some great stuff planned, you’ll also have to think of some activities to do by yourselves. (For many parents, this is a relief rather than a burden.) Have some things in mind before you go and plan ahead with the student to figure out exactly when you’ll be on your own.
You also won’t be able to have your kid lead you everywhere—take the time to learn a little about your destination (getting around, sights to see, where to eat, etc.). EuroCheapo’s city guides should help with that.
3. Embrace the student lifestyle.
You won’t be surprised that many study abroad students equate a visit from their parents with free meals. And while it’s nice to treat your kid, don’t feel obligated to break the bank on gourmet food. A student will survive in Paris even if they never get to taste a sublime coq au vin.
Instead, take this opportunity to live the student lifestyle—have your son or daughter show you their favorite haunts. Chances are, it’ll be a lot cheaper and you’ll get a better sense of your child’s European lifestyle.
When my parents visited me in Paris, I took them to my favorite places to eat on my student’s budget. This included getting street food at l’As du Falafel in the Marais and hanging out at Chez Gladines, a raucous 13th-arrondissement Basque restaurant that’s popular mostly with students and young folk. When I asked my parents what they liked best about their visits, they both mentioned these meals.
4. Pack reinforcements.
Trying to fit an entire semester in one suitcase is difficult for a student, especially if their stay spans multiple seasons. A well-placed visit from parents, though, can help address this problem.
When I studied abroad, my parents visited in March and were able to bring warm weather clothes while taking back my heavier coats and sweaters. Because we had planned this, it was much easier to pack for the semester.
Even if you can’t plan before you pack for the semester, check in before your visit to see if there are any American supplies your son or daughter dearly misses. Personally, I was ecstatic when my dad brought comfort from home… a jumbo-sized jar of peanut butter. (A tiny jar costs almost €5 in Paris—not exactly Cheapo!)
5. Stay nearby.
Unlike EuroCheapo, not all study abroad programs are concerned with providing central accommodations. It often ends up that students are placed in some pretty far-flung neighborhoods of the city in which they’re studying (especially since rents are usually cheaper there).
This presents a dilemma for visiting parents: Should you stay central, near the sights (and most of the hotels) or try to find a place closer to the student?
There are a few right answers to this question. One solution many families come up with is to treat the parent’s visit like a mini-vacation for their kid and book a hotel where everyone can stay. Accommodations for study abroad programs are not always the cushiest (I shudder when I recall my finicky shower and miniature bed) and it can be nice to get away. Of course, depending on how many parents or siblings are visiting, this may mean dishing out for an extra room, which isn’t always a desirable option.
In that case, it’s best to book a hotel that’s easy to get to from your child’s study abroad home. This doesn’t mean that you have to stay out in the boonies, though. Try to find a place that’s on the same subway or bus line so that meeting up isn’t a hassle. You’ve already come across the Atlantic to visit your child, you probably don’t want to spend half your trip organizing where you’re meeting.
Have some tips to add for parents visiting their children studying abroad? Share with us in the comments section below.