The 20 Things I Did Wrong in My Semester Abroad

One trend I’ve noticed for the past year or two is a proliferation of articles and blog posts addressing the “fakeness” of social media. You know what I’m talking about: people putting up only the most brag-worthy Facebook statuses, Instagram photos filtered to the max so that any moment shared looks bright and shiny, and blog posts that only focus on the sunshine-and-rainbows stuff of life.

Sometimes I wonder about that too – if what I’m presenting here and on my Instagram feed is just a little bit misleading. I’m definitely guilty of filtering my photos so that they look “just right,” and when it comes to this blog, I have a hard time being too critical of any attraction or restaurant that isn’t up to par. I tend to show the best of the best, and yet I’m fully aware that of course travel has its difficulties, its moments that make me want to scream or cry or curl up in my hotel room in the fetal position and never leave again.  And so, while I would say travel and my semester abroad were way, WAY more good than bad, that does not mean there weren’t moments of frustration.

In that spirit, I present a compilation of all the ways last semester went awry, a greatest hits of my mistakes and mishaps while abroad. Here are the twenty things I got completely wrong – so hopefully you don’t make the same mistakes on your next Euro trip.

1 – I Should Have Made Amsterdam Plans Earlier:

Towards the end of my semester, I sort of got burned out on travel planning, and so when it came time to settle on a plan for Easter weekend, I put it off for as long as possible. Well, to state the obvious: it turns out Amsterdam is pretty popular on Easter weekend, and I made a BIG mistake in waiting that long. Once I decided on spending the weekend in Amsterdam, I realized things were going to be a bit tricky that late in the game: flight options were limited, hotels were pricy, and certain things that I wanted to book in advance (e.g., the Anne Frank house) were no longer available. My long weekend in Amsterdam turned out really wonderful in the end, but I could have saved myself lots of stress (and Euros) by planning earlier.

2 – I Should Have Stayed Longer in Edinburgh:

I figured Edinburgh would be a fantastic city, but I had no idea just how much I would enjoy it. While I was able to hit many of the main attractions during my too-short two days in town, I know I only scratched the surface of what Edinburgh truly has to offer (for example, I didn’t set foot in any of its fantastic museums). If I could go back in time, I’d ask for a Friday or Monday off from work and make a longer weekend of things. Still, there’s a silver lining here: now I definitely have a reason to return (and I cannot wait to explore all of Scotland, not just Edinburgh, one day).

3 – I Should Have Looked Up the Cable Car Conditions in Chamonix:

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Here’s a tip: if you’re doing an activity that can be easily derailed by inclement weather, it miiiight just be a solid idea to check the weather before going. After a mishap-filled journey to Chamonix, we made our way to the cable cars only to find that…they were closed due to the windy conditions. As that was basically the only reason I went to Chamonix in the first place, the cable car closure was a major bummer, to say the least. As it turns out, I could have easily saved myself the hassle by simply looking up the weather conditions online in advance. I totally should have known better than to make this mistake!

4 – I Should Not Have Packed So Much Winter Clothing:

The above photograph is the ONE time I actually saw snow falling in Europe (though I did see already-fallen snow in Chamonix and atop the Jungfrau). The point being, while my family and friends were getting hammered with a terrible winter back in the US, I was enjoying a crazy mild winter in Europe. Weather is fickle, obviously, so perhaps I was smart to pack all that stuff just in case – but it got really old carting around heavy winter boots, my puffy coat, thick sweaters, mittens, and scarves, all of which I wore rarely, if ever.

5 – I Should Have Done More in Geneva:


Geneva has a reputation as being rather boring, and the truth is that the city is pretty low-key, to phrase it in a slightly kinder way. However, there are also a lot of gems to be found, and I think my preconceived notions about Geneva being too sleepy led me to miss them, as I rarely ever spent a weekend in Geneva, content instead to fly off elsewhere for adventures. While I’m not sure which trips I would have omitted in favor of more Geneva time, I am sad I didn’t make more of an effort to take advantage of the activities available in my temporary hometown, like climbing to the top of St. Pierre Cathedral or attending the auto show in March.

6 – I Should Have Gone to Drottningholm Palace Instead of Skansen:


On my last day in Stockholm, I had two options: stay in town and visit Skansen, the historical Nordic theme park, or head out of town to Drottningholm Palace. I figured it would be easier to stay local, and so I did just that. As it turns out, while this may have been easier logistically, it turned out to be not so much fun in practice. Skansen was still on “winter” hours (it was April, but I guess that’s winter in chilly Sweden), so many of the exhibits were closed, as were most eateries. Skansen felt a bit like a ghost town, to be honest, and I spent the bulk of my visit wishing I had opted for the splendor of Drottningholm instead. Like I wrote before, I would love to revisit Stockholm – but I would make sure to go in the summertime.

7 – I Shouldn’t Have Underestimated How Busy London Would Be in Winter:

Ask yourself: what’s more British than tea and Harry Potter? Nothing, at least in this American traveler’s eyes, and I wanted both during my weekend in London, dammit! Alas, it was not to be. I had banked on February being a quieter time in London, but apparently I was wrong: getting reservations at most tea places and for Harry Potter Studios just a few weeks in advance was near impossible. In the end, after days of scouring the internet for cancellations, I could only score an 11am reservation with Harry and a 1:30pm tea time. As I rode the train out to Harry Potter Studios, I realized I was never going to be able to visit Harry AND make it back to London for tea; the travel time was simply too long. I decided to turn around and head back into town to make sure I got to my tea in time, meaning I missed Harry, Ron, and Hermione entirely on this trip. Total Muggle mistake.

8 – I Should Have Packed Fewer Shoes:

Copenhagen Food Tour21

If you’ve been following along with this blog for any amount of time, you have probably seen eight million pictures of the above shoes (my trusty Toms cordones). That’s pretty much because…I wore them constantly this semester. So, why did I also bring along like six other pairs of shoes with me? Who knows, but I could have spared myself the expense of shipping all them home at the end of the semester if I had just been a little bit smarter about my packing. Note to self: You will survive without ALL THE SHOES.

9 – I Should Have Visited Brussels Before Bruges:

Bruges was the fairytale city of my dreams: winding canals, cute little buildings, to-die-for cuisine, and delightful windmills. Brussels was…not so much these things. Going from quaint, small town Bruges to big city, bustling Brussels was jarring, to say the least, and for the duration of my stay, I just kept thinking how much I missed Bruges. In the end, I realized it was simply impossible not to mentally compare Belgian cities, and Brussels would always come up short there in my estimation. Had I visited the city first – entirely possible, as I changed trains there en route to Bruges – I suspect I might have appreciated Brussels more.

10 – I Should Have Brought Along My eReader:

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Of all the packing missteps I made, this might have been the most costly – I forgot to pack my Nook. During a normal law school semester, filled with casebooks and statutes to read, this would not have been a problem. This semester, however, I read for pleasure more than I have in quite a while, as all the time spent waiting in airplanes and train stations turned out to be perfect for devouring a good book. My heart was happy to be reading so much again, but my wallet? Not so much. I spent a small fortune in European bookstores, all while my Nook sat unused on my bookshelf back home.

11 – I Should Not Have Gone to Annecy on Carnival Weekend:


I am apparently becoming a travel curmudgeon as I get older, because really crowded places stress me out and make me hate the world. As such, visiting Annecy on Carnival weekend was something of a trying experience for me. I wanted to soak up the peaceful, quaint charm of the canals; instead, I found myself pushing through mobs of people just to catch glimpses of the town’s colorful buildings and waterways. The storybook destination I was hoping for was obscured by far too many visitors, and I was a little disappointed by it.

12 – I Should Have Sent Postcards:

I have always been a faithful postcard writer, but I just could not find the time or the motivation this go round – and that bums me out. I bought postcards in Milan, Nice, and Lisbon and never mailed them (because, of course, I never wrote them). In subsequent cities, I gave up the pipe dream of sending postcards entirely and decided not to waste any more money. There’s something so cute and retro about postcard writing, and I wish I would have been a bit less lazy about the whole affair.

13 – I Should Not Have Gone to Monaco:

I did not want to go to Monaco. But, I was in Nice and Monaco was an easy trip and I felt like I should go there. I mean, it’s a whole different country – shouldn’t I make the effort to add to my country count? As it turns out, no. My heart was not in it, and I got back on the train to Nice almost as soon as I arrived in Monaco. I should have trusted my gut when it came to Monaco: sometimes you just don’t feel like doing something, and that’s okay.

14 – I Should Not Have Gone to Burgermeister:

Berlin - Burgermeister

Burgermeister, the famed public-toilet-turned-burger-joint (yes, really), has quite a following in Berlin. Such a following that, upon arrival, I had to wait in a crazy long line simply to place my order. Once I finally made it up to the counter and ordered, I was handed a ticket with a number on it – 49. I looked at the board where order numbers came up, and it read 80. I figured my ticket must be a misprint; why would I have a number out of order in the lineup? Nope, no misprint – it turns out that the order numbers cycle back to 1 after hitting 100. So, if you’re counting, that means there were about 70 orders ahead of me in line. I waited forever for that dumb burger, and it turned out to be mediocre at best. I’m talking seriously, seriously unremarkable. Sometimes hyped foodie things are hyped for a reason – and sometimes the hype is completely undeserved. Guess which situation this was?

15 – I Should Have Given Myself a Travel Breather:

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My travel schedule this semester was ambitious, to say the least, but what made it craziest was that I actually ramped up the intensity as the semester progressed. In January and February, I stayed closer to “home” in Geneva, visiting many destinations within Switzerland (like Zurich, Lucerne, Montreux, and Gruyeres) and many outside destinations that were easy train rides (like Milan and Lyon). In March and April, I found myself flying internationally every single weekend, making consecutive stops in Budapest, Edinburgh, Stockholm, Berlin, and Amsterdam. YES, YES, I know – what a great problem to have. But I was tired by the time I left Switzerland, and I wished I had built in one “off,” low-key weekend at the end of the semester.

16 – I Should Have Left My DSLR at Home Entirely…or Brought a Smaller Version:

Paris - Eiffel Tower

Here’s the great thing about EasyJet: if you plan in advance, you can score some insanely cheap flights around Europe. Here’s the not-so-great thing about EasyJet: their carry-on allowances are stingy. You can only take one bag, total (there’s no bag AND purse nonsense allowed here), meaning that packing space was quite limited on every trip I took. Because of this – and, because, to be honest, carrying a big camera while sightseeing is kind of a pain – I left my DSLR behind in Geneva almost every single weekend. In fact, while I busted out the big guy in Interlaken, I can’t recall using it at any other point this semester; for me, it was iPhone all the way. If I could do it over again, I wouldn’t have hauled my camera across the Atlantic in the first place – or, I would have purchased a smaller “real” camera before making the trip. Plus, when you can take shots like the one above with your iPhone, do you really need anything else?

17 – I Should Not Have Eaten at the Olympic Museum:

Here’s a restaurant rule of thumb: when your waiter asks if you want to eat from the well-stocked, extravagant-looking buffet, don’t cheerfully blurt out “sure!” before checking the price. All I really needed was a light lunch, but somehow I found myself dropping something like 45 bucks (way, way over my typical budget per meal) for brunch food that looked a hell of a lot better than it tasted. While Lausanne was a lovely city, this was almost enough to make me lose the Olympic spirit.

18 – I Should Not Have Connected Through JFK:

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I don’t want to sound like a whiner, so I’m not going to detail the myriad ways I felt personally victimized by John F. Kennedy Airport flying both to and from Europe. But, suffice it to say: I never want to connect through there (or fly out of there period) ever again. It’s not me, JFK. It’s you. And also partially Air France (they lose my bags every time!)

19 – I Should Not Have Wasted So Much Money on Diet Coke:


Hello, my name is Laura and I am a Diet Coke addict. While I’ve made an effort in recent months to stop drinking the stuff, I was not quite so successful while in Europe. In fact, though it might sound silly, when there are moments of stress or homesickness while traveling, I often order a Diet Coke because it sort of reminds me of home (#merica). Comfort drinking aside, Diet Coke is a bad choice in Europe: it’s always so expensive, often moreso than wine. And, really, should you ever be drinking a chemical-laden beverage when wine is cheaper? Probably not.

20 – I Should Not Have Gone on a Harbor Boat Ride on a Chilly, Rainy Day:


You know what’s not fun? Being on a boat tour of Copenhagen’s otherwise lovely harbor, but not being able to see much of it because your views are obscured by your hair whipping around violently in the wind. Also uncool? Dreading taking photographs because that would mean briefly exposing the bare skin of your hands to the air and it’s just too damn cold for that. I was freezing during the entire boat ride, and it made what would have otherwise been a worthwhile experience a nightmare. Note to self: Maybe don’t got out on the open water in only a light jacket when it’s freezing out.

And there you have it: my worst hits. What blunders have you made while traveling?

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