My Biggest Travel Regret

By Nomadic Matt | Published May 3rd, 2011

friend overseasI sat down to write about my travel regrets and realized I only have one: I never studied abroad when I was in college.

Studying abroad is the annual ritual for thousands of college students. They travel all over the world to get away from home, experience something new, take classes overseas, meet new people, and party in foreign lands. Most American students seem to flock toward Europe, where cheap transportation makes weekend trips to exotic cities easy.

When I was in college, I never caught the study abroad bug. At that point in my life, I wasn’t big into traveling. Studying abroad sounded cool, but it also sounded like a tedious administrative process — and I was lazy. I liked my campus life; it was easy. Forms and paperwork got in the way of sleeping late, four-day weekends, and fraternity events.

But what really held me back was a single idea that seems to hold most others back, too. It’s the belief that something might be missed while studying abroad. What would happen if I left home? What changes would happen with my friends? What parties would I miss? What gossip? What if there was some big event at school and I wasn’t there? What if the President came? What if this? What if that?

With all those “what ifs” in my head, I never went abroad because I never wanted to miss something. I didn’t know what that “something” was, but I knew I wasn’t going to miss it. But I was naive in that thinking. I never realized that studying abroad would mean new memories, new friends, and new adventures. I was too tied to the fear in my mind to let myself go.

Flash forward to 2006, when I went driving with my friend Mike. We were discussing how I was about to leave for my round-the-world trip.

“I wonder what life will be like when I come back?” I asked him.

“Nothing will change,” he said. “It will be the exact same as when you left.”

“How so? I’ll be gone for a year!” I retorted. “A year is a long time. Something will happen.”

“Matt,” he said to me, “when I went to England to study abroad, I thought the same thing. But when I came back, everyone was still doing the same thing, studying the same thing, acting the same way. It was as though I had never left. I melted right back in. It will be the same for you, too.”

In the end, Mike was right. I came back 18 months later and life was still the same. My friends had the same jobs, had the same hobbies, and went to the same bars. I hadn’t missed any earth-shattering events. Life had continued on exactly the same way it always had in my absence. In a way, it felt as though those 18 months away had never really happened. My old life was there as if frozen in time, just waiting for my return.

And it was then that I realized I had made a huge mistake by never studying abroad.

I missed out on an opportunity that only comes along once in your life. That semester abroad was taken away from me by my own unfounded fears. Now, I regret that I let fear keep me from experiencing life overseas. Who knows what kinds of experiences I might have had studying abroad, what friends I would have made, or how my impression of travel might be different had I started at a younger age. I robbed myself of an opportunity because I was too scared to leave my comfort zone.

I know many college students read my blog. I know because I receive emails from students all the time. This post is for all the students out there who are afraid to take a chance.

To you, I say, go study abroad! Don’t worry about what you might miss back home. Your friends will still be your friends, the parties will still be there, and campus life won’t change. You don’t need to be home to learn all the juicy gossip. You can do that on Facebook. Do the Foo Fighters coming for a concert compare to exploring all the gelato restaurants in Florence? Would you trade weekends on the beach in Australia just so you can be there to learn that a friend made a fool of himself at a party?

I know from experience that you are missing out on more by staying on campus than by going overseas. This is your chance to live abroad and have most of your expenses paid for you. This is your shot at seeing if you like the world outside your borders in relative comfort and safety.

Don’t be nervous. Don’t let that fear hold you back. You’ll still be in the school safety bubble… just at a different school. There will be many other students just as nervous as you, too. It will be something to bond over. Moreover, if you really don’t like it, you can always come home.

But don’t be like me — filled with a lifetime of regret simply because you were too afraid of what might have been.

comments 70 Comments

I too regret never having studied abroad. For me the reasons were: too difficult to do with a chem major and couldn’t continue in the Honors program. I still have yet to realize my dream of living abroad, though I have traveled extensively. But I’d say you have more than made up for not studying abroad with your extended travel!

Dan

I’m a student and currently considering spending a year studying abroad. The thing that puts me off is that it means an extra year of study. I’ve already traveled and know I love it, I want to (& plan to) directly after leaving university but I can’t imagine coming back and having to put enthusiasm into yet another year stuck studying at home after another taste of whats out there.

I regret having never studied abroad but also never even living in a dorm! I went to University in the town I grew up in so I still had my parents house to live in.
However I can’t say it was something I thought about while I was in University really and also I went to an art college and was studying film so that isn’t the easiest kind of topic that you can just go an take at any school in any place. But I think I am definitely making it up with travel these days :)

DORIAN ZULETA

I’m assuming that going to school in town and staying at your parents kept you out of trouble..lol

I wanted to study abroad but my major was set up in such a way, had I left for a semester, I guaranteed myself an extra year of school. Because of the financial impact a fifth year of school would mean, I didn’t get to study abroad.

But I also didn’t lose the bug. During my senior year I learned about a program called BUNAC that enables recent college grads to work and live abroad. Five months after graduation I packed up and went to London for six fantastic months. And you know what, when I came back, everyone was still doing the same thing – looking for jobs, starting jobs and there I had been galavanting around Europe for a few short months.

Great post. So true.

simplythreecents.com

I’m very lucky to have caught the travel bug very young and I have to agree with you. Everyone I speak to about my time studying in Finland for a year always asks if they only knew about it earlier. As Europeans we are very lucky to have the Erasmus exchange program run by the Eu were you can study pretty much for free for a whole year. For me it was more than that, the hundreds of friends I made the new cultural experiences the amazing places you get to travel to. It really was an amazing high light in my life and I hope that my presentation I hold back at my university in October helps to enourage others to do the same.

Also matt your actually not too late you can do a masters in olso for free as an international mature student, could do it for kicks

This too is a big regret of mine from college. At the time, I considered two things. Studying abroad, or starting my career. I was going into the hotel business, and I felt like if I didn’t start while I was still in school, I’d be behind when I graduated. Well, I was wrong, as I could have moved up just the same. Now here it is a decade later, I’m no longer in the hotel business, and it’s an opportunity missed. If you have the chance, take it!

Anne

Studying abroad was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It was hard (not the leaving campus part, the living fully immersed in a 2nd language part), but “worth it” doesn’t even begin to describe the value. Majoring in science certainly made it more difficult. It required a lot of planning, and a couple summer classes, but it was do-able. Sit down with an advisor and map out all the courses you need to take.

NJ

It’s funny that you say, “What if the President came?” President Obama actually spoke at my campus while I was studying abroad. Sure, I was bummed when I found out about it because I’d be missing it, but all in all, I have absolutely no regrets about going abroad. I had amazing experiences and made friends I’m sure I will have for life. I may have missed one once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I gained so many more.

So true! I did have a chance to go to Madrid for half a year and by that time it was the best time ever! Never really had to study there, was some kind of paid vacations, many parties and new friends. Great experience :)
I actually chose to study at a University in another country than my native one as I knew before I entered I was gonna get a scholarship to Spain :)

Thank you for the encouragement, Matt! I’m planning on studying abroad in Costa Rica this summer and can’t wait to leave in less than two months. For students like myself with tight degree plans (and finances), a shorter summer stay is a great alternative to the traditional year- or semester-long study abroad program.

(I’ve been trying to reply to a few of the other posts, but for some reason can’t) I was also one of those who wanted to study abroad, but my degree program limited me–they were very strict about which of the biology core courses to take when, and the program was being totally revamped after I went through… my missing a year would’ve meant an extra year or two to pick up the pieces.

In the end, it may have been worth it, anyway. I traveled with my husband 3 years ago when he did summer quarter of grad school overseas, and despite being older than our peers (mid-30’s), it was fantastic learning to live elsewhere.

Ah–it did let me reply! ;) Just didn’t look like it was going to show up there. Sorry, folks…

I was the opposite–I studied abroad THREE times! Scotland, Holland, Denmark. And that’s how I met my husband, too!

DORIAN ZULETA

I don’t think I would be able to concentrate studying in all 3 of those countries.. That’s cool that you met your husband like that..

I put it off until my senior year because I was conflicted, but studying abroad is probably the greatest thing that ever happened to me- I lost a crappy boyfriend, became massively more independent and discovered how much I truly loved travel.

I think that, like you, if I hadn’t studied abroad I would have eventually ended up in the same place, but taking that chance to go to London sure got me there faster!

DORIAN ZULETA

Love your profile pic, you have one hell of a finger..lol

Sometimes taking chances, gives us great gifts.. Especially when you lose a crappy boyfriend..lol

Not studying abroad is one of my biggest regrets too (if not the biggest!) – I wrote about it in one of my first posts when I started my blog last fall. I am pretty certain my life would be incredibly different if I had done so.

I used the money factor as a partial excuse (I was working to put myself through school as it was so I felt like I couldn’t afford the extra expense to study abroad plus giving up the income from working for a semester/year). But I was also really afraid of missing something – exactly like you explain above. That was in the mid-90s when there wasn’t nearly the technology and social media there is now – I’d hope that the feeling of missing something wouldn’t be as much of a deterrent for kids now.

Good post, but why limit your message to college students? To all lifelong learners–post grad, mid career or into retirement–I say “go for it!”

an inspiring post! well done, matt.

I did my postgrad in Australia…but I live in New Zealand so I’m not sure it even counts since we don’t need a visa to live there.

James

I have a big passion for traveling near and far, and have been lucky enough to see some distant places. I too am extremely interested in studying abroad, but I play D-1 college football and we only get about 6-8 weeks of time off per year where we can go and do as we please. We do not get 8 weeks in a row off either, this may be a few days here, and two weeks there. I feel as though playing football can restrict you from so much in the academic world, such as studying abroad. I got to visit a friend studying abroad and only got 1 week to experience sitting in a foreign classroom, and everything else that comes along with being in the student bubble in Europe. I NEED MORE haha!

I made the opposite trip to most; I actually left England to study a semester in Moorhead, MN. Damn that was a cold winter.

Rachel

Hi Matt,
I am pretty sure your sister got the chance to study abroad in College;-)

NomadicMatt

Yes, yes you did!

when people study abroad, at least for me, I wasn’t worried what I was missing back home at all. I was worried about connecting with the people I was traveling with, like other students. I wouldn’t trade studying in Italy for the world. I loved seeing all the art and history, culture, etc first hand and I learned a lot about myself and about people. There were some drama between 40 girls with 4 guys traveling together, there is bound to be, but I underestimated how much. Don’t get involved with it and realize where you are and why, the drama will melt away.

The Wanderfull Traveler

Put me in the group that also did not study abroad. In my case, I applied for a program to study in Belgium but could not afford it. I am making up for it by traveling whenever I can now.

Dear Matt,

I understand that I’m a wonderful and useful word, but I’m tired. You’ve run me nearly ragged as of late in your blog. All things, no matter how good should be used in moderation. BESIDES, there are some nice synonyms out there that could use some love. ALSO, I would like some time apart. I’m staring to feel a bit smothered by your reliance on me. FURTHERMORE, I think you can do better. I would still like to be friends, but I would like to see other people. I’m sure you understand. It’s not you. It’s about me and what I need. I wish you the best in all things you do.

Sincerely,
Moreover

I completely feel you there, Matt — it is SO HARD to feel like you’re missing out on life at home when you are away. I am so excited to go back to the US next week because after so long away I feel as though I barely know what my friends are up to!

That said, I also know that when I was living at home, working and living a more chill life, I was jealous of my friends who were moving and traveling, because it felt like they were “really living.”

It’s as if no matter where I am, I wish I were somewhere else. It’s that same feeling that I think a lot of travelers get, which is why sometimes we only stay in wonderful, historic cities for a couple of nights before moving on, and get restless as soon as we relax. The wanderlust keeps us moving, but as what cost?

Claudia

Great post Matt. The best year of my life was my student exchange year in Sweden in 1985-1986. I was very fortunate to live abroad, go to a local high school, learn a new language, and meet amazing people. I didn’t worry about missing things back home (I was ready for adventure I suppose), though I certainly missed family and friends.

I also travelled all around Europe during that time, including to Leningrad in the (then) Soviet Union – an unforgettable experience, especially as that visit happened exactly one month before the Chernobyl disaster.

I would encourage anyone to try living abroad, even if only for a short time. The benefits and life experience are priceless. I would especially encourage parents to promote the idea with their kids. It’s not easy to imagine your 17 year old living away from you for a year, but it’s the best thing they could ever do.

NomadicMatt

Wow! Amazing comments here! I don’t really know what to say to any of them. I guess my general comment to you all is for those who did study abroad, you seemed to have had a great and amazing time which only strengthens my argument more! GO ABROAD!

For of those who didn’t go, well, we missed out. It’s comforting to know that we all seemed to have the reason and regret for not going. It’s cathartic.

Guess I am one of the very very few that have no regrets about not studying abroad.

I hated school (luckily really only kept with it because my parents paid for my state school bachelors), so why would I want to spend MY OWN MONEY (parents would have never paid for that) being stuck in class in a foreign country, when I could be doing what I wanted on my own time. I worked and lived at home while in school and when it came to summer vacations, off I went! Every summer, I spent the full 3 months somewhere new. And it was awesome.

I’ve been travelling all my life, but my thing with study abroad with a lot of kids, is this is their first time in a foreign country. Hey, if this is what gets you going, good on you! I just didn’t really need it.

I did it twice, first as an exchange student in high school, then my whole bachelor’s degree. Only did the Masters at home. Go for it, kids.

Jenna

Next year I plan on studying abroad through Rotary Youth Exchange for my junior year of high school. I know the opportunity will only come up once when I am so young and I don’t want to regret not taking it. I’d like to study abroad in college too. :)

NomadicMatt

I’ve met a lot of people who did a study abroad when they were in High School. That seems even cooler than doing it in college!

Michelle

My uni experience is a bit different since I transfered universities quite a few times, so I never got a chance to go abroad for school. A lot of my friends did and loved it. At the same time, I love the backpacking trips I take during the summers, and luckily don’t have to divide my time with writing essays and studying for exams!

Before I left to study abroad in college I was nervous about missing things too. You’re so right, when you come back, you don’t skip a beat – and even if things do change, no matter how much they do, you’ll never take back your experience once you have it.

NomadicMatt

I’m glad once us had the courage to go!

Well said Matt. When I started college, the one thing I knew I was going to do was study abroad. A lot of people felt the same way you did: they had an incredible college experience but had one regret which was not studying abroad.

It’s an amazing experience and really opens your eyes. I went for a semester in England and it was quite possibly the most fun semester I had in college. Spent three weeks traveling prior to starting (take some time to travel before you start if you can) classes and had no class on Monday or Friday (make sure you schedule your classes like this!). It was a great time and I saw a lot of Europe.

But if I were to do it again… I would go the whole year and go to a different part of the world. Europe is a ton of fun but it’s always going to be there. Going to a less developed country is not only cheaper, but the experience you have will be dramatically different than if you were to go back in 20 years.

Excellent advise Matt! I felt the same way after I got back home from Europe. I was thinking, ‘what the hell?Why didn’t I go away for a semester while in university? What was I thinking?’
This is a great article to get those students to conquer their fears and hop that plane. Travel is better than staying home for gossip and other social engagements that yes, will be there when you get back home. Trust me, you might regret it later in life.

Jessi

Great advice! Studying abroad was one of the best decisions of my life! I only regret not doing earlier in college so I could do for more than one semester in multiple countries. Anyone that is considering studying abroad should definitely do it. It’s a tough adjustment but the entire journey will change your life!

NomadicMatt

Seems most people regret either not doing it or not doing it earlier! I wish I could regret not doing it earlier!

Sameer

I’m going to force my kids to study abroad.

NomadicMatt

Good!

You are so true Matt!
Studying abroad is such a great opportunity.
I had the possibility to do it as an Ersamus exchange in Spain five years ago. Maybe the best year of my life!
We are very in Europe to have this kind of programm.

I managed to squeeze study abroad in my last year at college, and my regret is not having done it sooner! The backpacking lifestyle is much “freer”, as in, I can do whatever I want, whenever I want, for however long I want. You have a lot more choices. But studying gives you a base to meet people and try new organized activities that don’t cost a fortune (clubs and societies). Windsurfing was one of the things I did when I studied in Ireland. That water was cold man, nothing like Australia.

But I digress. Wish I would have done it sooner but I don’t think it’s better than backpacking, just a different experience.

NomadicMatt

I hear that a lot. When people finally do it, they wish they had done it sooner. I just wish I had done it!!!

NomadicMatt

When I was a freshman, I went to school far away to get away from home and ended up transferring back because I missed home! Ironic huh?

Bizcocho

I am currently teaching English abroad. No regrets here!!

The fact that nothing changes at home when you leave to travel the world is one of the best and worst things about leaving. It is so nice to come home and know that your friends are still exactly the same, doing the same things, going to the same places and you can easily fit right in again. The worst part is that NOTHING CHANGED!! After a first year abroad you are never the same. It always makes me think that if I were to stay home for long then I too would become stagnant and stuck in life. After a year of amazing experiences it blows my mind that NOTHING happened at home, while I am forever changed. It is enough for me to pack up my bag again and get back on the road. I never want NOTHING to happen to me for a whole year!

I was 19 when I jumped at the chance and left Singapore for Barcelona for an exchange program for a semester. It was my final semester and what better way to spend it than to attend film school in another continent. No regrets at all. I learnt to cope with the language barrier and culture shock and also flew to NY for a week. I then completed my bachelors in Melbourne, Australia. I think I am what I am today because of the things I did and saw in those years and the travel bug just never left me. If you get a chance, go for it. It’ll be the best thing you did for yourself and your future.

I had the opposite problem- I desperately wanted to study abroad and my school was a mess about how to get it together. So I just created my own “study abroad” programs during the summers and took nice long trips then :)

But I agree, if you have the chance, take it!

Travel Mom

Great post!
My parents insisted I go abroad (it wasn’t convenient, I was a senior, getting married that summer & had little $$) but they had lived in Europe two years and wanted me to experience it too (I did as a baby since mom got pregnant the last year they were in Germany).
I traveled everywhere (lots of weekend trips by myself) and went all over Europe. Always thought I would go back but then life and job took over. Wonderful memories. When my kids are older they will go too.

NomadicMatt

Sometimes parents do give good advice. But shhhh don’t tell mine I said that!

Thanks for the advice Matt. Going to study abroad myself soon!

definitely study abroad as often as possible! i’ve gone five times while at my school (northeastern) and i’m still graduating on time. I even *saved* money by going abroad. I strongly suggest picking a school that allows flexibility with going abroad. NU and NYU are two of the best study abroad schools, with varying lengths, countries, programs, and majors. if your school wouldn’t let you go abroad without staying an extra year, then your school is being stubborn(/money-grubbing) or their study abroad programs are shit. having worked in study abroad for over a year at a university, there are programs/schools for every conceivable major all around the world.

Yes, I am in the same boat. I regret not having done that (study abroad). Of course if I had to do it all over again, I would have chosen a completely different major and added a minor. I didn’t do that. I also regret not travel abroad during my college years. For those of you who are still in college, go and study abroad. For those of you who just graduated or are graduating, travel abroad before you get tied down with commitments, etc. :-) Carpe diem!

Roy

Great article Matt! I studied abroad in Florence, Italy for a year and I couldn’t agree more about exploring more gelato places. I recommend study abroad for everyone.

I too never got the chance to study abroad, but being from Australia I did get the chance to live in Seattle for a year. Living overseas in my early 20’s had a massive impact on who I am today. Travel opens the mind to the world we live in and appreciate everything good and bad that has ever happened on me in my travels abroad.Once you have been bitten by the travel bug it’s very hard to stop.

jenny methew

Some times we miss the opportunity just because of the fear we have inside us. Taking challenges is the way to overcome the fear.

NomadicMatt

It would never be the same. I regret not being a college student doing it. I’ve studied overseas. It’s the whole “college student in europe” thing that I miss.

The biggest thing I learnt from my travels is that I need to own my life and the story behind it. Of course I wish I was younger when I did my year long EuroTrip, I wish I had more luck with the girls, I wish, I wish, I wish…
But really, its silly! If I received 99 great things, I’d be focusing on the 1 thing I didn’t get. Its human nature. Every moment leads to the next, it informs you and builds you. I think the one of the greatest barriers to happiness is regret, the fantasy you create in your mind of the things you’re missing out on – The green grass over the fence.

Be in the moment and enjoy it. If you’re studying abroad, be awesome and happy over there. When you’re at home, be awesome and happy right where you are.

I never studied abroad during university, mostly because I couldn’t afford it – but I did study French in Quebec in high school. Since I hail from Alberta, this wasn’t technically “abroad” but for a seventeen-year-old, it was far enough! I studied half of my Grade 11 year in Quebec, meeting new people, becoming fluent in French (with my twangy Quebecois accent), and having an amazing time! When I got back to my old high school, the most I’d missed was my friend meeting her boyfriend and a few parties, but I’d had enough crazy ones in Quebec that I didn’t feel the least bit slighted. I WANTED to study abroad in university, but just couldn’t swing the cost.

I would recommend studying abroad if you can afford it – but even doing a brief stint is a satisfying experience. Many European schools offer two- to four-week summer programs at a much cheaper rate than a full year of studying.

Kali

It seems a lot of people’s one regret in life is not studying abroad and it’s mine as well. I chose not to for a couple of reasons 1) I didn’t want to extend the time (& money) it would take to graduate (although college life was pretty easy compared to the real world. I should have put more thought into this one) 2) I was too scared. Now, 5 years out of college, I am looking for a teaching job abroad.

To my brother, his friends, and my cousins who are in college or about to enter college, the only piece of advice I really give them is to study abroad. Don’t worry if you don’t know the language, you’re scared, it doesn’t work with your major, etc. There is almost no excuse to not study abroad!

AKinIndo

Agreed.

My semester in Spain opened my eyes to the world, it’s infinite wonders, and that I could see it, all on my own! A shy girl from small-town Alaska, off in Europe on her own! (and now in Asia, living!) Probably the biggest self-confidence building experience of my life so far. (admittedly, I did NOT fit the fashion-code of Barcelona very well…but that wasn’t really the point. (= )

Get out there!

Vicki

studying abroad was one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever done. I lived in Rome for three months and It was so amazing and I met so many incredible and amazing people. I also didn’t know anyone when I went there- which was awesome because now I have so many new friends.

Study abroad. No one ever regrets it.

I felt the exact same way. When I went to college, I was so caught up in the college life that I never even thought about studying abroad. It wasn’t until after my senior year that I decided I wanted to see the world. I took the money I received as a graduation gift and spent 3 weeks backpacking in Europe. I was never able to shake that travel bug after I returned to my hometown, so after 2 years in the “real world” I applied to get certified to teach English abroad with a program called TEFL Worldwide Prague. I packed my bags, quit my job, took all my savings, and ventured off to Prague. One year later, and I’m still living and working abroad! That just goes to show you that even if you missed out on studying abroad in your college days, there are still great opportunities to live and work abroad post college!

“Filled with a lifetime of regret” seems a little overly dramatic… I would say you have made up for that time lost time and again over the past 6 years or so…

When I was in college, I felt this EXACT same way. Enough so that I didn’t study abroad my junior year like everyone else, but gave myself another year to consider it, and ended up going my senior year. One day I was literally just feeling adventurous, filled out the paperwork, and tried not to overthink it all. I very clearly remember the first day of my semester abroad in Florence and just thinking “How the hell did I end up here?” Funny how just one semester, just three months, changed the person I am today and hopefully helps me create a career in travel.

Hi Matt. I owe all my travels to my study abroad experience. I came from a small town where literally NO ONE ever traveled. Not my family or my friends. I had never left the south until college when I went to a seminar in my dorm about studying abroad. I begged my parents to let me and they finally agreed. I fell in love. I ended up studying abroad 4 times throughout my college years. Once in Florence and Valencia and twice in London. It literally changed my life. I’ve been traveling ever since and now live in New York City while everyone I know still remains in my hometown where life stands still. My parents tease me all the time saying they never would have let me go to Europe if they had known I’d never come back home. I tell all my younger cousins that if there’s one thing they do, it must be to study abroad! I hope your post helps people realize they can and should do it!!

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