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Work, Study and Travel Abroad to Live Closer to the Locals

View of Amalfi Coast in Italy.
The Amalfi Coast in Italy.

Last year I left my job as an assistant account executive at a large advertising agency in Seattle to travel. While it was a difficult decision to leave my friends and a budding career behind, it's one that I have yet to regret. I have studied Spanish in Barcelona, hopped trains through five Western European countries, waited tables in Sydney and Byron Bay, Australia, driven up Australia's east coast, joined a bus tour and circled both islands of New Zealand, and I am now catering for military events in Vicenza, Italy (near Venice). The people I've met along the way, the cultural differences I've encountered, have not all been positive (I was robbed in London, I was fired from a job, and I am continuously badgered about American politics and foreign policy); yet this past year of travel has brought me in contact with people, places, and cultures that I wouldn't have known otherwise. Working and studying abroad has provided me a chance to live as a local and experience the places I visit as an insider.

The Plan

Study Spanish at a language school in Spain for one month, backpack through Europe for one and a half months, work in Australia for six months, and hopefully squeeze in a trip to New Zealand before returning to Italy to stay with friends. I had saved enough at my job to get through three months of backpacking in Europe, but once I arrived in Australia it was imperative to find work.

The first foreign city in which I lived was Barcelona. If I could go back, I would have taken a job there, but as I had never lived abroad before and didn't have a working visa, I opted to study Spanish at a language school instead. I enrolled at the American British College (ABC), in the 4-week program, which consisted of 1.5 hours of grammar each weekday morning, and 1.5 hours of conversation in the afternoon. Classes were taught full-immersion style—all in Spanish. This method makes it possible for students from any country to attend the same class.

Gaudi building in Barcelona, Spain.
Gaudi architecture and street scene in Barcelona, a city of art.

ABC provided several housing options, which proved to be much more expensive then finding accommodations through the newspaper or elsewhere. I ended up moving in with schoolmates after three weeks; they were paying 300 euros per month, which seemed to be standard for a 2-bedroom, 1-bathroom flat. Other housing options include single apartments and homestays.

The good thing about studying a foreign language immersion style is that each class contains people from all over the world. Unfortunately, Language Learning doesn't bring you into contact with many locals. The majority of my friends were from other countries of Europe. Similar Language Learning programs exist all over the world; the best way to find out about them is over the Internet.

Because I set aside two months to travel in Europe but didn't have a clear picture of where I wanted to go, I purchased a Eurail pass while I was in the U.S. The pass I selected allowed me eight days of train travel in five European countries in a 2-month period. Many Eurail pass options, with varying countries, travel days, and prices, exist. I don't know that I saved much money on the pass versus purchasing point-to-point tickets, but the price I paid for a 2-month pass was equivalent to a 1-way regular train fare from Brussels (where I arrived from the U.S.) to Barcelona. Not all trains are free with the Eurail pass, and many require a reservation. Still, when reservations are not required the beauty of having a Eurail pass is jumping onto the train without waiting in long lines at the station. As the beginning of November neared and the weather grew considerably colder, I boarded a plane to Australia from Barcelona.

After a grueling 24-hour flight, I arrived in Sydney. By signing up with BUNAC (see boxout), an exchange program that provides assistance to Americans and Canadians hoping to work in Australia, I had secured a working holiday visa before departing the U.S. For Americans the visa is only valid for four months, with an option to switch over to a tourist visa, valid for an additional three months once the original visa has expired. (The working holiday visa is valid for one year for Canadian citizens.) BUNAC had booked me two free nights at a hostel accommodation upon arrival in Sydney.

I found work at a large restaurant in Darling Harbor (downtown Sydney) and a shared room in an apartment during my first week. I found my apartment on a notice board in an Internet cafe (café notice boards have tons of great stuff—jobs wanted, cars for sale, accommodations, etc.) and shared a room with an Australian woman, from Darwin, who became one of my closest friends. With four people in a 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartment, we each paid $AU 100 per week plus utilities.

A friend of ours owned a yacht, and we were able to work on our suntans while sailing Sydney harbor. Sydney proved to be a difficult place to find "under the table" work, even in hospitality jobs, and I was very glad that I had secured a visa so easily through BUNAC.

Darling harbour in Sydney, Australia.
Darling harbour in Sydney, Australia.

Because the Australian dollar is much weaker than the American dollar and Australia is still relatively expensive, I didn't put much money in the bank. However, I didn't spend a lot on accommodations either. With my wages for two months, I was able to purchase inexpensive plane tickets to other Australian cities for weekend trips as well as take a 4-week road trip through tropical Queensland as “designated hitchhiker” in a car full of Brits. Australia doesn't have a great rail system, and buses are the preferred way to travel if you don't have a car. Many backpackers buy a used car, travel, and then sell the car when finished.

Just when it looked like I wouldn't be able to earn enough money to visit New Zealand, I happened to enter and win a contest. The prize was an international-destination plane voucher, which I used to fly to New Zealand. New Zealand is one of the most breathtaking places I have seen. The terrain's lush greenery is a mix of tropical and majestic, and it's the only place in the world with a 15 to one sheep-to-person ratio. I flew into Wellington and bought a partially used Kiwi Experience Ticket off of a hostel notice board.

Kiwi Experience is an alternative travel network that provides "hop on, hop off" tour packages through the North and/or South islands with various activities (i.e. sky diving, river rafting, bungee jumping) for an additional cost. The packages can be customized to fit any budget. By purchasing a partially used ticket, I saved over $NZ 600 and was able to travel both islands in an air-conditioned tour bus for three weeks, spending the equivalent of $250. There are a number of similar bus companies in New Zealand. The Kiwi Bus operates an Australian tour as well, known as the Oz Experience.

From Auckland, I flew back to Sydney and on to Europe. After spending a few days in London, I bought a 1-way ticket to Italy. My plane to Seattle leaves in two months, but I don't know if I'm ready to go back. I have found a job here on a U.S. army base, and I am working until I can afford to travel again. Some Italian friends plan to move to Ireland with me next month. The travel and work adventure continues.

Ways to Work Abroad

There are many ways to work abroad, even if you don't have a working visa. If you are under the age of 27, you may be able to work abroad as an au pair (live-in nanny). If you are a native speaker of English, you can teach English as a foreign language. Spain, Italy, and Greece are the European countries that are in most need of English teachers. The demand for English teachers is even higher is South and Central America, Eastern Europe, and Asia. With a TEFOL certificate (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) you are a prime candidate for most positions, but some employers may hire you with merely a 4-year university degree or previous teaching or tutoring experience. If you plan to apply for a working visa, do so before you leave. Italian immigration tells me that I must return to the U.S. to apply for a visa and then come back. If you are not eligible for even a tourist visa and want to stay for an extended time, see if you can take university classes at your destination and acquire a student status. Check with the embassy of your destination country prior to departure. Visa requirements differ.

Tips for Long-Term Travel

Purchase travel insurance before you leave. When you are in a hostel, no matter how secure you think it is, keep all valuables in the safe, which is usually at reception or available for a few dollars. Bring more money than you think you will need; everyone I have met traveling has run out of money half way through his or her trip.

For More Info

See our following website sections on language immersion, jobs, and internship abroad programs, as well as courses on teaching English as a second language for more ideas on how you can travel and study abroad..

BUNAC is an agency I used that allows for working holidays in Australia and New Zealand for 18–35 year olds, among other programs.

The following are websites for rail passes mentioned in this article:
Eurail Passes
Rail Europe

These hostel network websites allow you to check bed or room availability, make reservations, and confirm prices:
Hostelling International is the granddaddy site for budget travelers worldwide and is well designed, well run, and very useful. The news section keeps you well updated on new and renovated hostels.

Editor's note: For a more exhaustive lists of hostel portals gathered by Transitions Abroad, please click for more Hostels in Europe and Worldwide as well as related selections from the Best Budget Travel Websites.

Related Topics
Short-Term Work Abroad

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