Recently, I had the pleasure to sit down with Andy Steves of WSA Europe to talk about travel and studying abroad. The son of PBS travel guru, Rick Steves, Andy grew up destined to help students travel and explore new cultures. But it wasn’t his dad who gave him the idea to start a student based travel company; it was his time studying abroad in Rome. Come with me as I talk to Andy about WSA, studying abroad and travel.
AB: Do you think all your personal experiences being abroad in your youth gave you an advantage and/or better prepared you for studying abroad than friends who didn’t have as much international experience? Did you do any additional preparation/ research into the study abroad experience outside of your college info sessions and your own personal experiences?
AS: Studying abroad in Rome was when I first realized there was a serious need in the market for travel resources catered towards the student studying abroad. I began traveling on my own with a few friends and slowly, was leading groups of 30 or more to my favorite destinations around the continent. Growing up, I had learned how to make reservations, get around on public transportation, find off the beaten path restaurants, etc, and my friends appreciated this local insider knowledge. After returning to Notre Dame and graduating, I realized that this was something that could be a real business. I founded WSA Europe, and the rest is history!
AB:Can you briefly describe your experience transitioning into Italian culture when you studied abroad?
AS: I absolutely immersed myself into Italian culture once I arrived in Rome because this was the first time I was able to stay put in a foreign city for a long period of time. During previous travels, we were always here and there, so I had never gotten the sense for what it felt like to find a spot to be a regular, get to know locals and form actual relationships. As much as I could, I’d strike up a conversation with the person next to me, pushing myself to be an extrovert and pick up the language. I left Rome with incredible life-long friends, a fluency in the language and memories that would last forever because I put in that little extra effort to break out of my own American comfort zone.
AB: What was your toughest moment/time during your study abroad experience?
About two weeks into the semester, I realized I was having a blast, but nothing around me was familiar. Everything took a bit more work – from making friends and getting groceries to ordering my coffee in the morning. I knew people, but wasn’t sure where I belonged and had to push myself to really get involved with things I was into in order to meet others that shared similar interests. It’s crazy to feel like you’re back at freshman year of college, trying to find yourself, but that’s what being in a foreign country will do! It’s important to just remember that everyone goes through that growing pain after the excitement of arriving in a new place wears off, but that after a few weeks, you will have forgotten any feeling of homesickness, and the time will just fly by!
AB: You traveled a lot during study abroad (13 out of 17 weekends!) What tips can you give to students on how to save in advance for these excursions and how to afford being able to travel this much while studying abroad?
AS: I was lucky enough to really explore not only Italy, but the entire continent when I was abroad. There were so many places that I hadn’t been able to head to independently that my list of destinations was too long to even count! Planning ahead is very important – we all want to be spontaneous and “cool” and just show up, making plans along the way, but in the end, this can be much more expensive. Hostels and transportation ticket prices are climbing and you can really benefit by making reservations ahead of time. Pay attention to past traveler reviews to ensure you’re getting the most bang for your buck. Shop at grocery stores every now and then to grab a lunch to hold you through a busy day of sightseeing. And get off the beaten path! Restaurants and bars on main squares and tourist streets are overpriced and low quality – they rely on one time customers that will come and go. Instead, frequent places that value your business and want you to have an incredible experience so that you come back again and again. These will not only be better quality, but will also be easier on your budget!
AB: In your blog, you talk about being good at tour logistics. What is this exactly and what advice/ tips can you give students who are not that good at planning?
AS: Figuring out public transportation isn’t an art form, but it does require a bit of patience. Across the continent, each local system has its own quirks, but once you master the basics, you can save a ton of time and money moving through a city this way. Download the local transportation app, dig into whether there are deals to buy a pack of tickets at once and share with friends, check out when the last buses or metro run so that you aren’t stuck out at night taking an expensive cab. All of these things are easy and will really help you to see much more during a quick weekend visit.
AB: Do you prefer map or GPS when visiting someplace new?
AS: I use Google Maps across Europe – in many cities, you can even utilize the map without data or wifi because of the cloud that exists out there. Public transportation route suggestions are also great on Google Maps because it will highlight the different ways you can get somewhere using buses, metro, trains, etc.
AB: What is the scariest thing you’ve experienced during your travels and what advice can you give to students to stay safe while traveling or studying abroad?
AS: I actually had a close call in South America where I almost fell the wrong way while swimming near a waterfall. This was something that could have easily been avoided if I had just thought an extra second about the potential outcomes of what I was getting myself into. I think that the best thing a student can do is just be aware of their surroundings. Always keep your bearings and track of your personal things in order to avoid being caught off guard or taken advantage of. Think through the scenario and whether anything sounds off. It sounds simple, but really is how most unfortunate situations are avoided.
AB: On the WSA website there is a page for parents about how to quell their fears for their students traveling and studying abroad; As a travel veteran, was your father ever scared to let you study abroad? Did he know what to expect?
(that’s Andy and his dad, travel guru Rick Steves)
AS: Growing up with my dad was a great experience, something that I didn’t appreciate until I was older. When I was 8 or 9, he took it upon himself to teach me to travel, putting me on the metro in Paris, telling me where to change and get off and then saying, “meet you on the other end!” In hindsight, that was a great way to teach me to be independent, think for myself and figure things out. I think many parents who haven’t traveled much themselves might be nervous about their students heading overseas, but with the right preparation, there is nothing to worry about. That’s why we have made it our mission to help students, parents and administrators make the most of the study abroad experience and offer our resources and information as a tool.
AB:Do you feel that it’s better to spend your time traveling abroad or to stay in the city and really get that daily life in another country experience as a student? You did a lot of traveling during your semester in Rome, do you feel like you experienced enough Italian “life” while studying abroad?
AS: Both! It’s definitely important to get a sense for the city you’re now living in and not be so quick to leave to experience other cultures. Many of us take for granted that we are given the chance to really live in a foreign city – something not everyone will be able to do in their life. I pushed myself to make the most of every experience, and that’s what I would encourage others to do. Whether you’re in the grocery store or on an airplane, take it in! Talk to others, people watch, listen to the language and notice how others are acting. Being able to compare and contrast other cultures and ways of life is one of the most important things you can take away from your experience. We started WSA in order to help students make the most of the weekends they do travel –rather than simply wandering through a city, taking pictures of the sights you think are important and checking it off a list, we are there to bring the history and monuments to life so that you walk away a more informed and well rounded person and can bring that knowledge back home with you!
(that’s Andy smiling on the bench)
AB:How did you get into doing travel workshops and how can we find out when and where you are giving one?
AS: I actually started giving travel talks even before I graduated. People were asking me for tips about how to get around, how to save money and how to make the most of travel, so I realized I could tell a few stories and really help people. Once I launched WSA Europe, administrators invited me to speak during their orientations and workshops as a peer sharing relevant advice to their students. From there, it’s grown to almost 100 travel talks per year at locations across Europe. It’s something I do on the side, for free and for fun – it’s so rewarding to connect with students and see their faces light up when they learn something new or are inspired to get more out of their travel experiences. I’m actually working on putting together a video of the talk I give so that I can share it with others virtually who can’t attend. Stay in touch, and we will share it with your readers!