Studying abroad was hands down the best experience of my life. At the time, I thought it would be my only opportunity to spend an extended period of time overseas. It’s a special thing — getting to know a new place inside out — and I think it should be a requirement for all students to at least do a summer program abroad.
There were lots of little ways my four months in England were completely unlike the experience I might have had as a tourist. Most visitors look at Bath, where my program was based, as nothing more than a quick day trip. Buy an overpriced ticket to the Roman Baths, pay a visit to the Jane Austen Centre, and be back in London by tea time.
There were lots of places we stumbled across on our own. Okay, they were mostly bars, but still. The Pig and Fiddle was student-heavy and hosted weekly trivia night. Mole’s looked a bit like the basement of your local frat, but always had good live music. If you wanted vegetarian food, you went to the Porter and played pool in the basement once you were finished.
Of course, those were all watering holes you could find in a travel guide and fold into that classic Bath day trip. Scratching the surface and pretending it’s immersion.
If we had been tourists, clocking in for a couple nights and then leaving, what are the odds we would have wandered into The Raven on the fourth Monday of the month for storytelling night? Or met a local friend at Green Park Tavern, a workaday pub just across the street from my internship, but so far south of Bath’s center it doesn’t show up on most tourist maps?
We may not have thought it in so many words at the time, but all those experiences proved that while guidebooks certainly aren’t likely to steer you wrong, local information can carry you to a totally unique experience.
So when our program relocated to Oxford for a week, and a couple classmates wanted to go to a particular club they’d read about previously, it wound up being pretty easy for us to change course on the advice of local students we met that night.
We wound up in a tiki bar I don’t think I ever knew the name of where everyone, staff and patrons alike, were nothing but friendly and positive. It was a fantastic way for our guest of honor to celebrate her 20th birthday.
On another night, we did pay a visit to our plan A club and there found no dance floor, an older demographic, and a bevy of creepy middle aged men gearing to grope coeds at the bar. Plus, it was almost an hour’s walk from campus.
Many guidebook listings aren’t so misleading, and I’m sure my mother will cringe upon learning that I followed a bunch of strangers on the street to a bar late at night, but all the same… entrusting your minute by minute itinerary to Lonely Planet or any other publisher often means just scratching the surface of your destination and closing yourself off to other possibilities.
Safety concerns giving you pause about abandoning your guidebook. Make sure you’re just being cautious, not paranoid.