passport and coins“Study abroad,” college officials like to encourage their students, “it’s a great opportunity.” That may be difficult to argue. New encounters lead to learning, along with the disorienting thrill of interacting with people in a foreign land, fumbling with language, feeling hungry to learn while feeling humbled, and anxious, perhaps, to blend into the crowd. For the usually-cited (even cliché) reasons of broadening one’s horizons and gaining cultural knowledge, I think study abroad and travel in general are positive things.

However, let’s be honest: travel, particularly abroad, costs a whole lot of money. As a student, I dared not go into debt to finance a faraway trip; many of us just don’t have the cash, and study-abroad scholarships may not cover all expenses. Fortunately for would-be travelers and DIY learners, though, the globe continues to shrink, at least into our tiny screens; armchair travel can be an exciting window into other places around the world, and some degree of edification and enrichment in any case.

Below, behold five ways you, too, can experience some virtual globetrotting for the low price of free:

1)   Internet Sightseeing.
Work on your geography while you sightsee! At, learn the lay of the land and see the sights from your digital screen. At Google Maps, view a photo-album or webcam tour of your area of interest. Google Earth offers views of the planet (and beyond) in 3D; you will need to download it to operate. (Each of these has a companion app, as well.)

2)      People from Distant Lands, Part I.
When I was a kid, I had a couple of pen pals across the Atlantic, and the thrill of getting their exotic letters, packaged in airmail stamps and decidedly foreign handwriting, was well worth the weeks of waiting. Interestingly, down through lo these many years, airmail still takes awhile to travel in and out of the US; but now we’ve got the internet and a quick way to keep up correspondence with international pals. Skype is a popular way to connect with others worldwide, and a social networking site oriented towards travel is WAYN (Where Are You Now).

3)      People from Distant Lands, Part II.
Don’t forget you may have international folks living near you, offering the old-fashioned way to “friend.” Check out the activities of a local International Student Club (high school or college) to connect with international students face-to-face. I taught at one community college with an Across Cultures Club that sponsored a lovely annual global dining and entertainment event, and offered other periodic activities for community members.

4)      Professional Video.
A number of cable TV shows offer creative ways of tele-exploring distant lands: for instance, you can tune in to international dining and real estate hunting. But don’t forget about travel videos, designed to show would-be tourists specific points of interest and must-do experiences. Check them out from your local library; look for DVDs from Rick Steves.

5)      Good Old-Fashioned Travel Guides.
An oldie, but goodie, and high-quality, too: go to the library and check out some travel guides (books!). If you have absolutely no knowledge of a place, the guide will teach you with maps, perhaps a few phrases to give you at least a flavor of the language, and a bit of local history and customs. It also most likely will contain full-color, glossy photos (better than most of us can take with our own cameras); attractions of historical and cultural significance will be included. And in case you’re curious, you can read all about the best local restaurants, taverns, and hotels (I find these details to be strangely interesting, even when I have no plans to go to said location).

Enjoy your explorations!

Related reading:

“Study-Abroad Officials Are Under More Pressure to Prove Their Programs’ Value,” Ian Wilhelm, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/22/12.

“Study Abroad May Not Be Quickest Route to Cross-Cultural Understanding,” Karin Fischer, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/16/11.

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