Scrimping abroad

Tuesday, May 1, 2007
London has become an expensive stopover with a weak U.S. dollar, especially for students studying abroad. (Martin Cleaver ~ Associated Press)

LONDON -- Giving shoulder rubs to strangers in London. Sleeping on the steps of a Spanish cathedral rather than the hostel. Waiting until 1 a.m. to eat spaghetti at home in Rome because dinner out breaks the bank.

American students are getting creative as they cope with the weakening dollar.

Forget how the beleaguered greenback affects investors and tourists. For college students, undoubtedly some of the poorest Americans doing business in Europe, the bad exchange rate comes down to altered lifestyles and an obstacle to fully experiencing foreign cultures.

For students based in pricey cities, it means living in the suburbs, away from many of the cultural happenings that shape an international experience. Students now overlook Eurorail passes, a staple among past decades of study-abroad participants, in favor of discount airline Web sites.

The exchange rate has forced some to get creative. YiRan Liu, 21, who studied at Goldsmith's College in London during her junior year, joined a company where women in tank tops visited exclusive nightclubs to approach strangers with offers of seven-minute shoulder rubs.

"It's definitely a different experience," said Liu, now a senior at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "It was a pretty nitty-gritty experience of London."

Liu, an art student, saved money by buying glossy paint at hardware stores rather than expensive oil paints. Dinners consisted of canned tuna mixed with sweet corn.

Perhaps most noticeable is how the exchange rate can sucker punch American students in the stomach.

Mike Vainisi, 21, a junior at the University of Illinois, is taking food and culture classes in Rome. But most of the Italian dishes he learns about, such as saltimbocca alla romana, a veal and Parma ham dish, he could never taste in a restaurant.

The way to live cheaply in Rome is to "avoid eating out at all costs," said Vainisi, who skips lunch several times a week and eats spaghetti at 1 a.m.

"We've all lost weight," he said. "I saw one of my buddies in Verona, and he was like, 'Your face looks thinner!' and I was like, 'God, you've lost weight."'

Despite the high cost of living, students still flock to Europe. Britain, Italy, Spain and France continued their years-long stranglehold as the top four study abroad destinations for American college students in the 2004-2005 school year, according to figures from the Institute for International Education, a New York-based not-for-profit that tracks international study.

About 45 percent of the 205,983 American study-abroad trips during that period were to those four countries. Allan Goodman, president of the institute, said the availability of courses taught in English attracts American students to Europe. But no matter how bad the exchange rate gets, Goodman said students -- and future employers -- can't put a price tag on internationalism.

"It's about relating to other societies and other people who perhaps think differently than we do," he said. "The most important fact is getting there, and yes, it's more expensive, but the educational value of understanding that there is a difference is invaluable."

It might not be as morbid as it all sounds. Students -- some for the first time -- are learning the basics of budgeting. Often that means skipping a few crepes is worth it if the trade-off is the chance to see a friend in Berlin.

Julianna Tobak, 20, a junior from Syracuse University who is studying in Florence, Italy, is on a weekly budget of about $27 for eating out, drinking and shopping. But her most enriching cultural interactions had nothing to do with money.

"Experiencing culture is about the people you meet," she said, "not the amount of museums or statues you visit."

Money-saving tips

Looking to stretch that dollar in Europe? Study-abroad advisers and students in Europe share their tips:

* Exchange money at banks. Change bureaus at airports and train stations tend to take hefty commissions.

* Take advantage of student discounts. Cities such as London issue special student cards that entitle holders to discounts at cinemas and museums.

* Some unexpected places, such as department stores, also offer student discounts but never advertise them. Always ask.

* Buy groceries to cook at home. Make lunches to take to campus and carry a water bottle.

* Join university student clubs, which often organize tours at discount rates.

* Sign up for trips that study abroad programs organize. Special tours to local venues or nearby small cities can come at heavily discounted group rates and offer views of sites students wouldn't be able to see on their own.

* Bring clothes for the entire time abroad rather than building a new wardrobe at expensive department stores.

* Visit cheaper neighborhood cafes and pubs instead of expensive touristy ones.

* If traveling, visit friends who can offer a couch. Shop around for discount flights, buses, or rail passes.

* If money is extremely tight, secure an entry visa that would allow a student to work part-time.

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