To study abroad or to travel?

Since coming back, a topic came to mind that I believe will be useful for at least one person out there. That is, knowing the difference between exchange and travelling. Previously, I assumed they were basically synonymous, with the only difference being the ‘study’ portion of exchange.  

To give context, in 2017 I was conflicted with either extending my degree 1 semester longer to do exchange, or to graduate on time and have a gap year to travel. In hindsight, the two provide similar yet very different experiences – with exchange fitting my personality a lot more. Remember, these are just my thoughts – take into consideration what you value and choose accordingly. Here we go: the main differences and things to consider between the two!


I guess the first ‘shock’ of coming to Amsterdam was the plunge back into study and routine. Having had a great holiday going to the beach in Melbourne, to travelling in Spain solo with no responsibilities, it was quite jarring to return to full time study (especially when each class was max 25 students, so I actually had to concentrate…or look like I was). 

PLUS – there was a lot more paperwork because of residence permits, taxes etc (literally still having to deal with Amsterdam city tax exemptions). In all honesty, I was kicking myself at first, and regretting not having taken the chance to simply travel.

You win some you lose some - one of the many times I found myself here

But 7 months later, I’m so glad I did. Personally, I think exchange was a unique experience because you have a home away from home. Not only that, it’s incredibly relieving to dump all your things in one place, instead of lugging it around in a suitcase and packing it into a hostel locker. Additionally, I think it’s comforting knowing where you’ll be in a few weeks or months down the track – contrast to me buying tickets to Slovenia the day before I was going there. Exchange really let me take my time in choosing when to travel and when to rest, and it was reassuring knowing that I had 5 months to explore the Netherlands.


On the other hand, I had a hard time balancing sight seeing and doing with relaxing when I travelled. I admit I didn’t leave nearly as much time to do countries justice, e.g 3 days in Germany. Inevitably, the thoughts of ‘you’re only here for a few days’ to ‘Europe is 24 hours away from Aus…just sleep when you’re dead’ took over and gave me little time to just chill and take each day slowly like I would in Melbourne.

It wasn’t until arriving in Amsterdam that I realised I desperately needed time to settle down in a ‘home’. Which doesn’t surprise me seeing as belonging and stability are things that make me happy

That being said, with travel you:

  • Have 100% freedom to do what you want when you want. You don’t have to attend exams and mandatory classes which may make you say ‘no’ to otherwise exciting things
  • If you realise you like a place a lot and want to stay there for longer, you can just do it – again, not having to schedule your week out = Greater opportunity for spontaneity
  • You can also save a lot of money on transport and accommodation!  — On weekdays, you get some really good flight deals (Note: Europe prices in general are ridiculously cheap) + accommodation is usually cheaper too – I couldn’t get these deals because of uni
  • You can visit A LOT more places in Europe with the time + schedule flexibility
A random lookout from the main road
Getting deliberately lost in Lisbon

But this freedom also comes at a drawback. I found that too much of it over time made me feel less excited to explore a city and ambivalent with what to do. I think of it like when you have too much spare time, you don’t know how to use it and end up not being as effective.

For me, I can say that travelling was surprisingly exhausting long term. There are two sides, the beautiful pictures you see on Instagram (or at least for other accounts because I barely posted), and the late nights spent planning plane, bus, train tickets and accommodation, as well as what to do once you’re there. There’s constant accommodation hopping and transport use – making me feel like I could never fully settle down (knowing I had to pack my bags up again in 3 days). You will spend many hours on the road (15 hours one way if you pull a Joanna and take an overnight bus from La Rochelle France to Amsterdam).

The Flixbus life

But DON’T GET ME WRONG. Travelling itself was awesome, and I really appreciated the time I spent over in Europe. Despite the downsides that arose, the pros outweighed them heavily. You get to see so many cultures within one tiny area, and I can’t recommend it enough!

What both have in common

What exchange and travel have in common is the chance to easily meet people from across the world – who have the same interests for exploring. Whether in a hostel or at university, you’re going to meet people no matter what. And even if you’re not as inclined to make conversation with a total stranger, chances are someone will help you out so you don’t have to.


Plus you get to see the world, develop independence and confidence, eat good food, say ‘hi, bye, thank you, I’m lost’ in 15 languages etc. You’ll be amazed with whatever you experience, I’m sure.

Why exchange was for me

It lets you do both: exchange and travel. MOST IMPORTANTLY, it helped ground me and give me a base from which to travel, chill and do whatever I wanted.  Also, I loved how travel was complemented with consistent learning (really enjoyed my university subjects – big plus!)


In the month spent in Europe before exchange, I travelled and met several lovely people who I spent the weekends during the study semester visiting. And after the semester was done, I did the same, even going on a road-trip along the southern French coast with Marie from Toulouse I had met in Iceland (funny how these things happen). I believe having a BALANCE between work and play is the best of both worlds – which is why I personally prefer exchange.

What other options are there?

For those who didn’t go on exchange but would’ve liked to – IT’S NOT TOO LATE TO GET A SIMILAR EXPERIENCE. There are plenty of opportunities such as volunteering abroad or doing internships which provide the security and belonging aspect of exchange with the travel as well. You can do a simple google search and heaps of options pop up. 

If that’s too big a time or fund commitment, I’d recommend taking language classes while you travel. That gives you a a bit of stability while still having freedom to do whatever. WIN WIN.



  • If you value flexibility and autonomy, and despise university + exams etc, travelling is your best option.
  • If you’re like me and need a good balance of structure vs flexibility but also love travel, then I’d recommend exchange.
  • If you want to have an ‘exchange experience’ but don’t have the uni credits, funds etc for it, I’d recommend volunteering abroad, taking casual lessons or other consistent activities.
  • BUT, no matter what you end up choosing, either will give you a damn good experience.

Here’s a table to visually explain what I was going on about above.

Hope you got something out of it! If you want to know more, just let me know and I can clarify 🙂

You might also like

Comments (2)

  • Linde 12 months ago Reply

    Clearly see you’re bored there in Australia! Might wanna consider visiting your home away from home!

    Jo 11 months ago Reply

    Hahaha DEFINITELY TEMPTED! Who knows, you might see me very soon in the future 🙂

Leave a Reply