A Grand New Adventure – Working in Denmark

July 21st, 2011 found me tearfully saying goodbye to my Parents.  I’d just sent three hulking bags through security and had a knot in my stomach that left me sympathizing with Atlas – at that moment we both felt as though we held the world upon our shoulders.  I was about to launch a grand new adventure, one that had a very unknown ending.  A few long hours later I arrived in Denmark and the rest, as they say, is history.

When I arrived in Denmark I only had one contact through a friend of a friend of a friend. In previous posts I’ve talked about how he saved my butt and deserves no small amount of credit for me making it through those first few months (Thanks Søren!). Those stories and so many more are archived here on VirtualWayfarer. They mark grand adventures, realizations, and a slow series of basic decisions – yes, or no – that led me forward. The conclusion of my Master’s marked the end of one grand chapter, just as it gave birth to what came next: the decision that I wasn’t done with Denmark yet, and that I needed to stay. The last year and a half was another chapter.  One that came with incredible challenges, wonderful growth, and the attainment of a number of life goals. Now, with today’s announcement, that chapter winds to a close and another, equally exciting one begins.
The Beach Visit

The News

What’s the big announcement?  Well, have no fear. I’m not pregnant. Nor did I manage to go diving with great whites and get eaten.  In fact, for this news I’m not even leaving Denmark…or perhaps I should say, that IS the news.

Discover Your True Self – #Studyabroadbecause

From time to time I’m asked to do interviews about my travel or study abroad experiences.  In the past I’ve been bad about sharing those here on VirtualWayfarer.  These interviews surface a different side of my travel experience and offer me a chance to offer advice through a slightly different lens.  As a result, I’ll aim to be better about linking to the most content rich of these interviews when I do them. The latest of which was an invitation to weigh in on why people should study abroad while simultaneously sharing my own study abroad story. I’ve re-produced the first two questions in the Q&A here. Make sure to click over to Wandering Educators for the full interview.

What motivated your decision to go abroad? How/why did you choose where to go?

My story is fairly complex. As a kid, my parents homeschooled my brother and I in place of 5th and 7th grade. 5th grade was spent backpacking Europe. 7th grade was spent in a 32-foot 5th-wheel trailer as we took a year and drove across the United States. I did my first study abroad the summer of my Freshman year of College. I was incredibly nervous despite the childhood trips. It was a 6.5 week Honors study abroad program in the British Isles. I debated doing a full semester or year and really wanted to, but could never work up the nerve. The summer program ended up being a great experience. Despite loving it and really flexing my travel muscle, I still never quite worked up the courage over the remaining 3 years of my BA to do a full semester or year abroad.

When I graduated, I turned around and tossed caution to the wind. After 4 years of being worried about doing a solo semester abroad, I closed my eyes and jumped into a 3 month solo trip through Europe. I figured it was now or never. It was amazing. I returned to a full-time job in Mergers and Acquisitions, where I managed two 16-21 day trips a year for the next 3 years. Then, tired of Arizona and eager to return for a Master’s, I applied to a number of schools selected based purely on reputation, the appeal of their location, and if they had a communication program. My methodology? A list of the top 50 Universities in the world and an afternoon of research. I ended up with 8 Universities split between 4 PhD programs (trying to skip the MA) and 4 MA programs. Of these, 3 were in Europe. All of the PhDs rejected me and the MA decision came down to Georgetown in D.C. or the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. Georgetown wanted $30k in tuition a year. University of Copenhagen offered me a complete tuition waiver…as well as a 2 year visa to live in and explore Europe. The opportunity to do what I hadn’t had the nerve to do previously was too enticing to resist (and that tuition waiver helped).

Despite having only spent 2 days in Denmark during a trip the year before, I relocated figuring I’d see what happened and give it a go. It was one of the best and most pivotal decisions of my life.

Your First Two Months Will Define Your Study Abroad Experience

I remember the surreal exhilaration as I took that first step onto Danish soil.  Even as a veteran traveler I still couldn’t help but feel a bit like Neil Armstrong as he stepped out from the Lunar Lander into the unknown.  For me, it was the start of a two-year full degree program at the University of Copenhagen and a radical change from my lifestyle over the previous three years spent working 9-5 in the mergers and acquisitions industry. I was incredibly excited but also positively terrified. Living it at the time was a bit overwhelming but, as I look back, it was one of the best experiences of my life.  It was also a major learning lesson where I made mis-steps and could have done some things better. Overall though, I made a lot of great decisions and have relatively few regrets.

Danish National Museum in Copenhagen

Over the past few years I’ve worked with a lot of international students who have been engaged in a variety of different programs which range from semester exchanges to multi-year full degree programs.  In so doing I’ve noticed a couple of trends which are deeply ingrained in human behavior which can do a lot to shape how much you get out of your international study experience. Chief among these is tied to your behavior during the early-arrival period and how you form your daily routines.

This is How You Eat in Copenhagen For Less Than 100 DKK

Copenhagen Smørrebrød

There’s one essential rule for enjoying a city: it always looks better on a full stomach. In Copenhagen, that can be surprisingly difficult to accomplish for students and budget travelers alike. With a minimum wage that floats around $21 USD cheap food for the Danes is still quite often expensive food for the rest of us.   There are a few guides to eating on the cheap in Copenhagen floating around, but most are absolute hogwash and seem to fail to understand the concept of “cheap”.  This two-part guide isn’t intended to be exhaustive, but it does share a number of places I’ve discovered and strategies I use for enjoying cheap Danish food. The first post is dedicated to general types of venues with budget friendly food, while the second in this two-part series will outline specific recommendations and venues.

Want specific restaurant recommendations?  Jump straight to part two of this series, “Where To Eat In Copenhagen For Less Than 100 DKK“.

Types of Cheap Food

Hot dog Stands and 7/11 – Danes make great hot dogs. They also offer them in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and forms. Prices typically range from 19-35DKK per dog.  You can also find a beef or “Bøfsandwich” which is a bit like a Danish Sloppy Joe.  These are an ok snack, but most folks will need at least two dogs to fill up which ratchets up the price considerably.  7/11 also offers a mixture of foods including hot dogs, small salads, and other-like kind snacks. It’s not a great option and their prices are a bit high for what you get, but it is still relatively cheap and a good option if you’re in a pinch.

Kebab/Pizza Combo Shops – These are your best bet for a filling budget friendly meal.  They’ll all provide kebab (usually beef/lamb mix) and falafel (vegitarian) while most will also have chicken. While not terribly healthy, these aren’t nearly as unhealthy as many other options. It is also the go-to budget/ethnic/drunk food in Copenhagen.  These shops also, though not always, serve pizza. The kebabs come in one of two formats: Pitabrød or Durum.  The first is the smaller of the two and comes in a pita, the second is larger and wrapped in something resembling a tortilla. Fixings vary but usually include a yogurt sauce, lettuce, tomato, onion and the potential for a tasty but not terribly spicy chili.  There aren’t a ton of kebab or pizza places in the city center, but there are a few. The highest concentrations can be found in Nørrebro and Vesterbro.  Prices will also be cheaper the further you move from the city center. The price of a Pitabrød should range between 20-30DKK and a durum between 30 and 40 DKK. Keep an eye out for a mix option, as that’ll let you pick up a good bit of extra meat for a minimal price increase.  In Nørrebro in particular you’ll find that many of the kebab shops run lunch specials, especially along Nørrebrogade.

Pizza shops typically start at around 50 DKK for a pizza and go up to around 80DKK. Pizzas in Denmark are often roughly plate sized and good for 1-2 people depending on your appetite. It is common to find kebab meat and kebab chicken meat used on the pizzas, so be prepared for slightly different flavors than you may be used to.  Many pizza shops also run lunch specials which can drop the price of a pizza to as low as 39 DKK but often brings them down to around 50 DKK.  If you want to keep to your budget, consider a Pizza for lunch instead of dinner and then rounding the meal out with a kebab for dinner.

A third type of kebab shop can be found that has kebab skewers in addition to pitabrød and durum meat. These are predominantly found in Nørrebro with plates usually falling in the 65-80 DKK range. Plates often include two meat skewers, rice or french fries, and a small salad. The meat is cooked over coals and heavily inspired by Turkish kebab.

Buffets – These are largely confined to the city center and cater predominantly to tourists. Quality varies widely, but in general they’re not likely to kill you and typically range in cost from 50 DKK to 90 DKK for an all you can eat buffet.  The easiest way to find them is to walk Strøget (the main shopping street) while looking for people holding up signs or to visit on of the three I’ll mention in my follow-up post.

Sandwich and Bagel Shops – With the bulk of their prices falling between 40 and 60 DKK sandwich and bagel shops can be found all over the city and usually offer filling, albeit light, options.  Produce in Denmark tends to be very high quality and extremely fresh, so these are often a very popular option among Danes and tourists alike.

Smørrebrød Shops – Small, local, smørrebrød shops are something that you typically have to seek out or research in advance.  They can be found scattered throughout the city, and sell Denmark’s most common lunch-food. Learn more about smørrebrød in my previous post about it, here.  Prices for smørrebrød can fluctuate wildly but budget variations can be found for between 12-15DKK a piece. Expect to eat 3-5 for a meal.  These shops also often close by 2 or 3PM and are lunch/brunch only.

Salad Bars – I’ve only recently discovered these.  As a big guy with a big appetite I spent a lot of time scoffing at the city’s plethora of salad bars. In reality, however, these offer surprisingly tasty and filling options. Particularly because most include a piece of heavy danish rugbrød with your order. The typical format includes a few pre-set menus that let you order three, four, or five different “salads” which range from spinach to chicken and noodles.  A filling three item menu usually runs about 50 DKK and is sufficient for a meal.

Supermarkets – If you’re like me, cooking lunch or making your own sandwiches is all well and good…but sometimes just not something you’re up for. Luckily, while nowhere near as extensive as the Delis in US supermarkets, Danish markets often have a few options available. While you won’t find much of an offering in the budget supermarkets like Netto, Fakta, or Rema 10000 you will find them in some of the larger markets such as Super Brugsen, Føtex, and Kvicky.  Food quality can vary widely, but you’ll also find cheap access to traditional Danish foods such as cooked pork, fish fillets, and some variations of smørrebrød. These are also a great alternative to the fancy Danish bakeries when you go seeking that tasty Danish or dessert.

Ethnic Takeout – Unfortunately, take-out in Copenhagen is still quite expensive. Dominated by Asian and Indian cuisine, meals often start at around 70 DKK.  These qualify as a tasty option for less than 100 DKK, but aren’t anywhere near the cheapest option you’ll have in Copenhagen.  Still, if you’re looking for take-out or a sit down meal, the small ethnic dives that can be found throughout the city and are most common in Nørrebro and Vesterbro are a great option. They’ll also usually provide you with fairly hearty portions.

*American Style Fast Food – McDonalds and Burger King are the default for many travelers when on a budget crunch. However, neither are particularly budget friendly options in Denmark.  With a Medium Big Mac Menu going for around 55-60 DKK and the Whopper Menu starting between 60 and 70 DKK you can get a much better meal for the same money.  Both do have budget menus, but even a basic cheeseburger typical runs around 10 DKK or $2 USD.  Considering KFC?  Good luck.

Ready for my hand picked list of specific places to try?  Jump to part two of this series, “Where To Eat In Copenhagen For Less Than 100 DKK“.

Men, It Is Long Past Time to Study Abroad

The Scottish Perch

Despite these massive surges in the number of students studying abroad, it turns out the majority of western exchange students are women. This has left educators and study abroad students alike asking themselves, “Where are the men?”

The study abroad population is increasing rapidly. Over the past ten years the number of students studying abroad has nearly doubled. In 1996‐7 there were 99,448 US undergrads studying abroad. Fourteen years later, in 2011, that number grew to 273,996; almost three times the amount. Meanwhile, the ERASMUS (European) exchange program increased from 144,037 students in 2004-5 to 252,827 for the 2011-12 academic year; almost doubling over a seven-year period.

Existing research has found that roughly two thirds of American exchange students are female, while data for Europe indicates that on average, 65% of the study abroad population is comprised of women. In some countries, such as Romania and Poland, 71% and 68% respectively of exchange students are female (These figures and others are explored in-depth in my Master’s thesis).

While this should concern everyone, it should be especially disconcerting for men as it means that a huge slice of the male population is missing out on the life and perspective-changing experiences that come from study abroad.  In our global economy, men that fail to study abroad will be significantly less competitive than their female counterparts and they will make decisions based on a highly limited world view.

What I find concerning is just how little specialized information is available for men.  We have developed a western cultural narrative that assumes that travel is inherently more dangerous and challenging for women, and that as a result it is women that need to be the primary focus and recipients of the resources dedicated to encouraging young people to travel. While I whole-heartedly embrace resources that support and inspire young women to travel I also know that young men have been neglected. In our rush to enable and empower young women we have overlooked and failed to address the very real needs of young men.  As a result their significant fears have not been addressed,  and the special set of challenges they face have been ignored or dismissed as insignificant.

1. Men, it’s time to admit we are afraid

Western society has clear rules for what it expects from males.  Machismo/masculine culture is drilled into us from before we can walk.  To be a man it is essential that we be strong, resilient, independent, and self sufficient. We’re told on a daily basis, “Man up“, “Get things done“, “Don’t be a sissy“, and  “It’ll be fine, just rub some dirt on it“.   A failure to do so not only feels like an internal failing, but quite often has very real social costs among our peers and with women.  For many of us, we learn at an early age that it is better to feign apathy than admit that we need help.  Admitting fear is acceptable, kinda, but only if it’s delivered in combination with arrogance and mastery.  While these cultural norms provide men with a set of skills and an internal drive that can be a huge asset, it also opens us up to a lot of harm and missed opportunities. We go to the doctor less, we act out to distract people from things that make us uncomfortable, we fail to ask questions in class, and in the case of study abroad – we scrap, delay, or abandon exploring study abroad all together. There are some great resources out there dedicated to facilitating improved conversation in this area and improving cross-gender discussions when it comes to how to interact. One is The Good Men Project, which has awesome posts like “Why We as Women Need to Ease Up On Men,” and “What If He Cries?” but these projects are few and far between with little-to-no tie to travel or study abroad.

Over the past decade I’ve struggled with overcoming my own fears, embracing the study abroad experience, traveling independently, and simultaneously been involved in encouraging more people to study and go abroad.  As I reflect on the conversations I had in the lead-up to both my six week summer study abroad trip in 2004 and the two-year full degree Master’s program I recently completed in Denmark, I find myself confident that one of the primary reasons there are so few of us studying abroad is because … it is scary.

The risk of lost social capital is significant, and there are virtually no resources available for men to help us address our fears. If you google, “Is it dangerous for men to travel alone?” of the 10 results on the first page, three are gender neutral, and seven are for women despite the search terms used. Similarly, when reading up on solo travel and travel in general, guides are written in gender neutral language or almost exclusively for female travelers. A prime example of this is the BBC’s recent piece “Should women avoid solo travel?.” This is a fantastic piece but, it drives home the point that there is a massive void when it comes to resources for men. Simply put, it implies a culture where men are the dominant travelers and can take care of themselves. While this is deeply ingrained in virtually all of us, myself included, this is a myth.

The reality is that we are every bit as scared of studying abroad as women.  In some cases even more so, because we lack outlets to ask questions and to get re-assurance that our fears are acceptable and common place.  Preparing for and embarking on a study abroad or solo travel trip is something that inherently relies on seeking out exterior information.  You need to find resources, do your research, and ask questions so you know what to expect. This involves admitting what you don’t know, and accepting that you have a bag full of rational and irrational fears that must be addressed.  It is informative to watch men’s faces during a study abroad information session and the look of muted relief that sweeps over them when one of the guys finally steps forward and asks a question they’ve all been itching to know, but were afraid to ask; to risk being judged harshly or appearing overly soft.

We also have to accept and work to improve the support network available to most young men.  While many women are able to share their fears and uncertainties about study abroad with family and friends, it is often a much more guarded discussion for men. Relatively simple things such as a fear of foreign foods, or having to navigate and use buses, trains and planes, are often the types of topics that many men will only discuss with their closest friends at the end of a long night full of beer.

It is important that young men understand that there is nothing shameful about these fears. We do not have to be completely self-sufficient. We can admit our uncertainty.  The alternative is that we find excuses, miss deadlines, or dismiss study abroad as something that we don’t have time for leading us to miss out on an incredibly important life experience.   Those organizing and running study abroad programs must become more pro-active in their efforts to reach and engage young men while realizing that the stoic and self-reliant mask they present covers a boiling mass of uncertainty and layers upon layers of rationalizations and excuses.

2. Added dangers exist for men

Study abroad and solo travel are, in general, extremely safe.  In reality they are often far safer than an identical period of time spent at home, especially if you’re from a major metropolitan area.  That being said, there are some added concerns that are worth being mindful of, particularly because study abroad and solo travel usually include large amounts of alcohol and bar culture. When discussing study abroad and solo travel safety, the present discussion revolves almost entirely around women’s safety and risk of kidnapping and rape.  While these concerns are extremely relevant and valuable, the temptation to assume that men have it easy is misleading and a disservice to the discussion.

One area that is rarely discussed, but much on the minds of young men, is the threat of fights while abroad.  I suspect that this is due in part because our cultural ‘mancode’ dictates that a man that is involved in a fight and loses will be eager to keep the details to himself, while a man that is involved in a fight and wins will be automatically assumed to be the aggressor and somehow responsible for the fight. This places men in a difficult no-win position, and one which encourages silence and the avoidance of the topic all together similar to what researchers have documented when exploring the reporting of domestic violence.

I’m a tall guy, and while that often works to my advantage in discouraging confrontation, it also makes me a target. Despite that, I’ve never been engaged in a direct confrontation that escalated beyond a push or two while living and traveling in more than 40 countries.  That being said, small confrontations and the threat of violence are a relatively normal part of a night out and/or bar culture. While I’ve managed to avoid major conflicts, the sight of guys at hostels sporting a black eye or bruised lip isn’t exactly an uncommon one.  While I think these incidents are less common while studying abroad than at home, men face a significantly increased risk of being assaulted compared to their female counterparts.  This risk is compounded dramatically in social and club situations where men are expected to serve as a buffer and safe zone for their female counterparts when they find they’re tired of dancing, talking to a guy, or want a break.

The risk of sexual assault and of getting drugged, while dramatically reduced compared to women, is still present and a very real risk. I know numerous men who have been drugged for a variety of reasons which ranged from exploitation, to robbery, to sexual assault, and perhaps most commonly, by other men interested in removing competition. While, thankfully, I have never experienced any of those, I have been aggressively grabbed and groped by both men and women more often than I care to recall.

Again, I want to reiterate that most of these threats are the same exact threats we would face and experience in bars in our home cities.  As someone who did my undergraduate program in Phoenix, Arizona, I find that most of my time spent studying/living/traveling abroad is dramatically safer. But, if we want more men to study abroad, we need to discuss these risks and threats in the same way we treat those posed to women.

3. Study abroad – Not just hookups and adventure sports

We live in a media culture that has made the study abroad experience the near exclusive domain of romantic comedies and chick flicks.  From an early age women grow up on stories depicting deeply charming and romantic travel experiences in far off and exotic places.  They are encouraged to see study abroad as an opportunity to seek love, to enjoy incredible food, and to immerse themselves in art, music, and culture.

For heterosexual men the cultural message is far less engaging and not nearly as compelling.  While there are messages to go abroad these often depict men already settled into their careers.  Other alternatives tell us that travel internationally should revolve around sex with exotic internationals (eg: Eurotrip) or the pursuit of adrenaline-fueled activities such as skydiving, bungee jumping, and downhill snowboarding (which are hardly study-centric activities).

The message we get is fairly clear:  Study abroad is only kinda, sorta, maybe for men and even then only high-testosterone adrenaline addicts or head-in-the-clouds whimsical lit-nerds. Those messages are complete and absolute pigswill.  Study abroad is for everyone. Seriously. Everyone.

4. It won’t jeopardize your career

As men, we experience a significant amount of familial and cultural pressure to start our careers and to focus on career-related activities from day one.  Travel is conveyed as something to be done after we complete our studies and succeed. For those with a passion for travel, it is implied that we should find a career that includes large amounts of business travel and use it as our platform for discovering the world.

Again, this is grossly inaccurate and something that is starting to change. Already employers report that they are looking for candidates that have international experience and have studied or traveled abroad over an extended period of time.  This is because they feel that those who have tend to be more adaptable, flexible, able to live effectively in a variety of cultural contexts. In many ways, study abroad is becoming an essential component of the undergraduate experience – on par with taking on a student internship.  It teaches many of the same skills, while also honing a student’s self confidence, independence, and global perspective.  Study abroad matures individuals and builds improved resilience and character while diversifying the student’s world view.

Where many men have historically bypassed study abroad out of financial concerns, or fear of lost opportunities to network or add work experience to their resumes, employers are increasingly viewing study abroad as a key sign of employability.  So, while this in no way means that young men should choose study abroad in place of an internship or career development opportunity, the two should be explored in tandem.  Outdated perceptions that study abroad was a sign of a student escaping from academic work, or taking an academic vacation are now out of date and have largely been abandoned. So much so that we are starting to see many university programs incorporating mandatory exchange periods as part of their curriculum.

Long story short: Men, if you don’t want to blow your future, it’s time to study abroad.

5. Socializing isn’t easy

Depending on where you sit on the nature/nurture debate you can attribute men’s social behaviors to a variety of different sources. Regardless, at the end of the day we tend to be less social than our female counterparts.  This can make establishing new social networks and connections particularly challenging and nerve-wracking when debating the prospect of study abroad.

If you are shy and one of the primary things holding you back is a fear that you won’t be able to make new friends during your exchange, don’t worry.  Travel is an incredible tool for breaking out of your shell and developing new friendships and conversational abilities.  Even if you suffer brutal social anxiety, the opportunity to experiment, explore, and reach out to a peer group of students who are in the same boat, and locals who are deeply curious about where you are from and why you chose their city, is invaluable.

As men we need to be honest with ourselves, accept that we’re not all natural athletes looking to join sports clubs or die-hard Magic the Gathering gamers. We have to accept that socializing while abroad is a huge fear for many guys as they consider taking a trip and re-affirm that while it won’t be easy, it won’t be as difficult or brutally uncomfortable as we might fear. Sure, there will be nights spent alone on Facebook, but far more often you’ll have a group of fellow exchange students with much more in common with you than a group of people 100 times the size back home.

6. Parental support

In conversations with female friends it has become apparent to me that the playing field isn’t equal when it comes to parental support for travel and study abroad. While the student need and benefit from study abroad is equal regardless of gender, there are far too many cases where financial and social support from parents is decidedly lopsided.  While I’ve been very lucky and had folks that prioritized travel, I have many peers who have found that where their parents were willing to support and pay for their daughters to study abroad, there were decidedly different levels of support and social pressures placed on their sons.  It’s impossible to know how much of this stems from cultural norms and expectations that young men should be able to support and provide for themselves, and how much of it is simply based in young women being more vocal about how important study abroad is to them.  I’m in no way implying or seeking to lessen the efforts of the countless women who go about researching, pursuing, and financing their study abroad all on their own.  I’m simply noting observations I’ve had shared by men and women alike, that while women often have to make a stronger case for their safety when seeking parental support, that support, particularly financially, tends to be more available for women than men.

7. The money is out there

Unfortunately, study abroad isn’t cheap.  While every penny invested is 100% worth it, it’s true that a solo trip done on the cheap can run you about half the cost of a study abroad exchange.  Of course, the tradeoff is that you don’t receive the academic credits, and you miss out on opportunities for scholarships, grants, and funding. When weighing the options available to you, you should keep in mind that because study abroad is typically based in one or two centralized locations you will get a much better feeling for the community and culture as opposed to typical budget travel which covers 10-15 times as many destinations. Also consider that each type of study abroad is different, just as study abroad and general travel are different.  For added discussion on the topic see my post exploring long vs. short term study abroad here.

Lastly, it is extremely important that men be pro-active in pursuing scholarships, tuition waivers, and financial aid for study abroad opportunities.  While this is more relevant for American, Canadian, British and Australian readers, it is equally relevant for European readers who may seek to supplement the ERASMUS fee.  There are a wealth of resources available to help you make your study abroad experience possible, you will just need to seek them out and be pro-active in asking for the funds.  Again, this all comes down to asking for help often, and in a wide variety of places.

Final thoughts

Recent growth in study abroad is exciting and representative of how the world is changing as new technologies continue to reduce costs, bridge communication barriers, and provide new opportunities for self discovery and exploration.   Men benefit immensely from the study abroad experience. More than that though, it is of the utmost importance that we strive for relative equal representation within the study abroad community because both genders have so much to contribute. The chance to explore the world, cultures, and foods as part of a group not only creates a more well-rounded exchange experience, it provides a significantly safer one.

As we push forward, it is important that we all do our part to re-frame the discussion surrounding men, study abroad, and independent travel.  The challenges young men face are not limited to their own decisions and experiences. They are representative of the sum of the cultural messages and resources that shape the study abroad environment. It is up to all of us to help create a more supportive and transparent dialogue that helps young men feel comfortable and capable when exploring study abroad options.

We also need to change the way we handle and discuss these types of posts. In researching this post, I discussed the topic with a number of other male peers and bloggers. Many expressed agreement that the topic needed to be addressed, but felt as though any attempt to do so would immediately be met with aggression, allegations of sexism, or seen as an attempt to belittle the challenges and gains women have made in higher education and study abroad over the past few decades. This is not my intention and I know there are large groups of women who are every bit as concerned by the gender gap as I am and working doggedly to help bridge it. Still, I publish this post with some apprehension.

It would be fantastic if men who have made the jump and chosen to study abroad or embark on a solo travel trip would share some of their own stories, their experiences, and their fears in bridging the gap between the concept of going abroad and the reality of making it happen.

 

You Will Never Make Friends Sitting In A Dark Room By Yourself

Women Relaxing - Copenhagen, Denmark

It has been 22 months since I arrived at Copenhagen Airport lugging three over-sized suitcases and a backpack.  I arrived in Denmark with lots of assumptions and unknowns and very little concrete data.  The sum of my previous exposure to Denmark stemmed from meeting Danes abroad, reading about a quirky Utopian liberal paradise in the frozen north, and two glorious summer days spent in Denmark the year before. At the time I didn’t know the difference between Scandinavian and Nordic, though I had mastered the fact that Danes spoke Danish, Germans were Deutsche and the Dutch were from Holland.   I assumed that Copenhagen’s “difficult” housing market meant I’d have to look at 5 or 6 places and it might take a week to find somewhere – not that I’d spend four months searching, having to interview like I was applying for a job, to get a room. I also traded an extensive local social network in Arizona for Denmark, where I knew virtually no one.  When I arrived I intended to stay for two years, but told myself that if I didn’t like it or couldn’t cut it there would be no shame in packing my bags and heading back to the US where I had a deferred acceptance to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. waiting for me.

I remember the moment when I walked out of the airport, fighting with my bags, in search of a luggage locker to store two of the larger ones.  It felt like I’d just been smacked in the face with a fresh fish.  In part because of the light Danish rain that was falling, but mostly because that’s when it finally registered completely that I had conquered my fears, bypassed the temptation to self-sabotage myself, chosen a direction, closed my eyes and jumped…to a totally different continent.  It hit me then, completely, that I was now responsible for building the next stage of my life.  A two-year period, assuming I didn’t blow it, that would require me to re-orient myself from the corporate lifestyle I had grown accustomed to in favor of the lifestyle of a student.  That I would need to not only adjust to student life, but Danish student life, and the life of an expat. It was an incredible feeling…but it was also a fantastic amount of pressure. There was the pressure not to fail myself, my family, my friends, or my future.  It weighed on my mind heavily over the first few months as I fretted over how I would perform as a Danish MA student. I paused to ask myself if I was doing all I could to help myself succeed while doing a periodic gut-check to see if I was suffering from homesickness. To the first – I could have done more, but did well.  To the second – to this day I’ve never had a bad case of homesickness.

Spring in the Mirror

The First Few Months

The first few months were not easy. The Dorm offer I received from the University of Copenhagen’s affiliated housing program was dreadful: situated 40 minutes outside of town in a deeply residential area that was predominantly home  to other International Students. I refused it and casually searched for a more centralized housing option.  For the first month I had a place to stay because of an incredible referral that was a text-book illustration of Danish hospitality, and the power of my international social network. I looked for apartments but still didn’t completely understand how the Danish rental market worked. I resisted getting into a housing agreement because my Visa and Residence Permit was still being processed in what dragged along for a vexing and gut-knotting four plus month ordeal.  After a month staying with my first friend, he now had new renters moving in. He referred me to a friend of his who put me up for another two months.  I had arrived at the end of July. By late October my residence permit finally came through. Shortly thereafter I thought I’d found a place, only to find out six days in that my 42-year-old male roommate not only found me very attractive but was also extremely odd. It was very uncomfortable, but makes for a comical story. I moved out on the morning of the 7th day. When I told him that morning he cried. After a third month back with the friend who had been putting me up, I finally got frustrated by the apartment hunt and offered 200DK a month more than the asking price for a room. It worked. By December I had a furnished room at a reasonable price in an excellent location.  With a permanent address and my Visa/Residence Card, I was able to get my CPR number which is effectively the Danish version of a Drivers License and Social Security Card all rolled into one.  It meant I could finally register for a cellphone plan, get internet, and a bank account. In short, I could begin to settle.

The combination of visa and housing woes were partially compounded by a strange first semester as I re-integrated into the academic world. I can’t say that I felt like I was homeless for the majority of my first semester in Denmark, as that isn’t accurate, but I was in a transient state. It made settling nearly impossible and sucked up a lot of the energy I would have otherwise liked to have invested in meeting people and really hitting the ground running. Luckily my classmates were fantastic and we bonded quickly which did a lot to help offset the periods of fairly deep loneliness I felt during my first couple of months. This was a time where I worked to push my comfort zone and struggled to re-develop the skills needed to meet strangers and befriend them. During that time I grew a lot, despite it being fairly difficult and at times uncomfortable.  I would go to the local hostel bar and hangout with travelers, go to the movies alone, and at times head to the bars alone and force myself to meet random people. It worked, but was hard and draining. It was also made even more difficult by my lack of regular access to a Danish cell phone and the internet.  Things I needed a CPR for.

YGWA Conference 2013

Mentorship

During that first semester I participated in the Full Degree Mentor program.  My mentor was a Danish girl who introduced me to a local library where I could write my papers, talked with me about Danish lifestyle, and helped translate apartment listings and websites when I ran into issues. She was super busy but always available and helpful.  In retrospect I should have reached out to her far more often and felt less guilty about asking for general help and insights into social activities. At the time I felt somewhat awkward about being overly needy and like I didn’t want to bother her or intrude.  Over this past semester I had the chance to pay-it-forward and serve as a mentor for several incoming students. Now that I’ve spent time on the other side of the equation, I realize that I could have and should have gotten significantly more out of my mentor/mentee relationship – not because she failed me, but because I failed to realize the potential of the program. At the time I had trouble accepting that it was completely OK to ask simple questions and that as mentors we are not only there to help with small and big things alike, but also eager.   To make introductions, to facilitate meeting people, and to connect for coffee or social outings. At a certain level the mentor is often available and doesn’t know what you want or need help with until you ask.  To that end, what I got out of the mentor program was directly related to what I showed I needed.  I’m independent and self-directed. In this case, that go-it-alone approach undermined my success.  I’m a bit jealous of new students entering into the program because the mentor program is being significantly expanded and improved upon.  It will provide a lot of additional social and academic support – things that the early incarnation of the program lacked two years ago.  The new program also provides a lot of events which allow students to meet each other and connect – something that would have been an incredible asset for me when I was first adjusting to Copenhagen but which was lacking. I think these changes will make future Full Degree students’ experiences much smoother and significantly less stressful.

In tandem I also signed up for a professional mentor matching program which was run by the University of Copenhagen and operated university-wide.  The lion’s share of the programs were for Danes, but I made sure to dress in my suit and attended the information day.  The combination of my professional appearance and previous work experience as Research Director in the M&A industry led the Siemens representative to give me her e-mail and ask for my resume. I followed up, and based on her suggestion, listed Siemens as one of the three companies I applied for with a professional mentor.  Despite my inability to speak Danish, they chose to make an exception. I was later matched with their Communications Director in what has been a wonderful mentor/mentee relationship providing fantastic insights into the Danish workplace and professional landscape. Even though the program ended late last year we have continued to keep in touch.

The Hill - Copenhagen, Denmark

The Education

Earlier I mentioned that my first semester was strange.  In truth, I was terrified that the Danish University system would be brutally difficult.  That, despite graduating from Arizona State University’s Honors College and a solid academic background, I would be generally outclassed by my classmates – the best and brightest from everywhere from Denmark to China to Germany. What I found instead was a comfortable program that was still young and experiencing significant growing pains.  Created two years before as a new initiative, the program was full of challenges.  Challenges that were compounded by a number of significant administrative issues, including having one of our professors deported to Australia two weeks before our final exam was due.  These flaws generally impacted class morale across the program and left many of us frustrated.  The upside was that the Danish system is heavily paper oriented with the primary method of examination in most of my classes consisting of either a final 20-25 page research paper, or 10-15 page paper with a 30 minute oral defense.  The remainder of our course work was relatively easy to handle and played to my strengths.  As a native English speaker, I also enjoyed the advantage of writing in my mother tongue. Beyond that though, I realized why American universities, despite their many faults, are some of the best in the world. They prepared me, and drilled into me habits and protocols which have allowed me to excel within the Danish academic environment.  Where I initially thought that the program itself was  easy, I’ve come to realize that it was actually quite difficult by traditional standards. It played perfectly to my strengths, abilities and existing knowledge base.

Now that I better understand the Danish academic landscape, I’ve come to realize just how varied the different programs and universities are. Where I initially thought that the Copenhagen Business School (CBS) was a subset within the University of Copenhagen (KU) just as the W.P. Carey School of Business is a college within Arizona State University, I now know that the two operate independently but still maintain the opportunity to take transferable courses.  I now also know that CBS tends to be very practically oriented while KU tends to be much more heavily focused on a theoretical and academic approach to a university education.  Both contrast against Roskilde University’s heavily humanistic approach, and differ from the Danish Technical University’s (DTU) hard science and math-based approach. If I had taken more time to learn about the different universities and had better understood the differences early on, I believe I would have been much better positioned to custom-craft my education and take full advantage of the highly flexible nature of the Danish university system.

Another key consideration that I wish I had known from the start is the difference in definitions and organizational structure. While the Danish University system is deceptively similar in many ways to the American university, there are basic differences in how material is classified and what material falls under what category.  When I applied for the Communication and Cognition program, I anticipated that the communication component would build heavily upon my bachelors degree which was focused in Human Communication with Mass Communication influences as well as some Journalism cross-over.  What I found instead was a program that was more heavily oriented towards communication theory and communication philosophy with an even greater emphasis on cognitive philosophy and cognitive theory mixed in with lightweight neuroscience.  Programs that I initially assumed would have fallen organically under the Communication category within my program were instead set up independently as different departments such as Film Studies, Media Studies, Rhetoric, IT and Cognition.  While not directly related to my studies, a poignant example of this is the difference between University of Copenhagen’s Theology Department and Religionsvidenskab or Religious Studies Lab and other specialized programs such as Arab Studies in the Cross Cultural and Regional studies program which are spread across three very different study areas.  An international looking to study religion and religion(s) might assume Theology would be the obvious landing place for them, but would quickly discover a program structured and designed for the education of Christian Clergy. These subtle organizational differences were deeply confusing initially.  Ultimately, I could have saved myself a lot of frustration, and misplaced discontent, if I had realized the need to do less narrow research and to take into consideration that these structural and definitional differences might exist.

One final academic takeaway is the difference between ECTS points, the Danish 7 point grade scale and their American alternatives.  While the US operates on a credit hour-based system with the average bachelors degree semester consisting of around 15 credit hours at 3 to 4 credit hours per course, the Danish system utilizes ECTS points which roughly equate to expected time investment for a given course.  At KU my courses have mostly fallen into a 7.5 or 15 ECTS point category depending on anticipated scope and involvement with a typical semester ECTS load of 30 ECTS (equiv. to 30 hours of work per week) viewed as normal and on track.    While somewhat difficult to translate across, the ECTS system is relatively straight forward and used across Europe.

On the other hand the Danish 7 point grade scale is an absolute disaster.  The Danish grading scale was re-structured several years ago in a process similar to the US’s switch to the + or – A, B, C, D, E/F system.  The Danish switch was made in an effort to simplify the old 13 point system while creating a new system that better translated to international systems such as the US’s.  In addition to widespread confusion about the new scale, it is extremely counter-intuitive.  While called the new 7 step scale, it actually ranges from -3 to 12.  To further muck things up the scale has gaps and the 7 steps are actually 12, 10, 7, 4, 02, 00, -3.  The scale officially translates differently to the ECTS based scale and the US grade scale.  This wouldn’t be an issue, except that there is massive confusion over what quality of work a 7, 10 and 12 equates to.  Danish transcripts utilize the ECTS conversion which maps a 12 to an A, a 10 to a B, and a 7 to a C.  The way the Danish professors grade, however, translates more accurately to the US version which maps a 12 to an A+ (near perfect/perfect), 10 to an A and A-, and a 7 to a B or B+.  Meanwhile at the bottom of the passing scale a 02 or “adequate” grade awarded in Denmark registers as an E on the ECTS scale (and the official transcripts) which signifies a fail or incomplete in the U.S. system. This despite a 02 actually reflecting a D, D+ or C- by US standards.  Given that most international employers and Universities aren’t regularly exposed to Danes and the Danish education system, I feel that this is likely a significant source of mis-communication.  I know that within our department, at least, it is only now after two years within the system that I’ve started to fully understand it.

The Largest Tuborg in Copenhagen

Social Reflections

A lot of people fail at prolonged study abroad/exchange/expat life. Ultimately, one of the primary reasons is an inability to successfully socialize and adapt to their new living place.  This post is titled, “You Will Never Make Friends Sitting In a Dark Room By Yourself” because at the end of the day the benefits from study abroad are more experiential than academic.  The lion’s share of the experience, the learning, and the incredible moments I’ve had over the past 22 months comes from hands-on learning and growth.  It has been a wonderful learning opportunity  for me and a time for fantastic introspection and self development. I would have missed out on the vast majority of that if I confined myself exclusively to my studies and severely limited my social involvement or confined it solely to expats.

It took me about 8 months to start to feel settled. The first three months were the hardest and it progressively got easier from there.  BUT, those first three months would have been significantly better had I socialized differently.  In many ways, outside of networking and socializing with the people from my program (about 90% of which were international students) most of my interactions with other people were 1-offs. The common advice given to most new arrivals is to join an association or to pick up a sport.  I find watching sports to be painfully boring and outside of ballroom and salsa dancing, have a general dislike for playing most sports bred by years of dealing with fantastically bad coaches.  To make matters worse, outside of Risk and Monopoly ,I find board games and card games similarly dry and painfully uninteresting.  It generally takes friends to make friends while going drinking, and many of my other interests – travel, photography, space, philosophy, and topics such as business and politics aren’t the type of thing that are easy for casual socializing.  My solution? To push myself periodically to get out of my comfort zone. Unfortunately, that’s draining, stressful, and daunting. So, far more often I stayed home, logged on Facebook late at night and chatted with my friends back in the US.  While this helped me offset the feeling of loneliness, it did little to help me properly integrate or connect with people here in Denmark. The fact that my housing, cell phone and internet access were all a mess for the first 5 months made it worse, but did not need to be anywhere near as prohibitive as I let them be.

What I should have been doing was attending faculty Friday Bars, signing up for Couchsurfing meetups, finding and attending groups on Meetup.com, and tapping into a wealth of fantastic expat (and non) networking groups and events through Facebook.  It took me almost a year to start to get introduced to things like Science and Cocktails – a bi-monthly meetup which is free, and provides a wonderful evening drinking old-fashioned cocktails overflowing with dry ice, served up by Danes in lab-coats  – all while listening to brilliant scientific minds give a casual introduction to things like CERN or Super Volcanoes.

I also should have been working to organize things instead of allowing myself to wait and hope for invitations to events. Over the past year I’ve learned and realized something I already knew but wasn’t acting upon. As an international, the way you make local friends is by inviting locals (in this case Danes) to interesting events. It’s something I’m still horrible about.  The other realization I’ve had is that while it’s great to make social friends while drinking, if you want to convert those into more general day-to-day friendships you need to diversify when you do things.  That means other activities during the week – catching concerts, going to shows, or getting together for dinner or a coffee on a semi-regular basis.  Also, yes, sports do help.  After an initial series of salsa evenings that left me with a less than complimentary view of the local Copenhagen Salsa scene I took a four-month break and gave up on it as a local way to network.  Luckily five months in a friend dragged me out to a new place.  The new venue was everything I thought Copenhagen was initially lacking.  Through it, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and connect with a lot of wonderful people – both Danes,and Internationals.  Many are students, but many are also business professionals.  Over the last year I’ve also gotten more involved in the local University culture – the highlight of which was joining the Youth Goodwill Ambassador Corps. A group of wonderfully motivated and like-minded international students. The program has created great connections, while also introducing me to fantastic opportunities such as the recent chance to meet HRH, Prince Joachim of Denmark.

Which leads to the next point.  Students are great, but to build long-lasting connections to a place you need to diversify who you’re connecting with. Students, especially international students and expats, are in transient stages in their lives. The average professional expat stays in Denmark for 3-5 years.  The majority of the international students in Copenhagen are on Erasmus or semester exchanges which means they are in Denmark for four to six months. These relationships can be excellent and I’ve developed a truly global network of great friends as a result, BUT for someone in my position doing a two-year program it has meant that a huge chunk of my social network leaves within two to three months of our friendship’s maturing.

Ultimately, time and money are the two biggest challenges I’ve run into.  As my two year program winds down and I reflect on my time here in Denmark there’s a lot more I could have done (there always is) and that I could have done better. I got a lot out of my time at the University of Copenhagen but the reality is that I could have gotten more heavily involved, attended more social events, and connected in a much more extensive way with the Danish students. I also have a lot of wonderful casual friends/acquaintances that I am confident would be fantastic friends if I just had, or made, the time to be more pro-active in spending time with them.  Nothing simple, nothing complicated, just inviting them for coffee, a drink, or to catch a show a few times a month. I know this, and yet it is challenging. In part because I still find myself slipping back into that dark room, content to chat with friends 3,000 miles away on lazy evenings.  Beyond that though, there is a second room that is deceptive.  The friends I’ve made through my program and which I hang out with regularly are fantastic. So much so that it is easy and comfortable for me to spend all my time with them, or working on my personal projects (eg: this blog). The reality is, however, that crutch also prevents me from properly responding to and realizing the invitations that potential friends and casual acquaintances send my way. It is also expensive to socialize. Even when the time for a coffee with a different friend is available, the $5-10 required for a coffee or beer  adds up quickly.

Relaxing in the Park - Copenhagen

Will I Stay?

As I work on completing my thesis and winding down my MA program I am incredibly happy with my choice to come to Denmark.  While this post focuses predominantly on things I’ve learned or could have improved upon and want to share with other potential study abroad students, I have fallen in love with Copenhagen. The people are spectacular, the history fascinating, the culture engaging, and the city deeply charming.  Denmark, and Copenhagen more specifically, is doing a lot of things right. While it has its moments of tomfoolery common sense is present here in a way I always found deeply lacking in Arizona.

I am currently in the process of transitioning from academic life back into the professional world.  As I do so I am working towards a skilled worker visa and full-time position in Denmark.  As I make that transition, I am reminded of the absolute power of a vibrant social network and the pivotal role it plays in launching a successful career.  While this is a period for reflection, I also plan to take the lessons I’ve learned over the last 2 years and work to more aggressively implement and act upon them moving forward, particularly if I find myself presented with the opportunity to stay in Denmark for several more years. I feel as though I am well on my way down the path toward comfortable integration.  Moving forward it is just a matter of continuing to overcome bad habits while building upon good ones.

This post is part of a series of pieces I have written reflecting upon my time in Denmark, Danish culture and Study Abroad.  Please consider searching the archives for previous posts related to Denmark.

Meeting Royalty Abroad: A Danish Prince

The Streets of Copenhagen

As an American, I find the concept of royalty intriguing. I can’t say I really know where I stand on the issue.  On the one hand, it seems like a fun nod to history and a great added cultural dynamic to help represent a nation’s culture, heritage, and identity without many of the political trappings that go with elected delegates.  On the other hand, I have my American bias which bubbles up almost instantaneously with the screech of a bald eagle, its cry heralding freedom and the taste of apple pie and hot dogs. This may be the perfect connection to resolve my inner turmoil and begin to understand the Dane’s adoring relationship with their royal family.  After all, as a hot dog vendor outside Vesterport Station once told me, New York and Germany may get partial credit for the hot dog, but it actually originated right here in Denmark. I suppose wars have been started over smaller claims, but in this case, perhaps it is a great illustration of the many core ideals, principles and cultural components that the US and Denmark share.

Meeting with HRH Prince Joachim

I’ve gotta’ admit that over the last year and a half my respect for the Danish Royals has grown exponentially. With rare exceptions, the Danes absolutely love them.  They bring in NYE with the Queen’s speech. An event which somehow manages to get a country full of extremely happy, energetic, and firework-crazed party-goers to set down their explosives, take a sip of their drinks, turn on the TV, and listen in dead-silence for half an hour. As someone who also comes from a country that loves mixing loud conversations, high-explosives, and alcohol – I’ve gotta say I was not only impressed but also a bit shocked.

Martin Lidegaard

But, perhaps I shouldn’t have been … after all, the Danes have a lot to be proud of and are without a doubt one of the most patriotic groups of people I’ve encountered outside of the United States. They don’t just love their royals, they take great pride in their flag – the oldest in the world – their culture, their heritage, and their country as a whole. So, it was a very special and unusual honor when I learned that HRH Prince Joachim of Denmark would be doing a Q&A session with a small group of us.  It’s a highly unusual opportunity to have the chance to meet with royals,  an even rarer opportunity to meet with beloved royals, and even rarer still to be able to pose a series of questions during the meeting.

Meeting with HRH Prince Joachim

I’m a member of the Danish Youth Goodwill Ambassador Corps. We are a relatively new initiative that has been launched through a partnership between a number of different Danish organizations as a youth/student talent development program. Our charter is straight forward – to connect with other international students with a passion for Denmark and to share the knowledge we’ve accumulated during our time in Denmark with the world at large.

Meeting with HRH Prince Joachim

This past weekend we held our national conference.  It was a two-day event where YGWAs from Aalborg, Aarhus, and Copenhagen came together to meet, mingle, brainstorm and learn about Denmark.  As part of the conference, HRH Prince Joachim spent an hour with us while answering a variety of questions from the audience.  The questions were very diverse and focused on everything from his entrepreneurial projects, what it is like to balance life as an entrepreneur, parent and royal to questions about innovation, and even a few about how best to enact change in the world around us.  He was joined by the Minister of Climate, Energy and Building, Martin Lidegaard and Martin Bendsøe who is the SVP and Dean of the Danish Technical Institute. The event was moderated by Natasja Crone, one of Denmark’s most prominent Danish journalists.

YGWA Conference 2013

I was absolutely blown away by the introductory talks given by both HRH Prince Joachim and Minister Lidegaard. It wasn’t the usual talking points and dry ramblings you might expect from politicians.  Just as it wasn’t a rushed regurgitation of points exhaled swiftly and barely given time to settle in before  a flurry of hand shakes and the sound of the revolving door swinging shut as is so often the case with high ranking officials. In particular, it was fantastic to see that the Prince arrived at the start of the event and stayed until the end.  More or less a three-hour period, during which time he paid close attention to the Minister, the Dean, and the panel of four local entrepreneurs who also presented.  He also made himself available to us during the two brief breaks and gladly answered questions, paused for photos and chatted with us. Hardly the type of behavior I expected and a real tribute to the Danish Royal Family.  I can’t stress enough just how genuine and sincere HRH Prince Joachim was.

YGWA Conference 2013

The following clip is a short segment I shot on my iPhone (sorry about the quality) as HRH responded to one of our questions.

For my part, I was able to ask Minister Lidegaard two direct questions about the work he has been doing to pass a work visa/green card reform bill which is as exciting as it is progressive. The new bill would automatically grant a three-year green card to all international students who have received a complete MA or PhD from a Danish University.  As I wrap up my MA and explore job opportunities, an automatic work visa would drastically improve my chances of staying in Denmark and greatly ease the challenges that go with finding work here as an expat. Something that would be a net-gain for both my career and for Denmark who would retain me as a business professional, economic driver, and taxpayer while realizing benefit from the money they spent on my Masters.  A far cry from the current system which heavily encourages me to go abroad or return to the United States where I’ll work professionally, likely in competition with Danish companies.  Minister Lidegaard’s talk also had great factoids about Denmark’s renewable energy policy, how to deal with the emerging rift between the renewable energy camp and the conservation/green party, and some powerful points about infrastructure investments necessary over the next 10 years to keep Denmark’s power infrastructure secure and operational.

Meeting with HRH Prince Joachim

At the end HRH Prince Joachim left us with this final thought:

“To me the duty of representing Denmark truly is a privilege. It is very rewarding and I love to see that the work I do can be fruitful to Danish society as a whole. As youth goodwill ambassadors you will reflect on your experience in Denmark and whether at home in your own country or embarking on a new international career elsewhere in the world, you will always remember your time in Denmark and take a piece of Denmark with you.”

On that note I would like to extend a special thank you to His Royal Highness the Prince, the Minister, the rest of the speakers, and the Danish people for a fantastic experience and wonderful, informative, and exciting cultural insight. I can now cross meeting with royalty off the bucket list.  Next up? Working on that knighthood …

*Event photos in this post were provided by the official event photographer and are used with permission*

20 Days in Central America for less than $2,500

Barrier Reef - Sailing Tour - Belize

One of the most common questions I receive from friends and readers alike is how do you afford it? The assumption is that a 16-20 day trip abroad must be terribly expensive.  People commonly expect the trip expense to be somewhere in the $5,000-$10,000 USD range.  Which, given the structure and cost associated with most of the vacations Americans take, isn’t unreasonable.  When I tell them that my average trip costs me less than $3,000 most people are surprised, and more than a few don’t initially believe me.

I recently wrote a post explaining how I’ve managed to save for/budget the ~$6,000 I need each year for two 16-20 day trips abroad in my blog post, “Tallying Up the Cost: How I Afford to Travel“.  My goal with this post is to share with you my real world application of the techniques I outlined previously.

A few things to keep in mind: I could have done this trip for several hundred dollars cheaper.  I splurged on food on a regular basis, opted for mid-tier budget accommodation, and took a number of tours which I could have done solo/on my own for half the price.  I was also traveling during Central America’s peak season (December/January) which resulted in a significantly more expensive flight ticket and increased prices for the tours I did.

Barrier Reef - Sailing Tour - Belize

What It Cost

A round trip ticket from Phoenix to Cancun with travel insurance:  $530 USD.

Total Credit Card expenses: $280.29.

Total ATM Cash Withdrawals: $1,461.99.

Misc. expenses (ATM Fees/Reserve USD): $87.

Total price: $2358.81 for everything.

Actun Tunichil Muknal - Mayan Cave

Evaluating the Real Cost

That’s not the end of the story.  It’s important to put that figure into context.  Keep in mind that I was gone for 20 days.  An extended period during which I would have had a number of basic expenses regardless of where I was located.

In a given day at home/work I spend at least $20 on food.  That means that my average food expense had I stayed at home would have been at least $400.   I also go through about 1 tank of gas a week at an average cost of about $40 per tank.  At nearly 3 weeks on the road, I would have spent around $100 on gas in total.  Then add a conservative projection of about $150 total for entertainment expenses (bars, movies, etc.).

The end result is about $650 in expenses that I would have spent anyway, had I been at home.

This drops the real added expense burden down well under $2,000 to about $1,710 for the trip.

Is it cheap? Not necessarily, but is it significantly cheaper than you were probably expecting?  Most definitely.  Is it doable for most people?  Most definitely, IF you’re willing to prioritize and set some money aside.

Thoughts?  Questions?  Comments?  Leave a comment or shoot me a tweet @AlexBerger.  I look forward to your thoughts!