Although I love my home in North-East England, I’ve always dreamed of living somewhere more exotic, where it doesn’t rain constantly. The first step in my great escape was attending Nottingham Trent University, where I applied for their international exchange semester. The only question was where to study: Europe, North America, Asia?
Travel planning – where to go?
Weighing up my options, I decided there were a few key things I was looking for:
- A sunny climate with minimal rain
- Somewhere I could speak the language
- A place where I could travel long distances overland
In the end, I decided on Arizona, home to the famous Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam. I’d visited these iconic sights on a previous USA trip and was excited to make Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff my new, temporary home.
Planning my move to the USA
Preparing for more than just a short holiday was a learning curve. So, how do you plan for a big, overseas move?
Research and packing
During my brief visit to Arizona I encountered a hot, desert landscape but after some online digging, I learned my first important lesson about travel planning: research. As it turns out, Flagstaff is covered in snow during the winter and some of the spring, so arriving in shorts and flip flops would have been a mistake. In fact, I would need to buy new winter clothes and possibly a ski pass for my six-month study trip to Flagstaff.
As an avid skier, I was especially keen to find out about the snow bowl In Flagstaff. To do this I would need to know two things, how to get there and where to hire skis. I soon discovered there was a shuttle that ran between my campus and the bowl. Skis can be hired at the bowl, but it’s cheaper to hire in town, even if that means lugging them to the bowl.
Health & Insurance
For English students, health is an important consideration before moving to the US. Having up-to-date vaccinations is often a requirement for a visa. In my case, vaccinations were a prerequisite to attend Northern Arizona University, so I had to dust off my childhood vaccination certificates and forward them to NAU.
Travel and health insurance is especially important for anyone travelling to the US and while mine was provided through my home university, it still came with a hefty price tag. Even with insurance, US medical treatment is very expensive. So, when I discovered that my wisdom teeth were infected, I decided to get them taken out before travelling to the US. Although this was an exceptional case, it’s important to have any treatment you might need before travelling.
Next thing to organise was flights. In hindsight I probably should have booked these earlier but I wanted to make sure my university place was guaranteed; my accommodation was sorted and my visa was in place. As a result, the flight prices had risen steeply by the time I was ready to book.
However, with a bit of research I found that by booking a return flight and changing planes in Canada on the way out, I managed to get a round trip ticket from the UK via Toronto to Phoenix and returning via Toronto, New York and Iceland (more on this later) for less than a single direct flight to Phoenix! Sometimes travelling further has advantages.
Getting a visa for the USA was the most important travel planning task. For most people, this means applying for a simple online ESTA, but as an exchange student I needed a J1 visa which involved a visit to the the embassy in London for an interview. This sounds official, but it actually turned out to be just three questions about where I was going, plus a recommendation to visit the Arcosanti Artist Colony. So, with my visa in the post and a new item on my bucket list, I was almost ready for the move.
Adapting to new travel plans
I always knew that I didn’t want to go to America just to study. Since I didn’t take a gap year, I wanted to make the most out of this trip and travel as much as possible, but I quickly came across an obstacle. My student visa only lasts until June and to get a new one, I’d have to leave the USA.
Rather than look at this as a stumbling block, I formulated a plan to island-hop my way back to the UK across Canada, Greenland and Iceland. Unfortunately, Greenland is practically inaccessible from Canada to commercial travellers, but as I discovered when booking my flights, you can get cheaper return tickets if you fly back to the UK from Canada via Iceland, so I managed to salvage two of the countries on my list!
Heading to Iceland
Ok, so if you want to avoid rain, Iceland isn’t the best choice. The last time I visited, my bus was nearly blown over in a storm. I’m happy to brave the weather though, as Iceland’s geography had always fascinated me and I feel the volcanic landscapes and hulking mountains won’t be the same without the enduring Icelandic weather.
Suddenly, my six-month study semester in Arizona has become an eight-month journey across North America and Iceland. What have I learned from the planning process? That when it comes to travel there are no real obstacles, just opportunities to change your plans.