As the exchange program begins to enter its final phase and people start to make plans for the summer, it hits you that you are just not ready to leave. You have made a home for yourself in the dorms of Foggy Bottom - between your routine, your friends, and late night trips to the Lincoln. However, as one exchange group gets ready to leave another is getting ready to arrive. Here are just a few pieces of information I wish someone had told me before arriving!
As most people in the exchange program are from cities with extremely efficient subway systems, the DC metro does not exactly fair well in comparison. It’s great for getting yourself from A to B but it is not something you will use on daily basis.
Do not fear! Uber in DC is ridiculously cheap that it works out better catching a ride than waiting for a subway. If travelling in groups make sure you fair split it!
American bank accounts are very straightforward to set up and if you head up to Bank of America they will give you your own personalised George Washington debit card. Although a lot of students didn’t set up accounts it makes like so much easier. Exchange rates can fluctuate so it's easier to be using American dollars. Also, with an American card you can use the app Venmo and save yourself the hassle of keeping tabs.
Food in DC can be expensive. However, there are cheaper ways to go about it. It is worth doing a trip early on to either Safeway or Walmart to stock up on supplies that will last you a long time. Group cooking also makes like 100 times easier. Once we had settled into our group we decided that it would be one person's turn each day of the week to bulk cook dinner. That way you only have to buy and cook once and yet get a homecooked meal every night of the week (results may vary depending on whether or not you or your friends can cook!)
Depending on the time of year you are coming to DC do not buy a whole new wardrobe for weather that may never arrive. Luckily, winter never really arrived this year and I was spared having to spend hundreds of dollars making sure I didn’t die of hypothermia. I’m just glad I didn’t buy snow boots before I arrived!
Bring two suitcases! It may be a hassle to lug from airport to airport but trust me five months is long enough that you are better off bringing more than you need. I only brought one and there are so many things I wish I had with me.
Bring toiletries! I expected toiletries to be the same price as the UK. However, they are about three times the price here. Stock up on face wipes, dry shampoo and any kind of medication you may need over the course of your time here.
Tax and Tipping
Have fun with this one! I still haven’t fully grasped how it works and it normally just ends up with a bunch of confused foreigners around a dinner table trying to do math. It’s just something you have to accept. Tax is not included in the price of anything and is typically 10% for restaurants, bars etc. Tipping varies but around 15% and 20% is fine.
Travel within the US is more expensive than Europe. However, check out skyscanner for cheap flights (search everywhere at any time for really good deals) and you can find some good flights.
Megabus will get you up to Baltimore, Philly and New York cheap enough. Don’t bother flying or taking the train as it is so much more expensive.
Phone contracts are notoriously expensive in the US. Make sure your phone is unlocked before you arrive. Check your home providers deals for overseas use as it might be cheaper. I currently pay $27.50 for 2GB with T-Mobile (although there are some better deals).
Most importantly - just go have fun!