List: Tips for Future UCEAPers

It’s over.

I am writing this blog post from a hotel room in Malaysia, having spent the previous week in China and the week before that in the trenches of finals. I’ll catch up on blog posts during my winter break and continue to update this blog until I feel that it’s complete–which, given my update schedule, won’t be for a few months. I haven’t emptied out everything I need to write.

Studying abroad was the most radical decision I’ve ever made. In one sense, I don’t feel like I’ve changed in terms of my personality, grown spiritually deeper, etc. like I expected from returnees I’d talked to. It also delayed my academic schedule rather than helping me fulfill needed classes, and to put it bluntly, cost a lot. In another sense, planning, traveling, and living abroad gave me (or more accurately, I earned from it) a sense of maturity and independence that even living alone in California never would’ve. I feel both more wary of (though thankfully, I didn’t have any incidents) and more open to talking to strangers in uncertain settings (such as a language barrier). I feel more confident recognizing when and how to take initiative in situations that call for it, and how to budget and schedule efficiently while traveling beyond looking at credit card statements and taking notes on my phone. I feel more comfortable (and actually, eager) about the idea of living or traveling by myself (with safety precautions) anywhere in the world–as if I’ve gained a sixth sense in knowing how to prepare myself for anything. In summary, I feel like more of an adult.[1]

Anyways, on to the tips. This blog post by Mohit Agrawal was probably the most helpful student blog I read in advance out of the several that I did, and my tips below generally echo and expand on what he said. More links to student blogs, as well as a returnee list for contacting, are available through the UC study abroad website and/or Facebook page(s).

1. Unlock your phone before you go abroad. Not jailbreak; unlock. If you don’t know if your phone’s unlocked or not, it probably isn’t; call your phone company about it. Otherwise, you’ll just not be able to use that phone abroad and’ll need to buy a new one once you get here, regardless of whether or not you also buy (which you’ll need unless you have free roaming/long-distance calls in your plan) a local SIM card. I found SGD$50 to be the perfect amount for a prepaid SIM card; mine (the carrier was Starhub, by the way) even came with free data for the first month. Between the additional data plans I bought (~$15/month), long-distance birthday calls to the US, and text messages, I used up all of this and never topped up. I’m also not a super-social person, so YMMV. Most local Singaporeans are as fond of WhatsApp (a free app) as texting or Facebook messaging.

2. Studying abroad in Singapore grants you the opportunity to visit nearby Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and even Australia or Hong Kong/China at a much cheaper price than if you’d flown to them from the US. Your costs will vary[2], but a 3-day trip to Thailand for me during Recess week cost $360 total (including all meals, transportation, souvenirs, and attraction costs). In total during this semester, I visited China (Shanghai and Beijing through a group tour–it’s actually not cheaper from Singapore, but I was going to visit for personal reasons anyway), Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), and Thailand (Bangkok and Krabi). Some other people in my UCEAP group probably went to like 4+ countries during the Recess and Reading semester break weeks (before midterms and finals, respectively, as well as after finals) combined, hopping from country to country.

3. Trains between Malaysia and Singapore are cheap (US$8-20), although so is airfare. Someone I knew traveled across Malaysia using sleeper trains in such a way that he didn’t even need to book any hotels during his trip. Malaysia’s somewhere a lot of people just visit during 3-day weekends, since it’s so close to Singapore.

4. Bring your own shampoo, body wash, and conditioner (in checked luggage, of course), especially if you have a brand preference. Name-brand body care products are expensive here. For example, I have eczema and use sensitive-skin body wash. It’s like four bucks for a bottle in the States and about three times that price here.

5. Speaking of eczema and health-related issues, it’s hot and humid here, but you’ll be spending a lot of time indoors with a fan or air conditioning on anyway. Regardless of what you have or need, take care of medication prescriptions early so you don’t have to deal with UCEAP insurance reimbursement, even though you should be aware of physical and mental health services offered, including free counseling. My skin didn’t any get better for me as opposed to being in Irvine, CA, but it did get much worse when I visited China, then improved drastically once I returned to Southeast Asia.

6. Tap water in Singapore’s safe. Don’t assume the same for other Southeast Asian countries.

7. If a local tour agency advertises a cheaper price for visas than the service centre or embassy, check to make sure there are no hidden fees or additional processing fees.

8. The best time to book a flight is, according to a study, 54 days before departure, though this is only an average. Prices tend to skyrocket in the last 2 weeks leading up to departure.

9. Most airlines are extremely strict and expensive with cancellation and change policies, and if you book through a third-party service, you may not be able to alter your booking at all. In contrast, many reputable hotels and hostels will allow you to cancel a reservation up to 24 hours in advance for free.

10. When traveling, check multiple airfare comparison sites every time, and while it’s not always the cheapest option, consider multi-city booking. Sites I particularly favor (in order from most to least, with others not even being considered for SE Asia) are: AirAsia, Kayak, FareCompare, CheapOAir, Expedia, and Skyscanner.

11. AirAsia tended to be the cheapest airline for me, especially when they had promotions, but they also have hidden fees for paying with debit/credit (most likely your only option), picking a seat (which you have to do), and taking carry-on baggage (which you won’t need if your trip only lasts a few days). Remember to uncheck the additional flight insurance that they tack on. This applies to other sites too–if the fare looks cheap, click on it, go through the steps, and get final price statements before budgeting them.

12. Unless you have extremely bulky baggage, are in a rush for time, or have four people splitting the costs, the MRT (subway) is a better way to get to the airport (SGD$3/person, assuming you already have a card) than taxi ($25-30/trip). It’ll take an hour as opposed to half an hour, though. The nearest MRT station to campus is Kent Ridge, on the green (East-West) line, accessible from UTown or PGP through the D2 internal shuttle line.

13. Check the outlet types for each country you visit, including Singapore itself, and buy converters and/or adapters accordingly. You can still find them after you arrive, though.

14. Stores to visit when you first arrive: IKEA (take a taxi or find the closest MRT station and walking directions), Mustafa Centre (the Wal-Mart of Singapore, a bit of a walk from the Little India MRT stop, or take a taxi with some friends), Daiko (discount household-item store; the closest I know is at the Vivo City Mall at the Harbourfront MRT station, which is really close to the Kent Ridge MRT). If you’re lucky, you can use your housing community’s item pickup/giveaway event to score a pillow and bedsheets or something and not even need to go shopping for furnishings. I personally brought over twin bedsheets and a pillowcase, bought a light blanket and pillow, gave the pillow away when I left, and took the blanket with me. YMMV.

15. Don’t pack your luggage too fully or too heavily when you depart for Singapore.

16. This only applies to those studying at NUS, but worst parts of living in North Tower at University Town were the drain flies that settled on the ceiling of the showers (though they’re harmless), printing at the PC or Mac Commons (I ran into mysterious issues literally every time I tried, and only succeeded part of the time–use the Central Library unless it’s late at night and you have no other option), and using the laundry rooms (they were alright, but don’t put in too heavy a load, and use the other Tower’s laundry room if the machines are broken in yours). That all having been said, I still enjoyed living on-campus.

17. Check both your UCI and NUS email often, both before and during your semester.

18. Clubs/organizations at NUS are active, but unlike at UCI, they only really advertise at the beginning of the semester (there’s no “Ring Road” where you’re reminded of club presence daily), and they don’t send out meeting reminders to their mailing lists or update Facebook pages with meeting times that often (though they do so for events or other fundraising efforts). If you want to get involved with volunteering at NUS, do so early and consistently, or else it’s easy to lose track of opportunities.

19. If you drink (the legal age in Singapore is 18), note that alcohol is extremely expensive here. This doesn’t prevent most people who want to drink from drinking, though.

20. Keep track of the time difference between Singapore and the US, especially right after Daylight Savings Time ends or begins.

21. Postcards cost SGD$0.60 to send internationally. You can’t buy stamps at the SAM postal kiosks without a (local!) credit card or eNets card, so you’ll have to locate a SingPost office and buy them in person. Two notable SingPost drop-off locations that I remember are at Changi Airport and in front of S17 at the Science faculty. Also, you’ll probably forget to send out postcards for the most part since it’ll feel like you’re living here rather than visiting.

22. The people at UCEAP, including Daisy (your local UCEAP Singapore guide), are awesome.

23. Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN)–UC Irvine or whatever your university is offers one–to access country-restricted content such as UCI Library e-resources or even Netflix. If you go to mainland China (I think Craig and I were the only ones in our UCEAP group who did, since it’s too far north compared to other countries), Google, Facebook, and Youtube access can also be secured this way.

24. Singapore’s too hot for jeans, but bring some if you plan on visiting countries further up north like China, Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan. Actually, in addition to jeans or shorts, bring knee-length pants or long skirts/sarongs. In conservative or Muslim-majority countries like Thailand or Malaysia, you’ll need to cover up out of respect even in hot weather, especially when visiting temples or traveling outside of major cities.

25. Tipping is unexpected in Southeast Asia, except maybe for a bellhop at a classy hotel. Unlike in the US, waiters are not paid with the expectation that they’ll receive money in tips. This is almost irrelevant since you’re probably eating at canteens, casual restaurants, or hawker centres most of the time. Most people in restaurants will still welcome and appreciate tips[3], but many restaurants add on a 10% service charge anyway.[4]

26. It may become easier to forget birthdays because of the time difference, and since you don’t see or hear from people you usually have contact with.

27. Mosquitoes will bite. Thunderstorms will wake you up. You’ll stay out past 11, when the MRT/internal shuttle buses stop running, and need to take a taxi or walk home. You’ll make the mistake of telling taxi drivers where to go through the window instead of just getting in and, cherry-picking their destinations, they’ll drive off. You’ll stumble trying to stand up on the internal shuttle buses. You’ll stumble anyway, because that’s a side effect of wearing flip-flops all the time. Noises outside will bother you during nights when it’s too hot to close the window. A flatmate might come home drunk on Friday or Wednesday night[5] and not completely clean up their vomit. You’ll miss seeing stars at night due to light pollution. But worst of all, you’ll miss all of it. Singapore. Maybe not the mosquitoes. But you might have the impression, walking to the gate after five months on the other side of the world, that you’ve left a little bit of yourself here.

[1] Which sucks, sometimes

[2] Variables that affect trip costs: how early you book flights, what quality of hotel/hostel you’ll settle for (and if you have any employee or associate discounts), how many people you split travel costs with/can successfully sneak into a hotel room, whether the country you’re visiting requires a visa or not, whether or not you get ripped off by taxis[6], what you buy and eat while you’re there, which attractions you visit, where you exchange money[7]

[3] The only culture that I’ve heard of that gets offended by tips is Japan. [citation needed]

[4] Craig and I tipped in Malaysia. The waiters came to clean up our table and were like, “Wait, you left behind some money”

[5] Wednesday night = Ladies’ night, where women get into clubs for free. I don’t typically go clubbing or partying, but it’s popular among study abroad students, and it usually happens around Clarke Quay.

[6] Each country has their own set of common scams/safety issues, from counterfeit money to suspicious strangers approaching you (though you’re just as likely to encounter a genuinely friendly person). Two that I’ve found common in Asia are pickpockets and ripoff taxis (though both are rare in Singapore). Once you’re through with the baggage claim at the airport, someone with a name tag in a suit, pretending to be working for airport information, will ask you if you need a taxi. They’ll attempt to direct you away from the official taxi queue into a ripoff taxi. Even from the official queue, you might get a taxi that’s unmetered, has the meter turned off or rigged, etc. and will need to haggle down with the driver. It helps if you hand the driver a piece of paper with your destination written down in the native language of the country, next to the estimated taxi fare (research that on TripAdvisor or your hotel’s website). Some countries, like Malaysia, have coupon taxis where you prepay the fare at a kiosk at the airport. Also consider public transport and airport/hotel (check your hotel website) shuttle options to get to your hotel/hostel from the airport. Finally, consider contacting Uber, an independent worldwide taxi company, from their app.[8]

[7] Most malls in Singapore, as well as most hotels (for non-student tourists reading this), Changi Airport, and maybe even some MRT stations, have a money changer. My personal favorite place is the at the Arcade near the Raffles Place MRT stop.

[8] Sometimes they’re as cheap as local taxis, and additionally, they won’t rip you off. You even get bottled water with every ride. The two downsides (besides cost–they’re not always cheaper, especially in certain areas or late at night) are that they’re criticized for threatening the livelihood of local taxis, and that they’re not available in every country. Using it helped my group greatly in Thailand, however.

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