Alternatives to studying abroad during the pandemic

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In the 2017-2018 academic school year, nearly 342,000 students from the U.S. studied abroad for credit, according to the NAFSA.  However, a clampdown on international travel due to the coronavirus pandemic has left many students canceling plans and scrambling for alternatives to studying abroad for their upcoming semesters. Classes have been canceled and universities are recalling students stranded overseas on lockdown. 

If you planned to study abroad for the new school year but find yourself stuck at home, this guide will give you insight on alternatives to studying abroad during the ongoing pandemic. It will also provide an overview of the best credit cards to use when studying abroad, so you’re ready to save big when the travel ban lifts.

Challenges amid COVID-19 

As of the 2017-2018 school year, there were approximately 4,360 degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the U.S., according to the National Center for Education Statistics.  Of that number, more than 1,100 have now canceled on-campus classes and exams, opting for online-only instruction. This might change in the future, but right now, more than half a million students are affected by the cancellations. Many of these colleges and universities are struggling to offer their students  “college life” solely online or on campuses with rigorous restrictions. For students wishing to study abroad, it’s possible that some will elect to take a gap year. 

As of Sept. 16, 2020, there have been 29,444,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally, as reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). The Americas tops the list (14,986,799), followed by South-East Asia (5,663,231), Europe (4,957,361), Eastern Mediterranean (2,148,615), Africa (1,127,164) and the Western Pacific (560,287). 

Less than three years ago, the UK, France, and Italy topped the charts for opportunities to study abroad. But now colleges and universities, especially in South-East Asia, are providing students with a quality education overseas, both academically and culturally. 

Today, the ten best countries to study abroad in 2020, according to the U.S. News & World Report, are listed below, along with any travel restrictions they may have in place:

  • The United Arab Emirates, or UAE – Dubai travel requirements: COVID-19 PCR test is mandatory.
  • South Korea – Compulsory 14-day quarantine is in place for all passengers arriving in South Korea. You are also required to be isolated at a government-designated facility at your own expense. However, some restrictions may be lifted for students.
  • China – China has opened its borders to 13 Asian countries and 36 European countries. There is yet no word on travel from the U.S to China, which is still in negotiations.  
  • India – All Indian visas issued to nationals of any country prior to March 13, 2020, stand suspended.
  • Turkey – The U.S. State Department advises reconsidering travel to Turkey due to COVID-19. However, U.S. tourists are currently allowed in the country.
  • Singapore – A COVID-19 test is not required to enter Singapore, but you are required to serve a mandatory quarantine, with COVID-19 testing at the end of that quarantine period.
  • Brazil – Due to COVID-19, Brazil remains at a Level 4 Travel Advisory (Do Not Travel).
  • South Africa – Students from the U.S. are not allowed to travel to South Africa.
  • Argentina – The U.S. Embassy in Argentina has issued a Level 4 (Do Not Travel) advisory to Argentina for all U.S. citizens due to COVID-19.
  • Thailand – Students of educational institutions approved by Thai authorities, including the parents or guardians of the students are allowed entry into Thailand. There is, however, a 14-day quarantine required.

[Please note that travel bans and restrictions can change daily. If you’re thinking about traveling to one of the countries listed above for study abroad opportunities, you may want to check out that country’s U.S. Embassy for current updates.]

Most airlines are providing travel vouchers for missed or canceled flights. Colleges and universities are also evaluating how to refund tuition, room and board, and other fees on a case-by-case basis. The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) is adjusting financial aid policies in response to COVID-19. Additionally, the Federal Student Aid office at the DOE has created a fact sheet that answers some questions for students. 

To understand your options or alternatives or if you’ve already paid tuition to study abroad, you may want to discuss your financial needs with the financial aid office at your college to see if additional help is available.

Alternatives to studying abroad 

Because of travel restrictions and shuttered universities across the world, it’s good to know that there are other ways to have a successful and immersive college experience without needing to leave the country during COVID-19. 

Virtual study abroad programs

Organizations that provide study abroad programs are planning for school closures and restricted travel by rolling out virtual exchange programs. For instance, Arcadia University, in Pennsylvania, is offering a Virtual Europe program where students can enroll in online courses taught by faculty in Edinburgh, Dublin, London, Barcelona, Athens, Granada or Rome. Each course costs $1,500 each. Additionally, for an additional $1,950 fee, students can engage in virtual internships with employers in London, Athens or Rome.

Likewise, Washington State University, in partnership with the American Institute for Foreign Study, offers students the opportunity to create their own virtual curriculum. One day you may be studying French with a professor in Grenoble, France and the next day, you’re studying business ethics with a professor in Budapest, Hungar — all from the comfort of your home. Courses are available in a wide range of disciplines and are offered by colleges and universities in Argentina, Chile, London, Costa Rica, Spain and more.  

Remote internships in foreign countries are possible during the pandemic. (Alistair Berg / Getty Images)

Tuition for virtual learning courses varies by university and course load but many schools charge the same for a virtual course as they would if you attended in person. Other colleges have reduced costs for virtual instruction. For example, for Global Experiences’ Virtuoso Virtual Fall Program, you’ll pay $3,500 for a three-credit course and virtual internship. But if you were to attend in-person through the internship abroad program, you’d pay up to $11,500.

“Studying abroad is undoubtedly one of the best parts about attending college,” says Grant Aldrich, Founder and CEO of “If you’re an international relations major, for example, studying abroad is a requisite to getting your degree,”

“With the pandemic, options are more limited. At UT Austin, they are offering Global Virtual Exchange courses. There all the usual regions to experience, from Latin America to Asia. There are also typical program fees involved, but they do have grants available. The cost is much lower than going in-person, ranging from $3,000 to $4,000, whereas traveling in-person can range from $10,000 to $20,000 per semester.”

Aldrich continues to mention that some universities, such as Brown, have canceled all study abroad programs for 2020, while other universities are still having students study abroad. “It comes down to a case by case basis. In most cases, you can still apply for studying abroad in Spring 2021. As many are hoping, things may be starting to return to normal by then.”

Virtual tours

Students studying abroad agree that it isn’t just about sitting in a classroom or attending a lecture. But it’s also about immersing themselves in the culture of an overseas destination. The restrictions on traveling overseas make that difficult, but not impossible.

Here are just a few of the museums, zoos and national parks offering virtual tours to students stuck at home.


  • Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum: View the works of Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, Franz Marc and Jeff Koons. Just a few of the more than 625 artists whose works are part of the Guggenheim’s Collection Online.
  • The Louvre: Just because you can’t travel to Paris, doesn’t mean you can’t view some of the most famous art found anywhere. The Louvre is offering free online tours of three famous exhibits, including Egyptian Antiquities.
  • Van Gogh Museum: Thanks to Google Arts & Culture, you can take in Van Gogh’s more famous works.
  • Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum: Madrid, Spain’s most famous museum has famous works from some celebrated artists like Rembrandt and Dali — all available to view online.
  • The Vatican Museum: St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael’s Room are just some of the sites you can see on the Vatican’s virtual tour.
  • National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City: View Mayan artifacts of early Mexico with 23 exhibit rooms.
  • British Museum: Egyptian mummies and the Rosetta Stone and just two of the things that you’re able to see on a virtual tour of the museum in London.
  • Rijksmuseum museum in Amsterdam: The Golden Age of Dutch art is highlighted in this museum which includes works of Rembrandt and Vermeer.

Yes. It’s not the same as being there in person, but If there’s anything that can whet your appetite for studying abroad, it’s virtual tours of the new seven wonders of the world brought to you by the Lonely Planet: the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the ancient city of Petra, the Colosseum, Christ the Redeemer, Machu Picchu, and Chichen Itza

You can take a virtual tour of Machu Pichu. (Joseph Hostetler / Million Mile Secrets)

National Parks

While you still can visit some National Parks in person, although there are some restrictions, you can still enjoy the scenery if travel to the area isn’t possible or unsafe. Both Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park offer virtual tours. The Virtual Yosemite tour is one of the best.

Google also offers audio-visual tours of five national parks, including Dry Tortugas, Kenai Fjords, Carlsbad Caverns, Hawai’i Volcanoes, Bryce Canyon, and 31 more on Google Earth.


If you’re a zoology major but you can’t view the animals up close, you may want to consider taking a virtual tour of your favorite zoo instead.  Here are just a few to check out:

  • Atlanta Zoo: Visit the “Panda Cam” livestream on its website.
  • Georgia Aquarium: Beluga Whales and African penguins can be seen on this aquarium’s live cam.
  • The Cincinnati Zoo: You can enjoy a daily home safari on its Facebook live feed at 3:00 p.m. central time every day.
  • The Shedd Aquarium: This Chicago aquarium shares some behind-the-scenes footage on Facebook.
  • San Diego Zoo: This zoo offers many live cam options that let you see koalas, polar bears, and tigers.
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium: Its shark week every week thanks to Monterey Bay’s Habitat exhibit.
  • National Aquarium: Walk through the icy tundra and tropical waters in this virtual tour.

Study on the go

While many overseas destinations are closed to travel and colleges and universities have canceled study-abroad programs – at least for now – there are still ways students can study virtually for their upcoming semesters while on the road.  

The internet and opportunities to hook-up to Wi-Fi while traveling gives students the ability to study virtually from almost anywhere. Sitting on a beach in Florida or walking the trails of a favorite national park, the internet offers a unique opportunity to visit destinations and spend time in the field that is relevant to your schoolwork. But studying on the go doesn’t mean letting down your guard. Students must still practice good hygiene and social distancing.  

Virtual learning allows your to take your classes and do homework from anywhere. (Image by Olga Shevtsova / EyeEm / Getty Images)

While colleges may be closed to on-campus learning opportunities abroad, students may still be able to travel to foreign destinations, according to The New York Times. Just a few of the overseas destinations you can explore include The Bahamas, Bermuda, Croatia, Dominican Republic, Grenada and Kenya.

Some countries do not require travelers to be quarantined, while some do.  For guidance about COVID-19 and traveling overseas, students can go to the U.S. State Department website or to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site

Prepare for When Travel Restrictions are Lifted 

There are ways for students who wish to study abroad to save money now so when travel restrictions are lifted and schools open, they are ready to go.

For example, Southern Illinois University estimates that studying abroad in London can cost as much as $16,000 for travel and living expenses per semester, plus overseas fees and tuition. Living expenses and travel to Sydney, Australia can cost anywhere between $19,000 and $27,000 (plus tuition and fees). Saving even a portion of these costs while stuck at home can really add up.  

One way to save money and maximize spending now is to choose a credit card that earns travel rewards. If you start building up a flexible points balance now, when schools open and travel restrictions are lifted, those points can be used to book (nearly) free hotels, flights and more.

A travel card is also much more secure than paying for incidentals while traveling. You’ll want to get a card with no foreign transaction fees which can save you a ton when staying abroad for an extended period of time. Plus, opening the right credit card for students can help with budgeting expenses and building your credit score.

Here are a few cards that we recommend for those studying abroad:

  • The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offers 2X points on travel and 3x points on dining purchases plus no foreign transaction fees. The annual fee is $95. Plus, you earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. That equals $1,000 in travel rewards when you redeem through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal. You can even get more value if you transfer points to Chase travel partners like United or Hyatt.
  • The United℠ Explorer Card offers a $0 annual fee for the first year, then an annual fee of $95 per year after that. You can also earn up to 70,000 miles. Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening. Plus, earn an additional 10,000 miles after you spend $6,000 total on purchases in the first six months your account is open. ; 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants and on hotel stays, and up to $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck™ Fee Credit. There are also no foreign transaction fees on this card.
  • The American Express® Gold Card offers a welcome bonus of 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 6 months of account opening. You’ll earn 4X points at restaurants and 4X points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1X). The card has no foreign transaction fees (see rates & fees).

While having a travel card is great for earning points and travel rewards, it’s also a smart way to build credit. A positive credit history can be important to potential employers when students graduate from college. It can also play a part in getting approved for an apartment or buying that first car. Building credit early can open the door to much more than making purchases, and starting young helps build a strong credit history. 

The bottom line 

While college experiences may not be what students expected due to the pandemic, there are things to do to make the best out of the current situation and prepare for when the country and the world regains some sort of normalcy. There are alternative options to traveling abroad, like virtual classes online that line up with a student’s major. 

Virtual tours of museums and national parks allow students to feel immersed in the culture of a foreign land without actually being there. And, spending time in the field that is relevant to school work, can make being stuck at home a little more bearable until traveling to study abroad opens up.  

For rates and fees of the Amex Gold card, click here.

Kathy Pomroy is a contributor to Million Mile Secrets, she covers topics on points and miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels, and general travel.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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