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How to Travel the World During Medical School

Slammed with exams, classes, and rotations during medical school? Our experts share how you can still see the world.

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When you think of medical school, an image of white lab coats and stethoscopes probably comes to mind. Would you believe me, however, if I told you that medical school can also include travel all over the country, and the world? If you don’t believe me, here are some photographs to prove it:

To share more about what it’s like to travel in medical school, we surveyed 6 students from many different states to see how they’re fitting trips into their busy schedules. All together, they’ve visited over 15 countries in the course of their time in school. In this post, we’ll hear from them on how they’ve managed to keep traveling despite crazy schedules and intense exams.

Why Traveling is Important in Medical School

For medical students, traveling can be a way to unwind from the stressors of school, take on new challenges, and learn about different cultures. Instead of using travel as an escape, many students see it as a way to refresh.

“Med school is tough, and I don’t think I would have ever been able to make it through the first year of classroom lectures without getting away for a while,” says Rafael, a student from Texas.  Kristin, also from Texas, states, “I think travel is a great way to push yourself and expand your comfort zone. You really have to problem solve when you’re thrown into a new situation in an unknown city or country.”

Some medical students took on a different perspective. “It’s a good way to relax and escape stress, refresh, and prevent burnout. When I travel I make it a point not to do work at the same time,” notes Zelun, a medical student from Connecticut.

Others have found that travel has gone hand-in-hand with their medical passions. Peter, a medical student from Florida, stated that he was able to travel to “Port au Prince, Haiti…on a medical mission trip,” as well as, “Omaha, Nebraska to present…[his] summer research at a global health conference.”

Needless to say, the students we surveyed have taken a variety of trips all over the world.

Save Money By Thinking Ahead

One thing medical students learn during their frugal years in school is how to be resourceful. For traveling, the narrative is the same. Our interviewees cite travel rewards credit cards, cheap flight deals, and trip-specific cost cutting tricks as ways they save money for more travel.

“One of the best decisions I made in medical school was signing up for a travel rewards credit card,” says Rafael. Since getting his Chase Sapphire Preferred, he notes, he’s been on 4 international trips and several more domestic jaunts.

On saving money, Aish, a medical student from Maryland, states, “I tend to travel on a really low budget and go to countries where low budget traveling is possible. The biggest costs are the airplane tickets, but luckily, I’ve been able to get some really cheap flights.” She also cuts costs while traveling by staying in hostels and cooking while traveling solo instead of eating out.

Zelun notes, “Plan far in advance so [you don’t] get shafted by flight tickets. Couch surf whenever possible. Scrounge free food whenever possible. But also have days to reward yourself—after all you’re in a new place and there are new [things] to try.”

Although she’s an advocate for booking ahead of time, Aish warns against being bound by over-planning. She states, “I’ve found that I’ve had the best experiences when I go with the flow without limiting myself to a set plan when traveling.”

Be Productive In Transit

Being in classes and constantly preparing for exams can be a huge barrier for medical students considering international travel. For Kristin, travel has challenged her to find small pockets of down time to study.

“When my boyfriend and I went to Banff,” she explains, “we stayed…about a two hour drive from the main hiking area in the park. We spent those two hours in and out of the park each day listening to our lectures to make sure we kept up with classes.” Kristin also notes, “I know it can be tempting to watch movies or sleep on the plane, but that is some prime quiet study/work time built in as well!”

Other medical students, like Rafael, take advantage of technology to keep up with their lectures. “I am fortunate that my medical school streams most of our lectures online… I have used this to take advantage of cheap flight deals and make my own ‘long holiday weekend.’ It also makes for a great story when you can say that you have streamed a lecture inside a geothermal greenhouse in Iceland!”

When You Have Time Off, Take It

The people we surveyed all agreed that students should always plan trips around their time off. When we asked her about how she plans time off, Rachel, a student from Missouri, mentioned, “in medical school we have inflexible dates, so being flexible about the destination and planning/booking far in advance goes a long way.” Often, medical students will need to take advantage of study days and holiday breaks to plan trips, instead of relying on vacation days like the rest of the corporate world.

“Plan ahead—if possible look forward in your year calendar and identify good times to travel,” Zelun suggests, adding, “Find out when are your exams and attendance required sessions. Ask upperclassmen which class sessions or activities are dispensable, and make plans to catch up on material you miss.”

Some students, like Aish, are more opportunistic. “I took [a] trip after taking the biggest exam of our med school career, called the USMLE Step 1. We’re given ~10 weeks to study for this exam…so I took the exam early and took the rest of the time for a big solo adventure.”

The Bottom Line

Traveling during medical school is a challenging but rewarding way to spend your time off. Although it isn’t part of a medical curriculum, our interviewees believed that travel would help them in the future. “Not all learning takes place in a classroom. I believe traveling has taught me the empathy and patience needed to become a successful physician in the future,” muses Rafael.

Zelun agreed, adding that travel has given him new perspectives “on health disparity, diverse cultures, healthcare delivery in different parts of the country and in different countries, [and has helped him] gain ideas for how future career and lifestyle might mesh.”

Like many other students, Rachel believes in the value of taking some time away. “When you have a break,” she states, “just take advantage of it and take the time off. It can be tempting to think you should do research or something productive, but take the break.”

For those of you who think it’s impossible to squeeze in a trip between classes or rotations, think again. Kristin states, “You’ll always be able to find reasons not to travel – no money, no time, need to study, need to sleep, etc. I’m not saying those aren’t valid reasons, I’m just saying you will have those same reasons for the rest of your life. So…book a ticket and go now. I have yet to regret any of my trips, even the ones I took right before exams.”

One thing every respondent noted, expressed quite beautifully by Aish, is, “My single biggest piece of advice to other medical students who want to travel is: there is no better time than now.”

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Special thanks to our awesome medical student interviewees – Aish, Kristin, Peter, Rachel, Rafael, and Zelun – for giving their expert advice and making this post possible. All photos featured in this article belong to them.

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Kay is a full-time working professional located in Washington DC who takes every spare vacation day to get outside and explore the world. When she travels, she loves visiting the most iconic and naturally beautiful destinations in the USA and abroad. You can typically find her wandering the streets of a city, running through a park, taking ridiculous self portraits, or hiking a mountain somewhere. Connect with Kay: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

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