40 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting Semester at Sea

Preparing for Semester at Sea is a challenging task that can take weeks if not months to organize. Between all of the visas, packing, planning and academic organization, preparing for your voyage of a lifetime might have you feeling stressed. I certainly did!

Prior to starting my Semester at Sea voyage, I was searching all over the Internet for any and every piece of information I could find about how to prepare for the voyage. I found a few YouTube videos mostly about why people loved their experience, and there were lots of materials that Semester at Sea sent to me about logistics. But I wasn’t finding a lot of useful tips about how to really prepare for the experience…

That’s what inspired me to write this blog post!

I completed my first Semester at Sea voyage as a student in Fall 2010 and recently sailed again as a staff member on the Spring 2019 voyage. As a two-time SAS alumni, I have learned a lot about this incredible program. I want to share what I’ve learned about Semester at Sea to empower future voyagers to come onto the ship as prepared as possible.

These are the 40 things I wish I knew before starting my Semester at Sea voyage.

What You'll Find in this Post

SHIP LIFE

Time zone changes

As the ship crosses the ocean, you will cross through time zones just like you would if you were flying. The difference is that the time zone changes happen every few days instead of all at once, which means you won’t experience jet lag since it happens slowly. As the ship goes eastbound, you will lose time and when the ship goes westbound, you will gain time. I have done both east and west, and I can easily say that going west is MUCH easier. Gaining an extra hour of sleep every few days is a blessing when you are so exhausted from all of your in-country experiences.

A/B Days

There aren’t really “days of the week” on the ship so you can forget about remembering if it is Monday or Wednesday. By the time you get off the voyage, you’ll have no idea what month it is, let alone what day of the week it is! The ship functions on A/B days, which determines the classes you have on which day. You only have classes when you’re on the ship (with the exception of field classes) so your daily schedule will alternate between A and B days. Most people take 2 classes on each day, but you could set up your schedule to have all of your classes on A day and have B day off.

There are not really any days off

You have class basically every day on the ship. There aren’t weekends. There aren’t breaks. You get study days, but they aren’t really days off. There are only 1-3 study days per voyage, but they are usually filled up with community events like the Sea Olympics or Neptune Day so you will still be very busy. Treasure the moments of your ship-time when you have a minute of quiet to yourself!

Talk to Lots of People

With a community of nearly 700 people on board, there are countless opportunities to meet new people while on Semester at Sea. Take advantage of it! The shipboard community has a diverse array of people ranging from non-US-passport holding students to lifelong learners to dependent children, and there is so much to learn from everyone. The more people you meet and talk to, the more friends you will make but also the more you will learn. I feel like I learned as much from my community as I did from my classes.

Be Nice to the Crew

Without the crew, the MV World Odyssey could.not.function. Appreciate the crew. Be kind to the crew. They are doing their jobs to make the ship a beautiful, clean and safe environment. They are awesome people and I recommend befriending a few key crew members like your cabin steward or your favorite server in the dining hall. I miss my cabin steward Rosa and my favorite waiter Pons!! I always sat on his side of the Berlin because he is the sweetest.

Seasickness Treatments

When your campus is on a ship, there are parts of life that are going to be new — like seasickness. The impact of seasickness varies per person, but it is normal for everyone to feel it (at least a little bit) at the beginning of the voyage as you get used to life at sea. There are a variety of ways that you can mitigate symptoms of seasickness. The most popular forms are Seabands, which is a pulse bracelet you wear daily, or the behind-the-ear patches, which give you small doses of a seasickness medication. Dramamine and ginger bills are also great options, but Dramamine especially as side effects. I personally used ReliefBand 2.0, a higher tech version of Seabands, which was an electric bracelet that sends small electric pulses into your skin every couple of seconds to stop seasickness.

PORT & TRAVEL LIFE

Field classes vs field programs

Field classes are the required in-port classwork that you have to do for your class. Field classes count as 20% of your class grade, and are mandatory. You will have 1 field class per class (so typically 4 per voyage) and they are assigned before the voyage begins so that you can plan around them. Field programs are optional excursions that you can sign up at your own cost in order to travel within port through the Semester at Sea field office. Field programs range from a few hours to multi-day overnight experiences, and the prices range just as much. Field programs are organized by the field office and don’t require you to plan anything during port. Everything (logistics, transportation, etc) is pre-planned which really takes the stress out of travel planning.

Do a mix of field programs and independent travel

Obviously peoples’ budgets vary, and field programs may be cost prohibitive for some voyagers. But if you can, I would recommend trying to do a mix of independent travel and field programs. There is such an assortment of field programs and many of them offer experiences that you couldn’t otherwise experience on your own, such as a homestay or a conversation with esteemed local community members. A good rule of thumb is that if you couldn’t organize it on your own, it is worth doing as a field program.

Buy/Sell/Trade binder for field programs

I didn’t know about this prior to my voyage, but there is a buy/sell/trade binder on the ship for field programs. You don’t need to reserve all of your field programs ahead of time if you don’t want to. You have the option to buy programs from other voyagers. Or if you decide that you don’t want to do it anymore, you can sell it to another voyager. Or if you and a buddy have programs that the other wants to do, you can trade them! I loved using this resource for day programs especially if I didn’t have a plan for a few days in port. I would peruse the binder and see if people were selling any that I was interested in. You can typically get them for a discount too!

If you really want to do it, book it in advance. Don’t wait.

I saw this happen over and over again on my voyage — people waited too long to book something they really wanted to do and it sold out. Often people wait because they want to find friends to go with them or they are nervous about signing up before they know who else is going. DON’T WORRY ABOUT THAT. You will meet people during field programs and field classes who will become your new friends. And if it’s an independent travel experience and no one else comes, it’s a great opportunity to get some solo travel experience. Waiting to see is not worth the risk of missing out on something you really want to do.

Find your travel buddies but don’t be afraid to change.

One of my favorite things that I’ve learned on SAS is all the different travel styles there are. There are hundreds of people that you can travel with, and as the voyage progresses and your travel style evolves, you will learn what you like — and what you don’t like — about traveling and who you are traveling with. Find the group of people that you travel best with and who match your values. But if that starts to shift over the course of the voyage, don’t be afraid to mix it up and change your group. It’s never too late to have a new experience or new impression of port!

You can’t do everything. Choose your experiences.

You will want to do everything while you’re in port. But you simply CANNOT DO IT ALL. Don’t try. Choose your experiences, choose your plan and then stick with it. Don’t have FOMO about the path you didn’t take, and don’t get sad in port when you see other people’s experiences on social media. Choose what you want to do and do it, because there is no possible way that you can do it all.

MONEY

Order foreign currency ahead of time

On my first voyage, Semester at Sea offered a currency package as a service but not for my second voyage, so I was happy that I remembered it from my first time around. A lot of the ports are cash-only places where credit cards are not widely accepted so, finding cash on your first day in port becomes a priority. This can be really stressful if something is wrong with your card or the closest ATM is mobbed with 600 SASers waiting to pull out cash, so having even a small amount of cash in the local currency ahead of time can be a huge relief.

Most major banks allow you to order foreign currency from home, and it usually takes a few days for it to arrive. I went to my bank a few weeks before the voyage and took out approximately $100 for each port country, except for one day ports like Mauritius. They were able to get all currencies except Myanmar and Ghana, which was such a relief when we arrived in port. I could just get off the ship the first day and not worry about how I was going to pay for a cab or shuttle to the city, instead choosing to pull out cash when it was more convenient.

Using ATMs vs currency exchange

There are typically two streams of thought when it comes to dealing with cash. Some people exchange USD or Euro for the local currency, while others use ATMs to pull out local currency. Personally, I almost always use an ATM to get local cash instead exchanging currency. These are a few reasons why I prefer to use ATMs:

  1. ATMs are typically available 24/7, while currency exchanges have set hours.
  2. Currency exchanges can take a while or have specific requirements about which bills they accept. ATMs are pretty much the same everywhere.
  3. Currency exchanges typically require that you have a passport with you, and I don’t like carrying my passport around if I don’t need to.

Your shipboard account settles each month

Everything you purchase on the ship (from laundry to postage to snacks) gets charged to your shipboard account, which is tied to a credit card that you register on embarkation day. If you have more than one credit card, I would recommend charging your shipboard account to one and then locking it in your safe. It is a HUGE pain to update your shipboard account if you lose or have that credit card stolen. The payments for this account gets settled at the end of each month, and you’ll get a receipt delivered to your cabin.

There are visas that you HAVEN’T paid for yet

For US-passport holding voyagers, there are several visas that you are required to get before embarkation. You can use a visa service, like Travisa, to get these visas or you can apply for them on your own. But there are several visas that you will get once you arrive in the port on the ship. These visas may have a cost associated with them which then gets charged to your shipboard account. I did not anticipate these, so I was surprised to see over $100/person applied to my shipboard account as we made our way through the Asia portion of our itinerary.

Bring USD to pay your friends back.

There are lots of random costs that you will share with your friends throughout the voyage. Whether its a late night meal, buying extra sunscreen from them or settling your Uber bill, these costs happen. And unfortunately, VenMo doesn’t always work. It definitely doesn’t work on the ship wifi and it is blocked in several of the port countries. Having a stock of about $100 of USD in small bills is an easy way to pay your friends for the little costs that occur.

FOOD

Pack Snacks — like twice as many as you think

You’ve probably heard this before, but snacking is big part of living on the MV World Odyssey. Snacks are life!!! You will want to eat a lot more snacks than you think because you will probably get sick of the ship food. I know people who packed what they thought was a semester’s worth of snacks, but they finished them before our first port n Japan. Pack lots of snacks because you can always share or give them away if you have too many! Also the snacks on the ship are expensive and get repetitive after a while.

Get creative with the dining hall

The crew is super clever about repurposing ingredients from lunch to dinner. For example, there will always be a pasta salad for lunch the day after pasta for dinner. I was always really impressed with that creativity, and then voyagers get even more creative! I saw some really clever salad combinations, incorporating ingredients from the hot and cold bar, as well as clever sandwiches using the daily bread rolls. Mix up your dining hall routine so that don’t get sick of the meals!

Peanut butter is going to be your best friend

My voyage ate 2,200 pounds of peanut butter…. in four months. That is A LOT of peanut butter. It is going to be your best friend in the dining hall, especially if you are a vegetarian or vegan. I know plenty of folks who ate a PB&J every single meal. I personally liked pairing them with fruit like apples or pears for a dessert or on an English muffin with banana for breakfast.

Chicken Nuggets and Taco Day are HYPE

Semester at sea students turn into first graders on chicken nugget or taco day. People go NUTS for these meals. They are almost always for lunch and it happens about once a month. There will be a line, you will be irrationally excited for it, and it will taste better than you remember from elementary school. Get excited!

Aeropress for Coffee

I have no patience for bad coffee (which the ship coffee is) and I need coffee every day, so I knew finding a coffee solution was a priority prior to the voyage. After trying a few different brewing methods, including pour over and French press, I have determined that an Aeropress coffee maker is the best method for ship life. It is compact, lightweight, easy to clean and you can make only a cup at a time. You have to sort coffee grounds separately on the ship, so the little puck of grounds that the Aeropress makes is super easy to clean up.

Avoid buying food from the pool deck until the second half of the voyage

The food at the dining is genuinely good considering you’re in the middle of the ocean and resources are limited. It gets repetitive after 8 weeks of eating some version of salad/starch/meat, so you might get sick of it. Starting the habit of ordering grill food is kind of like breaking the seal — once you have a taste for something other than the dining hall, it’s hard to go back. For your bank account and your waistline, try to avoid buying food from the pool deck or grill until the second half of the voyage. It makes it feel more like a treat and helps keep your budget in order.

How the lessons I learned from my first Semester at Sea voyage helped make my second voyage even better!

Let’s Talk About Water

Although water is all around you on the ship, fresh water is a precious commodity on the ship. All of the water you drink and use is brought on or made from one of the ship’s desalinators. As such, there is a lot of chlorine in it. Many people don’t like the way it tastes and blonde people be aware — your hair might start turning green from the showers. There is filtered water available 24/7 on the pool deck as well as coffee and hot water 24/7 from the red machine in the Berlin restaurant, but other than those, the only other time you can get ice water is during meal times. There will be a line of people waiting to fill up their water bottles and people get a little competitive about it.

TECHNOLOGY

Ship Internet

You’ve probably heard about the availability of ship internet from Semester at Sea, alumni, blogs, etc. But it’s worth repeating  — you will not have reliable internet for 4 months. Get comfortable with that. It will be really slow, it will be non-existent sometimes, and yes, doing projects without internet is about as hard as you could imagine it would be. Find other ways to use your free time, because scrolling through Instagram or reading Reddit won’t be part of your daily routine while on Semester at Sea. And it is glorious.

Phone Plans & 4G Data Abroad

There are a lot of opinions on which phone plan to get for SAS and whether getting local SIM cards is a better option. Personally, I think it’s a decision that each person needs to make for themselves, so I will simply share what worked for me and why I liked it. I used a GoogleFi Data plan on a Google Pixel 2 phone and it worked AWESOME. I had service in every country except one and I was able to get data pretty much everywhere within the countries. The plan maxes out at like $80/month and it is based on a tiered data use policy. I think that getting a SIM card in each country is a HUGE waste of time, especially given how limited your time in port already is. You wind up running all around a city to find a SIM vendor and many times it doesn’t even work the way you want it to, which for me, is not worth it from a cost/time/benefit perspective.

Bring a Portable Battery Pack

I can’t recommend packing a portable battery pack enough. They can be a life saver, especially on days with long bus rides and little to do! Make sure your battery pack is charged up before you leave the ship so that it is ready to use when you arrive in port. Be aware that a lot of foreign countries do not allow these on airplanes, so don’t bring them along if you plan on flying. I’ve got lots more packing suggestions like this one in my ultimate packing list and packing guide for Semester at Sea.

Media Swapping (Hard drive & USBs)

Because there is no Netflix or Hulu on the ship, people get creative about their media consumption. People will come onto the ship with gigabytes of movies and TV shows to watch but more importantly, to share!! I brought a separate external hard drive just for media and I was so happy that I did because by the end of the voyage, I had almost 500GBs of media from my fellow voyagers, including 7 seasons of GoT, all of the Harry Potter movies and 7 seasons of Modern Family. Hard drives and USBs are fairly cheap these days, so I would recommend bringing at least 2 hard drives (one for media, one for your photos & videos) and 3 USBs for swapping.

Back up photos & videos regularly

As a content creator, I am pretty systematic about backing up my files but it is a best practice that everyone should do. I backed up my SD card on each on-ship day (last day of port) after EVERY port. I would gradually organize my files in the days after leaving a port, but I always made sure there was a back up as quickly as possible. There were 60+ people on my voyage who lost their phone or got it stolen. They lost hundreds if not thousands of photos from their voyage which are not always easily replaced. Don’t let this happen to you! This is a once in a lifetime experience and your photos are part of your memories from the voyage. Make sure to protect them.

COMMUNICATION

WhatsApp and iMessage will be your best friend

Both of these messenger apps work pretty well on the ship Internet and are one of the best ways to communicate at sea, but also in port. Prior to leaving, make sure you are connected with family and friends back home via one of these two messaging apps.  

AirDrop

A majority of SAS students have an iPhone, so AirDrop is one of the most popular ways that people share their photos and videos with one another during the voyage. On nearly every field class or field program that I went on, people would turn on their airdrop on the bus ride back to share media. It works really well. Name your AirDrop something easy or clever prior to starting the voyage so that it is easy people for people to find your AirDrop (there are like 10 MyiPhones that will show up). Unfortunately, I had an Android device so this didn’t work well for me.

SeaMail

This is the internal email service that Semester at Sea uses and it will be your primary means of communication within the shipboard community. Everyone gets a SeaMail and you will set up your SeaMail account prior to embarkation. The instructions typically come from ISE a few weeks before you board. Share this email with family and friends prior to leaving for the voyage because it is almost impossible to load any other email servers on the ship’s Internet. I saw a lot of people put it in their Instagram bio. You can also set up forwarding services from Gmail and other email accounts so that your home email gets sent directly to SeaMail so you can check it.

Deans Memo & Rumor Ranger

Each day on the ship, there is a Dean’s Memo that gets published. This is essentially your daily newsletter of everything that happens on the ship. Get in the habit of reading this early in the voyage so that you know all the awesome stuff that is happening each day. There will be notes about events, evening seminars, student club meet ups, etc so that you can plan your days accordingly. My favorite part of the Dean’s Memo was the Rumor Ranger, which is essentially the ship’s version of Gossip Girl. Voyagers will write to the Rumor Ranger asking a variety of questions regarding rumors, ranging from ghost stories to peanut butter shortages, and more.

Postage & Post Cards

In most of the ports, the ship provides postage service so that you can send post cards directly from the ship. This is such a handy service and postcards are a nice momento for folks back home! You will pay for the stamps on your shipboard account so that you don’t have to run around and find stamps for yourself. I did this on both of my voyages, and it’s great to see my postcards still on the fridge or scrapbooks of my friends!

Keep in contact with people at home…but not too often.

It is important to keep in contact with your family and friends back home. They are your support system and they want to hear about the incredible adventures you’re having around the world. However, I would recommend setting boundaries early in the voyage so that you aren’t talking to people back home too frequently. There are plenty of students who used people back home as an emotional crutch which can make it harder to build new relationships or stay totally present in your experience to the point where it negatively impacts their time on the ship. I think a good rule of thumb is to check in with loved ones once per port, once per crossing. I would usually talk to people on either the first or last day in port, and once midway through an ocean crossing if internet allowed for it.

PERSONAL

It might take some time to adjust

Living on a ship is a totally different experience than life at home, and the process of adjusting can take days or weeks. Meal times, exercise times, social times, all of it will be different. You will be meeting an entirely new network of people and forging new friends happens quickly for some people and slowly for others. Be patient with yourself as you get into your new routine and develop your new friends. At the beginning of the voyage, it’s easy to want everything to happen right away because you’re so excited about the journey ahead. But getting into the swing of things does take some time and adjustment, so give yourself some grace as you figure out what works best for you.

You’re going to see things you’ve never seen before

So much of the Semester at Sea experience is about observation. It’s about looking. But realllllly looking. Experiential learning is being out there in the thick of things and experiencing them firsthand through sight, touch, sound and taste. There will be things that you’ve never seen or imagined before, like the life on the streets of Ghana or the destructive power of conflict in Vietnam. Your eyes will truly be opened and it is one of the best parts about SAS.

It will change your life…

Having done two voyages now, I can guarantee that this program will change your life. There will be big changes for some people and small changes for others, but there will be changes for everyone. You will feel the shift happening within the shipboard community as people learn and unlearn important lessons, but most of the reflecting and processing of your experience will happen after you get home. I always describe the end of the voyage as a 6 month emotional hangover, because there is so much to process that you just don’t have the energy to do during the voyage. You will also notice a lot of your changes through the eyes of other people when you return home and they notice differences in you.

….but there will also be hard parts

Change can be really hard. Growth comes from discomfort and challenge. There will be hard moments during the voyage. It isn’t all puppies and rainbows, and unfortunately, that is a thing that people at home won’t understand. They think you are having the best semester of your life, and you probably are, but those hard moments sound like privileged complaining to people back home. You will go through those together as a shipboard community and they are your best support system as you process those experiences. You will have active conservations about what you struggling with and there is so much to learn from those around you.  

You’re going to be SO tired

You basically aren’t going to rest for 4 months. Get comfortable with that because sleep takes a back seat on the voyage. Semester at Sea is an incredibly unique study abroad experience that a lot of people at home think is a semester off or “not a real study abroad program”; but SAS is challenging in totally different ways than a “normal” study abroad experience. It is challenging because so much happens in a short period. The scale of time on the ship happens in hyperspeed and you can barely keep up with it all. You are going to be truly exhausted and tired in a way that maybe you have never experienced before, and no one told me that before I started my voyage. I took more naps than I ever have before because I just couldn’t keep up.

Semester at Sea is the best experience that I have had in my academic, professional and personal life. It is a transformative program that changed me into an empathetic, passionate, and adaptable citizen of the world and has empowered me to live a life full of travel. I hope these 40 tips for preparing for Semester at Sea help you get ready for this incredible program!

All featured photos were produced during my contract as Semester at Sea’s social media coordinator and are owned by Semester at Sea.

Do you have questions about Semester at Sea? Ask me in the comments below or check out their upcoming voyages!

Author: Megan Arz

I am a travel and food obsessed Midwesterner living in Chicago and dreaming of the world. I work as a full-time program manager for Greenheart Travel, but I am also committed to integrating the travel lifestyle into my every day routines. I am passionate about ethical travel, meeting new people, creating unique memories and eating local cuisine!

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