Housing Options for Study-Abroad Programs in Spain
Where you live while you're studying abroad will dictate the pace of your experience. The right homestay can give you an instant family or group of Spanish friends, while sharing an apartment with other students can make you captain of the ultimate European party pad.
Your options are varied. Homestays, apartments, hostels, and hotels are each good choices for certain people. To find the right choice for you, first tackle the question of whether or not to arrange a homestay. If you decide not to stay with a family, make sure that you find some prime student housing based on our guide below.
The simple truth is that homestays are often wonderful, occasionally miserable, and always unpredictable. Regardless of how well a school tries to screen host families, there are always surprises. So, to decide whether or not you want to try a homestay, read through the pros and cons below and trust your instincts on how appealing the whole package sounds.
The best part of a homestay is the instant access to local Spaniards and their everyday lifestyle. With your immediate connection to your host family and their friends, your Spanish will improve much faster than otherwise. You will have a comfortable environment to practice your Spanish, people who care about your progress, and a host of situations that force you to speak Spanish. Other great perks of a homestay are the unique home vocabulary you'll learn and a few great nights on the town with your host family. Students typically have a fabulous time seeing a city's nightlife from the locals' perspective. If you're lucky, you will end up going out with members of your family regularly, especially if there is someone your age in the house.
There are, however, some disadvantages to homestays. First and foremost, when you live with a family, you are subject to their rules. At the extreme, some families are quite strict about scheduling, stripping their study-abroad students of the basic freedom to come and go as they please. More often though, students will be expected to come home for meals, which can pull them away from the community of the school. Smaller risks include a lack of privacy and unappealing food. When someone passes you the mayonnaise salad or the baby pig snout, you have to eat it or risk offending your host.
Signs of a Good Homestay
Every great homestay has a few key elements that make the experience worth the risk. First, your hosts need to be interested in your education, both learning the language and the culture. Second, the host family has to have enough time for you that you're not stuck by yourself missing out on all of the fun that the apartment-housed students are having. Third, it's best to have someone close to your age in the house. It can be tricky to make friends with young Spaniards, and having someone in your host family is a great way in.
The downside of a homestay is almost impossible to detect a bad situation beforehand. To prepare for the worst, you should make sure that you have an easy escape root from your homestay. The key is to make sure that your home will be near other student housing and interesting parts of the city. As long as you have easy access to the city and aren't trapped in a suburb, even the worst homestays won't ruin your trip to Spain.
While homestays are wonderful, life on your own in Spain can be even better. Be aware of what you're missing if you don't live with other students.
Some schools maintain apartments or dorm spaces for their students. These shared housing units are a great way to experience Spain. Typically, you'll be placed with a few other students in an interesting part of the city that has convenient access to the school and some other attractions such as beaches, dance clubs, cafés, restaurants, or museums. These apartments are often less expensive than other alternatives and give you a nice amount of personal and communal space. With your own personal domain, you will be free to have friends over, throw parties, cook dinner using whatever Spanish ingredients you discover, and relax with your housemates. Inquire with potential schools about what sort of housing they offer.
By choosing not to live with a family, you grant yourself a large amount of free time that you and your fellow students will have to fill in creative ways. A sense of community quickly forms if a school has a critical mass of students not living with families (see Top ten elements of a great experience in Spain). You'll end up converting your apartment or dorm into home base for your Spanish adventure, inviting over local Spaniards and other students that you meet along the way. Inviting someone over to your own apartment is much more comfortable and natural than bringing someone to the home of your host family.
Apartments and dorms are especially great if you sign up with a school that attracts an international crowd, as you'll probably end up living with someone from Europe who also wants to learn Spanish. When you're not trying to learn about Spain together, you can learn about each other's background and culture.
For short programs of a week or two, some students opt to stay in hotels or hostels near the school. Hotels are the most comfortable way to see Spain, but keep in mind that you should be looking for adventure, not comfort. Consider some kind of communal living so that you can get to know the other students easily and find an easy connection to the local Spaniards.
Hostels can be a great way to meet other travelers while you're in Spain, but won't give you the same community feel as living with other students from the same school. Also, living in a hostel tends to prohibit people from practicing their Spanish because hostels are often filled with English speakers who are in Spain for sightseeing or relaxing -- not for learning Spanish. If you care about improving your Spanish, be wary of living with travelers.