Wei Wei Chen, Emory University (’18)
This past summer, I interned abroad in Hong Kong through Emory University’s Global Internship Program. I had wanted to study abroad throughout my entire undergraduate experience but faced financial and personal barriers. How do I, for example, convince my family who has never heard of studying abroad that it was worthwhile? How would I navigate the expensive program fees if I could not secure the proper scholarships? Program application timelines were often much earlier than scholarship timelines, for example, and I did not want to incur program drop fees if I confirmed a program but later realized I was rejected by a necessary scholarship. After four years of careful consideration and two applications I had pulled out early from the years prior, I was elated to finally have the opportunity to go abroad the summer after my senior year.It was my last chance to and I was happy I seized it. I loved the accessibility nonprofit (Direction Association for the Handicapped) I was paired with and looked forward to the summer that entire Spring semester. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel a little anxious. Hong Kong is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most expensive cities to live in. Even with financial aid and scholarships, I was nervous about this fact going into my program. Luckily, I learned over time that there was an abundance of ways to save money and honor my budget while also thoroughly enjoying the city. While the following guide is not all-inclusive, it features some of the key money-saving tips I learned about and used during my two-month internship. And although the guide features details specific to Hong Kong, many of the tips can be applied to almost anywhere you choose to study abroad in.
As of February 8, 2019, $1 HKD = $0.13 USD. All amounts listed are in HKD.
- Currency exchange rates vary greatly based on how touristy an area is. As a general rule, avoid exchanging money at airports and hotels. During my stay, these places had the best exchange rates:
- Quarry Bay (in particular: Hui’s Brothers Foreign Exchange Company Limited)
- Kwun Tong (in particular: the place by Dun & Bradstreet’s office in BEA Tower)
- Wan Chai
- Having a credit card with no foreign transaction fee is great for making purchases without incurring the currency exchange charge. Be sure to pay in the local currency when asked though. You may be charged the store’s exchange fee if you choose to pay with USD, even if you are using a card with no foreign transaction fee.
- Although it is often easier to purchase souvenirs from an official souvenir shop or a department store in a busy, touristy area, it is financially better to keep an eye out for bargain shops. Keeping souvenirs in mind while exploring is a good way to ensure that you aren’t left with only a few options toward the end of your time abroad. In Hong Kong, two outdoor markets that are great for cheap souvenirs (and to test your bargaining skills) are: Temple Street Market & Ladies Market
- Budget for an emergency / bring more than you think you need. It is often better to have too much than too little. My friends and I, for example, often spent more than we thought we would.
- Check your visa privileges! My group was advised by our internship placement organization to wait until our Hong Kong work visas were confirmed before we purchased our flights. This, we learned, did not make sense for those of us with passports that allowed us to travel to Hong Kong as tourists without applying for a visa. For the students whose work visas were not confirmed until after they arrived in Hong Kong, a quick day trip via ferry to and from Macau (arranged also by the internship placement organization) resolved the issue of having to have the visa activated by customs. The cost of the ferry was much lower than the inflated cost of flights we purchased late waiting for work visas to be confirmed. This is to say, we could have gotten flights at half the cost if we had looked more carefully into visa pragmatics and booked flights sooner.
- If you plan to travel outside of Hong Kong (or anywhere really), skyscanner.com often offers the cheapest prices for flights. There is a handy feature to view an entire month for the cheapest travel dates and destinations too. Regardless of what ticketing site you choose, to avoid artificially inflated ticket prices (which sites will sometimes do if it knows you have been eying flights), always search in a private/incognito browser.
- Having a good sense about the public transportation available to you in your selected city/town is helpful for budgeting day-to-day travel costs. When possible, I walked places.
- Fare prices for public transportation in Hong Kong orders, from cheapest to most expensive, as: Tram (affectionately called “Ding Dings” by locals), Minibus (or Public Light Bus), Bus, MTR Train.
- Most of my peers and I got around by MTR or Tram. MTR (common one-way fares we encountered range from $4+ to $14+) is the fastest and most convenient option, while the tram is the cheapest ($2.60). It’s nice to ride on the tram if you are not rushed for time because you can take in the sights along the routes, which run through Hong Kong Island.
- The Minibus ($3-$7) is another cheap alternative to the MTR, but it is better suited for those who are super familiar with the route they are on because the stops are not announced (you must call your stop). Bus fare is $4.70 for adults.
The next two sections, Food and Social, are ones I purposely did not research much prior to arriving in Hong Kong. This is not to say you shouldn’t look into them if you wish to, but that sometimes the best way to learn about good local deals is to talk to people once you are abroad. I was lucky to live with others in the same program and to have coworkers who provided recommendations and took me and my co-intern on weekend trips. The organization that handled all logistics onsite once I was in Hong Kong also arranged a lot of free field trips, language lessons, and social outings for my cohort.
- Best “Bang For Your Buck” chains:
- Meal deals: Café de Coral, Fairwood, Tai Hing, Maxim’s MX, Nishinoya, McDonald’s
- Customizable/pre-packaged or conveyor-belt sushi: Sushi Express
- To-go quick bites: Tong Kee Bao Dim, 7-Eleven
- Wet markets offer fresh, cheap groceries and meals. I frequented the outdoor wet market in Wan Chai and the indoor one in Tiu Keng Leng’s MetroTown mall, called Choi Ming.
- The bakery right outside of Quarry Bay Station’s C entrance sells breakfast breads for ~$2. Various others like it are all around Hong Kong too.
- Street food, like fish balls and shumai, are usually sold for ~$1-2 at various food stalls and shops around Hong Kong.
- Tim Ho Wan’s North Point, Sham Shui Po, and Tai Kok Tsui branches all received a 1-star Michelin rating in 2015. It is the cheapest Michelin-star restaurant in the world. My friends and I often went here for dim sum on weekends.
- Movie tickets are cheapest in the mornings and on Tuesdays.
- 7-Elevens in Hong Kong are well stocked and nearly everywhere, offering a greater variety of items than their American counterparts. If you are hanging out with friends in Lan Kwai Fong (LKF), the 7-Elevens there offer the best prices in the area.
- A fun way to experience a local tradition and catch generous happy hour deals is to go to Wan Chai on Wednesdays for what is known as “Wan Chai Wednesdays”.
Although the areas I covered were personal to me, I hope they may be helpful to someone else who may be considering studying abroad, is going to study abroad, or is already abroad but is concerned about expenses. I learned a lot, but two months is short, and there are many other areas related to money-saving and budgeting that I may have missed.
When asked to summarize my experience abroad, I’m often reminded of this Søren Kierkegaard quote my friend shared with me once: “Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.” The hopeless romantic in me won over the rational side of me and romanticized what being abroad would mean. Over the four years in college I thought about going abroad, I built up this idea in my head that I would magically be transformed as a person simply by stepping foot someplace new. So I was more taken aback than I logically knew I should be when the first two weeks went by in Hong Kong and I was still me. Then a month went by, then the whole summer. Yet, at the end of the summer, though I did not accomplish all the goals I set out to do, I did accomplish more than I thought I had along the way. I had become, for example, familiar with accessibility policy in Hong Kong and visited all the local arts and accessibility nonprofits I wanted to. I had gotten close with new friends and explored all of Hong Kong Island and the major neighborhoods in the Mainland with them. I had learned how to count to ten and order food in Cantonese. On a day-to-day basis, this all felt like yet another day: I would wake up, go to work, go home, eat dinner with my friends, maybe go someplace that night if everyone was not too tired, then go to sleep to repeat it all again the next day. Each day bled together in this way and I felt like the same person every morning. Little did I know that these single days would all add together to gradually grow me as a person by the end of that summer. It was important for me to recognize, in reflecting, that slow change is still change. This has allowed me to better appreciate the present days, knowing that in looking back, their meaning and significance will almost always reveal themselves in due time.