Whether its through an exchange program or with a study abroad company, everyone who plans on "dropping everything to travel" has to start somewhere.
The thought of dropping everything and only having a suitcase and a plane ticket to your name can be overwhelming. So much that it is very easy to convince yourself to just put it off a few more years, or wait until you have that defining moment. I have tried it all, study abroad, intern abroad, teach abroad, solo travel, etc. Here is my advice on "The Program."
I always dreamed of getting out there and traveling on my own with no itinerary but I don't think that would have ever happened if I didn't start out with a program.
One of the biggest "cons" of using an abroad program are the responsibilities that come with it. You have responsibilities whether it is class or a job, you are there for a reason and have probably spent a lot of money so it should be taken somewhat seriously. With just plain travel you can do whatever you want, whenever you want with nothing to worry about.
Another issue is the restrictiveness. In those types of programs it seems like every second is accounted for, they plan your trips, where you stay, what you do, and much more. By the time your done your too tired to do anything else.
However, these programs aren't all bad, actually I have really taken a liking to them. They are what gave me the push to travel on my own and go to places I never thought I would.
Being with a program provides a sense of security that is very neccessary when your nervous or afraid of getting out there. Most programs provide insurance, a purpose, and excursions. The excursions are the best part, yea they are totally planned out for you, but sometimes planning your own trip can get so overwhelming you don't end up doing anything. I loved the excursions on every program I was apart of because i could just show up and the coordinator would deal with everything else. They showed me places I would have never thought to go to and inspired me to return and explore them.
In conclusion, I wouldn't write off "the program" or unplanned traveling all together. Do what is most comfortable to you. I enjoyed having some experience with structured traveling before I ventured out on my own. It was like warming up to the unplanned trips. You have to start somewhere so do whatever is feasible and most desirable, just get out there, even if it is a small road trip a few towns over.