Buy the Eyewitness Travel Guide for the country you fantasize about. It's a beautiful, picture-filled and accurate guide to the country, but also to its art, literature, architecture, and culture. If it were a textbook, it would cost seventy dollars-- beautiful graphics! They give you so many pictures of the places you can make up your mind in advance what you'd like to see.
Apply for your passport. It's good for ten years, so why wait? The process can take much longer than the passport agency admits-- months, in 2007-- and if the time for your departure is approaching, and you suddenly have to ask them to do it on a rush basis, they'll charge you three times as much. Just getting the application form and pictures takes time. You'll discover you have to have a certain type of picture taken (Ritz Camera does it and many other places) which can be burned onto the passport. Go online and find specific instructions.
Join a frequent flyer program that offers a credit card. Just for getting their card, they'll give you a big clump of miles, but also, you'll get frequent flier miles every time you buy your groceries or pay for gas. It quickly adds up. Perhaps your folks, if they're supportive of your trip, are willing to use the frequent flier credit card too. I use United myself, but there may be better ones for the country you're interested in.
Once you get the card, let them send you email updates. Spam like that can be a very good way of reminding yourself what you've got to look forward to. That encourages you to keep working. They'll also send you last-minute bargains on travel for people who can drop everything and go right away. Students are sometimes in a position to take advantage of them.
Now learn the Eurail concept. The European trains are lovely, far better than American trains, and Europe is exactly the right size for them, the way we are the right size for air travel only. Go to eurail.com and look at the great variety of Eurail passes they offer-- but you have to buy them outside of Europe. Raileurope.com has an even larger variety. There's a similar program in Japan too-- Japan Rail Pass. Usually, these can only be bought in the United States. They save you lots of money, and during the summer, the trains are filled with other students like yourself. It's like a traveling student dorm. You'll make lots of friends and get lots of up to the minute advice on the cities people were just in. At night, kids curl up in their sleeping bags and sleep-- it's cheaper than a hotel room. Once, to cut costs and have fun, I bought a pass from a kid who was going home, and I lived on trains going north from Paris until I reached the edge of the Arctic Circle in Norway.
Learn the hostel concept. Go to hostels.com. You can book online, and they give lots of ratings. It even works in the United States. To check, I chose NYC and clicked on the Broadway Hotel and Hostel, which rents a bunk bed for about 30 dollars a night, four to a room. A safe, decent double room in NYC costs a minimum of 200 a night, even at a show biz insider's place like the Hotel Edison in the theater district. This hostel is uptown, near Columbia, in a safe, intellectual area comparable to scruffy Berkeley, filled with student apartments during the year; and since it's near the 96th street subway express stop, you could reach the theater district in about ten minutes. New York for thirty dollars a night! In Europe, they're even more organized. Hostels are a great concept.
Buy the small conversation book you'll use in your country. I recommend the Lonely Planet Conversation Guide phrasebook series. At the start of each section, like "Greetings and Civilities," they give you cultural advice. For instance, in Japan, the deeper the bow, the deeper the respect for the other person's age or status... Remember you should normally take off your shoes when you enter someone's home. They give you a lot of good slang. "Excuse me?" is "Sumi masen," but a rough "Hey you!" is "Chotto!" In the Japanese and Chinese books, they also give you the characters as well as the pronunciation, so that if you can't pronounce it right, you can just show the book to someone and point to what you want. There are also extensive explanations of what the restaurant dishes contain.
I'm considering an assignment later in the term to call your attention to the few phrases you want to know. (Like, "How much?" "Sorry," and "Where is the restroom?") Later in the course, I may give you a quiz in which you'll have to count from one to twenty, then know the words for twenty-five, fifty, seventy-five and one hundred. If you know even that much, you can buy food and make change.