The Mole Diaries: Southampton
- What to buy when you first arrive in Southampton
- Getting around Southampton
- Where to get your groceries
- Studying in Southampton University
- Fun things to do in Southampton
- Shopping, Eating out, Nightlife
- Traveling around UK and Europe using Southampton as a Base!
- UK Train Travel
- Daytrips to London!
- Other tips
- Getting out of Southampton (to the UK, Europe and beyond!)
- Overall Impressions
One of the joys of studying abroad in Southampton is its proximity to London. Located a mere two hours away by rail or bus, Southampton is perfect for experiencing London without paying London prices. Apart from being an excellent gateway to London, the UK and the rest of Europe, Southampton itself is a charming place. The green and serenity of Southampton makes it perfect for the study abroad student who’s hell-bent on visiting every square inch of Europe but who needs a quiet place to retire to in-between crazy travelling. Here are my tips for how to get the best out of studying abroad in Southampton:
I’d highly recommend staying in Southampton’s halls of residence – it’s safe, hassle-free and you don’t have to worry about paying bills, maintenance, handling your mail or dealing with landlords. Even full-time students frequently opt to stay on campus for all 3 years of university. Those who move off-campus take extra precautions to guard against theft and break-ins, which, I heard, is fairly common in Southampton. As an exchange student, it’s best to stay on campus.
If you’re staying off campus, take care to choose safe areas that are closer to the university, rather than the city center. Safety is a concern here (see below) so make sure your landlord is reputable, read the fine print on your lease and keep your doors and windows locked at all times. The university’s Accommodation Website has many resources to help students looking for reputable agents, landlords and flatmates.
Get a UK debit card
Open a local bank account and get a local UK debit card. Paying with a UK debit card saves immensely on online booking fees (as compared to booking with a credit cards). Plus, your debit card can be used from everything from paying for groceries to train tickets to even a coffee at the university café.
Look into opening a UK bank account before arriving in the UK – I opted to bank with HSBC, which allowed me to open a UK bank account before leaving home. It saved me some of the initial hassle and gave my parents peace of mind.
What to buy when you first arrive in Southampton
1. Dorm room essentials
If you’re staying on campus, the absolute minimum you need to buy will be bed sheets, a quilt, a bath towel, a coffee mug and a kettle.
2. Useful extras (optional)
In addition to the essentials above, I bought a portable heater (the dorm room heaters don’t work too well in winter), a bathroom mat and cleaning supplies (pail, toilet cleaner, toilet brush). I also bought a mini wok (for stir-fries) and microwaveable Tupperware for storing & reheating food. All of these came in useful – especially the portable heater!
3. A printer (optional)
If you’re studying abroad in Southampton for a full year, consider buying a printer off Amazon. A printer is useful for school assignments (which require hard copy submissions) but is also handy for printing out flight boarding passes, train and bus ticket confirmations. Having your own printer also means you’re not at the mercy of the university library’s opening and closing times, and it just makes life a lot more convenient. The cheapest printer on Amazon (inclusive of delivery fees) retails for about £35, but you could opt to share the cost with flatmates.
4. Where to buy supplies
Buy your £5 kettle (it’s the cheapest and it works!) and cleaning supplies from ASDA. Head to IKEA for bedding, linens and room accessories. Order the printer online from Amazon. Buy the portable heater from a reputable electronics store – I bought mine from Mapling.
5. Student Travel discount cards
If you anticipate a lot of travel, get the National Rail 16-25 student discount card (33% off train tickets) and the National Express discount card (20% off bus tickets). You can order both online or in person at the Southampton train station.
Getting around Southampton
Southampton University’s award-winning bus system is a godsend public transportation system that students and residents alike rely on. There are 4 bus routes providing easy access to the whole of Southampton. There’s even an iPhone app that lets you track the Uni-link bus timings!
If staying in halls of residence, your accommodation fees include a free Uni-link bus pass (yay!).
If staying off-campus, you can buy Period Passes (unlimited travel for 7, 28, 90 days or a full year), Multi-trip Tickets (12 single trips, no expiry) or simply pay per trip. More details on the Uni-link website.
Don’t rule out cabs – Southampton cab fares are way, way more affordable than London cab fares. There’s also no charge for calling or pre-booking a taxi. So if it’s late, call for a cab and don’t risk walking alone at night.
Where to get your groceries
For regular groceries, ASDA is the cheapest. There are massive discounts after 6 pm on weekdays. I had one very enterprising friend who was able to snag enough food to make dinner for 10 people for less than £20 during those pm discounts!
For luxury groceries (think super-dark chocolate or impressive chutneys and jams or an array of cookies), there’s Marks & Spencer’s inside West Quay shopping mall. Great for a treat once in awhile!
For fresh produce, Southampton university has a farmers' market every Monday right outside Southampton University’s Student Union – selling fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, gourmet breads and even fish and seafood! Pop into the market right after your Monday morning lecture!
Several Asian supermarkets dotted around town are great for Asian spices and specialty Asian produce. These tend to be slightly more expensive than the large supermarkets but if you’re looking to recreate some authentic Asian flavour, these are a better bet than the large supermarkets.
Studying in Southampton University
UK teaching style
UK universities adopt a lecture / tutorial teaching style and have less contact time than American universities. Case in point: I had a 3-day school timetable with about 2 hours of school each day. Be prepared for independent, self-motivated studying.
The mode of assessment in the UK tends to be a final exam or penultimate essay assignment rather than continuous assessments. Some modules may also have midterms or formative assignments (ungraded assignments to get feedback). The lack of continuous assessments makes it tempting to slack off during the term but you really shouldn’t, as the snowballed workload at the end can be really intense.
Most exams in the UK are closed book exams. If you’re used to open book exams in your home country, make sure you are mentally prepared for this! Closed book exams require more extensive study and preparation time.
Southampton (and the UK in general) is a fairly safe place. But Southampton has a lot of petty crime – housebreaking and a few reports of females meeting unsavoury characters late at night. So common sense is advised.
Here’s what my friends (who’d been living in Southampton for several years) had to say about staying safe in Southampton...
1. Stay on campus, if possible.
Break-ins are more common if you stay off-campus due to the lack of campus security. Also, in case of theft, campus security offers great support.
2. Lock your doors and windows religiously
Lock your dorm room even if you’re only stepping out for a moment. One of my dorm mates had his laptop stolen when he stepped out to the kitchen for a few minutes. If staying off campus, be extra-anxious about locking all windows, doors.
3. Safety in numbers
Try not to stay out late alone. It’s best to travel in a group. If you find yourself alone at night, opt to take Uni-link buses, alongside fellow university students.
4. Take cabs if it’s late
Store numbers of cab companies on your phone for late-night emergencies!
5. Plan your station getaway
If arriving back in Southampton on a late-night train, strategise which train station you’ll be alighting at. Southampton CENTRAL station is busier so you won’t risk waiting for the Uni-link bus alone. Southampton AIRPORT is a dead place at night – there are no staff, no security guards and, on occasion, no waiting cabs. If you do alight at Southampton AIRPORT station, wait with a friend, take a cab home or minimise waiting time by planning your train arrival to coincide with the arrival of the Uni-link bus.
Fun things to do in Southampton
1. Visit the Southampton Docks & the RMS Titanic museum
Southampton has a rich maritime heritage and is a historically significant port city. Notably, the maiden voyages of the ill-fated Titanic in 1912 and Queen Mary 2 in 2004 both departed from Southampton’s port. The city’s Maritime Museum is an excellent starting point to learn about Southampton’s maritime history and is also home to the Titanic Voices Exhibition.
2. Stroll and picnic in Southampton Common
Southampton is a very green city and Southampton Common is 326 acres of managed, unspoiled greenery that is perfect for summer picnics!
3. If you have a free day, visit New Forest National Park and spend the day horse riding!
New Forest is about 15 minutes away by train. You’ll need to take a cab from the train station to the horse-riding stables as it’s quite a walk.
4. Visit one of Southampton’s many theatres
The Mayflower is the largest theatre in southern England where you can watch popular West End musicals, ballet and even opera productions. Nuffield Theatre is located right on Southampton University’s main campus and you can watch a variety of productions spanning the gamut from Shakespeare to contemporary plays.
5. Daytrip to historic cathedral cities of Salisbury & Winchester
Salisbury is home to Salisbury Cathedral and Winchester is home to the impressive Winchester Cathedral, Winchester Great Hall & King Arthur’s Round Table (the real one!), Jane Austen’s House and Southampton University’s beautiful Winchester campus. Both towns are also dotted with gorgeous walks, rivers & lovely cafes. Salisbury is 40 minutes from Southampton by train. Winchester is a mere 15 minutes away by train.
6. Seaside weekend getaway to the Isle of Wright
I really regret not making it to the Isle of Wright as I heard such great things from friends who visited. The Isle of Wright is a large island located about 6 miles from Southampton’s coast. Highlights include Alum Bay (famous beach with different colours of sand naturally occurring on the beach!), The Needles (very famous headland & offshore rock formation on the island), Carisbrooke Castle (where Charles the 1st was held prisoner) and Osbourne House (Queen Victoria’s official summer home). Remember to enjoy a seafood dinner as well! 55 minutes by ship or 30 minutes by Red Jet ferry from Southampton’s docks. Cowes Week in August is a good time to visit.
Every August, Southampton hosts the annual Southampton Boat Show, the largest on-water boat show in Europe, whilst the Isle of Wright hosts Cowes Week, which draws the world’s best sailors for a week of competitive racing. In July, head to the Winchester Hat Fair to enjoy circus, clown, dance and cabaret performances, amongst others. In December, linger to enjoy the Southampton and Winchester Christmas Markets!
Shopping, Eating out, Nightlife
West Quay Shopping Mall is the largest shopping mall in England’s South Coast and houses John Lewis, Marks & Spencer’s, popular high-street brands (H&M, Dorothy Perkins and Zara, to name a few), bookstores, and cafes. Above the Bar Street is lined with high street brands, health food & convenience stores and the seasonal Southampton Christmas Markets. Marlands Mall, a smaller shopping mall, houses a DVD rental store and Poundland (everything goes for 1 pound!). To buy branded goods at serious discounts, head to factory outlets in nearby Portsmouth and London.
There aren’t many great restaurants in Southampton but here are some reliable favourites: Bella Italia was my favourite casual Italian place. Royal Wok and Fusion Noodle Bar for authentic Asian / Chinese food. Turtle Bay serves Caribbean food and dock o the bay is a great place for a quality meal. This being the UK, there’s also a whole host of English pubs and Indian restaurants to choose from! Refer to Southampton’s TripAdvisor page for details. Or even better, ask the locals!
Ordering In Takeaways
This is a popular option in Southampton. Use Just Eat UK to get food delivered right to your doorstep. Great for a movie-night-in with flatmates!
The Red Lion is the oldest pub in Southampton, dating back to 12th century Tudor times, and claims that its liquor license dates back to 1552! Bars in Portsmouth are popular with university students. If you prefer Jazz bars, try The Shooting Star and The Platform Tavern.
Traveling around UK and Europe using Southampton as a Base!
Studying abroad is the best time to explore the UK and Europe! When I studied abroad in Southampton, my big picture plan was to explore UK in daytrips and take weekend trips to Europe. I also took 3 longer trips during my university vacation. It worked out great as I managed to visit 14 countries and more than 70 cities during my year abroad! I did it by maximising my Southampton University vacation time. Here's how:
I visited a lot of the UK on daytrips. Recommended daytrips from Southampton include Bath, Stonehenge, Salisbury, Windsor & Eton, Oxford, Winchester, the Isle of Wright (2 days may be better though) and of course, multiple daytrips to London!
Plan your university timetable effectively. I got away with a 3 day week, which meant I had a four day weekend EVERY WEEK to travel in Europe.
The best time for longer holidays is during Christmas (3 weeks in December), Easter (4 weeks in March/April) and summer vacation (late May onwards). If you don’t have mid-semester exams, you can potentially also travel over the mid-term exam week (3 weeks in January). If you only have essays due over this period, try asking for permission to submit your essays remotely via email.
Consider picking modules that are assessed via essays, instead of exams
Modules without mid-semester exams frees up time to travel during the January exam week. Essays also permit greater flexibility - Professors may allow you to submit your essays remotely via email (please ask permission first!) – which enabled me to make a quick trip home to visit family during my yearlong study abroad.
UK Train Travel
Train travel is a way of life in the UK. As an exchange student in Southampton, you’ll be relying on trains to explore the UK and get to and from the London airports. So knowing how to book cheap rail tickets is a must.
How to book cheap UK train tickets:
1. Always book your ticket in advance.
The earlier you book, the cheaper your ticket will be.
2. Even if you leave it to the last minute, book it at least the NIGHT BEFORE.
There's a 12 midnight cut-off. A ticket the night before (considered an “advance” ticket) is still cheaper than a day-off ticket.
3. Get a National Rail student discount card.
It's worth it! 33% off all train tickets.
4. Avoid train routes through London.
5. Fiddle with the National Rail ticket-booking portal to find the cheapest train tickets.Sometimes two one-way tickets are cheaper than a return ticket. Sometimes breaking up a journey into two or more parts is cheaper (e.g. Instead of travelling from A to C, book tickets from A to B and B to C.) Play around with dates and timings. Sometimes, an earlier or later departure timing can reduce the cost of your ticket significantly. Weekend tickets may be more expensive than weekday tickets.
6. For greater flexibility, buy open tickets.
Open tickets are valid for a full day of travel on a particular travel route. On day trips, open tickets allow you to linger and take a later train back home. If you miss a tight train connection, an open ticket allows you to board the next train without paying extra. Crucially, book open tickets when booking train tickets to and from airports – you’ll be grateful for the flexibility if your flight is delayed or lands unexpectedly early.
7. Which train station to depart from?
Southampton Central -vs- Southampton Airport (Parkway) - Southampton has two train stations. Southampton Central is bigger, closer to the city centre and a safer option if you’re arriving late at night. But sometimes it’s cheaper to depart from Southampton Airport (Parkway) - so remember to compare ticket prices. Apart from that, there’s little difference between the two stations. Pick whichever station you live closer to.
Daytrips to London!
Frequent London daytrips are the best part of studying abroad in Southampton! To get from Southampton to London, the quickest way is by train (1.5 hours) and the cheapest way is by bus (2 hours – National Express or MegaBus).
£1 train tickets to London
Megabus UK occasionally sells 1 pound train tickets from Southampton to London Victoria (one-way). These tickets are extremely rare and go on sale exactly 1 month in advance. Departure times and dates matter – so fiddle around with the Megabus booking portal until you find those £1 tickets! Well worth the effort for a £2 day trip to London.
If you’re studying abroad in Southampton, it’s well worth to purchase a London Oyster Card (a prepaid London tube card) and keep it topped up. Before leaving London each time, top up your card in anticipation of your next daytrip to London – you’ll be grateful you planned ahead when you sail past the legendary queues to buy tube tickets.
Getting out of Southampton (to the UK, Europe and beyond!)
General rule of thumb: Fly between countries, travel by train within countries, buses for airport transfers. This was my general planning guide. There are exceptions of course – notably, people usually take the train between London and Amsterdam and sometimes, people intentionally choose a longer train ride to enjoy scenic views – but if you’re new to travelling in Europe, this is a good planning guide.
Train Travel in Europe
Refer to the website, The Man in Seat Sixty-One, for detailed information on Eurail passes and how to travel by train in Europe. Avoid booking train tickets from resellers and always book directly from domestic rail websites.
Which Airport should I fly out of?
To get from Southampton to Europe, you’ll have to fly. You can opt to fly out from Southampton International Airport (located to the north of Southampton, in the town of Eastleigh) or one of the five London airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stanstead, Luton and London City Airport). Forget about Luton and London City though. They’re too far out of the way and it takes a good 3-4 hours to get there as there are no direct buses (it routes through Gatwick mostly).
For long-haul international flights, Heathrow – 2 hours by bus. The easiest way to Heathrow is via a National Express bus, which conveniently picks you up from Southampton University’s bus interchange and drops you off at your specific terminal.
Regional flights to UK & Europe
Choose either Gatwick or Southampton’s domestic airport.
Choose the popular budget carriers, Easyjet and Ryanair, fly out of London Gatwick. Ryanair also flies out of Stanstead. You can get to Gatwick via train or National Express bus. The train (2 hours, direct ride) is quicker than the bus (makes a huge loop and takes almost 3 hours or more).
Flights to England / Scotland / Ireland
Southampton International Airport is convenient. Note however that the airport is small and the popular budget carriers (Easyjet and Ryanair) don’t fly from here. For the cheapest flights, you may still have to head to the London budget airports.
Personally, my default flying preference for regional flights to Europe was Easyjet, flying out of Gatwick – Easyjet’s service was great, flight prices were low if you booked early enough and in my opinion, Gatwick is the best of London’s four budget airports and the easiest to get to from Southampton.
If you’re a city person at heart, Southampton may disappoint. But if you’re looking for a good mix of city convenience and countryside retreat, Southampton is pretty perfect. While it doesn’t seem like an obvious first choice for studying abroad, Southampton is a wonderful place to spend a year in. I loved being able to tap into London’s conveniences but I equally loved retreating to the peace of Southampton. I’d return in a heartbeat!