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Bill's J1 in Chicago & Travelling USA

Bill spent last summer on his SAYIT J1 in Chicago, followed by a couple of weeks travelling around America. Read about his experience, including his advice for J1 first-timers:

Coming straight out of lockdown, there was only one thing on our mind for our first summer back in a post-COVID world- and that was spending our last summer of college in America.

Chicago for me was the perfect place to spend my J1, often described as a mix between New York and Los Angeles. The beaches along Lake Michigan are perfect for relaxing on your days off work in the Chicago’s hot summers. The impressive skyline can leave you exploring the city for days.

I knew that Chicago would be the perfect city to really experience American culture. Not to mention the other perks, such as the Lollapalooza music festival, hosted in Grant Park- right in the centre of the city. And of course, Six Flags theme park.

I worked in a sports bar that was down the road from the famous Wrigley Field stadium, home of Chicago’s baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. The weeks where the cubs played at home were always the busiest weeks, and when I got to meet loads of Americans and… also finally got to experience the American tipping culture. You can easily not touch your bank account for weeks because you earn so much in tips. 

You eventually get used to being asked where your accent is from, which is the perfect opportunity to bring it up because they all love the Irish over there. I would definitely recommend a server or bar job, even a job where you must interact face to face with customers because it gives you the opportunity to meet a wide range of people and really experience the culture, and of course the tips as well!

Like most other people, my first week in Chicago was spent in a hostel as it is normally quite hard to find accommodation before you arrive, luckily after a week a friend of mine found an apartment in Loyola which was straight off the CTA red line train route. This brought us directly to the centre of the city and within walking distance of our jobs. They had spare rooms to fill, so me and my friends were lucky. This brings me on to my first piece of advice: do everything you can to try and organize accommodation before you go and if you can’t, try to go as early as you can. You're more likely to be able to find accommodation if you can tell a landlord or estate agent you'll be staying for the whole three months of summer, rather than only two and a half months or even two months. A few people I know couldn’t find anywhere and had to stay in a hostel for a whole month, so we were really lucky.

My first month in Chicago flew by, I shared my apartment with mutual friends who I had never met before, so we were all spending time to get to know each other and experience the city together. Once you are settled into your accommodation, have got your bearings on the local area and are setup with work, it begins to feel like your new home. This was the first time that I have ever properly moved away from home (let alone in a completely different country), so I was quite nervous to be in a completely new environment. 

But it really couldn’t have gone any better. I generally don’t get home sick but there were times when you missed the little things like a cup of tea with a Cadburys golden crisp chocolate bar, or the Sunday roast. But thanks to modern technology, you are just a phone call away from your friends and family, not to mention you just forget about it when you are chatting with your roommates all the time.

On my days off work, we had countless things to do. Whether you were seeking a thrill at the world-famous Six Flags, or in an adventurous mood and wanted to see more of Chicago’s beautiful skyline from a boat ride on the river, or maybe you wanted to just relax at one of Chicago’s several beaches... there is something for everyone in the city. Baseball games are held every second week at home in the summer, so you have plenty of opportunity to watch the Cubs in action.

There was a long list of favourite moments, but my most notable experiences were: seeing the city from the Willis tower sky deck, learning about the famous architecture of Chicago’s skyline while also being able to view it on the river architecture tour, going to the Cubs game in Wrigleyville, watching the fireworks at Navy Pier, spending the day at Six Flags and finally experiencing 4th of July in America.

Like most other people, we spent the last three weeks of our stay travelling the whole of America. Our goal was to see as much as we could, however we did a lot more travelling compared to most other J1 students. Our itinerary started off on the west coast in Las Vegas, then to San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. Then we headed to the east coast, where we flew to Boston and then finally to New York.

Our original plan was to rent a car to drive the west coast but unfortunately when we showed up to the rental car office in San Francisco they revealed to us that if you are under 25, you can only rent a car with a credit card, and they can’t rent on a debit card. So if you are planning on doing a road trip, which you should, then make sure you have a credit card. With this in mind, we instead used the buses and trains to get between cities. This was fine, but a car trip would have been a lot more scenic- as most of our friends who did drive told us. The bus can cost between $40- $80, depending on where you’re going to. The travelling can be quite tough sometimes. With all the moving around and packing and unpacking of the suitcase, it can take its toll on you. But we really got to see the whole country, which was an amazing experience. You really get to compare the differences between the cities and regions.

Las Vegas feels like you are on another planet. There are hotels that look like castles, versions of the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building on the main strip, and large casinos in every hotel. We stayed in a place called Flamingos, which is a self-service hotel, so about 7 or 8 people can fit in a two-bedroom if money is tight. The casinos are quite a lot of fun but need to be careful not to lose all your money on the slot machines! We also did a tour of the Grand Canyon while we were in Las Vegas, which was amazing. You must get a 4-hour bus to and from the canyon and the bus leaves Las Vegas at 7am, which was a bit grim but well worth it. When you get there, the tour brings you to three different views of the canyon which is absolutely stunning.

San Francisco was excellent for sightseeing; many very famous landmarks are contained within a small area that is pretty easily walked or cycled. We cycled the Golden Gate Bridge, which was stunning. We also did a tour of Alcatraz, which was incredible- but make sure you book your tickets a few weeks in advance.

Our next stop was Los Angles. Los Angles is gigantic and you would definitely need a car to see everything. We went to the famous pier in Santa Monica, and of course went to the Hollywood sign. I would say three days is enough in LA, besides Hollywood and Santa Monica there isn’t that much to do, especially if you are on a budget.

San Diego was our next stop. You can see why it is such a popular J1 destination. The city is beautiful, you have so many beautiful beaches to relax on (such as Pacific Beach and La Jolla beach), with really cool bars and restaurants to go out to at night. Out of all the places we travelled to, we spent the most time in San Diego and were glad we did because it was so much fun.

After an overnight plane to the east coast, we arrived in Boston. Boston was a really cool city.  We stayed right in the city centre, so we were in walking distance of everything. We did a walking tour of the story of Whitey Bulger- the infamous Boston crime boss who led the Winter Hill gang. We also were able to meet with a few of our friends who were there on J1, and they showed us to some of the Irish pubs which (I would hate to admit), had some really good Guinness!

New York was our final stop and we spent the last few days of our travels exploring the Big Apple. After all the travelling, it was bittersweet spending our last two days in America. On one hand you are sad to be ending your journey and saying goodbye to all the friends you met. But on the other hand you are quite exhausted and broke from all the travelling. Which brings me on to my advice for anyone wanting to travel: you are better off spending more days in each place and seeing less cities, than spending a short time in each place and seeing more places. You can’t really properly experience a city in America by spending just one or two days there, and the constant travelling can be quite tough. If I was to do it all again, the top places I would go to are Las Vegas, San Francisco, San Diego and New York- over the space of two and a half weeks.

And that was the end of our J1. One thing that I think the J1 experience provided me with was making me a much more well-rounded individual. The experience of living and working in a new country with some of your best mates is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity which I will never forget and will always cherish. And so that concluded my best summer ever.

Want to start planning your own J1 for next summer? Apply online now. Contact us in Cork on 021 4279190 or J1visa@sayit.ie. Follow us on Instagram or Tik Tok for the latest news and updates.

See other students' experiences: Olivia's J1 Summer Vlog,  Emma's J1 in San Francisco, James' East Coast Vlog5 Tips For Making The Most Of Your J1 ExperienceKate's Boston J1 Summer.

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