Guest Post: Yes, You Can Travel on a Student Budget
Today’s guest post is by Amanda Williams, a grad student with an insatiable lust for travel. If you’re interested in traveling around the world on a minuscule budget, Amanda writes frequently on the subject on her blog, A Dangerous Business.
How to travel on a student budget
This site is all about “hacking” college; finding tricks to graduate without going insane – or broke. We in the travel world have a similar concept, called “travel hacking,” in which we try to identify ways to travel further and longer for less. Because, let’s face it: traveling costs money. And if you’re a student like me, you don’t have a lot of it.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to fellow students about traveling, only to have them say something like, “Travel is only for old, rich people.”
I’m here to tell you that this is not true at all.
I’ve been a student traveler (or at least someone traveling on a student budget) for the past six years. But that doesn’t mean I’ve only been to Mexico on Spring Break. I have gone bungy jumping in New Zealand, toured Ireland with an Irish rock band, climbed the Great Wall of China, and roadtripped across the continental U.S., just to name a few adventures. And I did it all on my own dime.
I am neither old (unless 25 now counts as “old”) nor rich. I do not have a trust fund to fall back on, and I do have some student loan debt that will soon be rearing its ugly head. Bottom line – I’m probably a lot like you, financially. And yet, I’ve found ways to travel to all corners of the earth.
How did I do it? Well, I put some of those “hacking” skills to good use. And here’s how:
Saving money before you travel. Once you make the decision to see the world (or at least some small part of it), you’ll need to figure out how you’re going to afford it. I could always suggest you just take out a little bit extra in student loans, but that is neither ethical nor helpful, since you’ll just have to pay it back later anyway. So here are some tips to help you save up for world travel:
Keep track of your expenses. This is a good money-saving tip for any endeavor, not just travel. If you’re looking to start stashing some cash away for some intended purpose, a good place to start is to keep track of your expenses for a month. And I mean ALL of your expenses. This way, you’ll be able to see where all your money is going and decide where you might be able to cut back.
Start a travel fund. Open up a separate savings account and dedicate this as your travel fund. If you can find one with a good interest rate, even better. Make it an account you can deposit money into easily, but one that it takes a bit more effort to withdraw from. You don’t want to be tempted to spend this money on an impulse buy.
Automatic transfers. Once you have your travel fund set up, automatically transfer a set amount of money into it every paycheck. This of course is difficult if you don’t have a job, but I’m assuming you probably have at least a part-time job on the weekends, or a job on campus so you can earn some spending money. You don’t have to transfer tons of money at once. Even $50 per month can go a long way.
Cut back. Once you figure out where you’re spending all your money, consider where you might be able to cut back. If you’re really serious about saving money to travel, you’ll have to be willing to make some sacrifices. They don’t have to be huge ones – small cut-backs can include going out less, cooking at home more, and maybe buying a couple fewer Starbucks lattes each week. (Seriously, one latte could buy you 5 meals or a night’s accommodation in some countries in South East Asia… food for thought.)
Saving money while you travel
Saving up money before you travel is obviously important. But you’ll probably want to find ways to save money on the road, too. The more frugal you can be, the longer you’ll be able to travel. This isn’t to suggest you sleep on the streets or hitchhike everywhere (though you could if you really wanted to), but there are some easy ways to cut back on major expenses while you travel:
Stay in hostels. Hostels are a college traveler’s best friend. A step lower than motels and a step above college dorms, hostels are a great, economical way to find a place to sleep abroad. While there are hostels in the U.S., most can only be found in large cities, and many don’t offer huge savings over motel or hotel rooms. Abroad, however (in Europe, Australia/New Zealand, South America, and even Asia), hostels are affordable (usually $20-$30 per night, give or take) and can be a great way to meet other travelers. Most hostel rooms are dorm-style with bunk beds, and can be same-sex or co-ed. Hostels usually have kitchens where you can cook your own food, community bathrooms, and sometimes even a bar. If you don’t necessarily want to share a room with strangers, most hostels also offer private rooms at prices that are still lower than what hotels charge. And forget what you’ve seen in movies – hostels are generally safe, popular places to stay for young travelers.
Couchsurf. If you really want to sleep cheap, consider Couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is an online community of people from all over the world who will offer up a free couch, futon, bed, or patch of floor to travelers who need it. Yes, this means staying with a complete stranger, but you can usually get a good idea from Couchsurfing reviews what kind of person your potential host is before committing to staying with them. I’ve Couchsurfed a couple of times successfully, and definitely recommend it if you’re a bit adventurous, on a budget, and want to really see how a local lives. Sometimes you’ll even score a free tour guide this way.
Take advantage of passes/freebies. This probably seems like common sense, but take advantage of freebies and/or discounts when you travel. This sometimes means doing a bit of homework before you go so you know where to look for these deals. For example, many museums abroad are free, or free on certain days of the week. Many attractions in the U.S. will give you a student discount if you have a college ID. Some foreign (and even domestic) cities offer “city passes,” which get you discounted entry into a variety of popular tourist spots – perfect if you plan to pack a lot of sightseeing into your trip. You also may be able to save money by buying a bus/metro pass, depending on how often you plan to use public transportation.
Do as the locals do. Speaking of public transportation, you should use it. In many cities, taking the bus or train is exponentially cheaper than renting a car or taking a taxi everywhere. Yes, this might mean trying to decipher timetables in a foreign language, but the money it will save you will be worth it. Along this same vein, try eating as the locals do, too. In many cities, street vendors line the streets selling simple, filling meals for a few dollars. In many instances, it’s smart to follow the locals and fill up on street food rather than overspending at a restaurant.
Don’t go to Europe. I know, I know, backpacking Western Europe is kind of the quintessential college trip, right? But it’s also the most expensive place you can travel, especially in the summer. If you really want to make the most of the money you’ve saved up during the school year, consider traveling to places where that money will go further. South America and South East Asia are growing in popularity with the backpacking crowd, and are much more affordable than Europe or Australia. In South East Asia, for example (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam), you can easily get by on $30 per day – and that includes food and accommodation. If you’re not feeling quite that adventurous and still want to go to Europe, consider Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria), where prices aren’t quite as high yet.
Consider a working holiday. If you have your heart set on some of the more expensive, far-away countries (like Australia or New Zealand, for example), consider applying for a working holiday visa. This particular type of visa will let you live and travel in Australia and New Zealand for up to 18 months. This is a popular option for people taking a year off in between high school and college or college and the “real world.” The visa allows you to live abroad for a handful of months, and also allows you to take up odd jobs such as working in hostels, or working on farms. It’s a great way to see a lot of a country while being able to supplement your travel funds with some part-time work at the same time.
This list, of course, isn’t the end-all, be-all. There are tons of “travel hacking” tips out there – many that can apply whether you’re a college student or not. But these tips should at least get you on the right path to making your travel dreams a reality.
[Photo by Wonderlane licensed under CC BY 2.0]
Where have you managed to go on a student budget. What are your favorite tips? Let us know in the comments!