A trip abroad, whether it is to study in a different university for semester or to take a break from classes to seek a different kind of knowledge, is often (always?) a turning point in a student's life.
But to make the most of their trip in 2019, students would do well to keep in mind those budget travel tips.
After all, there's nothing more frustating than being in a new and exciting environment and be unable to fully enjoy it because you struggle financially.
These proven techniques have allowed me to travel to Europe and Asia as a student, without having to worry too much about money... despite a student loan.
Don't approach your trip abroad as you do every exam, by starting to work on it at the last minute. The more prepared you are, the more you'll enjoy the experience.
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Before Leaving on Your Trip
Choose Your Destination Wisely
Where will you stay?
The place where you will spend a semester or more obviously has a major impact on how fast you will run out of money.
European countries are very varied in terms of cost of life. Western Europe and Scandinavia are generally more expensive than Central and Western Europe, as you can see on the maps from this handy post.
Now, keep in mind that while this means that you will feel more pressure on your budget in Western Europe and Scandinavia, it is actually very close to the cost of life in the US. Not to mention that if you decide to work on the side, you will earn more money than you would in Central and Eastern Europe.
But the latter has a lot to offer as well: not only will you find good universities in the East, it's also very cheap and easy to travel to another country. Something to keep in mind if you consider visiting several countries during your stay in Europe.
The cost of life will generally be lower in South America, Africa, and Asia, with a few exceptions.
Save Money on Flights
Unlike for shorter trips, the price of your flight ticket isn't going to be one of your main expenses when you travel for a few months... provided that you know how to book cheap flights.
When it comes to finding low fares, the key word is "flexibility". Choose your travel dates and the time when you book your flight with care: the price can vary to more than double within a week.
As a rule of thumb, avoid flying during major holidays or on Fridays (when many people fly for a weekend trip) or Sundays (when people fly back from a weekend trip).
Keep in mind that to increase your chances of scoring the cheapest fares, you should aim at booking your international flight between 3-4 months in advance. Don't rely on last-minute deals, it's likely that there won't be any.
If tickets to your destination are always expensive, consider an alternative path to your destination.
For example, when I went to China, tickets were very expensive for my dates (and I was very flexible with those). So instead of flying straight there, I flew to Vietnam, spent some time there, and then took a flight to China. The overall cost was much lower than if I had flown directly to China, even taking the accommodation costs in Vietnam into account.
For more ways to save money on flights, I highly recommend that you check out this post.
Look for Accommodation
Now that you know where you're going, start thinking of where you're going to stay... and how you can save money on accommodation.
Check out Student Dorms First
Being a student has major advantages when it comes to access to discounts (more on that later), especially in regards to accommodation. Mainly because your student status gives you access to student dorms.
If you're traveling for a university exchange, contact your host university and inquire about the availability of dormitories on the campus or nearby. If there are any, this is probably your best bet to save money on accommodation.
Still, dig a little bit deeper first before booking a bed in a dorm.
Look for Shared Flats
In general, renting a room in a flat is more expensive than renting one in a dormitory. But if you can find roommates to split the expenses, the rent might be very similar in the end.
Just keep in mind that very often, you will have to leave a deposit first - even though you will (likely) recover it at the end of your stay, this is still a big expense at the beginning of the trip. Hence the need to find roommates if you elect this option.
If you're traveling with other friends from university, ask them if they'd consider sharing a flat. If you're alone, you can join Facebook groups for students traveling to your destination. In Europe, these groups will often be called "Erasmus [city name] [year]".
You can also book your first month in the university dormitory and look for a shared flat once you're there. Being on site usually makes things much easier.
Visit Your Doctor
No matter where you're traveling, pay a visit to your doctor before your trip. Make sure that everything is in order health-wise and tell her/him about your travel plans: they will be able to advise whether you need any vaccines or should pack specific medication.
If you're on a special treatment, make sure that you'll be able to get what you need there, or ask your doctor for a prescription that will allow you to bring your medication with you. If your treatment isn't available at your destination, it will cost you extra to have it brought to you from abroad.
A visit to your dentist probably isn't a bad idea either... If it turns out that you have a problem abroad and your insurance doesn't cover the fees, this could be a major unwanted expense that can easily ruin your trip.
Medical bills are usually very expensive, so you want to make sure that you're as prepared as possible on that front, to limit the risks of bad surprises.
Get Your Travel Documents in Order
If you don't already have one, get a passport. If you do have one, make sure it doesn't expire while you're abroad. Ideally, you want your passport's expiration date to be at least 6 months after the date of your flight back: if for one reason or another you need to stay longer, you'll be glad you have this 6-month margin rather than going to your embassy in emergency.
The same goes for your visa: check whether you need one or not in advance. If you wait until the last minute, you may have to request an accelerated procedure, which is always more expensive.
Once you're abroad, you really do not want to have to make a hole in your budget because of administrative procedures. Make sure everything is sorted out before you hop on the plane.
Determine Your Budget and Ways to Manage It Efficiently
Estimate How Much this Trip Will Cost You
There is no need for you to go into too much details, but having a vague estimate of your expenses abroad will go a long way to helping you save money once you're on site.
Do some research on the cost of life at your destination. You want to have a rough idea of how expensive are the rents, how much money you need for a month/week of grocery shopping, how costly it is to go out, etc.
Knowing this will help you manage your budget more efficiently once you're there, as you will be able to compare your actual expenses with your initial research and make some adjustments to your spending habits if necessary.
Get an ISIC
As a student, the first thing you want to do is getting an International Student Identity Card (ISIC): this magic card will unlock a plethora of discounts for you. It is recognized in most countries around the world. Some countries, however, only recognize the local student cards - so once you're abroad, try to get one of those done as well by your host university.
Apply for a Grant
You should also inquire about grants: if you're not planning on working during your trip, these may be your sole source of revenue. The main institutions that could potentially offer a grant are your own university, your host university, and the state. Do a bit of research and apply. Again, do so in advance, because grants are often given several months before
Contact your Bank
Make sure that using your credit or debit card abroad won't incur significant fees. Tell your banker about your trip and the countries you're planning on visiting: they'll be able to recommend which card to use to save money on card payments and withdrawals. For example, it might be cheaper to withdraw large amounts of cash once you're abroad, rather than pay by card, if there are fees every time that you do so.
If it looks like your bank doesn't offer much advantages to people traveling abroad, consider changing. TransferWise's borderless account or the bank N26 have very low transfer fees and are particularly popular among young travelers.
If you think that your budget is a bit tight, you might want to raise the issue with your banker as well, to benefit from a loan a low rate. However, if you can avoid going into debt, refrain from taking a loan, as it will cost you more money in the long run.
Pack your Bag
Bring a (Small) Suitcase to Pack your Essentials... If you Really Have to
You may have noticed that I recommended that you pack your essentials. I meant exactly that. That's why you should you insist on bringing a carry-on, bring only a small suitcase. Even if you're leaving for 6 months or more.
To save money - or rather to avoid paying bag fees at the airport - make sure that your suitcase meets the airline's requirements in terms of weight and dimension.
You might be tempted to bring all your favorite clothes, books, and other random items. Don't. It's a basic mistake. The lighter you travel, the more enjoyable the experience. It's makes moving around much easier and pleasant, while a large and heavy suitcase will only make traveling a hassle.
So when you're packing, apply the popular saying: "take half the clothes and twice the money" (yes, that last part can be tricky too, but at least, you have full control over the first one).
Wherever you will live, there will be a way for you to do a laundry. So apply the 1 to 6 rule when packing your carry-on.
But Consider Traveling with a Backpack Only
I know the idea might seem daunting, especially when leaving for several months at a time. But this is a key budget travel tip.
When going abroad, to study or not, you will travel to places other than the town or city where you will live. If you travel by plane, you need to have a small piece of luggage to use as a carry-on, that is both respectful of the airline's dimensions requirements and in which you can pack enough for a few days.
Hence the backpack. You do NOT want to have a suitcase to carry when you're on the move. Instead, opt for a anti-theft backpack that lets you keep your money safe and pack a few clothes, without hindering your mobility.
By traveling with a carry-on only, you will save a ton of money for your trip: most airlines' basic fares include only a carry-on. If you want to get a hand on those cheap flights, you'd better opt for a backpack only.
Some people travel the world during years at a time with only a bag on their back. If they can do it for so long, surely you can do it for a few months.
During Your Trip
You've arrived at destination: now what? How do you make sure that you don't run out of money?
A quick tip for you before getting to the heart of the matter. If your flight is delayed or canceled, claim compensation with ClaimCompass. You can get as much as 600€ for a single disrupted flight!
Manage Your Budget
You have two options to stay within your budget while traveling: you can either save money or earn some.
Or you can do both.
Find Ways to Save Money
Let's start by cutting down your expenses.
Cancel your Unnecessary Subscriptions
What good is your gym membership if you can't go to the gym for 6 months? Cancelling it before leaving will allow you to allocate this budget to a different activity when you're abroad.
Review the list of all the services that you have subscribed to and cancel the superfluous ones. Be ruthless about it.
Save Money on Food
To save money on food, start by cooking your own meals as often as possible.
Buy your groceries at the local market or supermarket instead of have lunch and dinner at the restaurant every day. But do not look for the specific products that you are used to eating back home: they're likely to cost much more than in the US. Instead, try the local, cheaper alternatives.
Save Money on Accommodation
If you're like every other students who goes studying abroad, you'll be traveling every time you get the chance (i.e. when you don't have class).
A fantastic way to save money on accommodation while traveling is to volunteer. While you won't be paid, you will generally be offered free board and lodging in exchange for your work. Most volunteers say that their experience was life-changing for them, so do take a minute to consider the idea.
You can find example of volunteer missions on websites like Workaway or HelpX. If you want to work on an organic farm, check out WWOOF. You can also work in a hostel, where you will meet travelers with inspiring stories and still have time to enjoy what the town or city has to offer.
Save Money while Visiting Places
Avoid booking expensive tours to discover a new city. Many places now offer free walking tours. They are generally organized and led by young locals anxious to show the beauty of their city in a casual atmosphere.
While the popular Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor can always give you an idea of what to do and see in a new city, you should also look for travel blogs on your destination, for more off-the-beaten-path inspiration. Why? Because these places are usally less touristic and therefore, cheaper than the rest, while also being more authentic.
Or Look Into Ways to Earn Money While Traveling
If you can't refrain from spending more money than you should (or can afford), you're going to need ways to earn more money while studying abroad.
Teach English... or Any Other Skill that you Have
Being an American student gives you a major advantage over many people around the world: you're speaking English as a native language (or at least fluently).
Did you know that there are literally millions of people in the world willing to learn how to speak English? English teachers are in demand worldwide. But the best part is that you no longer need to give a class in person: you can now do it over a simple video call.
If teaching a language doesn't appeal to you, you might be more inclined to share your passion. Do you play an instrument? I bet someone would love to learn! Do you do yoga? Or surf? People are looking for teachers in many places around the world.
With your university degree in the pocket (or almost...), you probably already have business skills and knowledge that employers are looking for. By trying to sell them during your trip abroad, you will accomplish 2 things of value to you: you will earn money (that's still your main goal) and you will add a work experience on your resume, which future potential employers will be delighted to see.
Based on your skills, you can do copywriting, design, programming, etc. Here as well, possibilities are endless, or close.
Build Your Plan to Integrate those Budget Travel Tips
There is no doubt that your trip abroad will be a life-changing experience. The extent to which it will may very well depend on how well you handle your budget.
Use this post as a checklist to prepare you trip and make sure that you don't miss out on an opportunity to save money.