When I left home for my first-ever backpack trip around Latin America, I only had $247.81 in my bank account. A freshman in college at the time, I reasoned that this was probably enough to cover a few months of hostel stays, bus fare and beers.
Of course, I was wrong and ended up having to make a whiny call to my parents to request emergency funds (thanks, Jim and Alma Lalonde) about three weeks into the journey. But I learned my lesson and vowed never again to find myself stranded in a foreign country with an overdrawn bank account.
In the years that followed, I’d travel around Central and South America, Southeast Asia and Europe, picking up tips, tricks and hacks for making my limited funds go further. After a decade of shoestring travel, I’m here to assure you that you can travel the world on a student budget, and you can do it without having to ask your dad to wire you money. And so, it is with gratitude and humility that I bring you these tips for saving big on student travel.
1. Seek Out Travel Deals
If you’ve got your heart spent on visiting an expensive city (we’re looking at you Paris), you don’t have to ditch your plans just yet. Viator is offering RetailMeNot readers an exclusive extra 10% and 12% off their travels, when they spend $200 or more. Viator also offers free cancellations, up to 24 hours before your trip, and a Reserve Now Pay Later feature that allows you to book your dream vacation, while still saving up for it.
2. Choose Your Destination Wisely.
Of course, not all expensive cities are in reach — even with a great discount. I learned this one the hard way when I visited Tokyo and spent more money in five days there than I had in three months living in Bali. The cost of traveling to one destination for one week can be thousands of dollars more than traveling to another, so choose your destination wisely.
Here are a few amazing destinations where you can stay longer, enjoy a higher standard of living and save money:
- Vietnam ($25 a day): In a bustling city like Hanoi or Saigon, you can find dorm beds starting at $6 per night. That leaves you plenty of money left over to rent a motorbike ($4 to $6/day; $50/month) and feast on delicious street food — like a bowl of spicy bún bò Huế soup ($1.50+) or a crispy banh mi sandwich ($1) — washed back with a few glasses of bia hoi homemade beer ($0.20+).
- Colombia ($35 a day): Having shed its dark past, Colombia is fast rising as an up-and-coming destination where dorms start at $8 per night and simple meals won’t set you back more than $5. Skip the upscale restaurants in Medellín’s El Poblado or Bogotá’s Rosales neighborhoods, and stick to places offering a menú del día — or a lunch menu of the day — which includes a drink, appetizer, and main for less than $2.
- Mexico ($40+ a day): Mexico is a vast place, so costs can range greatly from city to city. But even in major destinations like Mexico City or Puerto Vallarta, you can find dorms from $7 and some of the best street food you’ll ever eat for a few bucks.
- Croatia ($50 a day): With its pristine waters and sunny summers, Croatia is a total hidden gem. Expect to pay around $20+ for dorms and $10 to $15 for meals.
- India ($30 a day): Thanks, in part, to an insanely favorable exchange rate, India might just be the ultimate budget destination. Picture this: cheap food that is mind-blowingly delicious and guesthouses started at $3 (though keep in mind: these are pretty bare-bones and it’s not uncommon to bathe with buckets of water. But it’s part of the adventure!)
3. Stay Longer.
Here’s another mistake I made in my early days of budget traveling: Trying to travel by bus from Nicaragua to Cusco, Peru in a single summer. Not only is dashing from destination to destination expensive, it doesn’t give you time to soak in a city and get a feel for its people and culture — and isn’t that the point of travel, in the end?
Instead of trying to get as many stamps on your passport as you can, choose one destination to act as your home base. You’ll get more bang for your airfare, and you can unlock discounted weekly or monthly rates from Airbnb. And, if you’re traveling during summer break, you’ll have an opportunity to take advantage of summer travel jobs for college students — which brings me to the next tip.
Skip volunteering through high-cost student travel programs like Putney Student Travel. Instead, consider volunteering on organic farms through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) in exchange for free room and board. WWOOF can connect you with farms seeking volunteers around the world — from dairy farms in France to beekeeping projects in the U.S. Pacific northwest. Note that WWOOF does charge a membership fee ($40 a year for a single person or $65 a year for a joint account) to access their directory and booking tools.
5. Find Summer Travel Jobs for College Students Through Workaway.
Workaway is a similar deal to WWOOF: It connects budget travelers to hosts seeking volunteers for everything from ecolodges to English schools to butterfly projects. Workaway has more than 50,000 opportunities in 170 countries worldwide, making it a good alternative to pricey student travel programs and a solid choice for destinations that traditionally offer more expensive accommodation options, like the U.S. or the United Kingdom. Similar to WWOOF, Workaway also charges a membership fee: $49 a year for a single person or $59 a year for a joint account.
6. Cook for Yourself.
Especially if you are in a city where food is on the expensive-er side, you can save big — and eat healthier — by cooking your meals. Especially in destinations in South America and Southeast Asia, local markets are treasure troves of fresh fruits and veggies — and a good way to get the local experience. If you can, book an Airbnb that has a kitchen — but even if a private Airbnb is out of your price range, most hostels have communal kitchens you can use.
7. Take Public Transportation.
These days, Google Maps makes it insanely easy to figure out local public transportation — even in a brand new place where you don’t speak the language. And it’s more than worth it: traveling by local bus or metro lets you explore virtually any city for a couple of bucks, all while getting that coveted local experience.
8. Buy Student Travel Insurance.
The right student travel insurance can help ensure a smoother trip and prevent massive out-of-pocket emergency fees. Look for a policy that covers trip cancellation, interruption and delays, and lost or stolen items — like passports or laptops. Many student travel insurance policies include medical emergency evacuations. What most policies likely won’t include is health insurance, but you can typically rely on your current health insurance for short-term trips.
9. Look for Student Travel Discounts.
It’s worth hunting down student travel discounts through sites like ID.me and Student Beans, which let you access student-exclusive discounts after you verify your eligibility. Through these platforms, you can find discounts on flights, car rentals, accommodations, tours, attractions and entertainment.
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