There is a reason we have the phase “poor college students.” A large majority of college students don’t have any money and the ones that do tend to spend it on food and alcohol. College is extremely expensive in the United States and most of us pay for it through student loans only to be working our tails off after college to pay those loans off (if we’re even lucky to find a job).
I graduated undergrad and graduate school with a combined debt of $44,000. Yikes! I have friends that have undergrad debt upwards of $120,000+. Now that is scary! Chances are you’re a college student (or recent college grad) with between $29,400 (the current average student loan debt in America) and $100,000+ and the number continues to rise every year. If you’re one of the really lucky ones whose parents paid for your entire college education then we are not friends! Just kidding, but, I am extremely jealous.
The topic of how ridiculous the cost of college in America is not want I want to discuss today. If you are interested in that topic, then please check out my True Costs of College series. Today, I want to discuss how to travel the world as a poor college student (because that is not as depressing!).
Total confession: I am not actually a poor college student at the moment. I finished my Masters degree in December 2012 and currently work fulltime. I do plan on going back to grad school in the very near future for my PhD. However, I still consider myself one of those “poor college students” because I pay close to $600 a month in student loan bills. That amount makes up about one third of my monthly budget. The other two-thirds I use to pay my living expenses and put into my travel and emergency savings account (very important!).
I love to travel. I am lucky that I am in a position now that allows me to afford traveling more often. I never could afford travel back when I was a true poor college student as an undergrad at the University of Maine. I knew I could study abroad, but as a Biochemistry/Pre-Med major, I found that spending a semester abroad in Europe like many of my friends was almost impossible. I would spend countless hours (when I should have been studying for Organic Chemistry) browsing the internet for study abroad programs in Europe, Australia, or other tropical far off places, but I never pulled the plug on going. I did do a two-week English course in Italy though. Not studying abroad was my biggest regret from college. I do plan to write a post in the coming weeks about studying abroad as a science/pre-med major because it can be done. Stay tuned for that!
The more I travel and the more I research, I have learned that you can travel as a “poor college student.” It just might take a little more work and commitment to get you on that tropical beach in Thailand. So let’s break it down into steps.
1. Do you plan to study abroad for a semester or backpack someplace over summer break?
This is an important first step to determine because it will help you determine how you will finance your travel. If you study abroad at an approved program through your university then you can most likely fund this through your financial aid office (aka student loans). However, there are several important factors that you need to consider. First, check with your Financial Aid Office to ensure that your student loans/scholarships/grants/etc. can be used to cover the cost of attending the university aboard. Do you need to apply for financial aid through the school abroad? Second, you most likely can take extra student loans to cover the cost of living. However, I strongly discourage this because at the end of the day you have to pay those loans off with interest. Make sure you really think about this! Trust me, paying back student loans is no fun. Research and see if you can get a work study job abroad. Not only will you make some money for spending cash, but you can meet new people!
Now, if you’re thinking about exploring the world over your 3 month summer vacation then you need to start saving your money now and start planning. Maybe you just spent the spring semester studying abroad in Paris and now you want to explore the rest of Europe. Plan ahead!
2. How do I fund your travel plans?
- Student loans – Like I mentioned above, use this option with caution. No one wants to be in debt for the rest of their lives with student loans because it is no fun. Student loans are with you until you pay them off in full or you die. Those hefty loan payments will affect your lifestyle after college and no one wants to live with their parents until they are 45! So, weigh the pros and cons here and talk with your parents. However, don’t let the inability to afford a life changing experience stop you, just use common sense with student loans.
- Scholarships – Some colleges and universities offer students scholarships for study abroad programs. Check with your Financial Aid Office and Study Abroad Office to see what they offer. It never hurts to try. I know my university offered a special scholarship program for one exceptional student to study at the University of Cork in Ireland for a semester with all expenses paid. Scholarships like this do exist so do your research.
- A job – Get a job! Many schools offer work study programs. If you qualify then make sure you hop on that bandwagon. Just don’t spend that money on beer and pizza every week. Make saving for your travels the priority. Not getting drunk with your friends every Thursday through Sunday might make you a lame friend, but think about all the fun you can have on a beach in Costa Rica. Costa Rican beer is also cheap and very good! Of course, you should have a little fun, just try to limit the extra spending. If you don’t qualify for work study or if you want to make extra money, get a part-time job somewhere else. Become a waiter, bag groceries at your local grocery store. Just do something!
- Side-hustle or Freelance – I dabble in a lot of side hustles to make extra money to stuff money into my travel account and to pay off my student loans faster (see, student loans suck!). Some of my side-hustles involve selling things I don’t use anymore on eBay and teaching spin classes at a few local gyms. Find something you’re passionate about and see if you can make extra money. If you’re good at fixing computers and cell phones, put up a flyer in the student union and advertise. Maybe you’re super smart and can tutor in Calculus (lord knows I could have used you in college!)?
- Parents/Relatives – It can’t hurt to ask the “Bank of Mom and Dad.” Maybe they are willing to give you a $1000 towards your trip. Offer to mow the lawn for them or wash the dishes in return. Sit them down and explain to them why traveling is so important to you. Make sure you have a good reason other than to sit on the beach and drink beer. Traveling truly does enrich your life and you gain valuable life skills like communication skills, planning and logistics skills, and cultural immersion that many employers find as beneficial.
3. Where should I go?
This is always a fun question. I personally have a hard time trying to determine my next vacation spot. One day it may be Paris and the next day it may be Buenos Aires. If you’re studying abroad then it is important to consider the coursework available at the university and the language. Are classes taught in English or in another language? Do you speak that language? Do you want to be able to travel to various countries on weekends and/or holidays? Do you want to be close to home? Many students tend to go to Paris, Madrid, or Rome for study abroad opportunities. Choosing a European country allows you to explore other parts of Europe relatively easily on weekends. However, Europe is expensive. Can you afford it?
If you’re just backpacking for the summer (or maybe studying abroad too), Central America and Southeast Asia (SEA) are very common for backpackers because both areas are cheap. I personally have not made it to SEA, but I have traveled quite a bit in Central America. Your dollar will get you a lot farther in most countries in this region. South America is another great place, especially if you want to improve your Spanish. I am currently planning on spending some extended time in South America in 2016.
4. How do I budget?
You NEED to budget prior to leaving on your experience abroad. This is a very important step and one that most young people skip. You’re probably rolling your eyes and thinking “yeah right lady,” but it is no fun to run out of money half way through your trip and need to call the “Bank of Mom and Dad” to wire transfer you money. You will never live that down. Before I embark on any new adventures I do a lot of research on the countries and the areas I will be traveling to get a sense of cost of living. From there I determine my daily budget and multiply that by the number of days of my trip. I then take that sum and multiply it by 20% and add that 20% cushion to my original total budget. For example, I can get by on $30 a day in Thailand and I will be there for 10 days. My trip budget is $300. I then add $60 to $300 for a trip budget of $360. It’s best to over-budget and underspend. At the end of the day you can save that extra money for your next trip or spend it or something really cool like zip-lining through the jungle! You might make some mistakes like I recently did in Belize so it’s good to have a credit card for emergency purposes. And I don’t think new Italian leather boots fall under emergency uses! A great site to compare travel credit cards for student is Credit Card Insider!
5. Where can I save money?
There are lots of ways to save money on your trip! Here are some great ideas:
- Stay in hostels over hotels
- Cook your own food over eating out all the time
- Choose street/market foods over a sit down meal at a restaurant
- Obtain student discount cards and/or ask for student discounts at places (make sure you bring your student ID with you!)
- Use airline miles for free flights
- Look for free events (many museums offer free days/nights certain days of the month)
- Walk instead of a taxi/train/bus/etc.
- Try workaway programs or volunteer in exchange for free room and board
Traveling on a poor college student budget is possible. You need to make it a priority and plan ahead. Save money when you can and look for ways to save while you’re on the road. If I could go back in time and redo college, I would do a lot of things differently. Mainly I would have studied abroad and traveled more. But, since time travel is currently unavailable, I will provide you with my wise words. Below are some of my favorite resources and items for travel.
Nomadic Matt – A great source of information on round-the-world budget travel. Nomadic Matt also has several great ebooks (I used his Ultimate Guide to Travel Hacking to earn over 100,000+ miles within 6 months) and his book How to Travel the World Under $50 a Day (which I have read and found a great introduction to the newbie traveler).
Lonely Planet Guidebooks – There are a lot of good guidebook brands out there in the world, but I personally believe that Lonely Planet Guidebooks (both print and ebooks) are the best. I have several of them as I begin to plan my “Great Escape 2016” and I highly recommend them to any budget level traveler. These are also helpful to help you plan your budget.
International Student ID Card (ISIC) – For only $25 you can purchase this card through STA Travel that will give you discounts at over 125,000 places worldwide. For $199 you can upgrade the card and get travel insurance too.
World Nomad Travel Insurance – I never leave home without travel insurance, mostly to protect myself and my camera in case something was to happen while I was aboard.
STA Travel – If you’re a student (or teacher) then you definitely need to check out STA Travel. The travel agency provides students and teachers with big discounts on a lot of things, like flights, travel insurance, and many other discounts. I suggest checking here first for your flights abroad and then use other sites such as Kayak or OneTravel to compare prices.
Student Universe – Like STA Travel, Student Universe is geared for students, teachers and youth (18-25). The agency provides big discounts on flights, hotels, trains, and tours. Make should you check this site for deals before buying anywhere else.
HostelWorld – I’m a big fan of staying in hostels while traveling because they are way cheaper than hotels and a great way to meet fellow travelers on the road.
Credit Card Insider - This site is a great resource of anything related to credit cards. They even have a whole page dedicated to students who study abroad! Did you know in Europe you’ll need a card with EMV chip card?
Capital One 360 Savings Accounts – I keep my travel savings account separate from my regular checking and savings account so I am not tempted to spend my hard earn money on something frivolous. Capital One 360 offers fee-free savings accounts at an APY rate of 0.75% (much more than most brick-and-mortar banks). It’s easy to move money from different banks and the app allows you to easily deposit a check via their phone app.
What are some of your favorite travel resources? Do you have any advice for “poor college students” who want to travel on a budget of corn chips and beer?
Disclaimer: A few of the links above are affiliate links. There are no additional costs for you if you use them, but I do make a small commission that helps me pay the bills here. All of the above links are sites and/or items that I have used in the past (I’m not a student at the moment and thus can’t use the student sites. Insert sad face) or currently use for my travel needs.