Budget Travel: How You Can Travel Abroad on a Student Budget

by | Aug 13, 2019

We all know where there is a will, there is a way. But when it comes to traveling the world, we all have the will to go on adventures but none of the cash to do so. 

In this blog post, I will share my top tips and tricks for traveling for cheaper and longer on a college student budget. These tips helped me travel Southeast Asia for six weeks and Colombia for a month when I was in college working regular jobs.

Here is how you can travel the world on a modest budget in 2019.

Pre-Trip Travel Budgeting Tips:

1. Saving and Budgeting for your Trip

The number one question on your mind is probably “how the heck do I even save for a trip abroad?” 

Well, the short answer is that you need to make travel a priority. You will have to be very disciplined with how you spend your money. Can you skip eating out? Are you willing to make your own coffee at home? All the little expenses add up. 

In college, I saved money by thrifting, making my coffee at home, and cooking. Here is how I actually saved money to travel:

Step 1: Every time you skip out on a restaurant meal, coffee, or going out, place that money you would have otherwise spent in your savings. I found it more effective for me to visually see my money accumulate in cash—the old school way, y’all.

Step 2: I placed my savings in an envelope titled “TRAVEL MONEY” or whatever destination you are saving up for. Alternatively, it would be smart to start a savings account that gives an interest (some give you up to 2% back!) on the money you save. 

Step 3: You will want to create a solid goal; the exact dollar amount you will be aiming to save for your trip and write it on the envelope. This goal will help you understand how much you can spend and how much you need to save for how long. You can figure out that number by doing a quick Google search on the cost of the flight, a typical local meal/beer, and accommodation at your desired destination. 

Let’s talk numbers:

For me, it was $3k for my first trip. I was waiting tables at the time so I saved all the $1 and $5 bills plus $100-$200 each month. I also saved all my Christmas and birthday money—it is always a good idea to let friends and family know that you are saving for a trip and prefer cash over physical gifts. You can also sell old/vintage clothes on Depop, Poshmark, eBay or your mom’s garage sale for extra pocket money. Pick up extra shifts, dog walking, babysitting, if you can do graphic design check out freelance sites such a Fiverr and Upwork… get creative, get that dough for the trip of your dreams!  

2. Destination Research

If you want to travel cheap, you ought to choose a destination where your currency value is higher than the local currency. Hello Southeast Asia, Central/South America, and North Africa. Multiply that cash! 

Budget Travel Beach Destination
Secluded beach in the Dominican Republic

Want to be on a tropical island chilling on a hammock drinking Piña Coladas for less than $50 a day? Check out cheap beach destinations like Las Terrenas in the Dominican Republic, San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, and Bocas del Toro in Panama. Want to hike an active volcano? Check out Volcan Pacaya in Guatemala.   

Figure out what you want to be doing when you travel, but don’t get too attached to a specific destination and you’re wallet will thank you later! Keeping your options open will help you save so much money. I recommend to research at least three destinations and compare flights and accommodation prices before you make the final decision on where to go. 

3. Finding Cheap Flights

The most expensive thing you will have to save for is probably your flight. Do not despair, my friend, at the sight of a $1000+ plane ticket. There are ways you can save on your flights. 

Typically flexibility is the #1 money-saving tip when it comes to booking a plane ticket. As a college student, you are limited to winter and summer breaks, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible with where you go. If you are not a college student, then you can save big $$$ just by opening up your travel dates. 

Some things to consider when searching for cheap airline tickets:

  • Decide on what you are willing to pay. If you don’t have this number in mind, you will keep searching and will miss out on good deals because you thought the ticket will be cheaper tomorrow.
  • Tickets are usually the cheapest 6 weeks prior to your desired departure date.
  • Set price trackers for multiple destinations and airports in the region you want to visit. That way once you get the email with a price you are willing to pay, you can snatch that baby up! I use Momondo and Google Flights:
How to set a price tracker on google flights for budget travel

  • Avoid major national or international holiday. That means that if you want to travel during winter break, travel at least a week before Christmas or after New Years if you have a longer break.
  • Travel during low season. For example, in Asia and parts of Central America, the low season is the summer months because it is the rainy season. This will make your trip cheaper overall!
  • Consider the overall cost of your destination, not just the flight cost. Tickets to Southeast Asia from the US are expensive but traveling in Southeast Asia is very cheap so it evens out. Tickets to Europe are cheap but Europe generally is as expensive as the US, if not more.

Other resources for finding cheap flights:

how to use Skycanner's travel graph to find cheap flights and travel on budget
  • Reward miles that you may have accumulated from a travel credit card or that your parents have from traveling
  • Rakuten (formerly known as Ebates) chrome extension can alert you when there is potential cashback to be earned when booking your flight. Or really any other travel purchases!

4. Finding Budget Accommodation

The only way I could afford traveling as often as I do and for longer, is because I stay at hostels every time I travel abroad. Hostels are not dirty or scary. They are cute and VERY FUN for young travelers. They only have a bad rep. here in the USA. It is pretty normal all over the world for travelers ages 18-30 to stay at hostels. 

You could spend anywhere from $3 (can you believe it! I spent $3/night in Thailand) to $15 a night in a basic dorm-style bedroom. If you want to be a little fancy, you can score a private bedroom from $25-$40 per night. Most hostels I stayed at included breakfast in their nightly rate, saving you the cost of a meal. 

Colorful private hostel room for budget traveler in Guatemala
Private room in Yellow House Hostel/B&B in Antigua, Guatemala for $22/night!
Image Credit: Yellow House

I use Hostelworld and Booking.com (get cashback on your bookings with Rakuten) for all of my budget travel accommodation. 

5. Baggage Fees

This may be a small fee in the grand scheme of things but the $50 baggage fee could help you travel an extra day in a lot of countries. I recommend packing light by using packing cubes to avoid this extra fee. 

I only travel with one backpack as my carry-on and a personal item (a small day pack) if I’m going to be away for over a week. Not only will you use money traveling from your hometown but also when traveling internally between cities and countries. 

Learn how to save money by traveling and packing light:

While On The Road Travel Budgeting Tips:

1. Save on Food When Traveling on a Budget

Cost of food is usually only a concern if you are traveling to a more expensive city like New York City or traveling somewhere for over a week. The food in Central America was more expensive than in Southeast Asia, so I cooked my meals 70% of the time because I wanted to stretch out my budget for three months. If you are traveling alone, consider making friends and cooking dinners together or splitting bigger meals. 

2. Buddy Systems & Splitting Costs

Ties back to the previous tip, but making friends can save you some money. If you are traveling with friends you already know you will be splitting a lot of the costs. 

Budget travelers hiking a cloud forest in Costa Rica
My travel buddies and I used our student IDs to get a discount on the entrance ticket at the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reverse in Costa Rica

Other than saving on food, you can save on private hostel rooms, Ubers/taxis, and tours which — I usually avoid organized tours because you can do a lot of what they offer for free on your own but you could get a HUGE discount if you are a group.  

3. No Foreign Fee Credit Card & Cash Withdrawals

Don’t pay an unnecessary foreign transaction fee when you can easily avoid it with travel credit cards like the VentureOne card from CapitalOne. The VentureOne credit card saved me a good chunk by allowing me to “delete” travel purchases by using reward points I earned on past travel purchases (you earn 2x the points on travel purchases, those include Ubers, Lyfts, and my metro card). Whenever I have the option to pay with a card when I travel, I always use my credit card even if they charge me a small fee, it’s usually less than what the ATM charges me for withdrawing cash. 

With that being said, cash is king all over the world. I carry as much US dollars as I feel safe bringing, to exchange when I arrive (never at the airport though!) to avoid withdrawing from foreign ATMs that charge 5% fees plus whatever else your bank charges, usually its $5. That adds up really fast!

4. Transportation

The cheapest way to travel between cities is typically by bus. But if you don’t have time to spare on long bus rides, consider internal budget airlines such as Ryanair in Europe, AirAsia in Asia, LATAM in South America, and Volaris or Spirit Airlines in Central America.

Uber works really well in some countries in Central and South America so check the app when you arrive for cheap airport transportation. Rideshares are popular all over the world as well. Local buses usually only cost a few pennies so consider taking the bus instead to save more. 

Budget Travel on the back of a motorcycle taxi in DR
My private moto ride to the beach in the Dominican Republic for only 50c

Additional Costs to Consider – Getting sick while traveling, Visa fees, and missing your flight or bus to the next city. Keep all your reservations flexible and refundable whenever possible.  

Are you going to be traveling solo or thinking about it? You should really read this

Do you have any other hot tips to share or questions that still need answers? Please share with the community below.

Hey friend! It's Marina :)

Hey friend! It's Marina 🙂

I’m an Egyptian born and NYC based brand strategist, designer, coach, and traveler!

Obsessed with living a freedom-filled life on my terms, I’ve been traveling the world solo for the past 7 years. My adventures inspired me to start this platform—Livin Vivaciously.

I’m also a proud corporate dropout passionate about helping freedom-obsessed women and digital entrepreneurs build a true-to-self personal brand.

I believe that personal branding is the only way we can build pivot-proof businesses that thrive, simply because we show up as who we are, online and offline!

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