Traveling Internationally on a Student’s Budget

The paucity of posts this week is due to Spring Break, more specifically a trip to Belize that allowed me to disconnect from technology and vet school and focus all of my energy on doing, well, nothing!

Although a trip to Belize might sound extravagant for a vet student and you might wonder how on earth does she afford such a trip, I must make it clear that there was nothing fancy about the trip and it was done for under 1,000 dollars (including airfare, which was the most expensive part).

I’ve been fortunate to have gone on many trips to international destinations on a very small budget. It’s not hard to do, so I figured I would share my advice for traveling on a student budget.

  1. Find a travel partner. I travel with my sister and we are great travel partners: we have both lived abroad for extended periods of time and have similar standards for safety and comfort. I recommend finding a single partner to travel with as the more people you include, the more difficult it is to come to a consensus and make all parties happy.
  2. Find a cheap airfare or use miles. As students we are often not able to be flexible about our travel dates, so what we can do is be flexible with our destination. The trip to Belize was spontaneous — we found an airfare that we put on hold for 24 hours before we booked. It’s not like we have been dying to go to Belize, we’re pretty much open to traveling anywhere. In the past, my sister and I have used free flights that we earned from our travels to take these vacations. If you aren’t picky about your destination, usually you can make it work and free flights save you lots of money on your overall trip cost! Remember — you can have a blast no matter what the destination!
  3. Don’t plan ahead. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but don’t make plans or reservations! With the exception of a rental car or a hotel room near the airport for a really early departure flight, it’s best to be flexible and not get yourself locked into anything. I can say with confidence that many hotels look different in person than what their websites will lead you to believe. Likewise, when you have no reservations you are free to shop around and get the best deal. Oftentimes negotiations are possible so it’s best to give yourself the upper hand by not being set on anything.
  4. Buy a good tour book. I highly recommend Moon Guides as they have provided good, accurate information time and time again. There is one author per book so there is consistency in what is written and you can tell very easily what the author considers to be rudimentary vs. lavish and determine where his/her standards fit in with yours. The books provide plenty of history, culture and background information but have very few color pictures. This is a good thing — it keeps the book light as color photos require heavier paper and it means that the focus of the book is on information! The books have maps in them that point out where things mentioned in the book are located and have been incredibly accurate in my experience.
  5. Find inexpensive, no frills places to stay that are safe. We tend to rent private rooms rather than dorm-style settings and find that it’s generally just as cheap but with more security and privacy.
  6. Visit the fancy locales for food/drinks to enjoy the ambiance and amenities without the cost of paying for a room. This is a new technique that we are developing. While some exclusive resorts prohibit non-guests from even entering the grounds for a meal, many places will not turn away the business. We have befriended bartenders and restaurant staff for meals at various expensive hotels & resorts and have had no trouble taking our morning coffee out to the pool for a few hours or eating a meal and lounging around, exploring the grounds, etc. You may end up spending a little more than you would elsewhere for food or drinks, but when you consider that you are not spending hundreds of dollars to stay at these fancy hotels yet you’re enjoying the amenities, you’re making out like a bandit!
  7. Rent a car — not an SUV. Most car rental companies will insist that you rent an SUV if you have even the slightest inkling to leave the paved roads and venture out into less-traveled territory. My experience is that a regular car can do just about anything an SUV can — unless it’s the rainy season. Also, gas is expensive internationally ($5+ per gallon in Belize) so you want to get the best MPG for your buck! Car rentals are expensive, but if you shop around, you can usually find a good deal. Always ask about taxes and insurance first as they often get added on to the price of the car at the end. Some countries require you to purchase insurance in the country, others allow you to use your credit card’s coverage or your private car insurance coverage to cover you and thus allow you to decline coverage (saving you some money, which is great considering that many of us already have credit cards and/or private car insurance with these benefits). Make sure that you get a map before heading out (car rental places usually have free ones or inexpensive ones you can buy — generally they’re worth the money!
  8. Don’t go on tours. I know it’s not necessarily what people want to hear, but if you can, try to avoid doing activities that you could potentially do without paying someone. For instance, renting snorkeling equipment rather than paying for someone to take you out on a boat can save you lots and you can still have a great time. Likewise, driving yourself to a historical location can save you plenty of money over having a tour group take you. If you’re worried about missing information bring a tour book with you, but don’t worry, you’ll overhear plenty of information from other guides & tourists.If you are really on a tight budget, this is an easy way to cut corners, but if you’ve got some room for fun activities, go for it. If I had money I’d probably do it all…
  9. Sign up for rewards programs with the airlines you fly. It may not seem like it will pay off, but if you travel, it will! Many airlines have credit cards attached to their miles programs that you can use to earn more miles or simply keep your miles from expiring (which is what I do). Many of these cards have great promotions (American Airlines you can earn 25-30k miles which is the equivalent of a free flight with their cards, Southwest often has a promotion to get half way to a free flight, etc.) but they often have fees attached to them to get the benefits after the first year, which is usually free.

Overall, traveling on a budget is not the most difficult thing in the world. The lack of planning and flexible nature of my trips makes them somewhat daunting at first as everything is unknown, but, then again, that provides a great deal of excitement about the trip as often we don’t even discuss where we will go or what we will do until we’re on the plane heading to our destination. Every trip is a new adventure and every trip has been absolutely fantastic and stress-free!