I don’t claim to be a budget travel expert, but part of the allure of being an international student is spending a considerable amount of time living and traveling abroad. Therefore, I keep up with budget travel blogs and other publications so I can give advice to other international students interested in seeing the world while living abroad (and also to satisfy my own travel itch). But after subscribing to dozens of “budget” travel guides for several years, I’ve come to discover that there is budget travel, and there is budget travel. The former is more geared toward American couples or families who work full-time and have some, but not a lot, of disposable income for travel. The latter is more geared towards young single or childless students or simply wandering unemployed types who actually have little to nothing in their bank accounts. If you’re an international student attending college abroad, and you want to get out and see more of your host country or the neighboring countries, you’re probably in the budget traveler category. Furthermore, some of the advice I often see on budget traveler websites is tailored to some of the worst and unavoidable travel habits of Americans, like going back to the same place over and over again, and consuming a place rather than experiencing it by running from one sight to another. (I call this the Amazing Race style of traveling, because it is only slightly slower than the popular television show). Happily, as an international student you’ll be in a position to avoid most of these silly and sometimes costly mistakes. Still though, traveling as an international student isn’t quite like an extended backpacking trip, because you don’t quite have that much time, and it isn’t quite like travel hacking either, also because you won’t have that much flexible time and also because as a student, you most likely will not qualify for endless credit cards to score troves of frequent flier miles. (However, there are some many saving tips from backpacking and travel hacking that can be tailored to the international student). So while I’m not an expert, I’ve traveled to over 40 different countries without any sort of steady income whatsoever over the past six years. What follows is a set of quick and dirty tips on how to budget travel, and avoid some of the advice of budget traveling sites that just don’t get long-term, international and culturally-meaningful travel.
1. There are literally thousands of “budget travel” blogs and websites out there. The key is to find sites that are written by people who fit the kind of traveling you plan to do as an international student. Focus on sites written by expats, international students (like me!), and backpackers. You’ll want to find websites from people with extensive travel experience in your host country or on the continent where you’ll be living. Ignore a blog written by a mom who travels internationally from the US only once or twice a year. While I understand that most Americans simply don’t have the time to travel more than once or twice a year, in my view that isn’t exactly an impressive resume and doesn’t give them the sort of wealth of experience I would like to tap into (especially if it seems that person travels to the same place frequently). Of course, the site may be full of great advice for budget travelers, but not for budget travelers. Budget travelers consider $100/night apartment in Paris a great deal, budget travelers consider that an extravagant splurge (especially when that same site admits that this Paris getaway included a $350 pass to Euro Disney–quite possibly the worst and culturally-embarrassing money pit in Europe). Budget travelers will opt for hostels, couch surfing, or crashing at a friends place (and avoid Euro Disney like the plague–seriously–why would you fly all the way to Paris to go to an overpriced and watered-down version of the American theme park and then claim you’re budget-conscious?!) As a college abroad student, you’ll quickly make friends from near and far who would love to take you home during a semester or holiday break. Such opportunities don’t typically exist for the American family traveling once a year with only a two-week vacation. You can also take advantage of the free travel advice from your local friends if they aren’t offering a place a stay. And yes, staying at a hostel can be a crap-shoot, but I’ve stayed at extremely clean, safe, comfortable and even downright luxurious hostels around the world, often with free WiFi and breakfast (things that usually aren’t free at hotels). Finding a good hostel is all about following the advice of other budget travelers, and ignore the complaints and fears of budget travelers.
2. Think twice before ever purchasing a CityPass, and reconsider any site that advises you to do so. Many American and European cities try to entice travelers with City Passes, but these take advantage of Amazing Race-style tourism, and more than likely aren’t actually very budget-friendly. Sure, if you take advantage of every discount and offer included in the pass, you could save money. But no one ever does that, and if you do you’ll be running all over town trying to find that one restaurant where you can use your 10% off coupon (a restaurant that might be overpriced to begin with) and that ship-building museum you can get into for free (even though you couldn’t care less about ship-building).
The discounts that are offered with these packages are usually at gaudy tourist traps that herd you away from local eateries and into superficial places serving hamburgers and fries. You might THINK you’re saving money when you present your coupon, but you could probably eat cheaper without the coupon. Budget travelers will eat street food over restaurants, bring snacks while sightseeing, and since most hostels include a shared kitchen, will make simple dinners like spaghetti or sandwiches. Budget travelers opt to take local transport rather than being bussed around to all the hotspots. Budget travelers don’t mind getting lost, and we’re happy to simply stroll through a city to experience it rather than hopping from one sight to another. Budget travelers will even forgo spending money to see the sights and museums if entry is overpriced or if there are decent and free alternatives. For example, I loved Venice but couldn’t force myself to cough up the €80 it costs to ride the famous gondolas, but I wasn’t disappointed because Venice can be just as easily explored by wandering through the narrow bridges on foot and occasionally taking the public water taxis.
3. Just because someone on a blog found a good deal somewhere, doesn’t mean that that location is budget-friendly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a website claiming to be your ultimate guide to Stockholm on a budget, citing some cheap restaurants. While there are plenty of ways to save money no matter where you go, some places are just downright expensive, and Stockholm is one of them. I avoided the city, knowing that even hostels can cost more than $60/night, until I had a friend move there and then I stayed with him. What’s the point of saving money on food if you’re busting your budget on accommodation? Unless a particular place is an absolute dream location, sometimes extremely expensive places should just be avoided for a budget traveler. As an international student, you have more time and more choice–you don’t need to go somewhere if it feels beyond your means.
4. Any travel site that doesn’t give credence to off-the-beaten-track locations is probably
more for budget travelers. Blogs dedicated to helping an American family go to Europe on a budget will direct people to the Big Three–London, Paris, and Rome. Because budget travelers only have a limited amount of time, many sites won’t even dare mentioning any part of Europe east of Prague (Berlin is already too “unsure of itself” for some), because these places require more time to get used to and are less tailored to foreign visitors. But budget travelers will happily skip Italy and the UK for less expensive Croatia, or avoid expensive and popular locations all together and check out Serbia, Hungary, Kosovo, Estonia, or Romania. Budget travel sites will always direct you to less-traveled places because this kind of traveler isn’t necessarily interested in sightseeing consumption and is more interested in simply seeing a new place, and doing it on an extreme budget.
To me, the biggest difference between budget traveling and budget traveling is that the former essentially boils down to sightseeing while the latter is more about city-seeing and people-watching. And seeing a city and its people will always be free.