There is no single road map to studying and traveling abroad. It is an experience that you make all your own, that you can shape into anything you want. Some people leave their home with just a backpack and three months to see the world. And some plan everything perfectly, scheduling every minute. No one way is right.
But whether you like to plan everything or you love to just let the wind take you, everything changes once you step off that plane, train, or automobile and you’re in an entirely new place! And to make sure you aren’t stuck spending exorbitant amounts of money to save yourself, here are a few tips from a seasoned frugal traveler.
Buy in advance: By planning your country and city hops in advance, you will save money and gain convenience. Tickets for most transportation companies (especially in America and Europe) are much cheaper if you buy them in advance, and can sometimes save you hundreds of dollars. Spontaneity is awesome, if you can afford it, but if you are on a tight money-made leash, a solid travel plan will be your best friend. If you are a student, you qualify for Student Universe, which is a website that helps students find the best plane ticket prices and has some awesome deals for accommodation, too. As for places to sleep, hostels are almost always going to be cheaper than hotels, and you can find some great and safe places to stay on websites like hostelworld.com. A lot of hostels offer deals, such as extra nights for half price, but you have to check with the hostel before you book.
Travel light: If you are traveling by car or bus, this is less relevant, but if you are traveling by train or plane, using just a carry-on bag will save you boat-loads. A lot of cheap airlines like EasyJet or Ryanair (European budget airlines) will charge you an extra 50 to 75 dollars to check a bag. Investing in a small backpack was the best thing I ever did while traveling in Europe, because I could take it on any airline. And if you are worried about your clothes fitting into a small pack, rolling them up makes them infinitely smaller and you can fit a lot more things. But this also gave me a lesson in importance. Did I really need to bring three pairs of shoes for a four-day trip? Do I need six different tank tops? It takes some practice, but eventually you’ll figure out what you can and cannot live without while traveling.
The Benefits of Walking: Public transportation may seem cheap on the surface, but it’s one of those charges that eventually stacks up. Before you know it, you’ve spent 50 bucks on bus tickets that you didn’t need! This is where the benefits of walking come in. Not only do you save money, but you get a great workout too. You also get to see and explore a lot more of the city if you walk, because your legs can take you places that buses or trams cannot fit. Make sure you bring super comfy walking shoes! If you are traveling to a country that doesn’t speak English, you might also want to either invest in a phrase book or learn a few choice phrases. In many major cities, a lot of people speak English, but it’s polite to at least say please and thank you in the native tongue. You could also find yourself in situation where you need to ask for help, so learning how to ask for an English speaker is a good idea, too. The further away from urban cities you go, the harder it will be to find an English speaker, so be prepared!
Maps, Maps, Maps: For those who are directionally challenged like myself, walking seems much more frightening when your smart phone only works in WiFi zones. But you know what never runs out of battery or range? Paper maps! Almost all hostels and hotels carry city maps. Just ask the front desk to circle where your hostel location is on the map so you always remember where to go if you do get lost. The hostel staff knows the city best, so if you want help in finding cool things to do or see that might be off the beaten path, just ask! They’ll know where the cooler parts of the city are and what places to stay away from. Once you’re out and about, find big landmarks and orient yourself from their locations and then just keep track of street signs. It’s easier than you realize and after a couple of cities, you’ll have a great new skill!
Food, Souvenirs, and General Merriment
Champagne on a Beer Budget: For me, one of the most important factors of a new city or country is the food. Every country is famous for a national dish or cuisine, so do some research and take advantage of it! But food can also be one of the more expensive parts of the trip, especially if all you can find are tourist traps. To get the best experience, try to get away from the center of the city. Some of the best (and cheapest) restaurants are going to be away from the crowded touristy areas. If you are not sure what these tourist traps are, you can follow this golden rule: any place that has pictures of food outside their establishment is not going to be that great and is usually overpriced. If you are traveling on the cheap, consider using your hostel kitchen to cook at least one meal a day, such as pasta or salad (almost all hostels have a kitchen, but not many hotels so choose according to your needs). That way you can try some of the pricier eateries without emptying your wallet.
Keepsakes and Memories: I am not a particularly sentimental person, but I know a lot of people who are, and buying keepsakes or knickknacks from a new city can help to preserve the memories of a truly excellent trip. If you want something that reflects the city or country you are in, try to find a flea market or a town shop that sells items that have historical or cultural value. These things will usually be more expensive, but will have much more sentimental value. If knickknacks aren’t really your thing, just bring a camera or buy a bunch of postcards. They are easy to travel with and can make for some excellent scrapbooking materials (along with those beat up city maps you’ve been using!).
General Merriment: Walking around and seeing a city is great, but there are also a lot of historical or cultural places to see as well! However, these can sometimes cost quite a bit of money to enter. Some of the most magnificent things to see are old churches or government buildings or museums. To get the best deals, do some research and see when places open and their prices. A lot of churches and museums, in Europe especially, are free on Sundays at certain times. If you have a student card, use it to get great discounts. If there is a church you would really like to see but it’s super expensive, try to go to an Evensong, which is a short evening worship service with no Eucharist. This way you get in for free! Your hostel might also offer some great options for tours, such as free walking tours or bike tours, which will help you get used to the city before venturing out on your own.
Studying and traveling abroad was a much harder and much more rewarding experience than I ever thought it would be. You keep expecting everything to settle down and to be normal, but it never does. You are always moving and you are always on your toes, which can get exhausting fast. So if you can, create rituals for yourself. Find a coffee shop to sit in everyday to create a routine. Bring a book with you wherever you go, or people watch while you sit on the side of the street. Traveling and being abroad is an experience that happens to you, and you can make it whatever you want it to be. So read as much as you can and prepare as much as you can, but don’t be afraid to change your mind and to try something completely different—sometimes those can be the greatest experiences of them all!
Photo by Michelle White