5 Affordable Ways to Travel on a Student Budget

You may be wondering why I am writing this post. Those of you who know me know that I am not a student and I haven’t been for… more than 5 years. The reason for this post is because this is the guide that I NEEDED when I was a university student. I was desperate to travel but it took me ages to find out all the ways I could actually travel on a student budget! In fact, out of the 5 ways listed in this post, I only ever figured out two while I was still in school. So, if you are a wanderlust-filled student like I was, I hope you can actually take advantage of some of these budget friendly travel options for students. I wish I had known about these when I was in your shoes!

  1. Study Abroad

I didn’t study abroad but I did get to visit with Emmett’s sister and my BFF C.J. while she studied abroad at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

I didn’t study abroad but I did get to visit with Emmett’s sister and my BFF C.J. while she studied abroad at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

I know, I know. Studying abroad is pretty much the most obvious answer to the question “How to travel as a student?” But I thought I’d go ahead and get it out of the way by listing it as number one. Again, I did not study abroad while enrolled in university but I have many good friends who did and had a wonderful experience.

How to Find Study Abroad Programs:

Nearly every university has partner schools in foreign countries that will host students for a semester (or even a few week intensive course) abroad. Contact your university’s Study Abroad department. Some will be tailored to specific majors and others will be more generic. If your university doesn’t offer any programs in countries that you want to visit, I recommend contacting the administration of foreign universities you think would be perfect for you.

Why studying abroad is a good way to travel on a student budget:

  • You can kill two birds with one stone: 1) visit a dream destination and 2) receive university credit.

  • You get to feel like a local by actually living in one place while you study.

  • You can spend school breaks traveling to other countries nearby or exploring as much of your temporary “home country” as possible.

  • You can knock the costs of your study abroad program down by applying for grants or other financial aid packages. Worried you won’t qualify for a scholarship? It can be easier than you’d think to receive financial aid - as long as you apply to as many scholarships as possible. Just check out how this traveler managed to get $40,000 in scholarship money to fund her two-semester study abroad in Dubai.

2. Instead of Partying, Try an Alternative Spring Break

The Alternative Spring Break crew that I co-led during Spring Break of my sophomore year in 2011. (I’m in pink on the far right).

The Alternative Spring Break crew that I co-led during Spring Break of my sophomore year in 2011. (I’m in pink on the far right).

What is an Alternative Spring Break? Well, it’s pretty straightforward: instead of drinking on a crowded beach, you could be volunteering in a rain forest.

My Experience With Alternative Spring Breaks

My university was really big into Alternative Break trips which worked out fantastically for me. As soon as I discovered that they were a thing, I couldn’t get enough. In fact, I went on three alternative break trips. My very first Alternative Spring Break, I did more than just participate as a volunteer. I actually co-led the trip which meant that I created, budgeted, and planned the whole thing along with my co-leader Brad. We took seven other students and one faculty member to Joshua Tree National Park where we spent 6 days cleaning up dry brush, installing fence posts, doing trail maintenance, and camping under the stars in the Mojave Desert. It was the first time that I ever had a hand in creating a travel itinerary from start to finish and it was a revelation. I think my love of travel really blossomed from just an occasional daydream to full-fledged wanderlust because of that trip. After Joshua Tree, I then went on two more alternative breaks - one to New Orleans to rebuild damaged homes and one to Costa Rica to work on sea turtle conservation.

Does my university offer alternative break trips?

Check out this list here or ask your adviser.

Why an Alternative Break is a good way to travel on a student budget:

  • Two words: Group Discounts. As someone who actually planned and budgeted an alternative break, I can tell you that our travel was made much more affordable because we got a discount for booking a university-sponsored trip through travel agency that specialized in academic travel.

  • Like Studying Abroad, there are often opportunities to receive financial aid if you think you may not be able to afford an Alternative Break. For instance, I received a scholarship of a few hundred dollars from an anonymous donor to my university’s Alternative Break Department after applying for financial aid for my Costa Rica trip.

  • You give back to the communities of the beautiful places that you visit.

  • Let’s be honest, this type of activity will look good on your résumé. That definitely shouldn’t be your primary motivation for going, but it’s definitely an added benefit.

  • You might make connections that could lead to an internship, or even a job. I loved the alternative break trip to Costa Rica that I participated in during my last year of school so much that I made it a point to stay in contact with the organization’s leader. I ended up returning to the organization literally the day after I graduated for a month-long internship.

3. Take an Internship in a Dream Destination

Me and Emmett building a sandcastle on the beach when he came to visit me during my internship there (2012). Sorry for the low quality, I think this was taken on an old iPad(??)

Me and Emmett building a sandcastle on the beach when he came to visit me during my internship there (2012). Sorry for the low quality, I think this was taken on an old iPad(??)

Many courses of study at universities require that students complete an internship before graduation.

When I was at school, a requirement of my Nonprofit Studies minor was to do an internship of a few months before my senior year.

My Experience Interning in Dream Destinations

I’ve actually done this twice! I spent my last school-sanctioned summer break in the Outer Banks of North Carolina while I interned as part of my course requirements for my Nonprofit Studies minor. I lived a block away from the beach and spent most of my free time there. I learned a lot about grant writing during my internship, reconnected with family friends who lived in the area, flew kites on Jockey’s Ridge, and got super tan. It was really fun to play local for two months on the Outer Bank’s Atlantic beaches.

I already talked about this in the section above a bit - after doing an Alternative Spring Break and making connections with our host organization, I interned in Costa Rica for a month post-grad. I helped implement protection of infant and adult sea turtles, and soaked up a lot of Central American sunshine. Read more about my time there in this post.

How to Find Internships in Dream Destinations

There are so many possibilities. What are you passionate about? What is your ideal company or organization to intern for? I recommend researching internships that are in the category you desire i.e. Business, Art, Education and seeing what programs are available and where. There are also online portals such as Goabroad.com which help you seek out internships in foreign locations.

Last but not least, it always helps to talk to your student adviser about what your goals are for an internship because they may know about a program that you wouldn’t otherwise find out about on your own.

Why Interning in a Dream Destination is Student Budget Friendly:

  • Again, two birds with one stone: you get both career experience and the opportunity to live like a local in a beautiful place.

  • Many internship programs will cover the cost of your accommodation, so you will only have to cover the cost of food and activities out of pocket. All while living somewhere new and exciting.

  • Some internships are actually paid, so you basically get to travel and then get paid to support your weekend trips around your destination.

4. Participate in a Work Exchange

Me volunteering on a farm in Denmark with Helpx (2014).

Me volunteering on a farm in Denmark with Helpx (2014).

A work exchange is when you work somewhere in exchange for room and board. There are an amazing amount of ways to live in a foreign city for free by doing a work exchange. Best of all, work exchanges allow you to live with hosts who can show you parts of the local culture that you would never otherwise experience.

My Personal Experience with Work Exchanges

I’ve done many work exchanges at this point in my travels! Two in Europe, three in New Zealand, and two in Australia. Here is a run down of things that I’ve done in exchange for room and board:

  • Winterized garden beds

  • Built rabbit hutches

  • Polished Silver

  • Painted the entire interior of a hostel

  • Babysat

  • Cleaned Someone’s Home

  • Fed Orphaned Kangaroos

  • Cleaned Motel Rooms

How to Find Work Exchanges

There are many websites that allow for you to find a work exchange in nearly every country you could imagine. The most popular ones are Willing Workers of Organic Farms (WWOOF), Workaway, and Help Exchange (Helpx). HelpX is my personal favorite and here’s why.

Individual Countries will often also have work boards that allow you to find help exchanges. For instance, we found our longest work exchange (five months!) in Invercargill, New Zealand via the Backpackerboard NZ website.

Why Work Exchanges are Student Budget Friendly

  • Room and board is covered by your work exchange hosts. Please keep in mind that this is an exchange, though. You do have to do work in order to have your costs of living covered. It’s meant to be mutually beneficial.

  • Some work exchanges can last upwards of months. That’s months that you get to cultivate friendships and immerse yourself in local culture. We had so much fun at our work exchange in Hervey Bay in Queensland, Australia that we stayed for over three months. We even got to take unforgettable side trips on weekends when we weren’t working like going whale watching and taking a four-wheel-drive tour of the world’s largest sand island.

5. Apply for a Working Holiday Visa

Emmett and I on our New Zealand Working Holiday - Mount Cook National Park, 2017

Emmett and I on our New Zealand Working Holiday - Mount Cook National Park, 2017

A Working Holiday visa allows travelers to have extended stays in a country of up to a year (sometimes two) while also being able to work temporary jobs and further fund their travels. Basically - working holiday visas are a budget traveler’s dream. Go to a new country, explore, make some money, explore more. These visas are also specifically for younger adults; most are only available to those between ages 18-30.

My Personal Experience with Working Holidays

Emmett and I actually did two working holidays back to back. One in New Zealand and then another in Australia. I wrote a big recap of my experience doing a New Zealand Working Holiday here. A recap post covering my Australian Working Holiday is still on my blog to-do list for now... In the meantime, go browse my Australia category to find out more about what we got up to Down Under!

How to Get Working Holiday Visas

First off, it depends on your citizenship. Fellow Americans, we have just three choices. Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland. If you’re not American and happen to be reading this, Wikipedia has a good breakdown of which countries offer visas to which citizens.

The Ireland visa is actually only available to university students and/or those who have graduated in the past twelve months.

Why Working Holidays are Student Budget Friendly:

  • As I mentioned before, Working Holiday visas are pretty much PERFECT for young broke travelers. Spend, save, repeat. A lot of the jobs you can find as a backpacker actually end up being pretty fun since your co-workers are usually all young travelers from all over the world.

  • Even though they are meant to last one year, Working Holiday visas are multi-entry - meaning you can leave the country and come back as many times as you want while the visa is valid. You could probably swing spending two summers off from school in a row in your Working Holiday destination

  • Working Holidays are pretty much designed for gap years, if you think that’s something you’d be interested in doing. All you need is money to get you there (and sustain you for a little bit of exploring/settling in) and then you can save up more - all while making new friends from all over the world.

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