Beat the system: How to plan your dream vacation for a college budget


Getting There - Staying There - Doing There

There's no better motivation to get through your classes than thinking about the international adventure waiting for you after your last final. Whether it's hiking through the Swiss Alps, sunbathing on the beaches of Puerto Rico, or even exploring a city in a neighboring state, anything sounds better than burying your face in your Econometrics book that you have in front of you. You're probably thinking, "But that sounds SO expensive! I can't afford that! I'm a broke college student!" Well I can tell you that, no, with the right research and planning, exploring the world outside of your hometown doesn't have to be as harsh to your wallet as you think, as long as you save a little along the way.

As a self-proclaimed travel wizard, I'm here to make that planning process easier and quicker. Below is a comprehensive guide on how to beat the system and travel for the lowest cost possible. I have personally used every single travel hack discussed and I can completely vouch for them! So put that book down and let's take a minute to plan your next trip abroad.

Getting There

First off, you need a way of getting from point A to point B. Assuming you won't be walking to your dream destination, you have two general options and deciding your transportation first is key.

1. Ground

If your desired location is within a few hundred miles, consider traveling by ground. Given you have a flexible travel time frame, a cheaper alternative, such as the Greyhound bus or a train like Amtrak, can be better than flying and not compromise too much time. If you're going as a group, try a road trip! If you're traveling alone and willing to take a less common approach, there are websites like, where you can find people to carpool with.

2. Air

If you will be be traveling by plane, there are many components to snagging the best deal. Let's go through them briefly.

Airport: This factor is kind of a wildcard. Do some research on where the nearest international and domestic airports are and calculate which would be cheapest to get to and fly out of and in to. Search forums or blogs about which airport in your area is generally cheapest to fly out of and see if that in combination with the transportation there (i.e. Uber or taxi) would be more cost efficient. For example, the smaller domestic airport a few miles from you might be closer and would cost less to get to but the airfare is generally way more expensive than it would be to the international airport 50 miles away.

Airline: There are many budget airlines that have relatively cheap airfare, such as Frontier Airlines. Keep in mind that international airlines sometimes have cheaper fares if you're going abroad than US airlines. You will have to compromise comfort and all other aspects of a top-tier flying experience, but who cares? You'll pay way less for something that is only the means of getting you to your destination anyway.

Which flight to choose: People tend to buy round-trip tickets because it's easier, but sometimes buying 2 one way flight tickets can be cheaper overall. Check both options and compare the prices! Also, red eye flights are almost always more pocket friendly so opt for those if you can. If you are traveling a longer distance, you can sleep on the flight and this will save you time at your location, which means you'll have a few more hours to squeeze in more activities.

Where to travel to: There are some places that are always expensive to fly to, i.e. New York, London, and Seoul. There are other places, though, that are fairly decently priced throughout the year. These include most countries in Central America, and cities like Copenhagen or even Seattle. Be open to different options!

When to plan the trip for: Naturally, the demand for flights is highest among peak seasons, such as Christmas time, Thanksgiving,Spring break, and throughout the summer. If your school gives you breaks in the middle of the year (i.e. fall break for some schools), take advantage of that time and use it for your big trip. If your only choice is to travel during peak seasons, it's okay, just plan far enough ahead of time for that.

When to buy the tickets: This is the most important. Rule of thumb is to buy your ticket ahead of time, but not too far ahead. Personally, I've been told to buy around the 3 months or 3 weeks prior mark. Cheap-O-Air says to, on average, wait exactly 49 days or 7 weeks in advance. However, they also mention that for travel during popular times, buying further out yields better results.

All these factors might be a little overwhelming and time consuming to take care of separately. Thankfully there are many websites that can help you with these potential issues, such as Cheap-O-Air, Skiplagged, Kayak and my personal favorite, SkyScanner. On SkyScanner, you can search airfare by day, week, or month and airport to airport or any general location. The best feature, in my opinion, is that you can do all the previously mentioned features and also have the website show the least expensive destinations to travel to by your criteria. As a student, I have utilized this website extensively and it is quick and amazing! However, keep in mind that these websites utilize cookies and sometimes will be sneaky by showing you more expensive flights each time you check back on the website. Disable cookie usage to combat this! That way, the website will think that every new search is your first one, and therefore give you the cheapest prices.

Staying There

Alright, you figured out transportation and now you have to decide where you want to sleep during your trip. There are many choices for this, depending on your preference for amenities and privacy.

Couchsurf: If you don't personally know anyone who lives in your destination you can crash with, you're actually in luck. There is a website that is becoming increasingly more popular called and it is just what it sounds like. Hosts open their homes to people visiting for free and often times go out of their way to show the visitors their city from a local's perspective. If you are very keen on meeting people from around the world, on a tight budget and not looking like a lost tourist, definitely give this a try.

Hostels: Hostels are the most popular for backpackers staying in cities for short periods of time and essentially only needing a place to sleep. If this is you, go right ahead! Hostels are on the cheaper end of the spectrum and can be a great way to also meet others that are traveling.

Motels/Inns: In exchange for a little more money, these will give you more privacy and quiet, but typically not as desirable as other options.

AirBnB: The go to app for travel accommodations is my personal favorite. Since it's becoming increasingly popular, it is getting pricier to use. However, much like, you will definitely feel like a local. You live as your neighbors do and it gives you a much different and personal experience than a hotel would.

Hotels: If you can't stand having to clean your own room and really value amenities of your accommodations, hotels will be your the best option. If you want to dish out the cash to stay in a hotel, do so! It'll make your stay probably very comfortable and easy to handle.

Doing There

Trying to experience the most of your destination within a small time frame is difficult, and if you're not careful, can add up money-wise. The cheapest and absolute best way to see a new city is to go about it as if you live there.

Meals: Steer clear of fast food or chain restaurants, especially those that can be found where you are from. Check TripAdvisor for restaurant reviews or just ask locals for restaurant recommendations. The best meals I've had abroad were at hole-in-the-wall restaurants hidden in alleyways and basements. Don't knock it 'til you try it. There are also apps like EatWith, which is essentially the AirBnB of food, where you can book a seat at someone's table and experience a cuisine made by a local foodie just like you. The bookings can be a little pricey so save this for one night of your trip!

Transportation: Do it how the locals do. If you're in New York, take a subway. If you're in Berlin, ride a bike. Point is, don't spend all your money on cabs because that can get expensive. It also takes away from your experience! You miss out on a lot of what the city has to offer if you're sitting in a cab staring at your phone.

Site seeing: Sure you can get on a tour bus and see all the city's attractions in one day, but what's the fun of that? Look up events that will be held in fun areas you want to visit, like a free rooftop event, movie screening in the nearby park, or pop up art exhibit outside the monument downtown. Get creative!

Bottom line for exploring a new city is to keep it simple and don't be too stubborn when it comes to your daily activities. Talk to locals, get to know the city's culture, and be open to spontaneity. Believe me, it will enhance your experience by tenfold.

So there you go - an in-depth guide to digging deep and making your dream getaway a reality. Traveling isn't the cheapest, but if you use the hacks I've provided, I promise it will make it way easier on your bank account. In the end, it's all about making the most out of your money, so completely enjoy your time away and don't let anything get in the way of it.

Now get back to studying… Gotta get through school before you can go anywhere!

Date of original publication:
Updated on: October 06, 2016

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