If you’re thinking that I’m doing a lot of traveling, you’re right! But, if you’re thinking that I have unlimited dollars to do that, you’re wrong! I always do student-budget traveling not a lavish one. Purchasing basic economy fare, staying at hostel or Airbnb, trying to find ‘free things to do’ in my destinations. That’s what I do.
As an international student, I must have a high-level of money management. Yes, I am funded by scholarship, but it doesn’t mean that I have no worries because my monthly stipend is a standard student’s living cost in the town, I don’t have any work, and I have no additional funding from my family. However, my strong desire to travel around America drives me to find the best way of having trips without living miserably.
Let me reveal my secrets.
1. Know your priority
Who says that money can’t buy happiness? It can buy anything that makes you happy like traveling, right? But not all people like spending their money on traveling, some have other ways to be happy. Before you get jealous with your traveler friends, ask yourself what the things that can satisfy yourself at most. Once you know the answer, go for it. Unfortunately, if your answer is more than one and you have limited budget, you need to choose and make a priority list.
2. Saving for traveling
For me, traveling is important, but the more important thing is living well and properly, especially living far from family. I won’t be so stingy for myself that I don’t live in a healthy way, like only having meal once a day etc.
Since the first month living here, I have been saving X percent of my monthly stipend at the beginning of each month, so I get my total budget for traveling is % x stipend x 24.
By using this way, I won’t use my monthly needs budget like apartment rent, groceries shopping, and phone bill for traveling then I can live well. I use a money manager app on my phone to control my expenses and I always deposit that X percent at the first day of the month because if I do it at the last month (input the remaining money), my monthly expenditure will be out of control and having fixed amount of saving will be easier in budget estimation.
3. Plan your trip ahead (destination, estimated budget, and itinerary)
As the third greatest country in the world by area, the United States has various and tremendous amount of tourism destinations. From the big cities like New York City and Chicago to wonderful national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, from desert landscape in Arizona to amusement parks like Disneyland.
Plan your destination for each school break so you can schedule it depends on the season to make your trip better-planned. For example, East Coast trip from New York to Maine during summer. Also, I use this to make transportation arrangement easier. Going to big cities brings fewer problem of it because almost everywhere is connected by public transportation. Trip to national park can be more difficult because the option left is doing road trip or joining a group tour.
Then, decide your estimated budget and arrange your itinerary. List all of the places you can visit at the destination and its surrounding, so you can be more flexible if something bad happens. You can ask your friend who has been there or do googling. Put additional information which may be helpful such as open hours, admission fee, best time to visit, etc. Also, don’t forget to find tips and tricks to do on-budget traveling at your destination, such as buying a daily pass ticket is cheaper than buying one ride ticket (for bus/subway).
Your itinerary must be fitted into your estimated budget. If you see that you’ll spend more, split the must-visit and optional places to visit. Lucky you who prefer outdoor spaces (parks, waterfalls, etc.) than indoor areas (museums, historical buildings, etc.) because some museums have a quite expensive admission ticket (but they have student price anyway) except museums around Capitol Building, Washington DC which are FREE!
4. Keep your eyes on ticket price and buy at the right time
Do you believe me that I got a round-trip flight Houston-Philadelphia for < $100 or Houston-Lima for <$500? Am I lucky? Maybe yes. But the main reason is I keep my eyes on ticket price. Have you ever wondered how many times I check the multiple websites (yes, not only one) just to observe the price going up and down?
Based on my experience, 2-3 months or a couple days before your flight schedule is the right time to get cheaper ticket. But the second one is like gambling because it can be much higher or has been sold out. Observation time is also determining. Lower price will come up from Tuesday to Thursday, weekend is the worst time to check. Clean your browser history before starting a new search.
Another way to minimize your cost if the ticket going to your destination is too much expensive is trying to find other airports nearby. Make sure the connecting transportation fee is included before you decide to purchase. For example, this summer I planned to go to NYC but flight from Houston to John F. Kennedy or La Guardia or even Newark Airport was very costly while flight to Philadelphia was almost half of it. From Philadelphia to NYC, I got a bus ticket of $5 for one-way trip ($13 in total if airport train was included). Far cheaper.
Before purchasing, ensure if baggage is included or not. Basic fare of some airlines only allows you to bring one personal item, so you need to pay extra for the baggage you bring.
Bus ticket is also same. Even you can get $1 for one-way ticket if you purchase in advance. Bus hopping can be another choice if you have more time to travel and want to stop by at several cities. For example, night trip from Houston to New Orleans (approximately 6 hours), full-day trip in New Orleans, then continued by night trip to Atlanta and so on.
5. Travel light
As I mentioned above that some airlines charge you additional fee for your baggage. Either you want to spend more or reduce your belonging is totally your choice. I choose the last one for sure, except if I travel during extreme winter season.
You can do some of the followings:
6. Bring water bottle and microwaveable lunchbox
- Bring travel-sized toiletries and make up. And bring only the items you really need during the trip.
- Bring comfortable clothes which can fit to any occasion unless there is required outfit for your trip.
- Do smart-packing. I use packing cubes to make my backpack more organized and to reduce plastic bag as I used to do. I learned to compartmentalize traveling stuffs when I joined adventure club in high school. It can optimize spaces in your bag or luggage and make unpacking easier especially if you will have many stops.
If you travel within the United States, bringing water bottle can help you think twice before purchasing any beverages because drinkable water tap can be found easily. Also, it’s healthier than drinking soda and you can save the environment by reducing plastic waste.
If your meal portion is smaller than average, you can take the leftover away and it can be reheated in your lunchbox. That’s another reason to stay at hostel/Airbnb which is equipped with kitchen. However, you might skip this if you usually finish your meal.
7. Be friendly and don’t be swanky
The perk having friends studying in different states is their place can be an option for your stay. Another costless option is taking night trip, so you can spend night on the way, or in the airport or station. Another (still) cheaper option is staying at hostel or Airbnb. So far, my stays have no problems. Check the review before booking. Low-star (2- or 3-star) hotel or motel might be cheaper if you travel in a group. Sometimes, especially in big cities, if you want to get a cheap fare, you need to stay quite far from the city center. But it doesn’t matter if the city has good public transportation.
“Indeed, we can earn money, but we must be smart to manage it especially if you’re living abroad far away from your family. Be pennywise but you must know what every penny of yours is worth for.”
Happy saving and traveling!
Mifrokhah is a masters student in the Geotechnical Engineering program.