8 Tricks to Cheap Student Travel

By Miriam B. Weiner, Staff WriterSept. 13, 2012
By Miriam B. Weiner, Staff WriterSept. 13, 2012, at 1:12 p.m.
U.S. News & World Report

8 Tricks to Cheap Student Travel

As the days grow longer and the weather warmer, a tremor of excitement passes through college campuses: Summer vacation is on its way. Soon, students will be swapping books for plane tickets and getting ready to explore outside the classroom. However, as all you parents know, a summertime getaway can cost a pretty penny.

With help from Clem Bason, president of the Hotwire Group, U.S. News Travel has come up with some clever ways for students to go big on a small budget.

Students may think they're free of homework for the next few months, but the key to staying on budget is diligent research. Before reaching the booking stage, students should have a general idea of how much they can expect to pay for flights and hotel rooms. That way, they'll be able to recognize a great deal when they see one. Many tools, like Hotwire's Trip Watcher, help travelers save money by tracking travel trends and notifying users of price changes. Students should also sign up for travel deal newsletters like those circulated by Travel-Ticker and Travelzoo. According to Bason, these deal sites "distribute exclusives and flash-sale opportunities directly to your inbox, making it easy for the on-the-go student to save big." Just make sure to check your email regularly, since these deals tend to go quickly. Students can also nab discounts on the fly by following deal-oriented companies on Twitter or Facebook.

There are thousands of websites out there touting the lowest rates around, but only a few cater specifically to students. STA Travel and Student Universe are renowned for delivering fantastic experiences for very little coin. Both sites offer package deals and discounts on all aspects of travel—from airfare to tours—exclusively to students who can verify their university enrollment. These resources are also jam-packed with money-saving tips and advice from fellow student globe-trotters.

Students with looser travel plans are more likely to score lower rates on airfare and hotels than those with plans set in stone. Rather than choosing a specific destination right off the bat, Bason suggests that students focus on the type of vacation they want, like a beach getaway or a city trip. And by not committing to specific dates at the initial research stage, students open themselves up to a wider selection of travel deals. "Even a day or two's worth of shifting on your departure or arrival dates can make a big difference on price," he says.

Airfare has skyrocketed over the past few years, and it doesn't show any signs of dropping (at least not in time for summer). For students who prefer to fly, discount airlines, such as Southwest and Europe's RyanAir, offer cheap airline tickets, but note that they can nickel-and-dime you with additional fees. Travelers sticking to a strict budget should also consider bus and train travel. Bus companies—like Megabus, Boltbus, RedCoach, and Lux Bus America—provide inexpensive and efficient service to many major cities throughout the United States. Train travel is also picking up speed among students and other frugal travelers. This mode of transit is a common (and affordable) way to get around popular regions, such as Europe, Asia, and even here in the States. In fact, "Traveling by train from point A to B is one of the quickest and safest ways to see the United States, especially if you are looking to travel across several states," explains Sarah Munley, director of sales and marketing for the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad.

Discounts for student travelers abound in almost every country, with thousands of museums, parks, and historical sites offering reduced admission rates for the young and learning. But as those who pay attention to Trick 1 will learn, student-oriented travel sites are also a great resource for deals on guided tours, hostels, and eateries. Also, the purchase of an International Student Identity Card will help students nab discounts even without the help of the Internet. International Student IDs are widely recognized in 120 countries throughout the world, granting holders access to a wide variety of discounts at hotels, restaurants, tours, and individual attractions. Any full-time student age 12 or older can obtain an International Student ID. Meanwhile, the International Youth Travel Card—which offers similar perks—is available to anyone under age 26, student or not.

Parents, you can now frame your support for the buddy system in a new light: It's a cheaper way to travel. Aside from splitting the cost of a hotel room, students who bring friends along for the ride can save big by booking group travel. Travel sites, like STATravel.com and StudentUniverse.com, offer massive discounts on flights, hotels, and tours to students traveling in a group of 10 to 12 or more. Using the handy planning tools found on these sites, students can get a general idea of how much the entire trip is going to cost, which facilitates better budgeting.

Hotel stays can eat up a large chunk of a travel budget, but the advantage that students generally have over seasoned travelers is their ability to sleep just about anywhere. If that's the case, opting for a shared hostel room is a great way to conserve cash and meet fellow explorers. Despite the seedy reputation that hostels carry with older, better-funded travelers, hostels are generally clean and safe (but it's always a good idea to check the reviews on sites like TripAdvisor, Hostels.com, or HostelWorld before booking.) If staying in a hostel doesn't sound appealing, couch-surfing is another way to go. International websites such as CouchSurfing and AirBnB connect budget-minded travelers with locals who are willing to lend their spare bedrooms (and couches) to passers-through. These gracious hosts can also act as a great resource for information about the destination.

According to Bason, some student-oriented travel sites (including STATravel.com) offer scholarships to fund trips. But this isn't the only way to pad otherwise lacking funds. Applying to one of these programs could add a few hundred or several thousand dollars to the budget, but students will have to prove that their trip has educational merit. Other organizations—including the Smithsonian Institution, the Student Youth Travel Association, and National Geographic—also provide financial support to poor, ambitious voyagers-to-be.

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