I’ve been traveling internationally for the past 10 years and one question that I’m consistently asked is “how can you afford it?” As a full time student and restaurant server paying her own way in life, most people cannot understand how I could whisk off on an extended vacation every summer. Well, the answer lies in the bag of tricks I’ve accumulated along the way and below are a few of my best tips!
Flights are easily the most difficult hurdle for most people because they are such an investment. Airfare is expensive and not easily reversible which is intimidating! However, once your flight is booked, the hardest part is behind you and what’s left is basking in the joy and fantasies of your future adventure! As far as free flights go, without having a family member in the business, credit card points are the only way I know for sure. For me, it takes years to rack up enough miles because I don’t like to charge more than I can pay at the end of the month. Therefore, I use budget sites and there’s two tricks to that.
First, skyscanner.com. Not for booking flights but rather to show which dates have the lowest rates. Also, if you’re not entirely sure where you want to go but you want to play around and daydream, you can type, “anywhere,” in the search box and it will list current airline deals.
Once I determine the cheapest departure date then I typically use studentuniverse.com to book my flight because their rates are unbeatable. Also, remember if you want to research prices for days and weeks before booking, use an “incognito” browser window which will not save your recent searches. Otherwise, the google wizards will show the prices escalating every day in attempt to pressure you to buy! Not to mention that your social media newsfeed will be flooded with airline and hotel advertisements which will have you asking yourself how do they knowwwww???
Accommodations are always best when free! Obviously, this is not possible all the time, but if you have friends – even people you met once – reach out to them and ask if they can help you. After struggling on German housing websites for months, I finally found my amazing apartment (fully furnished, affordable and in a cool neighborhood) through a friend’s sister who I’d never met. It’s amazing how much people are willing to help you when you tell them your goals.
Couchsurfing.com is the best way to stay for free but this is typically only used for short weekend trips. I’ve hosted travelers in San Diego and Berlin and I “surfed,” in Norway, Germany and England (strategically using this resource in expensive places) and all experiences have been … amazing! I’ve had hosts take me to house parties, cook me dinner and even drive me to the airport. It seems like a strange concept at first but as long as you have a good amount of communication beforehand and read the feedback from other travelers, couch surfing with the local crowd is sure to be a highlight.
Workaway.com is an incredible resource for travelers looking for a 2-6 week adventure and don’t mind getting their hands dirty. The concept is simple, travelers exchange a few hours of daily work for a free place to stay (money is forbidden). Especially great for those who are seeking an off-the-grid experience, most hosts are farmers, volunteer organizations, or hostel owners that set up away from densely populated areas. I only recently started using this website but it did land me a free place to stay on an island in Croatia! If you’re not up for working then hostels are also great for solo travelers. Personally, after age 25 I have a lower tolerance for annoying bunk mates – and really bunkbeds in general – so I try to avoid this option as much as possible.
Group travels: Airbnb vs. every other booking site.
There’s a simple rule of thumb here that I discovered though hours of research. If you’re traveling to a big city, use Airbnb. If you’re traveling to a more rural, nature-escape type of destination then let google do the work. For example, when planning a hiking weekend in the Alps, booking.com was hands-down the winner in both price and variety; offering hotels, guests houses and cabins. When searching for an apartment in Paris, Airbnb was half the price of every other site and offered more authentic, local-style living.
Going out can suck you dry if you’re not careful. If you know the exact club that you want to attend, follow them on social media! Many times I’ve avoided cover charges at the door by spotting a “flash guest list,” opportunity. This happens when clubs want people to show up a little early to avoid the image of an empty dance floor. Therefore, promoters will offer a discounted/free entrance guest list for their social media followers. Also, if you’re out with a local who has a monthly public transport card, check the rules because in many cities, card holders are allowed to ride with one guests after rush-hour, which saves you the cost of a subway/bus ticket.
There it is! That is my cheat sheet for budget traveling! I hope this helps anyone who is about to embark on an international adventure and especially those of you still on the fence. Buy the ticket and never look back!
Stephanie Dunbar is an international business major. She is interning abroad in Berlin for the summer.