March 2, 2012
By Marguerite Happe
“Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of food, your closet full of clothes — with all this taken away, you are forced into direct experience. Such direct experience inevitably makes you aware of who it is that is having the experience. That’s not always comfortable, but it is always invigorating.” – Michael Chrichton
Many people study abroad to experience not only their university, but also the rest of Europe or around the country they are studying in. Chances are that on a student budget, traveling may not be as comfortable as the spring break you spent in Paris with your family in high school. Despite the abundance of budget-friendly European airlines such as Ryanair, EasyJet and Wizzair, traveling costs are still exponentially more expensive than the average student imagines as he or she books a cheap 30-euro flight to London.
The vast majority of your money will go to transportation, accommodation and food, with a pinch of sightseeing for extra flavor. While many costs are just unavoidable, there are a few ways to cut back on expenditures. Being smart about where your money is going can save hundreds of dollars in the long run. Here are a few tips from my eight countries, 15 cities and absurd amount of hostel bookings so far this year abroad! These tips are based on European travel, since that is where I have spent my last six months, but can essentially be applied to any study abroad experience.
1. Street food is your new best friend
As I previously mentioned, a massive chunk of your money will go to food. But you don’t have to starve yourself to stick to a budget, either! The absolute best way to get good portions of food for your money as well as experience local culture is by subsisting on street food. Is it the healthiest option? Probably not, but chances are that street food in your city of choice will be cheap, substantial and most likely unique to that city. So eat a carrot when you return home, and in the meantime stop at whatever street booths you can find!
What do I mean by street food, exactly? Well, here are a few examples: in Berlin, one of the favorite items for visitors to try is the currywurst — which is sold at practically every street vendor you can find (especially in the touristy areas). In Austria and Germany, maroni (chestnuts) is sold by the number at small carts in town squares or at monuments. I’ve also found that most European cities have outdoor markets on weekends — these always have fantastic food at good prices, as well as food from a variety of cultures. A little research beforehand will serve you well on this front, but I guarantee it will be easier on your pocketbook than heading to yet another restaurant every time you are hungry.
2. Free walking tours
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: as a student on a budget in a foreign city, you often feel as if you’re simply bouncing from museum to monument, to another monument, back to this other war museum, okay time for bed! A good option to cut down on museum admission costs is to take advantage of the free walking tour that many European hostels have — just ask the front desk. If you think it is a good tour, you may tip the guide at the end. Likewise, if you did not enjoy the tour, you are in no way obligated to tip! These walking tours are a great way to experience a “SparkNotes” version of the city so that you can return to anything you were more interested in later — and know that it will be worth paying to see.
3. Plan your transportation
Again: as aforementioned, another large chunk of your money will go to secret transportation. By secret transportation, I mean the costs you don’t even think about — the bus you take to the airport, the train and bus you take to your hostel, metro passes around the city, bus tickets for day trips — unfortunately, these costs add up. The way to save money on this front requires planning, or you may as well throw your hard-earned, colorful euro out the window!
Before you even book your flight, sit down and check out the cost to travel to the airport in your home country and the cost to travel from the airport to the hostel in the country you are visiting. Budget airlines love to create cheap flights to airports “in” a city — these airports can be up to 90 minutes outside the city, and you will find yourself paying more for the bus rides to and from the airport than you did for the flight. Weigh whether or not it is worth it to fly a more legitimate European airline into the main airport or to fly to a smaller airport (in terms of your time and money). Those tricky airlines…
4. City museum passes
If you are planning on doing an extensive museum spree, also plan ahead to see if it will be worth acquiring a city museum pass instead of paying individual entrance fees for each museum. Every city is different, and depending on how many museums you are planning on seeing, some passes are fantastic and some are not so great. Also, some passes only get you discounted rates at the museums, so you may be forking out additional euro at each location. In Berlin, we were thrilled that our pass was only 9 euro until we found out it was generally an additional 2-3 euro in many museums…then not so thrilled.
5. Hostels are not always the cheapest option
Hostels will eat up your money pretty quickly, especially in expensive cities such as London and Paris. If you are staying in a large city, look into the costs of traveling from the hostel to the city centre — is it right near all the sights, or will you be spending 10 euro a day on metro rides? It can often be worth a few extra euro a night for a central location.
A free alternative to hostels is CouchSurfing, a website connecting people in different countries who open up their homes to travelers for free accommodation! If you do end up staying in a hostel, however, don’t forget to bring small things such as your own padlock for your locker or a small towel for showering. And if your wallet is becoming increasingly thin, make sure to take advantage of the free breakfasts and sometimes dinners…I’ve actually picked a hostel for its breakfast before and I am not ashamed.
Each time you travel, it is undoubtedly a learning experience that will send you home with a few mistakes made, a few pats on the back and a few ideas to try out on your next trip. Traveling without breaking the bank is absolutely possible, it just takes a bit of experience, creativity and flexibility. For any other tips, tricks or ideas, feel free to share in the comments below so other readers can learn from your experience as well.