When people see how frequently I travel, their most common question is simply “How do you do it?” My answer to this is that it really comes down to how much you want it. Being a full-time student and being able to travel often do not have to be contradictory conditions. Admittedly, travelling as a full-time student requires countless sacrifices. A common theme for all the points I will list below is to be conscious of your finances and play off of that. I have personally experienced and exercised the amount of power I have in controlling how much I spend on trips. I have had weekends in New York City where I’ve spent hundreds of dollars and weekends where I’ve spent (including transportation and accommodation) as little as $20. I’ve also realized how I can completely control how prepared I am in terms of finishing schoolwork before travelling, being excused from extra-curricular commitments, and more. Most importantly, though, I’ve learned to take every opportunity I’m given to travel and to never stop finding ways to make my travels a reality. Here is my complete guide to travelling as a full-time student.
1. Take advantage of your breaks.
Breaks and holidays should be your best friend. Whether it’s a one day break or a month long break, every day off is crucial when it comes to planning a trip. Many people view short breaks as useless time off, but these breaks could be prime for a trip from Boston to New York City. On the other hand, a longer break might be more ideal for an international trip from Toronto to Paris. Based on the duration of your break, you can decide where you want to travel, what your budget for the trip is, and the sites that you’ll focus on exploring. The longest break to take advantage of is summer vacation. My school, for example, has a summer vacation of a little over four months. This is a third of the entire year that I could potentially spend travelling, and that doesn’t even include Christmas break, spring break, etc. Being a student leaves an enormous amount of time to travelling, even if it often seems like the opposite is true.
2. Travel like a student.
When you are a student, it is assumed that you will not have the money to go on a luxurious trip living in 5-star resorts and eating at Michelin star restaurants. Instead, acknowledge that travelling as a student is a give and take and that you will have to say goodbye to certain comforts that you may be accustomed to at home. This may include, on an extreme level, living in places such as tents or boats (see our post on 40 things to know before living on a house boat) where hot water is not available or showers are broken or nonexistent. Sunlight is very important to me but I have sacrificed that to live in a cheaper basement room so that I could afford to travel. I typically choose not to dine in more expensive restaurants while travelling because it leaves me with more money, for example, to buy tickets to see other places. Additionally, you will have to begin rationing your budget in advance. This may mean cooking at home one extra meal every week for a month, choosing not to buy the cute (but unnecessary) pair of shoes you saw in the mall, or for those with less self-control (such as myself), avoiding the mall completely.
3. Choose your school wisely.
I am currently a sophomore (second year) at the University of Michigan but only transferred here at the beginning of last semester. I spent my entire first year at Gordon College, a small liberal arts college near Boston. Academically, Gordon was 100x easier than Michigan. When I look back on my year there, I essentially had a gap year. For my second semester there, I literally cannot recall a single weekend where I stayed at school and didn’t travel. I was still able to pull through on my grades because again, it was not even close to being as rigorous as Michigan. I grew accustomed to this style of schooling which allowed me to travel almost whenever I wanted (I went to Miami Beach days before final exams), but I quickly learned that Michigan would not allow that kind of flexibility. I am much happier at Michigan than I was at Gordon, but it has become increasingly unreasonable for me to travel even for a weekend. Now, I would likely need to spend an entire week catching up on missed work from a weekend away. I have had to make many other lifestyle adjustments to accommodate my travelling habits even after cutting back on the number of trips I take. Given this scenario, I would highly recommend that if your number one priority is to travel, choose a school that may not be as strong academically but will provide you with more free time.
4. Take advantage of your school.
Following my previous point of choosing your school wisely, it is also important to consider that if you do want to go to a school with strong academics, it is still possible to gain valuable opportunities for travelling. This may not be during the school year, but as I mentioned before, there are still four months of summer. There are tons of study abroad programs and internships offered through the University of Michigan that I would not have had if I’d stayed at Gordon. I recently accepted an internship for this summer at a startup company in Berlin and can confidently say that I would not have found summer plans so easily if it weren’t for the size of my school and the enormous amount of people affiliated with it. The position was listed through my program by the founder of the startup who had spent only one semester as an exchange student at the University of Michigan. Now I will be able to travel the entire summer while still being able to justify it through my internship.
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5. Plan plan plan!
It isn’t necessary to plan every second of your trip, but just like in an essay, outline the main points that you want to hit. Have a general picture of the entire scenario, starting from before you even book your ticket. Your time as a student is precious, so don’t lose valuable time to planning mishaps. Yes, there is always something going on in college and as students, we hate waiting around and want to save as much time as possible. However, trying to arrive at the airport at the latest possible time to catch your flight and then subsequently missing it is not worth it. Arrive at the airport early, spend the extra few hours planning a few important details of your trip, and let your travels be a recharging adventure instead of a stressful burden.
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6. Choose your destination wisely.
You will meet a lot of people in college who come from all different places. Take advantage of this and choose your destinations accordingly. At the very least, they will be able to offer you great insight into local spots that you would not have otherwise known about. They may also be able to save you time by bringing you around the city and may even go so far as to offer you a free place to stay. Another consideration to make when choosing a destination is to determine the purpose of your travels. If you are simply trying to get away while still being able to dedicate time to schoolwork, a repeat destination may be the best way to go. During my year at Gordon, New York City was my go to because I knew I could relax, get work done, visit sites, and not feel FOMO even if I didn’t spend every waking second exploring new places.
7. Be flexible.
One factor that often determines the destination of my travels is where I can get the cheapest plane tickets to. It is important in this sense to be flexible in terms of destination. For me, a big part of travel is the journey rather than the destination. I am in love with every aspect of travelling from being thousands of feet in the sky, to spending extra time figuring out a new system of transportation, to walking around unknown streets. There are plenty of places that I want to visit but when the travel bug bites (and it does, constantly), my primary concern is simply to go and not to care as much about where I am going. You will also need to be flexible by prioritizing travel above other commitments you may have. Even if I have a light workload on weekends, there are other obligations that I am bound to in the form of meetings and other errands. This is why I will rarely skip meetings due to sickness, heavy workloads, etc., because I would rather save the few times it is necessary to skip meetings for travel related reasons.
8. Be smart.
Be smart. This is my last and most important point. Travelling as a student is made more plausible when you put in time and effort to finding deals, free activities, and overall, thinking through the most cost efficient and time efficient options. Before I travel, I spend at least an hour looking for the cheapest flights. This doesn’t just mean looking at various websites (although you certainly should do that as well, especially student specific sites like STA Travel) – it also means playing around with dates, departure airports, arrival airports and more. Calculate whether it would make more sense to fly from Detroit to San Francisco for $350, or from Chicago to San Francisco for $150 with the added cost of a $30 bus ticket from Detroit to Chicago. Calculate whether you are willing to leave one day later than you wanted for a $50 saving. Decide whether it is worth it for you to take a 5 AM flight for $50 cheaper than the 10 AM flight. Find free or low-cost activities in your destination city. These activities are often equally fun and will allow you to save more money for future travels. Take into consideration all of these factors when planning your trips, and I can guarantee that you will find yourself with a larger travel fund for more adventures.
Do you, or have you, travelled as a full-time student? How did you manage it? Let us know in the comments below!
Author: Hope Chen
Student at the University of Michigan with an insatiable desire to travel. I blog about budget travel for students, my spontaneous adventures, and occasionally an outburst about global politics as it relates to travel. Currently planning for another summer in Germany – this time in Berlin.
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