When pairing limited income with fluctuating exchange rates, penny pinching becomes more important than ever for students traveling abroad. Follow these 10 money-saving tips that will help you enjoy a destination for less.
1. Purchase an International Student Identity Card (ISIC) to qualify for discounts. While your college-issued student ID card will work just fine for movie and dining discounts stateside, most overseas attractions require an ISIC, available online or through stores in your host country. You must be a full-time student over the age of 12 to order a card. Discounts can add up quickly when it comes to saving on pricey museum admissions. For example, a ticket to the Vatican Museum in Rome will cost €8 with an ISIC; a full-price ticket costs almost twice as much (€15). Don't forget to check if your ISIC can also help save you money at restaurants, hotels, and department stores. Your savings will easily cover the $22 fee for the card, which is valid for one year. If you don't have an ISIC (or aren't eligible to order one), it never hurts to ask for a student discount anyway -- the ticket agent won't always ask for ID.
2. Ask about pricing. If you don't see a price listed on a bar or restaurant menu, always ask for the price in advance -- you could end up paying several times what you expect, and some bars and restaurants may adjust prices based on what they think you're willing to pay. Cafés in Europe also typically charge significantly more for table service than if you order at the bar -- a cappuccino that costs €2 at the bar could run you €6 with waiter service, for example. Also, check your bill carefully. Waiters in some countries are known to take advantage of tourists by inflating prices or adding items you didn't order, for example.
3. Research gratuities.A 15-percent tip is expected in the U.S., but 10 percent is considered to be very generous in many other countries. Waiters are typically paid a much higher base rate abroad than they are in the States, so research customs in your host country to avoid making a habit of over-tipping. Taxi drivers also don't expect tips, though rounding up to the next even amount is an acceptable gesture.
4. Use public transportation. Unless you're traveling in a group, riding the subway or bus is almost always the more affordable option. If you're going to be staying in one city for an extended period of time, consider purchasing a multi-ride ticket, such as the Oyster card in London. The savings may not be significant, but you won't need to wait in line to buy a ticket each time. If you're only visiting for a few days, an unlimited pass may be worthwhile, but only if you know that you'll be riding the subway several times each day -- you'll typically need to ride at least two or three times per day before you start saving money. Do the math. These passes are typically available at your destination airport or at subway ticket offices. Subway service doesn't run 24 hours a day in most cities, however, so if you need to take a cab, ask for a quote before you get in.
5. Limit travel. An address in Europe shouldn't be viewed as a free ticket to travel to every country in the EU. Plan trips carefully, preferably in advance to avoid last-minute fare hikes. Consider spending more time in your own city, rather than hopping around to a dozen countries in a single study-abroad semester. Many attractions in Europe are located close enough to major cities that it may be more cost-effective to take day trips, so you're not paying for housing twice. For example, students living in Florence can visit Lucca, Cinque Terre, or Pisa -- or even Rome and Venice -- and return home on the same day. You may even find your semester abroad to be more fulfilling if you spend more time getting to know your host family and city, rather than loading up on weekend trips to hostels many hours (and dollars) away.
6. Rent an apartment. Hostels and room-rental sites like Airbnb (www.airbnb.com) are great for short, last-minute trips, but if you're traveling with a group, renting a large apartment can be the most cost-effective and comfortable option. Online booking sites such as VRBO (VRBO.com) list thousands of apartments in major European and Asian cities, and off-season bookings can be very affordable. The €250 you'll spend on a cramped room at a three-star hotel in Paris will get you a three-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot apartment just down the street, for example. Read up on vacation rentals tips here.
7. Plan your bookings. Planning your entire semester out in advance can not only help you make the most of your time abroad, but can also enable you to score cheaper train tickets and airfares. Lodging can be more affordable when booked at the last-minute, however, as hotels and apartment owners would prefer to host you at a discount rather than having their accommodations left empty. Always try negotiating, especially if there's wide availability and you're booking at the last minute. Locate an apartment with availability on VRBO.com, and then contact the owner to ask about reduced pricing.
8. Pay cash. You can't go to Barcelona and not spend an evening drinking cava and bar hopping, but you can keep better track of your expenses. Make a point to bring enough local currency, and vow to only use your credit card in true emergencies. Drinks can get pricier as the night goes on, so bring enough to have a good time and call it quits when your cash runs dry. And always have enough left over to get back to your hotel, hostel, or crashpad. While some U.S. banks have no-fee agreements with specific foreign banks, most do not, so check with your bank before you withdraw cash at an ATM. If you'll be paying a fee, withdraw large amounts at once to avoid paying fees often, but only if it's safe to do so.
9. Eat and drink with the locals. A weekend in Venice can be affordable, but only if you wander off the beaten track. As you begin to see more grocery stores and fewer high-end hotels, you're also likely to see smaller restaurants with lower prices and (typically) better food. This option is particularly useful if you can speak the local language. You're much less likely to find an English menu at restaurants that rarely serve tourists. It's also a good idea to learn the names of your favorite dishes, or to carry a pocket dictionary or smartphone translator, such as Coolgorilla for iPhone, available to download for just 99 cents per language.)
You'll also save by drinking what the locals drink. Depending on which city you're traveling to, wine may be significantly less expensive than beer, or visa versa -- it's not uncommon to find €2 glasses of house wine and €6 beers in Rome, for example. But in Prague -- where beer is far cheaper than wine -- a pint of domestic beer can be found for 35 Czech Koruna (less than €1.50). If you're in a country that's known for its local beer, expect to pay twice as much (or more) for imports. Cocktails are pricey wherever you are -- you won't pay less for that Grey Goose martini just because you're in France.
10. Haggle at markets. Don't expect to walk into a large grocery store and ask for a discount on your basket of wine and cheese at checkout, but haggling is accepted (and often even expected) at open-air food and souvenir markets. If a price seems too high, it probably is. Offer what you think is fair, and walk away if the merchant won't budge.
Traveled abroad on a student budget? Please share your tips and experiences in the comments section below!
Having visited nearly 30 countries on 5 continents in the last decade, Zach Honig's fascination with travel has clearly become an obsession. Follow Zach on Twitter (@jetdude), or check out his blog, Tech, Travel and Tuna, to keep up to date on his latest adventures.