Anyone who knows me has probably at some point been baffled by how I can possibly afford to travel on a student budget – at least as often and as cheaply as I do. My gap year was spent almost entirely out of the country, except a few weeks here and there, and I managed to avoid that long stint working at home which many have to endure before being able to afford a big backpacking trip. I’ve also managed to take a long trip every summer since I went to university, and I haven’t broken the bank. But it hasn’t been down to handouts, and I’m definitely not rich. It’s come from a combination of (slightly obsessive) saving – check out my tips on how to save while you study here – and an impulsive need to take opportunities when I spot them. There just happen to be a lot of really great budget travel opportunities out there, especially for students at university, which people either don’t know about, or haven’t put time into exploring.
So in an effort to explain myself, I’ve come up with some handy tips to help you to find and grab those opportunities. Read on if you’re intrigued!
Bursaries & Scholarships
First things first: take advantage of the various funds available to you while you’re at university. Whatever kind of travel you’re after, a bit of free money towards it never goes amiss! The amount available will obviously vary depending on which university you are at, but it’s definitely worth doing your research. For example, in the past I’ve had financial assistance through the university travel grant, as well as a few times from my college’s Trust.
If you’re going on a study trip (or a trip vaguely related to study), you may be able to get some financial assistance from your department, or from specific bursaries associated with a certain subject area. Depending on the type of trip, you may also be able to ask for support from the International Office, the Careers Department, or the Student Finance Office – particularly if the trip is educational in some way. Send out lots of polite emails, stating what it is that you’re doing and why you would like them to support you. You may need to offer them something in return, such as a blog or photo journal. It’s always worth a go!
In addition to travel-based funds, at some universities there might be monetary incentives for academic achievement each year, which is also something worth thinking about aiming for if you want some extra pocket money.
University provides a lot of opportunities that you won’t get through any other means. Obviously you are there (at least partly…) to study, and it’s worth making the most of this. Going on a year abroad is one way of sneaking in some travel while trudging your way through a degree. Whether this is an inserted extra year of study in another country, or a year that contributing to your course while you’re abroad, it’s an amazing way to experience something completely new in a vaguely productive way. For languages courses this is a requirement, but it’s something you can look into if you study almost any subject. I have friends (who don’t study languages) who’ve spent the year in Canada, Denmark, America and New Zealand, all of which looked incredible!
But if a year abroad doesn’t really tickle your fancy, there are other, shorter options too. You can take part in study programs abroad in the holidays at a fairly low cost, as these are often subsidised either by your university or by the government. In the Easter of my first year at uni, I spent three weeks in China with Study China, an example of one such programme. Not only did I have a great time, meet some amazing people, and learn a bit of Mandarin; I also only had to cover the cost of my flights and additional spending money. Even better, this is the type of educational trip for which you are likely to be able to get financial assistance from your university (see above!). Sometimes it pays to read your emails – that’s how I found out about the opportunity!
Short-term or postgraduate study are other options along these lines. The British Council is currently offering scholarships for study in Japan, Mexico and Azerbaijan, and that’s as good a place as any to start if you’ve got no plans! The British Council have also got a lot of other options available so have a browse through if you’re interested. They have some seriously appealing scholarships to study in China for a semester or up to a year.
A lot of the coolest places I have visited have been through international volunteering projects. I’ve volunteered for VSO ICS in India, Tenteleni in South Africa, and for my university college in Nepal. This is not to say that you should volunteer abroad with the sole aim of travelling, and I cannot express enough how important it is that you take the time to research whether a particular project or organisation is ethical and responsible (I’ve written about that issue here). However, provided that you pick the right projects, volunteering can be a fantastic way to experience some amazing places: in my down time during the volunteer programmes I’ve participated in I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Taj Mahal, browse the markets of Jaipur, spot elephants in Kruger National Park and watch the sunrise at Sarangkot in Nepal, amongst other things.
Aside from the fact that volunteering has provided me with some of the best experiences of my life, can also be a way of visiting other countries and having a truly immersive experience which is kind to your bank balance. You can fundraise for some of the costs involved, and because it’s not usually a luxury experience, the expenses shouldn’t be too high anyway. The ICS programme, for example, is government funded, and pays for all your living expenses and transport while you’re on project, in exchange for your fundraising a (large) sum for the charity you will be working for. This means that you get to experience another culture and country essentially for free, while also making a positive impact on the community you work in.
Tenteleni is another volunteer programme which I would wholeheartedly recommend: the project fee is worked out purely from the costs of food, accommodation and transport while on project, so again it works out very much in your favour. More importantly, they provide high-quality projects, through working closely with long-standing local partners, and you also get the opportunity to stay in a homestay which gives you a true experience of the local community.
DISCLAIMER: Just to reiterate: volunteering should not be an EXCUSE for travel; travel is just one of the many benefits of volunteering.
Shoulder or Low Season
If you just want to travel for travel’s sake, one way of making it cheaper whilst you’re at university is by travelling in the low or shoulder season. In general, July-September (aka school holiday season) is going to be the most expensive time to go, so if possible avoid this time – or at least try to book flights outside of it. Depending on your term times, this might just work out in your favour if your holidays start early or finish late. It’s worth checking up on when the school holidays are: holiday companies are always going to bump up their prices to coincide with these times.
If it’s not feasible for you to time your travel well, another option is going somewhere a bit out of the ordinary for the time of year. Shoulder and low season in a country will at least make it cheaper to travel when you get there, pushing down the price of accommodation and excursions in an attempt to try and encourage tourism when there aren’t crowds to inflate prices. UK summer means winter in Australia and low season in Mexico (though keep an eye out for hurricanes!); a quick Google will give you some options for the places which get cheaper in the northern hemisphere’s peak holiday travel time. In addition, shoulder season will often still have good weather and you’ll avoid the crowds. There are downsides to low season, though – it’s called ‘off-season’ for a reason, and if dodgy weather is likely to make you miserable then maybe steer clear!
Finally, perhaps my favourite way of travelling cheaply is to get a job abroad. For me this is a no brainer: you get to go and live somewhere exciting and new with the advantage of being paid for it! There are loads of routes to working abroad: a good place to start if you’re a student is SeasonWorkers. You’re likely to be most able to work in the summer so seasonal roles are a good option. Holiday resorts, cleaning jobs and childcare are all very in demand during the summer months, and companies will often pay for your travel out there as well.
If you don’t fancy staying within the EU, working holiday visas can also be a good way of making your travel pay for itself. The most obvious example of this is Australia: there’s loads of opportunities from bar work to fruit farming which can help fund your travel out there. If you’re going to have to get a visa to go somewhere anyway, it may as well be one for which you can earn the money back!
Another type of option for working abroad is participating in a work exchange: arranging to work for someone in exchange for bed and board, or some variant of this. There are quite a lot of websites that facilitate this idea: the ones I’ve come across are WWOOFing (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), HelpXand Workaway. For all of these sites you have to pay a fee to sign up, but from my experience this is totally worth it (especially as it gives you some kind of assurance that the people on these sites are legit). There are so many different work exchange opportunities out there: WWOOFing focuses on organic farming, HelpXchange and Workaway have a whole range of options, from hospitality to childcare to construction work. See what fits your skills and get going! Obviously it goes without saying that you should make sure the listing seems trustworthy – checking for reviews is a good way to do this.
I personally spent a bit of time in Ecuador working on an organic farm which was listed on both WWOOFing and HelpXchange, and it was honestly one of the most interesting (and challenging) experiences of my life. I met some really cool people and learnt some new skills (built a fence, used a machete, milked a cow…ish) – and I got to stay in the middle of the Ecuadorian cloud forest and have my food costs covered! Can’t recommend it enough.
So to summarise: check your university emails (you never know what you might find), time your travel well, research destinations, volunteer (for reputable organisations), source funding where possible, and take every opportunity you can – you’ll always regret it less than if you didn’t.
Hopefully this has been helpful – and perhaps illuminating – and it’ll persuade you that I don’t just have a secret unlimited travel fund that I’ve been hiding all this time. You’ve just got to travel smart!
If you’ve got any more suggestions or tips to add to this list, feel free to add them in the comments below!