How to Study Abroad as a Student on a Budget

When I studied abroad in Seoul, South Korea, the first month I was in school. I stayed an extra month to explore and solidify my Korean. I ended up going to my friend’s wedding while I was there too….

During my undergraduate career at the “perfect college I traveled extensively. My first study abroad was in Oaxaca, Mexico for about 6 weeks. My second study abroad was in South Korea for about 2 months. I learned a thing or two about studying abroad as a student (and as a woman for that matter) that can make your experience abroad more enjoyable and affordable.

Do the math with your credits! 

Studying abroad can actually be cheaper than taking classes at your home institution. Study abroad with a program that is affiliated with your school or consider faculty-led programs. Traveling with an affiliate program allows you to apply financial aid from your school directly to the program. (That’s including financial aid from FAFSA.) Traveling with an affiliated program makes it easier to transfer credits as well.

For example, when I went to Mexico, I traveled through Sol. Sol is a U of H affiliated program so scheduling the right classes for my minor in Spanish became a streamlined process. They also helped me get the transcript I needed and made sure all my credits transferred.

Get your passport and visa work done through your school (if possible)!

Working with an academic institution to get the paperwork can make the process faster and less stressful. They can also help you make sure you have everything you need to travel there and back without any problems with immigration. You will most likely find these resources through the study abroad office on campus. Create a strong relationship with the study abroad office on campus. Make sure they know your name. Speaking from personal experience, the study abroad office at the University of Houston is amazing. They helped me find the right program to get to where I needed to be. See if your institution does the same.

Minimize transaction fees!

Open a debit or credit card that does not charge international transaction fees. Charles Schwab is perfect for students abroad because they do not charge students for international transactions. Trust me. Transaction fees add up so either sign up with a bank that does not charge them or withdraw money from the bank in bulk.

If you do bring your card with you, consider bringing your credit card– not your debit card. That way if it’s stolen, they are stealing the bank’s money (not your money). It’s easier to dispute unauthorized transactions on a credit card than a debit card.

Depending on what country you stay in, having a card on hand can save you a lot of grief.  However, owning a credit card can be a slippery slope. Treat your credit card like a debit card and use online banking to track your spending habits. Remember, all the money you spend on your card must be paid back with interest.

Track the cheapest flights through Hopper or Student Universe.

Buy your tickets as early as possible (even if you are not 100% sure on the dates). I know there’s some hesitation in buying tickets before your dates are finalized. However, buying them earlier can save you a lot of money. Message the airline on Twitter (it’s easier than calling) to see if you can reschedule the flight dates without a fee attached. It’s better to pay a lower cost early on and a small rebooking fee than to pay full price as the date gets closer.

Hopper and Student Universe can help you find the best rates. Also, consider opening a free membership account with one of the major airlines to track points and awards. Airlines like to award their members. Having a membership can help you find more hidden deals and it costs you nothing.

I created a free membership with Delta because they have partnerships with Korean Air, Aeromexico, and AirFrance. That in addition to their other locations and excellent customer service influenced my decision to become a member.

Study abroad on a homestay program.

If a homestay program is not available then use a combination of hostels, Airbnb and believe it or not Hiltons. Some programs offer on-campus housing, but sometimes depending on the location on-campus housing can be expensive. Talk to your program coordinator before you decide to book alternative housing. Make sure your alternative housing is more affordable than staying on campus and include the commute from your alternative housing to the campus as a part of the cost. Alternative housing can enrich your experience abroad and is a perfect solution for the independent traveler.

The first month I was in South Korea I stayed on campus. I stayed in an Airbnb the second month. I booked a studio apartment in an area relatively close to campus and took public transit everywhere. The rates for a studio apartment in that area was about the same as I would have paid in Houston.

Did I mention earlier that Hiltons can actually be an affordable alternative housing option? Again, this depends on your location, but being a Hilton Honors member can help you find amazing rates and hidden deals. The membership is free and the benefits are amazing. My sister and I have stayed in really nice Hiltons for less than half the listed price because of our membership. (P.S I’m not endorsed by Hilton. Just recommending it because it’s great. You can also do the same thing with any major hotel chains like the Marriott or Hyatt Place)

Pack light!

On international flights, you are allotted two free checked bags, 1 carry-on and 1 personal item (which is basically another carry on). Pack your checked luggage halfway so you have space for souvenirs and gifts. Make sure your carry on has a change of clothes and essentials like toothpaste in case of an unexpected overnight layover. Spend money on experiences rather than material objects and try to shop like a local. Tourist-centric areas are always going to be more expensive.

Embrace your layover!

Chances are if you are on a cheaper flight, you will have a layover. I love a good layover! I’m not being sarcastic. I actually love a good layover. A good layover is any layover that is during the day where the airline provides a voucher for a hotel and food. A good layover is also close to a major city for last minute adventures. I attract layovers like moths to a light. I had a layover in Vancouver, Canada with AirCanada on my way to South Korea and Charles de Guille, France with Air France on my way to Nigeria. Treat layovers like a free vacation and embrace it!

Arrive early and/or stay late

When I studied abroad in Seoul, South Korea, the first month I was in school. I stayed an extra month to explore and solidify my Korean. I ended up going to my friend’s wedding while I was there too. Arriving early to your target destination allows you to get a feel for the city you’ll be calling home and explore independently. Use Airbnb/hostels/hotel membership to find the right accommodations. Staying later also allows you to explore or revisit places you have been and solidify the relationships you created.

My next adventure abroad will be in Owerri, Nigeria. There will be no formal studies on this adventure. I’m going to see family and explore where my parents grew up.

I strongly encourage students to study abroad. There are many ways of doing so: service missions, internships abroad, Spring Break abroad, faculty-led and much more. Contact your study abroad office to learn more. If you need a little more guidance, please feel to reach out to me!

Have you studied abroad before? Where did you go? Are you planning on going abroad soon? Share about your travels in the comments section!

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