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10 Tips for Students on Budget Living and Travel in Europe

Article and photos by Sarah Stites

Grey Abbey in Northern Ireland
Grey Abbey in Northern Ireland.

Prior to Christmas of 2013, I had no interest in going abroad. I was quite the homebody, daunted by the prospect of traveling across the globe to attend university in a foreign culture foreign. That didn’t sound fun—it sounded frightening.

Additionally, I had planned to earn my business degree over three years from Grove City College in order to save money, and going abroad would cost me an arm and a leg. Or so I thought.

However, after an email from my college’s international department and a chat with a friend, I was convinced. They told me about an opportunity to study abroad for a year in Derry, Northern Ireland, tuition free. Even better than that, my college would put the scholarship money I had earned into my checking account to use for my living expenses.

Honestly, my motivation to apply for the program was primarily financial. I knew that I’d never again have the opportunity to go abroad at such a low cost. Although I was anxious about it—especially the fact that after paying my way, the program didn’t help me with many details—I understood that experiencing life in another country could only change me for the better. I knew that I’d gain skills that I could apply in my career and that I’d come back with a broader view of the world and its people.

Looking back, I’m so thankful for the boldness that led me to take that step. My year in Europe was to be the crowning adventure of my first 20 years. I was able to travel to 15 countries across the continent, from Sweden to Slovakia, often staying with locals.

The experience completely exceeded my expectations; in fact, I anticipated feeling overwhelmed and lonely. However, in reality, I gained a confidence that came from organizing the details of my life—from cooking to traveling to planning fun outings and taking the initiative in relationship-building. I made contacts from many different countries and cultural backgrounds whom I consider to be some of my dearest friends today.

Although I could talk endlessly about what I learned, I think it would be most helpful to focus on some recommendations about managing finances while abroad. I recognize that receiving a full-tuition scholarship made my situation unique. Also, some of my tips are more specific to Europe. However, I hope to communicate to you that there are many ways to cut your traveling expenses while still maximizing your fun. Here are the top 10 that I’d advise:

  1. Check out available scholarships and exchange programs. If you’re on a budget, it’s best to be flexible about the location of your study abroad experience. Check to see if your college partners with institutions that provide special low-cost programs. Exchange programs can also be a cheaper option. Additionally, do an in-depth search for scholarships. There is so much money available out there to help students who are determined to study abroad! Here are a few sites to get you started: AllAbroad.us, International Studies Abroad, and NAFSA.

  2. Get the right credit card. There are several credit cards offering great benefits to travelers. Look for one that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee. This way, if you take out money at the ATM, you won’t have to pay an extra sum for the conversion. Also consider signing up for a credit card with a promotional opening offer. Often, in return for spending a certain amount of money within the first months of use, these cards will give you membership rewards redeemable for cash, airfare mileage or hotel stays. I found the Barclaycard Ring MasterCard and the Marriott Rewards Visa to be great choices. Use comparecards.com to find the card that’s best for your particular situation.

  3. Stay with a host family or rent a room from locals. Doing this will not only cut down on your living expenses, it will create a richer and more authentic experience for you than living alone. The last thing you want to do is to live in a dorm with people from your own country. You could do that at home. If you can’t find a website to connect you with hosts, consider emailing religious or intercultural organizations in the area where you’ll be living. I found my family through contacting a church!

  4. Make local friends. Connecting with a local church enabled me to make wonderful friends who invited me to their homes and on adventures. I got to hear different perspectives of the history of Derry, experience the warm hospitality of the Northern Irish and laugh over warm, home-cooked meals. I had the privilege of accompanying friends on trips to parks, mountains and other countries. Oftentimes, some of the most interesting places were inaccessible or expensive to reach by bus, so having friends with cars was invaluable.    

    Muckish Mountain, Northern Ireland
    The view from Muckish Mountain: My Northern Irish friends from church invited me there on a hiking trip. Photo by Sarah Stites.

  5. Try Couchsurfing or AirBnB. Staying at hostels is well and good, but nothing beats an authentic travel experience like living with the locals. Couchsurfing.com is a website which enables you to make a profile and browse the profiles of people across the world who are willing to host you for free. Traveling with a friend, I couchsurfed around 15 times over the course of my year abroad and had experiences that would have been impossible any other way. For example, my host in Brussels took my friend and I on a day trip to the Netherlands out of the kindness of his heart. If you’re not quite that adventurous, you can try Airbnb, which enables you to rent a private room or a whole apartment. Either way, both experiences get you into homes of the locals.

    Dinner in Brussels with Couchsurfing host
    Dinner at an authentic Belgian café with my couchsurfing host in Brussels. Photo by Sarah Stites.

  6. Set up classes for long weekends. If at all possible, think about scheduling your classes to give you longer periods of time to travel. Personally, I was able to work my schedule at Ulster University so as to give me 4-day weekends. This was perfect for planning trips.

  7. Take advantage of Skyscanner and GoEuro. Skyscanner is a website that aggregates flights by price. Input your home airport and set the destination to “everywhere” and you’ll get a list of the cheapest flights over a certain time range. Being in Europe, I was able to take advantage of many low-cost flights through the airline RyanAir. However, flexibility is definitely the key to using Skyscanner. I didn’t really mind where I went, I just wanted to see as much of Europe as I could. So when it was cheap to fly to Brussels, I planned a trip to Belgium. If flights to Oslo were the right price in December, then that was when I went to Norway. GoEuro is similar to Skyscanner, but also aggregates prices for bus and train travel.

  8. Check out travel apps. There are so many great apps right at your fingertips! Before you pay to use a restroom abroad, open “Flush” to find the nearest free toilet in your vicinity. Need to connect to internet? Check “Free WiFi Finder” to locate a free internet hotspot. Without an internet connection, I navigated London with greater ease using “CityMaps2Go.”

  9. Buy reduced, generic and bulk groceries. It is definitely important to enjoy visiting local restaurants with friends, but don’t make it routine if your budget is tight. Some host families might be kind enough to cook for you, but if you’re not in that situation, consider cooking for yourself rather than eating out. I generally made my own meals, often purchasing produce from the reduced price section of a Tesco supermarket. Then, I would buy bulk items like lentils or store-brand oatmeal instead of brand-name. I also found the local Poundland to be a lifesaver. Watching for sales and deals on food can save you money to put toward experiences you’ll remember for a lifetime.

  10. Consider applying for a virtual internship. Before I left the States, I applied for several virtual internships on Internships.com. Thankfully, I secured a paid position as a social media intern and worked between 1-5 hours a week. The work was flexible and only required a connection to internet. This not only gave me work experience but supplied extra pocket money to put toward my travels.

Just remember: living cheaply often equates to living more authentically. Going local—local friends, local food, local accommodation—these are the ways to get the most out of your experience and the least out of your wallet.

Before I went abroad, I never expected that traveling would ever play a large role in my life. That all changed after my year in Northern Ireland. As I greatly desire to go back to Europe, I have just submitted my application for a Fulbright grant to study consumer behavior at Madrid’s Instituto de Empresa. Maybe someday, I’ll apply for the Foreign Service. My biggest achievable bucket-list goal is to become fluent in Spanish. But wherever the future takes me, I know it will be abroad.

The one last tip that I have to share is this: keep a detailed journal or blog (I used the WordPress platform). Not only does it enable you to keep loved ones updated about your life, it also helps you to process and memorialize the experiences you have. Looking back at my posts several months after my return home has been very rewarding. I am thankful that while the memories were still fresh, I was able to capture emotions and detailed anecdotes to share with my children in years to come. It requires dedication in the moment, but you’ll be so thankful you put in the time. Happy traveling!

Sarah Stites is a marketing management major from Reston, VA. Her hobbies include running cross country, hiking, reading classic literature and cooking ethnic dishes. After her year abroad in Northern Ireland, she aspires to an international career.

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