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7 travel hacks for college kids on a budget

July 01, 2021
14 min read
Pool overlooking a beach in Mamanuca Islands Fiji
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"Points rich, cash poor" probably sums it all up. Being a college kid and wanting to travel isn’t an easy balance. No doubt I am an avid lover of first class, overwater bungalows and lavish lounges, but sometimes those are just not realistic on a college student's budget. I am lucky to have been able to support myself, but I also work multiple jobs, something not every college kid is able to do.

For me, budget travel is a must. I have to make sure I get the most out of my miles. In my travels, this looks like sacrificing the biggest rooms, the best views and the best seats for hotels and flights with options that fit closer to my budget and offer me perks that I can take advantage of to save some money.

Complimentary breakfast at hotels

A complimentary breakfast is one of the biggest things I look for while traveling on the tight budget of a college student. Doing the math, I stay at hotels probably 40 nights a year. As a conservative estimate, I probably spend $15 when I go out to breakfast while traveling. That adds up to $600 a year just for breakfast if going out to eat. That is no small chunk of change for a tight budget.

(Photo by Ryan Patterson/The Points Guy)

There are a few ways to get complimentary breakfast at your hotel. The first and probably the best budget-friendly option would be to pick hotel brands that offer it outright to every single guest. While the COVID-19 pandemic has dampened this perk, slowly but surely hotels are bringing back pre-pandemic breakfast options. These mostly self-serve breakfasts are offered at the following brands:

Hilton

Canopy (“artisanal breakfast” made with fresh local ingredients)
Embassy Suites
Hampton Inn
Homewood Suites
Home2 Suites
Tru

Choice Hotels

Comfort Inn
Comfort Suites
Econo Lodge (continental breakfast)
MainStay Suites (continental breakfast with oatmeal station)
Quality Inn
Sleep Inn

Best Western*

Best Western
Best Western Plus
Best Western Premier
* Breakfast is available at most locations

Hyatt

Hyatt Place (you must be a World of Hyatt member and book your reservation directly through Hyatt)
Hyatt House
Hyatt Zilara/Hyatt Ziva (all-inclusive resort brands)
Miraval (adults-only wellness all-inclusive brand)
SLH partner hotels (continental breakfast for two when booking through Hyatt)

IHG

Avid (grab-and-go breakfast)
Holiday Inn Express
Staybridge Suites

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Marriott

Element
Fairfield Inn & Suites
Residence Inn
SpringHill Suites
TownePlace Suites

Radisson

Country Inn & Suites

Wyndham
Baymont
Days Inn (continental breakfast)
Howard Johnson (continental breakfast)
Hawthorn Suites
La Quinta
Microtel Inn & Suites (continental breakfast)
Super 8
Travelodge (continental breakfast)
Wingate

Related: 5 ways to get your hotel breakfast for free

This is a list that I have saved in my phone so that if I'm staying at a hotel where I don’t have elite status, I ensure that I can, at the very least, not pay for breakfast. However, this leads me to my next free breakfast solution: elite status.

(Photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy)

Easy elite status

Freshman year of college, when I was figuring out this whole travel deal, I really did not have a whole lot of direction on where to go. I was an avid reader of The Points Guy, but it was still a little overwhelming. The only thing I knew how to do was math, so that is what I did.

The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card comes with automatic Diamond status after approval. According to TPG valuations, Diamond status at Hilton is worth $3,025 per year. For me, I really got the card to save on breakfast.

Keeping in mind that I spend 40 nights at hotels per year and would have to spend roughly $600 on breakfast at hotels that don't offer it free of charge, applying for the card was a no-brainer given all the perks it comes with, along with the 150,000 bonus points I earned after completing the minimum spending.

The information for the Hilton Honors Amex Aspire Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

Earning high enough status to get free breakfast isn’t easy and it requires spending quite a few nights at a hotel each year. Here is the required number of nights at different hotel brands to earn yourself free breakfast.

Hotel brandMinimum elite status eligible to receive complimentary breakfastElite qualifying nights required to hit said status
Best WesternNo status eligibleN/A
Choice HotelsNo status eligibleN/A
HiltonGold20 stays/40 nights (complimentary with The Platinum Card® from American Express; enrollment required)
HyattGlobalist60 nights
IHGPlatinum40 nights (complimentary with IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card)
MarriotPlatinum50 nights
RadissonNo status eligibleN/A
WyndhamNo status eligibleN/A

Earning elite status with complimentary breakfast is going to take some research before your trip. As shown, it can save you a heck of a lot of money. It also proves that loyalty and sticking to one brand may very well help your cause.

Related: Easy ways to earn hotel elite status before your next family vacation

Priority Pass

Priority Pass lounge access has to be my favorite benefit of a number of cards I use while traveling. As mentioned previously, I eat a lot of food as a college swimmer. Even if you're not a college swimmer, most likely you need food and food is expensive while traveling. It is not abnormal to pay $4 for water at the airport and that is just painful.

There are a number of ways to earn Priority Pass access and if you’re not familiar, we have everything you need to know about Priority Pass in this article right here. Priority Pass has a wide network of airport lounges, mini suites and even some select airport restaurants, depending on your membership. As of this writing, it boasts over 1,300 lounges in more than 600 cities in 148 countries. Enrollment is required for select benefits.

(Photo courtesy of Wingtips/Facebook)

I receive Priority Pass membership compliments of my Platinum Card from American Express and my Hilton Aspire card. I travel a lot. Probably too much for my own good, but that’s okay. (Enrollment required). The least I can do is not spend money at the airport. Assuming I would have spent at least $15 on food either at the airport or outside, I would spend well over $450 on meals in a year, which cuts into the Platinum Card’s $695 annual fee (see rates and fees). This benefit has been hugely beneficial to me while traveling on a budget.

Priority Pass also features an awesome app. I often plan my travel through airports depending on if they have a lounge, making sure my meals line up with the times I will be flying through that airport. It is something simple and often overlooked. However, if you’re traveling on a tight budget, it all starts adding up quickly, especially for a family.

Related: Everything you need to know about the Priority Pass program

Airline incidental fees

Airline incidental fees are something that come up quite a bit. It hurts me not to have loyalty to one airline, but it is the way it has to be with my work. What I do often leads to last-minute travel plans, so I can’t be too picky about my airline.

If you do have the option to only fly one airline, it goes a long way in earning points as your status accumulates. But cards that come with credits for airline incidental fees have helped me cover things like checking a bag or purchasing a seat assignment with a selected airline.

(Photo by Weerayut Ranmai/EyeEm/Getty Images)

The cost of a checked bag will vary depending on your airline, status and ticket, but your guide to checked bags can be found here. I use my airline incidental fee credits to cover bags if I am on United or Delta. Each year, I reassign my cards to different airlines. (Enrollment required). My Hilton Aspire card, American Express Platinum Card, American Express® Gold Card, and The Business Platinum Card® from American Express all come with forms of credit for airline incidental fees, allowing me not to pay for a bag or seat selection the entire year!

Related: How to avoid checked baggage fees on major domestic airlines

Purchase protection

Purchase protection is one of the little-known perks of credit cards. I put any purchase that needs protection onto one of two cards: my American Express Gold Card for personal purchases or my American Express Business Platinum Card for large business purchases.

There is a ton to know about American Express purchase protection, enough that it warrants its own article, so I won’t go too far into detail. American Express purchase protection will reimburse you for theft or accidental damage to eligible items that occurred within 90 days of purchase. To be eligible, all you have to do is charge a portion of your qualifying purchase to your American Express card — but you’ll only be reimbursed up to the amount charged to your card.

(Screenshot courtesy of americanexpress.com)

When I had a pair of headphones stolen less than 90 days after purchase, I submitted a claim and within a few days, I had been reimbursed with a credit to my account. This is a game-changer that ensures I purchase all camera equipment, headphones and nearly everything else not insured with my eligible American Express cards.

Other cards with this higher level of coverage include:

Building credit history

If you ignore all of the other hacks on this list, this one is the one you should take to heart, and you’ll hopefully thank yourself later. Credit scores are three-digit numbers, usually between 300 and 850. These numbers represent the theoretical likelihood you’ll repay a loan on time, or in this case, a credit card. They’re also a little mysterious and that’s on purpose.

The major credit-scoring companies, FICO and VantageScore, keep their formulas secret. While there are things we do know, only a handful of people know the exact recipe that’s used to generate a credit score. Building your credit score comes when you first get a credit card or are added as an authorized user to a credit card. Your credit history also begins the first day you are added.

(Photo by Emilija Manevska/Getty Images)

For me, my parents were keenly aware of my credit history and added me as an authorized user when I was 17. This allowed me to have a credit score and history by the time I turned 18 and could then apply under my own name. While earning and spending points is nice, being able to build a credit history with credit cards is the ultimate hack. A good credit score can help you get approved for car loans, mortgages and new credit cards. Just make sure you’re being responsible with your spending and paying off your cards every month.

Uber Eats

Uber Cash are another one of my favorite budget hacks coming from my cards. My Amex Platinum card offers Uber VIP status and up to $200 in annual Uber Cash (for U.S. services), split into $15 each month plus a $20 bonus in December. Enrollment required.

To complement this, my American Express Gold Card offers up to $120 in annual Uber Cash as $10 each month per calendar year for Uber Eats and Uber rides in the U.S. Must add a card to the Uber app to receive Uber Cash benefit. Enrollment required.

(Photo courtesy of Uber)

Related: 23 food delivery promo codes and offers to help you save money on your next meal

These benefits are awesome for the budget-friendly college traveler that I am. I take advantage of these perks when I need a ride home from the airport, or maybe when I need a night off from cooking. Regardless of when I decide to use the credits, they’re awesome to have, and saving $15 a month adds up quite quickly.

Be the friend that everyone comes to for referrals

I love nothing more than my friends coming to me for credit card advice. They know I am the pro. They know I take advantage of everything. They also know I have a credit score of 800 and 14 cards as a 21-year-old.

I love giving credit card advice to my friends. Nothing feels better than knowing you helped someone move forward with their finances or get closer to those travel goals, even if you have only been reading The Points Guy for a short time.

Not to mention, if they’re coming to you, you can take advantage of the opportunity by sending them to the right cards with a referral link from your account.

Related: How to refer friends and earn points, miles or cash credits

Bottom line

Just because you're on a budget doesn't mean you don't have the opportunity to travel. As a college kid, I have a lot of expenses, meaning my budget for travel isn't very large. It has certainly taken time to decipher my strategy but it has saved me hundreds, if not thousands, a year in travel expenses.

It's sometimes hard for me to remember that every penny counts. But tracking my spending and going through my expenses every year on a spreadsheet has made me so much more financially aware of everything that I am doing. I am extremely grateful my parents spent so much time teaching me financial responsibility. My goal is to not only take advantage of my situation but help other college kids realize theirs.

For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum Card, please click here.

Featured image by (Photo courtesy of Ryan Patterson/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Rewards

1 - 5X points
5XGet 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com
1.5XEarn 1.5X points on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year
1X1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.

Intro offer

Earn 150,000 points120,000 points
The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.

Annual Fee

$695

Recommended Credit

670-850
Good, Excellent
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

Pros

  • An up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee every four to five years
  • Up to $400 annual credit for eligible U.S. Dell purchases (enrollment required)
  • Gold status at Marriott and Hilton hotels (enrollment required)
  • Access to the Fine Hotels & Resorts program and Hotel Collection
  • Extended warranty protection
  • International Airline Program and Cruise Privileges Program

Cons

  • Steep annual fee
  • Difficulty meeting $15,000 welcome offer for smaller businesses
  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
  • The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, and 1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Earn 1.5X points (that’s an extra half point per dollar) on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year.
  • Unlock over $1,000 in annual statement credits on a curation of business purchases, including select purchases made with Dell Technologies, Indeed, Adobe, and U.S. wireless service providers.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year for checked baggage fees, lounge day passes, and more at one selected airline.
  • $189 CLEAR® Credit: Use your Card and get up to $189 back per year on your CLEAR® membership. CLEAR® is available at more than 50 U.S. airports and stadiums.
  • The American Express Global Lounge Collection® can provide an escape at the airport. With more than 1,400 airport lounges across 140 countries and counting, you have more lounge location options than any other credit card on the market as of 9/2021.
  • $695 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
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4 / 5
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Rewards Rate

5XGet 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com
1.5XEarn 1.5X points on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year
1X1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Intro Offer
    The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.

    Earn 150,000 points
    120,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $695
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Good, Excellent

Why We Chose It

It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

Pros

  • An up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee every four to five years
  • Up to $400 annual credit for eligible U.S. Dell purchases (enrollment required)
  • Gold status at Marriott and Hilton hotels (enrollment required)
  • Access to the Fine Hotels & Resorts program and Hotel Collection
  • Extended warranty protection
  • International Airline Program and Cruise Privileges Program

Cons

  • Steep annual fee
  • Difficulty meeting $15,000 welcome offer for smaller businesses
  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
  • The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, and 1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Earn 1.5X points (that’s an extra half point per dollar) on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year.
  • Unlock over $1,000 in annual statement credits on a curation of business purchases, including select purchases made with Dell Technologies, Indeed, Adobe, and U.S. wireless service providers.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year for checked baggage fees, lounge day passes, and more at one selected airline.
  • $189 CLEAR® Credit: Use your Card and get up to $189 back per year on your CLEAR® membership. CLEAR® is available at more than 50 U.S. airports and stadiums.
  • The American Express Global Lounge Collection® can provide an escape at the airport. With more than 1,400 airport lounges across 140 countries and counting, you have more lounge location options than any other credit card on the market as of 9/2021.
  • $695 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.