7 travel hacks for college kids on a budget

Jul 1, 2021

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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.

In This Post


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:


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

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 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)


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


Fairfield Inn & Suites
Residence Inn
SpringHill Suites
TownePlace Suites


Country Inn & Suites

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

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.

Breakfast at a hotel in Paris
(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.

Hilton Honors American Express Aspire card
(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 brand Minimum elite status eligible to receive complimentary breakfast Elite qualifying nights required to hit said status
Best Western No status eligible N/A
Choice Hotels No status eligible N/A
Hilton Gold 20 stays/40 nights (complimentary with The Platinum Card® from American Express; enrollment required)
Hyatt Globalist 60 nights
IHG Platinum 40 nights (complimentary with IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card)
Marriot Platinum 50 nights
Radisson No status eligible N/A
Wyndham No status eligible N/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.

Suitcase or luggage with conveyor belt in the airport.
(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 CardAmerican 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.

Wallet with cash and credit cards
(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.

Food bag on a table in a restaurant
(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.

Featured photo by Ryan Patterson/The Points Guy.

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

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs up to two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide including takeout and delivery in the U.S., and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $80 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck® after you apply through any Authorized Enrollment Provider. If approved for Global Entry, at no additional charge, you will receive access to TSA PreCheck.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
17.24%-26.24% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Recommended Credit
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.