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Points rich, cash poor: How to travel as a college student

Feb. 16, 2020
11 min read
Generic Travel Melanie_Montreal August 2019
Points rich, cash poor: How to travel as a college student

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Between tuition, housing, books and other expenses, college students don't have much, if any, discretionary spending to spend on travel. And between balancing classes, extracurricular activities and other responsibilities, it might seem impossible to find the time to travel anyway. But with the right planning and maximization of available resources, traveling as a student may be easier than you think.

Hi, my name is Benji Stawski and I'm a contributor for The Points Guy. I'm also a full time student in the final stretch of my undergraduate career. Up until now, I've taken a full course-load every semester, always been an active participant in multiple extracurricular actives, maintained a social life and still managed to take multiple trips each school year. Sure, it might seem like I'm an outlier because of my job at The Points Guy, but there are plenty of other students who've done the same. And today, we're going to discuss how you, too, can travel more while still in college.

Budget wisely

There's a misconception that traveling is expensive, but if you budget wisely, that doesn't have to be the case at all. As a student, you'll need to make intentional decisions about how you spend your funds. Using points and miles effectively will definitely help stretch your budget further.

If you usually start your mornings with a cup of coffee from Starbucks or Dunkin', consider putting those $20 a week aside toward your travel fund and drink coffee from home instead. For all you know, those $80 you saved in a month from cutting your coffee expenses could be enough for a flight across the Atlantic.

The same goes for eating out less and curbing your online shopping addiction. School reviews site gave my university a D+ for campus food so I completely understand why food is the most popular spending category among students, but you can still save significant money — and potentially get around "freshman 15" — by preparing more meals at home, as opposed to eating out.

Review your monthly subscriptions to see if there are any recurring charges you could eliminate. For instance, you shouldn't be paying for Hulu or Showtime if you have a Spotify student account as it includes access to both of those services. Likewise, ask yourself questions like "Does it make more sense to rent this textbook or buy it and then resell it?"

Parents: it's also important that you understand how (and how much) your college student will spend money.

Maximize your expenses

Obviously, you won't be eliminating your expenses altogether so you'll want to make sure you're getting the most out of the money you are spending. The first way you can do that is by picking up a credit card that earns rewards.

Every time you use a credit card — whether it be to buy food, clothing or anything else — you earn cashback or points and miles that you could put toward your next trip (read: free money). You could maximize your earnings and become points-rich without spending a ton by doing things like paying for meals with friends and having them Venmo you back or even paying your tuition with your credit card. Plus, you'll typically get a nice welcome bonus for signing up for credit cards, as well as other valuable benefits that can save you money, make travel easier and give you access to great experiences.

You might not get approved for the top travel rewards cards right away if this is your first credit card and you have no established history, but not to worry, there are a number of cards aimed specifically at students looking to build credit. You could also build your credit by being made an authorized user on your parents’ accounts. Just remember that there's a lot of responsibility that comes with credit cards. You'll need to adhere to your budget and pay your balances in full every month. Bad credit card behavior will negate the value of any rewards you earn and take a toll on your credit score.

In addition to the “regular” points and miles you earn with your credit cards, sometimes, you can earn bonus rewards for a single activity by double or even triple dipping. For instance, when shopping online on a site like Apple or Lululemon, you can go through an online shopping portal like Rakuten and earn cash back for your purchases (or choose to earn Membership Rewards® points from American Express). Clicking through to a retailer's site through a shopping portal requires minimal effort and you’re still purchasing the exact same items directly from the merchant, but with a bonus.

Similar to shopping online through shopping portals, you can mindlessly earn bonus rewards when dining out. First, use an app like Seated to make your restaurant reservations and earn up to 30% back in gift cards or other rewards from your total bill. Then, make sure you're signed up for the dining rewards network of your favorite airline or hotel program. Participating restaurants award you extra points or miles automatically when you pay for a meal with a linked credit card.

If you're an American Express Card Member, be sure to routinely monitor what Amex Offers are available to you. You can learn more about how these offers work in our guide, but basically they either provide you with cash back or bonus points for making purchases at select merchants. You'll also want to make sure you're enrolled in Uber Rewards and paired your Lyft account with Delta and Hilton.

Don't hoard your points

In case you didn't get the message by now, it is very important to be collecting points. No matter how often you do business with a particular company, if they offer a loyalty program, you should be signed up for it as the earnings do add up. However, earning points is just one part of the equation. Redeeming them is just as (if not more) important.

Contrary to common belief, you don't need hundreds of thousands of points and miles to book an award trip. For instance, Delta regularly offers attractive award flash sales with deals like domestic flights starting at 5,000 SkyMiles round-trip and flights to London starting at 16,000 SkyMiles round-trip. American Airlines offers its own "Web Specials" with deals like coast-to-coast routes for 5,000 miles one-way, Europe for 9,000 miles each way, and Hawaii from 10,000 miles each way. Depending on how well you read the previous section on maximizing your expenses, you may be able to earn all of the miles you need to snag one of these deals without stepping foot on a plane. You can refer to the monthly TPG valuations guide to calculate the approximate value of your points and miles and figure out whether you're getting a good deal with a specific redemption. Keep in mind, if you're short points and miles, it could sometimes make sense to buy them.

Be flexible

Although students are blessed with having scheduled breaks, those are often also the most expensive times to travel. Having some flexibility in travel dates (i.e. flying the Tuesday before Thanksgiving instead of Wednesday) could save you a significant amount of money. You can use a site like Google Flights to search for flights across multiple dates, airlines and airports all at once.

It's very important to be strategic when making your schedule. For instance, with my current schedule, I don't have classes on Tuesdays or Fridays. So, whenever there's a holiday that gets us Monday off, my three-day weekends automatically turn into five-day weekends, giving me enough time for a quick getaway.

Choose your destination wisely

Aside from being flexible with travel times, it's good to have some flexibility in destination. For instance, as a student, you might want to try avoiding expensive countries like Iceland.

You could also save significant money (and potentially avoid major crowds) by visiting destinations during their off-seasons. Think Barcelona in the spring (as opposed to summer), Copenhagen in the fall and Buenos Aires over summer break (a.k.a. winter in the Southern Hemisphere). And keep in mind, traveling doesn't always mean going abroad. There are plenty of great places to visit here in the U.S., too.

Take advantage of student discounts

Several airlines offer discounts exclusive to students. For instance, German carrier Lufthansa has a program called “Generation Fly” which provides US students with discounted fares to more than 470 destinations around the world, as well the ability to spend up to 12 months abroad and one free date change. In 2019, United launched a 10% discount for travelers between the ages of 18 and 22.

Amtrak offers student discounts in select markets from time to time and AAA waives the young renter fee for members under 25 when renting a car from Hertz. There are also specific travel websites like Student Universe that specialize in giving students premium discounts on their travel. If you're based in New York City and frequent the Hamptons or Nantucket, you might benefit from a Blade-GX membership, exclusively for those between 18 and 27 years old.

Consider living the good life

While flying low-cost carriers or basic economy and staying at hostels and Airbnbs is typically the cheapest option, there are a few cases where it could make sense to splurge on the upgrade.

Let's take a flight from Boston to NYC for example. A flight like this is typically operated by a small regional jet and is less than 90 minutes long so it may seem pointless to book first class. However, airlines sometimes offer discounted opportunities to buy up to first class after you already booked your ticket, and on short routes like this, they can cost as little as $30. If you're planning to check a bag, which would ordinarily set you back $30 anyway, then the upgrade is a no-brainer as you'll get two free checked bags, plus all the other perks of first class. Based on my experiences, peak travel days are especially good opportunities to book premium cabins as they don't get the same markups economy airfare gets around the holidays.

Similarly, when traveling with a group of friends, it might be cheaper to book a suite in a hotel instead of multiple standard rooms in a hotel or multiple beds in a hostel. Just because a room has the word "suite" in it doesn't mean you're going to need to shell out $100,000 a night. There are a number of budget all-suite hotels which offer roomy accommodations perfect for groups of friends (or families) who need space and separation in the room. These limited-service hotels also often provide money-saving amenities like free breakfast in the mornings and full kitchens so you can cook your own meals — not to mention the opportunity to earn (and redeem) points on your stays.

Study or work abroad

It probably goes without saying that the easiest way to travel more while in school is by going abroad for a semester. Studying or working abroad is an experience that goes far beyond a long weekend as a tourist, and in some cases, actually cheaper than staying on campus, thanks to rising tuition costs. For instance, Brian Biros, writer of The Points Guy's Points & Miles Backpacker column, went on a summer abroad program in Buenos Aires and it was cheaper than summer tuition would have been at his in-state university, including airfare, room and board. Plus, there are a number of grants and scholarships available exclusively for study abroad programs.

Bottom line

Like they all say, the best time to travel is when you're young and as you've hopefully learned now, it's not as far-fetched as it may seem. By making the right decisions when it comes to your spending and being a little flexible, you'll be able to go on plenty trips while still in school without breaking the bank.

Featured image by (Photo by Isabelle Raphael / The Points Guy)