Smart Spending Abroad

Brittney and a friend exploring Positano on the Amalfi Coast on a trip.

Brittney and a friend exploring Positano on the Amalfi Coast on a bus2alps trip.

For most students studying abroad, money is a major concern. College students often have tight budgets, but a desire to see and do everything while traveling abroad. But how can you manage your money appropriately when using unfamiliar currencies in unforeseen circumstances, all while conducting transactions in a foreign language? Whether you are buying food, going out at night, traveling to another country, or simply exploring a nearby town or city, there are many tips you’ll need to know in order to conserve your precious funds. The following recommendations are lessons I learned through trial and error while traveling throughout Italy, Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Please note that outside this geographic area, these tips may not always apply.

First: transportation is one of the most expensive aspects of student travel. Unlike in the U.S., the majority of students abroad do not have a car, so taxis, busses, trains, and planes take their place. If you want to go on a road trip, renting a car is usually not the most practical option. Gas is extremely expensive and adds up quickly even for small, four person cars. Moreover, roads, especially in European countries, are narrow, confusing, and filled with aggressive drivers. In Italy, highways include tolls of over 20 € in some cases, and signs are minimal. Most cities have established bus systems that provide daily or weekly bus rides to nearby cities. Busses are also an alternate option for when other means of transportation, such as trains, go on strike (a problem often encountered in Italy, Spain, and France). Regardless of strikes, trains are the most popular form of transportation. Train tickets are relatively affordable and can be purchased the day you plan to travel. If you research ahead of time, you will notice that the prices for the same train ride often fluctuate slightly by hour and by day, so it may be wise to plan your trip around the cheapest train ride at an unusual hour of the day, or unusual day of the week. Although it may seem tempting, I do not advise you try to ride a train without purchasing a ticket; the fines for doing so are usually many times greater than the cost of a ticket, and conductors are usually thorough in assessing cabin activity.

When traveling extended distances in Europe, I recommend researching flights well ahead of time. provides a listing of the cheapest flights based on the day and the destination of your choosing. For me, it became habit while abroad to browse the site and search for unbeatable deals such as traveling round trip to Barcelona for only 60 € (yes, this did happen). The prices for airfare to major cities across Europe are often cheaper than train tickets; however, be advised: these airfare companies are minimal in terms of service and comfort. The planes are often small and old, and the flights rarely include anything complimentary. Many loopholes exist in terms of luggage. For example, when I traveled, carryon luggage (the only free option for luggage) could not exceed 5 kg or 11 lbs., and the size requirements were half those in the U.S. Officials placed boxes over our bags to double check their size and if the boxes did not fit over the bags, we were forced to pay at least 50€ to check our bags before the flight. The flights are also often nonrefundable, meaning that you cannot change your ticket and you’re out of luck if workers go on strike. But regardless of the many loopholes, the flights are offered at an unbeatable price, which allowed me the opportunity to travel to seven different countries while abroad for one semester.

Another option for travel is all-inclusive trips. In Europe, I used Bus2alps. This company is based in Switzerland and offers all-inclusive trips across Europe and even to Morocco. The trips generally ask that you pay on your own to arrive at a meeting point (usually a train station or airport), and then take you by bus on a weekend or weeklong trip. The trips include hostel costs, transportation costs, personal tour guides, and an all-inclusive, pre-established trip agenda of must-see sights and activities. I used Bus2alps for traveling to Oktoberfest and experiencing the Amalfi Coast in Italy. In both cases, logistics were difficult: Oktoberfest is mayhem in terms of hostel affordability and transportation, and the Amalfi Coast is difficult to cover in a weekend without organized bus rides to neighboring towns and boat rides to the islands. Moreover, they offer suggestions and discounts to bars and clubs at night, and allow for plenty of free time to explore on your own. The costs of trips depend on length and destination, but are extremely cheap for the experience you receive. For example, my all-inclusive trip to the Amalfi Coast was 200€ for three days and two nights.

“Travel is the only thing you can buy which makes you richer.”

“Travel is the only thing you can buy which makes you richer.” — Found on the John Lennon Wall in Prague.

Housing is a huge cost while traveling. Generally, youth hostels are the safest and most popular option for students. rates hostels by cleanliness, atmosphere, location, price, and much more. You can search for hostels in the city you plan to visit and reserve rooms online. Rooms range from 5€ per a night to +50€. Moreover, hostels offer friendly advice about what to do and often provide discounts to local restaurants, pubs, pub crawls, and clubs. Hostels often have the option of storing luggage in luggage rooms or lockers for the day, so you can store your bag before you check in or after you checkout. This is much more affordable than storing your luggage in the expensive luggage lockers in train stations.

Food is another huge and unavoidable expense while traveling. While en route to new locations via bus or train, I recommend you stock up with snacks from your local grocery store. By doing this, you can avoid the expense of sit-down meals when all you truly need is a quick, satisfying snack. For larger, sit-down meals it is most economical to organize group dinners with friends and cook them in the hostel kitchens. From my experience, the amount of food was plentiful, cooked just the way we liked it, and it resulted in costing no more than 5€ per a person.

Some expenses while abroad are unfathomable in the U.S. For example, in European countries, you must pay to go to the bathroom. For girls, this is bad news and adds up rather quickly. I recommend you search for McDonalds restaurants, which often provide free bathrooms to the public. You must also pay for plastic grocery bags when grocery shopping in many countries. In this case, you must remember to plan ahead: bring an empty bag to carry your food home or to the nearby hostel. Remember to watch your bags closely when carrying them across town, whether they be filled with money, jewelry, or even produce, the pickpockets in many areas of the world are considered professionals at stealing. Keep bags on your front side with the zipper closed.

Lastly, pre-establish the sights you would like to pay for and the sights you can explore on your own. An economical alternative to paying for tour guides is renting audio guides or purchasing travel guides. In addition, if you do your research you will be able to find many activities in cities that you can do for free. For example, Barcelona has an extravagant mosaic park you can visit for free, Italian cities often have free admission to old, beautiful cathedrals, and Switzerland is filled with breathtaking hikes.

No matter where you choose to travel while abroad it is possible to travel on budget without missing out. Even by using a few of the suggestions above, you can allocate your money toward what you want to do rather than things you must do because you didn’t plan ahead. May these words of wisdom help your travels, but remember the famous quote: Travel is the only thing you can buy which makes you richer.”

Brittney Ziebell Brittney Ziebell is a junior at Colby College majoring in English and minoring in Administrative Sciences. Brittney is a Division I, Alpine Ski Racer who studied abroad in the small town of Perugia, Italy during fall 2012. She has a strong passion for studio art and calling any place she can “home” at least once in her life. Check out her spotlight to learn more about her experiences abroad!

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