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9 Clever Ways to Make Study Abroad Less Expensive

Grace Lower | Jan 6, 2022

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Like many of my peers, I went into college enchanted by the idea of study abroad. Between classes, meetings, and late-night study sessions, I would browse dreamily through travel blogs. In my mind, study abroad would be fulfilling and glamorous: somewhere between Eat, Pray, Love and The Lizzie McGuire Movie. At the time, my imagination conveniently glossed over the financial realities of spending a semester abroad. It was only when I began seriously planning my trip that I realized just how prohibitive the costs could be.

Even with financial aid, scholarships, a modest travel fellowship, and a little help from my parents, I was several thousand dollars short of my dream program. I gave myself a few days to wallow, then buckled in and devised a plan. Here are the tips that helped me keep my study abroad experience as rich as it was affordable.

1. Take the road less traveled

Although Western Europe is a favorite destination among students (myself included), it can often be the priciest. When choosing a location, ask yourself what you hope to gain from your trip and whether you could accomplish the same goals in a lower-cost destination. 

If your heart is set on Europe, consider programs located outside of major metropolitan areas. Part of what drew me to Granada was its comparatively low cost of living: only a fraction of what I would have spent in Barcelona or Madrid.

2. Make study abroad an investment

Professional development isn’t the most glamorous reason to study abroad, but it pays to be strategic. To make the most of my time abroad, I selected a program that gave me the flexibility to intern several days a week, while freelancing remotely by night. To accomplish this, I relied heavily on guidance from my university’s international affairs office and my third-party study abroad provider. Once I had my professional goals in mind, I worked with advisors and staff to find programs that were the right fit. For the best return on a study abroad investment, it helps to plan ahead.

3. Know thyself (and thy spending habits!)

Budgeting for study abroad doesn’t have to be painful—you just need the right tools. First, calculate all the up-front costs associated with the trip. Beyond program fees and plane tickets, make sure to research pricing for things like travel insurance and visa fees. 

Next, create a weekly budget for your time abroad. Take a weekend to sit down with your bank statements and look for patterns in your spending habits. Where does your money usually go? Is there any one category (food, clothing, entertainment, etc.) where you could scale back? Once you’re armed with a sense of how you spend, you’ll have a clearer idea of your study abroad savings goal. 

4. Incentivize your savings

When I first started saving for my trip, I would periodically transfer random amounts of money to my savings account. I enjoyed watching the total grow, but I began feeling a false sense of complacency. What I failed to recognize at the time was that the money in my account represented my entire life’s savings—and I certainly wouldn’t be using all of it to fund my trip! 

When I learned that my bank allowed customers to open additional accounts for free, I created a dedicated “Study Abroad Savings” account. With a separate space for my study abroad fund, I had a more realistic idea of the progress I had made. That minor change made a huge difference in my attitude about my financial goals, and it motivated me to make my savings grow even faster.

5. Cut costs on flights

There are endless airfare hacks, and my favorite tips barely scratch the surface. But flights will make up a substantial portion of your overall travel costs, so it pays to be creative. One idea I regret overlooking is flying out from a somewhat distant location. At the time of my trip, I was living in Columbus, Ohio, and I flew out of Cincinnati. However, a friend of mine drove from Columbus to the slightly more distant Detroit airport, and flew to Spain for a fraction of the cost. 

6. Use social networks

Although I wasn’t comfortable asking for monetary donations, I didn’t hesitate to ask my family and friends for support—and they came through in a big way. My German relatives offered a place to stay when I traveled, while my friends lent budgeting advice, adapters, and luggage scales. My roommates helped find someone to sublet my bedroom, and my parents assisted me with securing low-cost accommodations. 

It was a tremendous privilege to receive support from my loved ones, and it didn’t stop once I was abroad. My new friends were quick to share their own travel hacks, and we would save money together by cooking meals or finding free events to attend. Your social network can be an incredible financial resource; all you have to do is ask.

7. Enjoy your student status

In many destinations, students can benefit from substantial discounts. With countless student deals on train tickets, museum admission, movie showings, and hotel bookings, your status alone can keep entertainment costs low.

8. Become a local

It’s easy to add ambitious travel goals to your to-dos, but you don’t have to go far to find something inspiring. Consider taking a day-trip to a neighboring region, or ask local acquaintances about their favorite nearby getaways. By choosing to prioritize local experiences, you’re not only cutting travel costs, but you’re also appreciating every bit of beauty and fun your destination has to offer. 

9. Protect yourself

While imagining worst-case scenarios is never fun, it’s a necessary step in the planning process. If you get sick or injured abroad, your medical insurance from home probably won’t follow you, and if it does, your coverage may be severely limited. 

Rather than leaving your health up to chance—and potentially getting stuck with a mountain of medical bills—choose a solid travel insurance plan that’s well-aligned with your study abroad goals. Emergency medical evacuation coverage is especially valuable: in the event of a serious emergency, your insurer would arrange and pay for transportation to an appropriate medical facility, as well as any medically necessary transportation back home. 

When you weigh the costs of travel insurance against the countless expenses associated with a major emergency, opting for insurance is a no-brainer. The right insurance can save you thousands of dollars and bring peace of mind—so that the only risks you take while abroad are joyful ones. 

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