Just Go For It: A Guide to Budget Travel in Your 20s

Being on a college budget doesn’t mean you can’t stand at the base of a volcano in Iceland or soak in the warm Hungarian baths in Budapest or run your hand along the Berlin Wall in Germany.

Take your newfound sense of freedom (hey, you do your own laundry now and sort of manage to feed yourself) and your meager savings from your minimum wage part-time job, pack your bags and do something risky.

Education analyst Kacee Gore from Raleigh, North Carolina, and UNC-Chapel Hill junior Courtney Hoffmeister from Apex, North Carolina, both agree that traveling while you’re young is worth potentially draining your savings account.

Gore started traveling the world 10 years ago at age 20, and Hoffmeister took her first European trip this past summer.

“I have been growing a savings account since my freshman year of high school, and I essentially used this entire savings account to fund my trip,” said Hoffmeister.

Travel also gives you access to unique experiences that continue to give back even after you return home. You’ll forever have a better understanding of diversity, different cultures, how to remain calm and work through unforeseen issues (because these will happen on your trip) and the ability to adapt to whatever life hands you.

“Not only is travel incredibly enriching and eye-opening, it makes you more appealing to companies as you apply for jobs because they can see that you are able to plan, budget, execute and interact with diverse populations,” said Gore.

Check out these tips compiled by young budget travelers to find out how you can travel the world without breaking the bank. Because let’s be real—as college students, sometimes a cup of coffee feels like it can break the bank.


Travel Cheaply

 The most expensive part of traveling abroad is your round-trip ticket between the U.S. and your destination. However, it’s usually cheap and easy to travel between countries once you’re in Europe or Latin America, for example. So make the most of your time, and consider traveling between multiple countries on the same continent while on one trip.

“Once you buy the initial plane ticket, the hardest part is over, and the fun begins,” Gore said.

Fly cheap airlines. Maybe you lose a couple inches of legroom and don’t get a meal, but you’re still going to get where you want to go.

Don’t forget that trains are a thing. Europe is especially well known for its train routes. Compare plane and train ticket prices before settling on a mode of transportation to see which is a better deal. Train rides take longer but are often cheaper than flying.


Stay in Hostels

The perception is that hostels are like college dorms on steroids—filthy, loud and packed with drunken Millennials likely to steal your possessions while you snooze away on a dingy plastic mattress. And while sleeping in a shared hostel room isn’t the most idyllic place to lay your head, it’s worth the money you save.

Yes, hostels are often louder and much less private than hotels, but for the most part, you are just going to meet other travelers similar to yourself, looking for adventure and a good time.

You’ll likely find people who want to explore with you. Plus, most hostels organize optional events, like bar crawls and trivia nights, to connect fellow travelers.

“I switched my accommodations from hotels to hostels where I made friends from all over the world,” Gore said.

Hostels also give you a locker to store your belongings in, so they’re not just sitting around begging to be taken. If you’re smart and take care of your things, they’re going to be just fine.

They give you fresh sheets and towels when you arrive and are extremely accommodating. Forgot your razor? Need a recommendation about where to go out? Have a question about the culture? The staff are there to help and always seem excited to do so.

You can book a hostel room for somewhere between $10 and $30 a night. There are a variety of options on types of rooms with different numbers of beds, coed or single gender and pods or private cabins where you can close yourself in your bed—a cool concept as long as you’re not claustrophobic. The less picky you are, the cheaper your accommodations are going to be.

Hostels are also conveniently located. You would think that paying so little for accommodations would mean you would be stuck in an undesirable back alley on the outskirts of the city, but it’s quite the opposite. Hostels are always located in or extremely close to popular areas and public transportation.


 Take Public Transportation

 Taking public transportation will save you hundreds of dollars. In cities, it’s usually either free or just a few dollars for a day pass that can take you pretty much anywhere you want to go.

Public transportation makes it easy to get around the city or between towns. There are maps and schedules posted at every stop. Sometimes it takes a little trial and error to master a new system, but if you act like you know what you’re doing, you’ll blend right in until you figure it out.

Riding public transportation is no less safe than being anywhere else in the city, and you get to feel like a local for a bit, hopping on and off the metro or bus with everyone else.

In places where you have to travel longer distances, like Iceland for example, you can either pay $140 for an hour-long taxi ride from the airport to the capital city of Reykjavik, or you can pay $15 for a ride on a charter bus.

Not only do you feel like a BOSS when you conquer a new public transportation system, but you keep your bank account from bursting into flame.


Skip the Fine Dining

 Food is an easy way to spend a lot of money without even realizing it. Grocery shop and make your own meals to save some money. In most hostels, you have access to a kitchen 24/7.

“Cooking ramen helped when I started to get stressed about money,” joked 19-year-old Cassidy Alla, a sophomore at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Alla just took her first self-funded international trip this summer.

But this doesn’t mean you can never eat out. Find cheap, hole-in-the-wall places outside of tourist areas. This food is usually much better, cheaper and more authentic.

In Mexico, you can avoid overpriced Americanized tacos and instead get authentic tacos with fresh hand pressed tortillas, carne and raw onions. In Copenhagen, skip the cafes strategically placed in city squares and opt for a pølser, a traditional Danish hotdog, from one of the city’s many hotdog stands or a fresh salmon salad with avocado crème from the local outdoor market.

 The meals in tourist-popular restaurants are twice or three times as expensive as those you’ll get in an authentic restaurant and nowhere near as tasty.


 Skip the Tours

 By skipping costly tours and entrance fees, you can save in the triple digits.

Pay only to get into museums or exhibits you’re truly interested in, and even then, just purchase the cheapest package and show yourself around. And always ask about student discounts because they’re almost always available.

You can find free walking tours in most cities. Take advantage of those. Skipping out on these would be like skipping out on an event that advertises free pizza.

Finally, go see the Eiffel Tower or the Great Wall or the Coliseum but don’t pay to go inside or take a tour unless you are really passionate about a certain place. You’ll just end up being herded along with all the other tourists for a quick glance at something that’s just as impressive from the outside.

Plus, you’ll find some of the most breathtaking places and make some of the best memories when you break away from the groups of tourists and explore other areas. If there’s a certain area the locals tend to flock to (if you’re not sure, this is a great question for your hostel staff), check those out.

“I talk to locals to learn about places to go for deals and optimal experiences but also [about] how to avoid scams,” Gore said.


 Budget Budget Budget 

Budget every aspect of your trip before you hit the road and continue to closely monitor your budget as you travel.

“Figure out how much you need to spend daily, crunch the numbers based on your monthly paychecks and determine how much to set aside leading up to the trip,” Gore said.

And if you budget wisely, traveling isn’t all that much more expensive than everyday life at home.

 “Every time I was stressed about, for example, spending money on a plane ticket, I thought about what I’d be spending that money on at home—probably something dumb like clothes or Chipotle or a concert. It was so much more worth it to see the world a bit,” Alla said.

 You may also consider opening a travel rewards credit card. You could earn a free flight to anywhere in the world in just a few years, like Gore did.


“I know I feel much more confident in my abilities to navigate new places, deal with strangers who don’t speak my language and generally survive as an adult without the help of my parents,” Hoffmeister said.

The rewards you get from travel and from discovering your independence are things you’ll never regret. So go ahead, drain that savings account and trade it in for something that can’t be earned back.

“YOYO—you’re only young once,” Alla said, laughing. “Get outside your comfort zone and do something you typically wouldn’t. It was the best decision of my life.”

Okay, so seriously—go.