One of my biggest pet peeves lately is when people tell me I must be rich because I travel a lot, or make comments like “it must be nice that your parents pay for your trips”. Firstly, nobody else has ever paid a dime for my traveling aside from myself, and secondly, I am not rich, I’m a college student. It is fully possible to travel smart, on a budget, and debt free, it just takes a little extra planning. Last summer, my two best friends and I road tripped from Texas to Southern California, and this upcoming summer, I’ll be touring through Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, and Utah. So how are we able to afford such trips on a student’s salary? Here are a few tips.
Be Geographic – One way that I am able to see so many places in a short amount of time is because I always plan to see multiple states along the way. For example, the road trip that the girls and I took this past summer consisted of five new states because we were smart about the route we were taking. Instead of just flying out to California, we started in Texas and drove the remainder of the way, which allowed us to see the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and a ton of secret gems (like Cadillac Ranch and Hope Outdoor Gallery). At the same time, we decided not to drive from the east coast to the west coast because that would have gotten pricey, so we compromised on half way. Even when I visited Boston, I just changed my route by an hour and was able to stop for lunch in Rhode Island. This summer, my adventure is taking me to five (possibly six) more new states, simply because I am geographic in my planning. If you’re already going to be in Colorado, why not see Wyoming while you’re there, right?
Do Your Research – This takes time, but that’s all a part of the fun! Map out multiple different routes. Research all of the famous and off-the-beaten-path attractions that you want to see. Roadtrippers is an awesome website and phone app that lets you add your start and end points and everything in between. I also faithfully use Pinterest when planning my trips. Just search the city you’ll be in and you’ll find what there is to see, do, and eat there. Usually, you’ll also find tips and tricks from the locals or others who’ve traveled, which are always helpful to read and consider. Plus, there are always a ton of free things to see and do in each city! In my opinion, Pinterest is the best travel agent you could use.
Make a Plan – After you’ve done your research and narrowed down where you’re going and what you’re going to see, turn that into a plan. Write it all out, draw maps, add pictures. Whatever it is you need to do to have a solid itinerary. For our road trip, we listed each city we wanted to see and how long it would take to drive from one to the other, then we picked stopping points for meals and breaks. We even had a schedule including what time we would need to leave the hotels in the morning to make it to the next city before dark. (Tip: make sure you factor in time zones!) We also listed our must-see sights and our “it would be cool if we saw it but it isn’t a dire necessity” sights. Call us crazy, but we even made a food passport with multiple different food options for lunch and dinner in each place. Doing this kind of research before you go is super helpful when you’re all hungry and tired and can’t cooperate long enough to figure out where to stop; it’s already right there in your food passport! Also, if any of your activities require tickets, purchase them and print them out ahead of time, that way you know how much you’ve spent and don’t have to worry about it once you’re there. We saw a rodeo in Dallas and even saved a couple of bucks from buying in advance.
Budget – Once you figure out where you’re going, budget out transportation and hotels. This was pretty simple for us because we knew we would need six nights total in hotels so we gave ourselves a maximum of $100/night on a room. This would total out to $600 total, split three ways, so we’d each only pay $200/person. That was our budget. In reality, we only spend $480 on hotels, costing each of us only $160. As for flights to Texas and home from California, we found the cheapest airline and made sure we bought at the prime time. Many sources say that the Tuesday six weeks before your flight is when tickets are cheapest. Take that as you will, but we bought our flights for less than $500 total. In addition, we were smart about our rental car. We ended up having two separate cars from two separate companies because it was the cheapest way to go. Also, keep in mind that you save by picking up and dropping off at airports instead of neighborhood locations.
Ways to budget even better:
All in all, road trips are the best way to see the most. They may be a lot of work to plan, but I promise it’s worth it. Overall, for two rental cars, six hotels, two flights, gas money, excursions (Disney Land, rodeo, snorkeling, etc.), food, and miscellaneous spending money, each of us spent less than $1500 on our two-week trip. If you’re able to charge most of those expenses on a credit card, then it’s much more manageable. I’d also recommend a travel rewards credit card, because at the same time you’re earning points for your next trips (I already have enough for another flight!).
If you’re passionate about travel and seeing new places, then you’re smart in how you go about doing so. Just because you are a full-time college student in your 20s working a part-time job, doesn’t mean you have to spend your summers at home. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
After this summer, I’ll be halfway through the 50 states. Happy Traveling!
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