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Student travel 101: A freshman’s guide to getting away

It’s the start of your freshman year, and soon enough you’ll be in full college mode, meeting new friends, trying out new activities, and, occasionally, studying. The next four years of your life are going to be filled with lessons—but not all of them academic. One of the new responsibilities you’ll take on is planning your own travel, especially for trips back home during school breaks. Like most penny-pinching students, you’ll want to find the travel options that are convenient and take the smallest bite out of your wallet.

As a former student and student travel agent, I can attest that there’s a lot to learn. However, with a few quick lessons in budget travel basics, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a savvy student traveler.

Lesson one: Plan ahead

While advance planning is a foreign concept to many students, booking ahead for travel over busy break periods such as Thanksgiving and the December holidays can save you a bundle. You’ll likely pay the least for travel by booking before school starts. If you can, log on to your university’s website and get the holiday schedule early.

Lesson two: Get the proper ID

Your own university will issue you a student ID, but that’s not the card you’ll need if you want deep travel discounts. There are three major student discount cards: the International Student Identity Card (ISIC), the International Student Exchange Card (ISE), and the Student Advantage Card (SAC).

For an annual cost of about $20 to $25, these cards will provide you with a bevy of savings on bus, rail, and air tickets, and thousands of other travel discounts on hostels, attractions, and more. These cards also offer other special features, like basic travel insurance and reduced phone rates. The discounts offered by each card vary, but generally, the ISIC and ISE are the most valuable for international travel.

Lesson three: Take the bus

You may have thought your bussing days were over when you tossed your tassel from one side to the other at high school graduation, but those days are here to stay. Aside from driving or hitching a ride with your pals, there really is no cheaper way to travel than by coach. Plus, the location of bus terminals are oftentimes closer to inner-city transit systems than their rail and air counterparts, making it quicker and easier to get to your final destination once in town.

Three major bus lines including Trailways, Greyhound, and Peter Pan, plus a host of smaller bus companies, cover most transportation routes in the U.S. The “big three” buses offer discount fares ranging from $10 to $129 one-way, but you’ll need an ISIC, ISE, or SAC to get those deals—check the student section on each bus line’s website for details.

Extra credit: If you want the cheapest fares possible and have an adventurous spirit, consider taking a Chinatown bus between major U.S. cities (they go from Chinatown in one city to Chinatown in another city). For travel between cities such as New York and Boston or Los Angeles and San Francisco, fares can be as low as $20 round-trip. A word to the wise: While most of these carriers use clean, conventional buses, they’re not always dependable—expect departures and arrivals to fluctuate a bit. And, a ticket does not guarantee you a seat for any particular time slot, so arrive early.

Lesson four: Catch a ride on the train

For train travel in the U.S., the only way to go is Amtrak. Amtrak offers a 15-percent student discount on rail tickets, and you’ll need a Student Advantage Card to purchase the reduced fare. While often more expensive than bus travel (and sometimes air travel), rail travel comes with certain perks: You can bring more luggage, seats are roomier (and sleeper cars are available for long journeys), and you can walk around, even if only to the dining car for a snack.

You should try to book Amtrak fares well in advance for major holidays, but you can usually get walk-up fares for those spontaneous four-day weekend jaunts. You can buy a ticket via the Internet, which makes securing a reservation easy; just remember to stop by the handy kiosks at the rail station to pick up your ticket.

Lesson five: To “air” is human

For air travel, students can use regular fares or special student-discount tickets. Student tickets aren’t necessarily the cheapest option, as regular fares often cost less if you book them early. As a travel agent, there is nothing more frustrating than a last-minute passenger who still expects to pay bottom dollar for a flight they need tomorrow. Nine times out of 10, it’s the early booker who gets the cheap seat.

However, if you can’t plan ahead, be aware that cheap student-only fares with little or no advance-purchase requirements may be available. Most major airlines do not sell student tickets directly, so you’ll need to contact a student travel agency like STA, Student Universe, or Travel CUTS. An ISIC may be required to purchase discounted student fares from STA or Travel CUTS (StudentUniverse only requires that you be a full-time student), but the savings are worth it.

Another advantage to booking with a student travel agency is the flexibility of student tickets. You don’t need to worry too much about getting your travel dates absolutely perfect, because date changes are cheaper and easier to make for student fares than conventional fares. And, regular fares often require you to return within 30 days, but student tickets are usually good for much longer stays, sometimes up to a year. To optimize this flexibility, Andrea Piekarz, the vice president of market development at STA, recommends that students plan their travel in segments. For example, you could buy a round-trip ticket for departure when school starts and then return for Thanksgiving break, then book another round-trip for Thanksgiving to Christmas, and so on.

Extra credit: Don’t leave all your travel planning to the student agencies. Do your own online research first, as you can sometimes get better deals elsewhere, particularly for domestic travel. Start with a search of online airfare booking sites such as Hotwire, Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity. For an even quicker way to comparison shop, use SmarterTravel.com’s price-comparison tool which allows you to quickly compare fares on every major airline and airline booking site. Another smart move is to sign up for a couple of free travel newsletters from SmarterTravel, which will alert you to the latest airfare sales and student deals.

A final word of advice

While four years may seem like a long time, your college days won’t last forever. Make sure to capitalize on your student status as much as possible and take advantage of all those exclusive travel discounts. You’ll miss them sorely when you graduate. But, with enough practice now, you can learn to be a shoestring traveler for life, making the most out of every dollar and every trip.

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