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Student Travel 101: How to travel on a student’s budget

If you’re like most college students I know, saying you’re broke is an understatement. But regardless of the debt you’ve incurred in pursuit of higher education, it’s a rite of passage to travel while you’re still in school, and not only because it’s educational. In addition to being fun, student travel can also be affordable if you know how to get the right deals.

As an undergraduate or graduate student, you’re eligible for money saving discounts throughout the year, and throughout the world. Here are my five best tips for getting a little extra oomph from your travel budget, regardless of whether it’s a trip home for Thanksgiving turkey … or a trip to Turkey for Thanksgiving.

Tip #1: Get your learn on

The first thing you should do is learn about all of the student-travel resources out there. Find out if your campus has any travel reps (sometimes airlines hire students to offer promotions on campus). Ask student services if there are any local discounts for students in your community. This can extend beyond travel, too. (I was able to score a free burrito at the Chipotle near campus with every $35 receipt from the bookstore, for example.) And last but certainly not least, familiarize yourself with last month’s column on the 10 best websites for student travelers. No matter what kind of traveler you are, there’s a way for you to save money.

Tip #2: Buy an international student identity card

This isn’t the same as your university issued I.D., although that can save you money as well. In Denver, for example, flashing my student I.D. gets me discounted admission to the movies and free rides on all public transportation. Be sure to inquire as to what yours will get you.

But by investing in an ISIC, Student Advantage, or ISE card you open up an entire world of discounts. The cards aren’t free, but with low prices (the ISIC card costs $22, Student Advantage $20, and ISE $25), they quickly pay for themselves with even casual use.

Each card has its own benefits. I’ve found the ISIC card best for international travel, as it seems to be the most universally recognized outside the U.S. For example, at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, only the ISIC card gets you in for free. Student Advantage seems best suited for domestic discounts on things like merchandise (think the big names like Urban Outfitters, Eastern Mountain Sports, Target, and, while ISE offers both domestic and international discounts, often times at smaller shops, hotels, and attractions—although some big names (like the Eiffel Tower) are listed as well.

You should read through the info for each card before deciding which is best for your needs.

Tip #3: Scope out student airfares

While not foolproof (sometimes you can find better sale prices directly with the airlines), booking air tickets through travel agencies that cater to students can often save you significant cash. This is especially true for international flights. Last winter I was able to get a flight from Denver to Kyiv, and then from Helsinki back to Denver, for under $1,000. Had I booked directly with United I would have paid almost $500 more.

Three of the best sites for scoring deals on airfare are Student Universe, STA Travel and Travel CUTS. Each has a particular way of doing things. Student Universe requires that you use a .edu email address (if you don’t have one, you can provide other information to validate your student status), while STA Travel and Travel CUTS both require valid ISIC cards to be eligible for discounted fares.

Tip #4: Start racking up the miles

Part of taking advantage of student airfare is earning frequent flyer miles. College is the perfect time to start collecting them, especially if you go to school far from home (think Junior Year Abroad) and fly several times a year.

If you’re able to pay a yearly fee (usually somewhere between $25 and $125), consider getting a mileage earning credit card. Be aware however, that many of these cards have a hefty APR. This is not the way to go if you’re unable to pay your bills in full each month.

Better yet is to simply pick an airline, register for its free frequent flyer program, and fly that airline as much as possible. Take advantage of online booking and check-in bonuses, and remember that even if you book your flight through one of the aforementioned student travel agencies, you can still get miles for that flight. The same goes if your parents book the flight for you. Simply present your membership number when you check in and you’ll earn the miles. If you forget, you can claim the miles after your flight on the airline’s website.

Airlines will sometimes even offer extra incentives for students. United, for example, will give 10,000 bonus miles to anyone who graduates from an accredited college or university.

Tip #5: Organize spring break

Lastly, if you’re thinking about going on spring break in 2008, consider organizing the trip. STS Travel and are two companies that offer incentives for trip organizers. If you organize trips for at least 15 people you’ll go free. But if you have a large group of friends, belong to a sorority or fraternity, or are a member of a club or team, getting a large group together is often quite easy. And with spring break trips costing upwards of $1,500 or more (for the best properties), it’s well worth the effort.

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