Travelling on a medical student budget is tough. The workload doesn't leave a lot of spare time to hold down a part time job, and the small amount of time you do have is so valuable it's usually not worth the money to spend it working. Some students fall into the trap of blowing a significant portion of their loan money on travelling around the world. Dozens of my classmates went on medical missions, or visited two or more continents during the most expensive times of the year. Unsurprisingly, they were usually the ones who were complaining about running out of loan money every semester (not the position you want to be in).
While most medical students don't have lots of money lying around, the one thing we do have (at least for the first two years) is occasional blocks of time off. Looking back, it felt like I had 2+ weeks off every six months for the first two years. Throw in some long weekends, and you have quite a few opportunities to get out of Dodge.
The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.
- Saint Augustine
Trying to travel on a resident's budget is even more difficult, because you lack the flexibility in your schedule. We've found, however, that if you're willing to take your vacation time during an unpopular period (a.k.a. anytime not summer, Thanksgiving, or Christmas), you can usually get what you want. You probably still need to be frugal though, as the looming wall of loan repayment hangs over your shoulder.
Tips for travelling on a medical student or resident budget:
Travel during the off season
We get it: Hawaii during the summertime is the true definition of paradise. The weather is amazing, the water is warm, and everything is...packed… and expensive! Flights, hotels, and activities can all be marked up by over 100% during the peak months of the year! You can avoid the increased costs (and the crowds) by simply moving your trip by a few weeks. For example, we were able to fly to New Zealand during their Fall season for LESS THAN HALF of what it would cost during the Summer. Even better, we were able to last minute book campsites in a a few national parks that usually fill up to a year in advance!
Finding the perfect time to travel can be tricky. If you move your trip too much, you risk being caught in awful weather (Alaska in the wintertime anyone?). The key is to plan your trip to be just outside of the “peak” window. For us, that usually involves travelling in the late Spring or early Fall. We are still able to enjoy decent weather, and avoid the bulk of the crowd.
Eat at least one meal in a day (preferably two!)
For many destinations, especially in Europe and other Western countries, a big part of your travel budget can get eaten up (pun intended) by food. Eating out every meal can really add up, and it is often difficult to prepare anything in your hotel room. We avoided the tummy toll by trying to prepare and eat at least one meal a day. We’ve found that breakfast is usually the easiest way to accomplish this. A few pieces of fruit and a yogurt and you’re on your way! Instant oats are also a very quick and easy way to fuel up before a big day of exploration. Give it a try the next time you’re abroad and see how much you can save.
Another trick we have is to be voracious snackers. Packing three or four granola bars or little bags of trail mix can easily take the place of a quick lunch stop at a restaurant. Apples and carrots also make good healthy trail snacks for when you’re on the go. Once you get into the habit of brining a little nutrition with you, you’d be surprised how much money you can save.
Track your flights
We’ve all heard the secrets that people have about saving money on flights: Buy your tickets on Tuesday’s… Always buy them 5 weeks out from the date you want to fly… Clear your cookies when before you look at flights etc etc… But really, we don’t have time to search through dozens of travel sites or the patience to click my heels three times before checking prices. Instead, we use apps to track the prices of flights.
I promise that we don’t have any vested interest in any app or service, but in the past the Hopper App has worked well. You simply put in what dates and airports you want to fly into/out of and it alerts you when the flight is the cheapest. We have easily saved hundreds of dollars by doing this, and are almost always tracking a flight just in case we get the travel itch.
Rack up the miles!
Milage credit cards are nothing new. There are tons of different airline cards, and even a few general travel cards. The bottom line is that if you want to budget travel frequently, than these cards are a must.
There are so many blogs out there that will cover the mileage/point offers better than we could ever do, so instead of re-writing their content, I will just link it here:
r/churning - a subreddit all about maximizing creditcard rewards
The Points Guy - basically a blog all about racking up points
Be flexible about lodging
On our most recent trip, we slept in a variety of different places: a few nights in hotels, some AirBnB’s, a motel or two, a hostel, and even a few nights camping. By being flexible with how nice our accomodations would be, we were able to stay exactly where we wanted and still stay within our budget.
Surprisingly, AirBnB was rarely one of the cheaper ways to travel. The genie may have been let out of the bottle, and it seems like many of the rooms are very similarly priced to small hotels. Even though it can be fun to meet the hosts, there is something wrong about sleeping in a spare bedroom for the same price as a local hilton room.
In our experience, it’s all about flexibility. Be willing to stay in the hostel if it gets you in the middle of the action. We try to spend very little time in the room other than sleeping, so if the location
Not every vacation needs to be intercontinental. Some of our favorite trips have been close to home, and these excursions tend to be super cheap. We have been able to get roud-trip bus tickets from NYC to DC for less than $20, which allowed us to have a spontaneous weekend trip on a tight budget. Camping is also an low-cost option if you have the gear. We take several trips a year for only the cost of gas and food!
Often times, travelling only a few hundred miles away can feel like a whole new world. We found this to be especially true when we went from NYC to our favorite camping spots. Just get out there! Most of us never really explore our location, and every state has exciting things to do.
The best activities are usually free (or cheap)
About the only thing most guided or organized activities offer you is convenience. My favorite example is snorkeling in Hawaii. We went on a guided snorkeling trip, which basically became an overly crowded section of water where dozens of tourists were fighting to get close to the same area. Luckily, later in the trip we were able to rent snorkels and fins from our hotel, and explore a section of reef just off of a beach that required hiking to get to. Significantly less crowded, and it even had more sealife to boot!
Take some time to do a little research, and you’ll find that you can do almost any activity (except maybe skydiving) without the guide for half the price, and no crowds.
What are your travel tips on a budget? Let us know in the comments!