My family immigrated from Ukraine in the early 90s, so I’ve never been a stranger to traveling abroad. We would go back to visit every once in a while, and my parents were good about taking me to other European countries along the way. In college, I interned in London during the summer between my sophomore and junior year.
But while I appreciated those experiences, I always wanted to travel abroad my way – going to bars at night, sleeping in the next day and skipping the museums my parents always dragged me to. So as graduation loomed, I started planning a post-grad trip with my then-boyfriend (now husband).
I learned so much about traveling on that trip, mostly by making mistakes and dealing with the consequences. That’s the best part about traveling in your early 20s – you’re more open to new experiences, both good and bad. It was, quite honestly, one of the best weeks of my life.
But as much fun as it was to fly by the seat of my pants, there are some things I wish I had known.
Create a Budget
When I first decided to go abroad after college, I immediately started creating a budget for my trip. Here are some categories I included:
- Accommodations (Hotel/Hostel/Airbnb)
- Cab rides and public transportation
- Gifts for friends and family
When I travel, I use sites like BudgetYourTrip and various Reddit forums to estimate how much I need to budget. It’s also good to add a 10% buffer to each line item in case you end up spending more. It’s easy to create a budget through your Mint app, which you can check abroad when you have access to data or WiFi.
As tempting as it might be, don’t underestimate expenses when making a travel budget. When I went to Israel in my early 20s, I created a strict budget with few allowances for anything extra. I still remember turning down a $5 ice cream sundae because I hadn’t budgeted for desserts.
Indulgence is a big part of any vacation, so don’t make the mistake of being too frugal. Allow yourself some wiggle room to splurge on what matters to you, whether it’s shopping at local flea markets or taste testing every kind of street food.
It’s also wise to set aside $100 or more for travel emergencies. When my husband and I flew to Spain, the airline lost his luggage. We had to spend the next day shopping for clothes and toiletries, spending at least $100 just so he could brush his teeth and change out of his dirty outfit.
Find Low-Cost Destinations
If you’re a broke college kid, it’s probably best to steer clear of expensive countries like Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland. Your dollar won’t stretch as far, so you’ll have to live like a monk just to afford food and lodging.
- Instead, check out these affordable countries:
- Czech Republic
Visiting cheaper destinations doesn’t mean sacrificing entertainment or culture. It means you’ll have more money to spend on local cuisine, museum admission and fun presents. My husband and I went to Croatia on our honeymoon, which has a similar climate and food culture to Italy for half the cost. We ate delicious three-course meals for $25 each and drank $5 bottles of wine.
Create an Itinerary
Making an itinerary is probably the hardest part of planning a trip. Where should you go first? How many cities should you try to cram in? How exactly will you get from one place to another?
When I went abroad after graduation, I visited Amsterdam, Bruges, Vienna and Prague. I flew into Amsterdam and out of Prague, finding affordable flights for each. Bookend your trips with major cities that have good airports and save the smaller towns for the middle of the trip. You’ll pay less if you fly out of London instead of Liverpool, for instance.
It also helps to visit cities that are relatively close to each other. You’ll spend less time on trains and more time sightseeing.
Apply for a Credit Card
I knew after years of traveling abroad with my parents how to spot a pickpocket, how to avoid getting upsold and how to avoid long lines in museums. What I wasn’t prepared for were foreign transaction fees.
During my post-grad trip, I was traveling with a debit card that charged a 3% foreign transaction fee. Every time I bought something, I paid an extra 3% fee on top of it. I also paid a 3% fee when I withdrew cash from the ATM. I was completely unaware until I checked my bank account late in the trip.
I accepted the fees as normal, but I later learned that many credit cards don’t charge foreign transaction fees. I probably spent about $100 in fees, which was a lot of money to a 22 year-old with no job lined up after graduation.
If you’re traveling abroad, use a credit card with 0% foreign transaction fees to make your purchases. You’ll save money and get access to other perks, like fraud protection in case your card is stolen.
If you don’t qualify for a credit card on your own, ask your parents if they can add you as an authorized user on one of their cards. This will require a simple online application, and the card will usually take a few weeks to arrive in the mail.
Use Your Student ID
Even if you’ve already graduated, you probably still have your college ID. Use that to get discounted admission at museums, galleries, and other venues as well as cheaper prices for public transportation and trains. Anytime you buy something abroad, ask if there’s a youth or student discount.
Don’t fall for sites like ISIC or STA Travel that say you need to buy an “official” student card to get discounts in foreign countries. Your college ID and passport should work just fine. Some places provide a youth discount until you turn 26, so keep this in mind if you’re a few years out of college.
Zina Kumok is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance. A former reporter, she has covered murder trials, the Final Four and everything in between. She has been featured in Lifehacker, DailyWorth and Time. Read about how she paid off $28,000 worth of student loans in three years at Debt Free After Three.