4 ways I save money on travel as a college student: Award travel on a budget


They say cash is king — but that’s only if you have cash to spend. For most college students, extra dollars are hard to come by, so to put it simply, my travel budget is quite small.

You could just call it budget travel to the extreme, but I prefer to call it the life of a college student. I rarely get the best redemptions but that doesn’t mean I don’t try (nor does it mean I stay at hostels). Instead, it means that I avoid spending cash at all costs.

Here are some of my favorite tricks to keep your cash spending to the absolute minimum.

Avoid fuel surcharges

The arch nemesis of a college student, fuel surcharges are a relevant issue to all award travel enthusiasts.

They can often accompany award tickets, tacking on hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in addition to miles redeemed. I will avoid paying surcharges at all costs.


In many cases, this has led to paying more miles instead of surcharges. This happened recently while planning the flights home from a weekend trip to Santorini, Greece, in the spring.

On the dates I wanted to fly, there was very little availability from Athens to New York City, leaving me with two realistic options if I wanted to fly in business class. The first was with Air-France-KLM Flying Blue:


and the second was with Avianca LifeMiles:


While I would have loved to spend the morning in Athens, I just couldn’t justify 6,500 miles for a $270 difference in price. It also meant that I had to take three flights instead of just two, but for three weeks’ worth of groceries, I couldn’t find a way to justify the cost.

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Avoiding surcharges is tough for even the most seasoned award travelers — sometimes it’s impossible. There is, however, a list of airlines that generally don’t impose fuel charges on any awards, including flights on their own planes and those operated by partners.

Other frequent flyer programs pass on some surcharges for some airlines, while some waive the full charges for all flights. Here’s a short list of my go-to frequent flyer programs to avoid hefty charges, and a few that you might want to avoid:

No fuel surcharges on award tickets

  • Air Canada Aeroplan.
  • Avianca LifeMiles.
  • Free Spirit.
  • JetBlue TrueBlue.
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards.
  • United MileagePlus.

Some fuel surcharges on award tickets

  • Air France-KLM Flying Blue.
  • Alaska Mileage Plan.
  • American AAdvantage.
  • ANA Mileage Club.
  • British Airways Executive Club.
  • Delta SkyMiles.
  • Singapore KrisFlyer.
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club.

This is not a comprehensive list — just some of the frequent flyer programs I check first when booking a trip. Bookmark this list and refer to it when facing multiple award flight options.

Related: Fly business class to Europe with no fuel surcharges

Fly into a downtown airport

This one is probably less talked about than other budget travel hacks but can save you quite a bit of cash if you are willing to do some research. Some cities have smaller airports that are located closer to the city. This may require more miles, or even an extra layover, but can save you time and ground transportation costs.


When thinking of regional airports close to cities, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) comes to mind first. While you could take the Silver Line (or a $50-plus Uber) to Dulles International Airport (IAD), you might prefer to fly out of Reagan, paying $2.50 for a Metro ride that takes well less than an hour.

Washington is not the only city with an airport close to the metropolitan center. Here is a short list of cities with regional airports that may offer cheaper alternatives than bigger international airports:

City Secondary airport
Chicago. Midway International Airport (MDW).
Dallas. Dallas Love Field (DAL).
New York. LaGuardia Airport (LGA).
Washington D.C. Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA).
Seoul, South Korea. Gimpo International Airport (GMP).
London, United Kingdom. London City Airport (LCY).
Paris, France. Paris-Orly Airport (ORY).
Taipei, Taiwan. Taipei Songshan Airport (TSA).

Sometimes, saving time in traffic from large airports — especially in places like London and New York, where traffic can be abysmal — makes flying into a smaller airport worth the extra connection.

Related: 10 US airports with great public transportation options

Book through credit card travel portals

Every frequent flyer has gone through it at some point: No matter how much searching you do, there are simply no award flights available for the route you need to fly.

You might often run into this problem when booking last-minute trips or when booking positioning flights for longer trips. Thankfully, credit card travel portals let you book these flights with points, even if it’s not the best deal.


For example, shelling out 30,000 points through Amex Travel for a positioning flight that costs $300 is painful. But again, that’s three weeks of groceries that I am saving by dishing out those 30,000 points.


This is also a good way to save on hotels. When making plans for next year, I stumbled upon the beautiful Four Seasons Resort Seychelles at Desroches Island. I knew right away that there was no way that I could afford a price tag near $1,000 per night.

However, I have a hefty amount of American Express Membership Rewards points at my disposal from business expenses; I realized I could book three nights for roughly 85,000 points per night.


Both of these redemptions give me half of TPG’s valuation of Amex Membership Rewards at 2 cents apiece. But in the case of the Four Seasons, I get to enjoy three nights in luxury without spending my entire travel budget for the year.

While it is not even close to a good redemption, it’s the sacrifice I make being a college student. I rarely get the best use out of my points, and that is perfectly fine by me.

Related: Battle of the credit card travel portals: What’s the best for booking flights?

Make sure my hotel offers breakfast

There are several ways to save on breakfast at hotel chains. Some chains offer free breakfast through status and others offer all guests complimentary breakfast. If you’re looking for a good resource, TPG has covered all the ways to get free breakfast at hotels.


As a top-tier Marriott Bonvoy Ambassador Elite member, I receive complimentary breakfast at nearly every Marriott brand except Ritz-Carlton.


As a college swimmer, I can inhale a $30 airport breakfast and still be hungry. Doing some quick math, I have stayed 78 nights at Marriott properties this year. If I were to place a conservative estimate, $15 per meal x 78 nights = $1,170 in savings. That’s about a third of my travel budget each year that I save just on complimentary breakfasts.


This often means I don’t get the best redemption at a hotel. When traveling for my photography business, I often choose a less “flashy” option that includes breakfast to save on out-of-pocket expenses, even if I get hotel reimbursement.

Related: How to get some of the world’s most expensive hotel buffet breakfasts for free

Bottom line

Being a college student means I will rarely get the best redemptions when booking award travel, and that is perfectly OK by me. That doesn’t mean I don’t do my best to maximize points, it just means I do everything I can to avoid spending money.

Even if you’re not a budget traveler, there are still many ways you can reduce your out-of-pocket cash expenses when redeeming your miles. Whether it’s flying out of an alternate airport or eating free breakfast, cutting these little expenses can lead to big savings over time.


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