How to Find Cheap Travel

Student travel has come a long way in the past few decades. It is no longer considered a rarity. Gap years, student electives abroad and cheap summer holidays in distant places, have become part of the generally life-enriching experience that is now considered synonymous with the student status. (Frost F et al., 1999)

The current financial climate, with many students having to rely on student loans, parental support, holiday jobs or personal savings for their financial fluidity, largely dictates and limits just what can be achieved in this regard and there are a number of ploys and strategies that are commonly used to make the money go further or, to look at it another way, to allow the same money let the student go further! (Reisinger Y et al., 2004)

We can start by taking an overview of the situation and dividing up the travel costs into those that are necessary to arrive at a destination and those that are necessarily incurred to move around once the student has arrived.

Generally speaking, the preferred way to travel is by flying. It is often the quickest way to travel long distances and in these days of competitive pricing strategies, many of the no-frills and budget airlines are offering very cheap flights across mainland Europe. The unwary student should note that the eye-catching prices quoted are invariably exclusive of taxes and fuel surcharges which can add between £30-£200 onto the quoted cost (depending on destination and distance).

As a general rule, the cheaper the flight, the greater the sacrifice of both flexibility and conditions. A flight that arrives or leaves in the early hours of the morning, does not supply food, has minimal in-flight entertainment and a strict baggage allowance, is clearly going to cost less than one that has additional amenities. A word of caution also for these flights as there are generally strict terms and conditions, limited changeability and minimal prospect of refund if there’s a problem.

Cheap flights are at the other end of the spectrum from cheap holidays. With holidays the greatest savings are made by those who are willing to book at the last minute. With flights, the converse is true. As flights get booked up, the prices tend to rise. (Bernstein J et al., 1999)

Two of the most commonly used mechanisms for obtaining cheap flights are flight-brokers and screen scrapers. The flight brokers make their money by selling you a flight that gives them a commission. There is therefore a balance between the amount of commission that an airline pays them to fill their seats and the requirements of the student. The screen scrapers are web-based tools such as TravelSupermarket, TravelJungle, and SkyScanner. You effectively enter your requirements and these sites send the details to dozens of airlines (and some brokers) and display their findings with the cheapest first. (Sheth A et al., 2002)

There are variations on this process with sites like Expedia and Travelocity specialising in long-haul flights and Expedia and Opodo allowing flights to one airport then leaving from another. Flights Direct will specifically examine the charter market for occasional bargains.

If you intend to fly on certain dates a few months in the future, it is well worth signing up to the e-mail lists of the appropriate airlines. They will send out details of short-term sales so that you can snap them up at the right moment if they come up. British Airways, Opodo, American Airlines and KLM are particularly good for this type of approach.

Once at the destination, the student has to consider the best way of travelling around. Rather like the airlines, one pays for convenience, accessibility and comfort – the cheapest forms of travel generally being the slowest and least luxurious. It is clearly impossible to generalise throughout the world, but hitch-hiking, which might have once been considered the cheapest way to travel, has a distinct risk element of personal safety and clearly is inappropriate for the lone female traveller. Many of the commercially available insurance policies specifically forbid such practices. (Cullinane S, 2002)

Public transport is often the most reliable of the cheaper options. Either the local busses, the long-haul coaches or the train services being generally safe and reliable. Many of the more developed countries offer student travel cards (or a variant) to reduce the costs of repeated journeys and some bus companies (Australia travel being a notable example) will sell an open ticket between two specified destinations which can be used with different segments of the journey being undertaken over a period of several weeks.

There are other considerations relating to travel such as how best to deal with money. The time-honoured way of carrying travellers cheques may no longer be popular, with many students electing for the convenience of “plastic” money and credit cards. One should note that Mastercard will generally convert foreign exchange transactions at about the best commercially available rate, but will then add about 2.75%. This does vary between cards and therefore should be individually checked. Overseas cash withdrawals are also usually subject to a 2% additional fee (minimum charge £2) on both credit and debit cards. In addition to all of this, some credit card companies will also add a transaction fee on foreign transactions. (Halifax is currently the worst, levying £1.75 on each transaction.) For the student, the Post Office or Nationwide credit cards appear to be the best option. They have no levy on overseas purchases but they do charge interest on all cash withdrawals.

As with all travel, insurance is not essential, but only the most foolhardy student would travel without it. The annual multi-trip insurance is seldom competitive except for the USA where it may work out cheaper than individual trip cover (mainly because of the medical expense element applicable to the USA). Most will require you to be staying at pre-booked venues which may not be appropriate for the student traveller.

Decide what cover you need, what excess you need (the first part of each claim that you have to pay yourself) and then shop around. The classic insurance selling line is “why not upgrade to our platinum policy, with £30 million worth of medical cover etc.” In real terms, the chances of you ever needing more than £2 million of medical cover or repatriation to the UK is virtually negligible and therefore perhaps best avoided. A good plan is to include a personal liability cover of £1 million and also cover for “cancellations and curtailments” together with cover for lost or delayed baggage and cash.

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