7 Ways to Study Abroad for Cheap

by Ashley Houston

When it comes to studying abroad, you should be worrying about how to squeeze all that awesomeness into one semester, not about how to pay for it. Since studying abroad for free isn’t realistic (unless you have a full scholarship), we’ve compiled seven ways to study abroad for cheap. After all, not all the best things in life are free.

Study abroad students in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

IES Abroad students studying abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

1. Browse through scholarships and financial aid options.

There are a ton of study abroad scholarships out there. Some are specific to a location, field of study, or international program provider. You won’t get any money for your study abroad experience unless you apply, so don’t be too shy to fill out an application! There are a variety of scholarship databases and directories out there that can help you narrow down your search and select funding option that you are eligible for.

But before you start a broad search for study abroad scholarships, don’t forget to ask your university or academic institution at home about your eligibility for financial aid that can be applied toward a study abroad program (yes, it actually exists!). Also, once you select the study abroad program of your dreams, be sure to ask if they offer any type of scholarship opportunities for program participants; many third party program providers (like IES Abroad) offer scholarships of their own for eligible participants.

Want more? Check out these ideas for how to pay for study abroad, including scholarships, fundraising tips, grants, and more.

2. Find an affordable program.

Inside view of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy

IES Abroad student studying abroad in Rome, Italy

Your college or university might offer its own study abroad programs or provide direct exchange opportunities abroad where you only have to pay your home school tuition to take courses overseas. You can also look into more cost effective study abroad programs, such as those in what are considered cheap study abroad destinations; there are plenty of them out there. Keep in mind that some of the more affordable programs may entail studying abroad for a shorter period of time, like a J-term, May-term, or even over the summer.

3. Pay attention to what’s included in your program.

Some third party study abroad program providers are more inclusive than others. Always check to see what’s included in the program costs and what extra costs there may be, so you can compare programs equally. A program fee that only includes tuition may seem like the best way to study abroad cheaply, when in reality a slightly more expensive study abroad program may provide housing, meals, health insurance, and field trips, that add up to less than you would pay for those items a la carte with the cheaper program.

4. Prep before you go.

Pile of pesos coins

Handful of pesos

Call your bank to let them know that you’re heading abroad and when. While you’re on the phone, check to make sure your credit card won’t charge you international fees. If they do, consider a card with no fees for your time overseas. Also, think about limiting the amount of cash you plan to bring with you. This will help to curb spending and force you to budget for the activities you really want to do.

Also, pack smart; be mindful about what you bring so you don’t have to buy any clothes while abroad. Layers are always a great bet and are extremely versatile for traveling across a few different climates.

5. Travel smart. 

Keep your eye out for discounts on airfare to get cheap flights to your study abroad destination. You can set up alerts on sites like Airfarewatchdog or Skyscanner. Tuesdays around 3 p.m. EST are known as the optimal day and time to purchase flights, and doing so 50 to 100 days before your departure is best.

View from an airplane window

Look for airfare discounts when planning weekend travel.

Helpful hint: clear your web browser’s cache before searching so you can get the lowest rates.

Want to fit in as much as you can while abroad? Plan travel before and after your study abroad experience. This saves on costly flights back to a destination, and may even enable to you to stay with new friends once your program is over.

Another cheap study abroad travel option is exploring your host city. Instead of spending money on planes or trains each weekend you’re abroad, stay local and explore the intricacies of the city you’re in. If you’re in a small town, consider taking day trips instead of weekend trips as costs for lodging are typically cheaper during the week.

6. Live like a local. 

Exchange students sitting at her host family's dinner table

IES Abroad student sitting at her host family’s dinner table

As a study abroad student, don’t spend money like a tourist dining out on the town each night. Shop at a local market and cook cuisine at home, or ask a local student where to dine out for cheap. This can help you meet people, learn new recipes, and explore areas of town you might not venture to otherwise.

For the most part, public transportation is the cheapest way to travel while studying abroad. Learn the local system and you’ll usually save money. This varies in some countries, but walking is always free! In general, use your best judgment, and go with a safe transportation option.

7. Use your student discount.

Students visiting an art museum

IES Abroad students visit art museum

Most study abroad students are required to purchase an International Student Identity Card (ISIC), or it may be included in program fees. These ISIC cards provide student discounts on transportation, museums, hostels, books, etc. in 130+ countries. Also, don’t be afraid to ask local students where they hang out or what kind of deals do they take advantage of as students.

The cheapest way to travel may not be on a study abroad program, but by using the tips above you may find your study abroad experience to be A LOT cheaper than if you don’t. In the end, study abroad is worth the cost.

This article was contributed by IES Abroad, the leading not-for-profit study abroad organization. An academic consortium made up of more than 230 prestigious U.S. college and university affiliates, IES Abroad offers U.S. college students more than 120 study abroad programs to choose from in 30+ international locations.