Running Out of CURRENCY: Living on the Cheap as a Student in Argentina

by Rebecca Murphy

Known as “notoriously expensive” compared to its neighboring countries, Argentina is actually a fairly affordable place to study abroad. While it is true that the cost of living here is usually higher than the other countries in South America (and there’s really no way you can study in Argentina for free), it is only expensive if you let it be. Students can – and should – take advantage of youth and student discounts and program-sponsored excursions. Running out of money while abroad should not be an issue, but all travelers know that sometimes you just can’t pass up that extra alfajor or third (or fourth…) glass of fernet.

Text:Tourists standing in metro.

Stay away from the tourist places.

As much as a student can budget while abroad, there are always the temptations of jetting off to an exotic island for a weekend with friends or splurging on a cafe con leche every day. So, it is not uncommon to hear about students who did not save enough before venturing abroad or who underestimated the importance of budgeting before starting their summer, semester, or year abroad, and are now running very low on dough. No matter your reason for scrimping and saving while abroad, there is a lot you can do to cut down your spending amount while studying in Argentina and stretch that peso as far as it will go.

Avoid tourist traps.

Staying away from the very commercialized and touristy regions will automatically make you spend less money, since there’s usually a pretty steep markup for tourists. Instead, go where the locals go and eat where the locals eat. As a general rule of thumb, walk at least two to three blocks away from the touristy areas to find less expensive restaurants, shops, and bars. You will always get a better cultural experience by avoiding tourist traps, too. Why spend $30 on a steak dinner in the main plaza when you can get a whole bottle of wine, a box of piping hot empanadas, and a bag of alfajores for half that price two blocks down the road?

Shop at markets and cook at home.

While the food in Argentina is seriously amazing and it will be hard to not eat delicious milanesa at every restaurant you pass, you will quickly go into debt if you don’t learn to cook at home. The many grocery stores and markets throughout Argentina make eating well very affordable, so be sure to take advantage of all the delicious, fresh food you can get for very little money. Be aware of markets that are clearly geared towards tourists versus locals, though. If the vendors at the market are selling more souvenirs than food and produce, it probably means the produce you find will be very marked up.

Piles of olives at the market.

Shop at the markets, then cook at home.

Utilize colectivos.

South America in general is a very bus-friendly region, with most areas offering a fairly wide public bus network. In metropolitan areas of Argentina, using colectivos (or city buses) to get around is the cheapest method of public transportation. Be forewarned: it will be daunting at first to try and figure out the bus routes and schedules (particularly in Buenos Aires - they have hundreds of routes), so be sure to pick up a copy of a city-wide transportation handbook such as the Guia T, which are sold at most kiosks, newsstands, and tourist shops. Seriously, buy one. Even the savviest travelers can easily end up on the wrong bus and find themselves in dangerous areas faster than you can say “más vino, por favor.”

There are some things to note about colectivo culture in Argentina before you venture on your first ride. You can only pay with coins (which are surprisingly hard to come by in many areas), so to avoid having to look through the cushions in your host mom’s couch for loose change, purchase a transportation card such as a SUBE at most post offices. Be sure to flag the bus down once you’re at the stop, as many buses use the same stops and the driver will not automatically assume you are getting on their bus. If a bus is packed, wait a few minutes for the next one. It will most likely be empty if the one before it is packed, which will make for a more comfortable ride and reduce the likelihood of someone trying to pick-pocket you.

Become familiar with many barrios.

If you’re studying in a metropolitan area like Buenos Aires, Córdoba, or Mendoza, get out there and explore other barrios, or boroughs. Most study abroad programs will place students in homestays or dorms that are in the more affluent neighborhoods, but this doesn’t mean that you should only stay in your borough because you know it’s safer.

Spend some time getting to know the local hot spots in other neighborhoods to save yourself tons of money and become more immersed in the culture. In Buenos Aires, cover charges to get into a bar in the posh barrio of Puerto Madero can run upwards of $30, whereas most of the surrounding areas have free (or much cheaper) entrance to bars and clubs and are no less safe or beautiful. The same thing goes for activities to do during the day - you can spend twice the amount doing something in the city center than you would in the outskirts, so do your research and get creative!

Colorful street corner and bench in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Get to know all of the barrios well.

Opt for free, real experiences.

Argentina is a huge country with miles and miles of free activities. Take a bus to the outskirts of Mendoza and hike Aconcagua, the highest peak outside of Asia, or hop on a regional train to escape the city heat of Buenos Aires and lounge on the delta shores of Tigre. Say it with me: Walking. Tours.

The same goes for activities to do in metropolitan areas. Instead of dropping $40 on tickets for a tango show, run a quick Google search to find the best milongas, or underground tango clubs, in your area and go experience real tango culture for yourself. Spending time doing what real Argentines do will majorly enhance your time abroad and save you a lot of money in the long run. Plus, you’ll learn how to tango, which means you’ll never have a hard time getting a date ever again. ¡GOL!

Bus it, don’t fly.

Overnight bus travel is one of the most popular ways to get around in South America, as it is cost-effective and you get to see much more of what you’re traveling through than if you were on a plane. Besides getting chauffeured around a country while you drink for 10 hours straight, there are two main reasons why students in Argentina in particular should take advantage of this option.

First, residents of Argentina get discounted fares for domestic flights due to government subsidies, meaning that airfare for foreigners can be very pricey (like twice the cost). Just to fly from Mendoza to Buenos Aires can set a student back $300, whereas an overnight bus ticket is usually around $50. You may have to do some creative scheduling to fit a 15 hour bus ride in, but the money you save (and friends you’ll make during your trip) will be well worth it.

In addition, something that many foreigners are not familiar with is having to pay an entrance fee (or reciprocity fee) when going to another country. If you hail from the U.S., Canada, or Australia, you will most likely have to fork over a good amount of cash at border control when flying into an international airport in South America (typically $70-140 USD). The countries and nationalities that this is specific to is constantly changing, so do your research when planning adventures. Usually the best way to avoid these steep fees is to avoid border control in general (no, this doesn’t mean sneak over illegally). Buses are hardly ever stopped when crossing into another country, so if you’re envisioning a cheap weekend trip to Paraguay, your best bet is probably to take a bus.

Public transportation down a busy street.

Use collectivos and public transportation instead of taxis.

Don’t use plastic.

No, this is not about reducing, reusing, and recycling (although yay for reusable bags!). Many stores in Argentina will tack on up to an extra 30% if you pay with a card to make up for the fees and taxes they will have to pay, so you usually save money by paying with cash. Not to mention the international fees that many banks put on cards when using them while traveling. You will save a lot of money if you just withdraw pesos from an ATM every other week or so and live off of these; you will pay less international and store fees, and if you only have a certain amount of cash to last you each week, you will probably spend less than if you know you can just swipe your card whenever.

These studying abroad in Argentina tips (no extra charge) just scratch the surface on ways to save money there, so don’t forget to utilize things like student discounts to museums and performances, and take advantage of all that your program has to offer (think local transportation discounts, cultural excursions included in program fees, etc.). If all else fails, do as the Argentines do and bust out some tango on any street corner to pick up a few extra pesos!