How I Traveled to 36 Countries on a Student Budget | health blog

How I Traveled to 36 Countries on a Student Budget

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I never knew I wanted to travel or needed to travel as much as I do now. All throughout high school and the beginning of college, I felt like something was missing. I wasn’t being challenged the way I wanted to…sure, chemistry and evolutionary biology were difficult courses but I felt like something was missing in my life.

So, the summer after Freshman year, I decided that I wanted to be an au pair in Madrid, Spain. A few months prior, I had visited my best friend during her gap year where she was an au pair in Belgium. Having seen the experiences, freedom, and stories she had to share, I knew I wanted to feel the same way.

I spent my summer living in Madrid and caring for 3 children under the age of 6. That summer taught me more than my year in college. 

I wish I could put the feelings into words to describe what that summer meant for me. I found the experience to be liberating, educational, and a breath of fresh air. This adventure was only the start and led to so many others…

To inspire you to take the leap, here are several ways I traveled around the world as a student.

Nabila Ismail poses in the middle of a cobbled street lined with colorful buildings
Image courtesy Nabila Ismail

1. Au Pair

I was an au pair twice. After Spain, I went on to be an au pair in wine country outside of Verona, Italy, for another 3 months before the start of pharmacy school. 

Being an au pair awards you free housing, food, and a small stipend in exchange for caring for children and teaching them your language. It means even exchange, so it’s meant to be an exchange of culture and experiences. 

You can choose to go through an agency where you will have to pay a hefty fee, but it may be worth it. I chose not to and took the risk! I loved both of my experiences but it may not be for everyone. 

Being an au pair is a great way to get a better understanding of culture and have an authentic experience. It’s also really easy to meet other au pairs and become friends with them.

Nabila Ismail of Dose of Travel stands with her back to the camera facing a historic building in Mexico City
Working remotely from Mexico City allows me to get my work done during the day and explore after hours! | Image courtesy Nabila Ismail

2. Work-Exchange

I swear by workaway.info. It’s one of my favorite websites and I’ve used it several times. A common way to travel on a budget as a student (or otherwise!) is by working in exchange for a place to stay. 

I worked at a hostel in Cape Town for 6 weeks as a receptionist and social media manager. It was such an easy job and I got to meet so many people from around the world. I also got to participate in tours for free, get discounts on drinks from the bar, and had the best co-workers. 

I stayed in a 3-person dorm room with my co-workers and only had to work 3 days a week for 6 hours. While dorms aren’t always expensive, the experience is sometimes worth it alone. 

I did this again in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Hotels and hostels are SO expensive during Mardi Gras (as you’d expect). I spent 3 weeks working at a hostel and got to experience the celebration, like no other. 

For this opportunity, I simply emailed the hostel and said I was interested in working in exchange for a place to stay. I listed my hostel experience and mentioned that I could also do their social media management.

3. Scholarships

Scholarships are self-explanatory, but don’t pass up free money! There are so many opportunities out there, including scholarships at school like for study abroad, hackathons, and research. 

Some schools offer travel grants for rotations if you’re on the health track like I was in pharmacy. Most schools have an Office for Scholarships and Fellowships, an Office of Study Abroad, and Career Services. 

There are advisors in these offices who can guide you to find scholarships you’re eligible for. Some notable ones are Fulbright, Boren, and Critical Language Scholarship. They can even introduce you to programs like Peace Corps, Teach for America, or AmeriCorp to name a few.

Outside of university, there are several companies and brands giving away money to encourage you to study abroad or travel. Check out your favorite travel brands or companies. 

4. Jobs/Internships Abroad

Nabila Ismail sits facing the bright morning sun with a cup of coffee in hand
Waking up in Taxco, Mexico with a cup of coffee and a view like this is the best way to wake up! | Image courtesy Nabila Ismail

If you’re a college student looking for that summer internship to build your resume, why not do it abroad? Many US companies have offices around the world and having international experience could help you to stand out even more. 

The career services office at my school actually had a job portal that they paid for solely for international jobs and internships. It was such a useful tool and you could find reputable and legitimate job opportunities that clearly laid out requirements and expectations. 

You can also choose to apply to whatever job or internship is of interest and see if they have offices globally.

There are several programs that you can pay to find you an internship abroad but I’ve never done that so I can’t recommend anything there.

5. Research Grant

As a pharmacy student, I took a big liking to public and global health, which came in handy because there was potential for travel. 

I joined a hackathon at school and, luckily, my team won! I stayed working on that project and had the opportunity to go to Uganda to test out one of my ideas. That allowed me to spend 2 weeks during my spring break as a pharmacy student working on something really important to me and it was FREE. 

There are so many ways to combine what you love to do with travel…and to get it paid for, too!

Nabila Ismail sits amidst a plush outdoor patio with a bright mural on the pink wall behind her
One of my favorite hostel chains is Selina. This location in Oaxaca is stunning! | Image courtesy Nabila Ismail

6. Backpacking on a Budget

If you’re not looking to work abroad and really just want to travel, you can certainly backpack and do it on the low. 

I spent 4 months solo backpacking throughout Africa with a 65L bag, taking local transport, staying at hostels, and eating street food. 

I’ve also backpacked through Europe and Southeast Asia. Hostels are a great way to meet people, find cheap accommodation, and get all the pro tips on how to be even more budget-friendly. 

People think this is scary or hard and it can be but, really, I’ve had the most fun doing it.

Nabila Ismail stands at the edge of a rock ledge overlooking a canyon view as the sun sets ahead of her
Image courtesy Nabila Ismail

As a student, I was strategic and was always looking for ways to stretch my money. Having accommodation covered was the biggest portion of my expenses other than flights. The rest of my money was used to actually explore, pay for attractions, museums, paragliding, skydiving, wine tastings, tours, and whatnot. 

Travel is definitely possible but requires some compromise and planning if you’re limited on funds. I worked 4 jobs throughout school to pay for my rent, food, and then for my travels. It’s all about prioritizing what’s important to you. 

If you’re interested in knowing more about how I travel, what I do now, and want more tips, please feel free to follow me @doseoftravel.

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