How to Travel Well on an Academic Budget

by | Nov 22, 2016

This advice is based on our travel experiences as US academics (from graduate students to contingent faculty to tenure-track faculty) and offers some tricks to save money and have fun, while navigating travel as particular types of bodies in the world. Not all of the tips will work for everyone, but we hope they’ll get you thinking about different ways you can make travel work for you while staying within your academic budget.

It is worth pointing out one of us is fairly risk tolerant (Vanessa) and the other has a panic attack thinking about some of the more risk-tolerant suggestions below (Adrienne). Our different gender presentations and professional fields mean we have different clothing and toiletries needs as well. You aren’t failing at travel if you can’t fit everything in a backpack and travel to a week-long Paris conference for $300! Our hope is these tips will make travel work better for you, whatever that means.

Determine entry requirements

Many countries allow US citizens to enter and stay for up to 90 days, with no visa requirements. However, many countries do require a visa for US citizens to enter. That process can be as simple as filling out an online form and paying a small fee, or as rigorous as background checks, an interview, high fees, and long waits.

If you are not a US citizen, the process might be easier or more difficult, depending on your country of origin.

If you’re traveling abroad, the first thing you should do is determine visa requirements and find out how difficult and expensive the process will be. In certain cases, the process might be so onerous that it can’t be completed before the event, in which case you might scrap your travel plans altogether.


Deciding among transit options

One of the first steps in trip planning is figuring out how to get to your destination. Will you book a flight? Ride the rails? Board a bus, or drive yourself? We focus mostly on air travel tips here, but other options are worth considering as well.

Driving offers the most flexibility in terms of arrival and departure times, making multiple stops, and bringing heavy or bulky items such as medical supplies. (By the way, you can lower parking costs by purchasing parking in advance with or

When traveling between nearby cities, train options such as Amtrak can be cheaper and more convenient. Watch out though, because long-distance train fares are often more expensive than airfares between the same locations.

Bus options such as Megabus, Bolt Bus, or Greyhound are often cheapest, which is an important consideration, especially if your travel is self-funded.

When to book

Frequent fliers all have their own favorite secrets for booking air travel, but here are a few tips that we find to be tried and true.

Whereas for trains and buses booking early is almost always better, this is not necessarily true for air travel. Fares can fall hundreds or even thousands of dollars as the flight date approaches. A recent study suggests that the cheapest time to purchase air travel is ~54 days before your departure date. Book too early (3+ months in advance) or too late (2–3 weeks before the flight), and you may pay too much.

When to travel

You will also need to pick travel dates. If your schedule is flexible, compare airfares for different dates around the beginning and end of your trip. For instance, one of us recently booked a trip for which leaving on Monday instead of Sunday shaved hundreds of dollars off of the airfare—which made up for the cost of spending an extra day in that location. A shorter trip is not always a cheaper one.

Where to find flights

Some sites we use for finding and booking airfare include,, and If you find a good fare on one of these sites, go to the airline’s website to determine whether that same fare is available for direct purchase. Typically, airlines offer better refund and itinerary change policies.

If your travel is institutionally funded, check on any institution-specific policies that might apply to your trip. For example, some universities require you to book all travel through a university website to get reimbursed or require you to submit receipts within a short window of time.

Fees and terms

Cheap fares can get expensive if the airline sells elements of the flight experience “a la carte.” If you have to pay to check bags, get a seat assignment, eat, or bring carry-on luggage, it can add up quickly.

Also, make to double-check your air carrier’s cancellation fee policy. Once your itinerary is set, failure to fly any section of the itinerary might result in the nonrefundable cancellation of your entire flight itinerary. Read the fine print and call the airline if their policy is confusing.

Even on nonrefundable travel, there is sometimes a 24-hour grace period for cancellation. Don’t count on this, but it’s worth keeping in mind if you book your travel and then realize afterwards that you booked the wrong dates, won’t be taking the trip after all, or simply found a better deal.

Low-cost access to the airline lounge (pro tip!)

Many major airlines have special lounges in airport terminals offering clean, quiet spaces, comfortable seating, free wifi, coffee, snack buffets, open bars, great views of the runway, and (often) hot food options. Lounge access is typically restricted to first- or business-class passengers, those with elite frequent flyer status, or…anyone with a day pass.

Walk-up costs for day passes hover around $60, but day passes can be purchased on eBay for as little as $15 (which is what one of us paid a month ago). The passes have expiration dates so make sure yours will be valid at the time of your travel.

They are absolutely worth it, especially because these lounges are also staffed with airline agents who will go a little further out of their way to help you if you need to be rebooked due to airline delays or cancellations. (NB: We can think of one recent case where an airline lounge was temporarily not accepting day passes due to space constraints, but this is rare.)

Airline-specific promotions

Research what deals are available from your airline. For example, Turkish Air gives passengers with long layovers the option of either a free night’s hotel stay or an all-expenses paid day-tour of Istanbul, complete with meals and entry to popular tourist sites. Iceland Airlines allows you to book a long “stopover” in Reykjavik on your way to or from a range of destinations. Promotions like these aren’t always well advertised so do some digging to make sure you won’t miss out.

Hotels and other accommodations

When to book

As with booking transportation, one of the things you have to decide is how far in advance you will book accommodations. One of us is (Vanessa) highly risk-tolerant in this respect and will sometimes book accommodation as late as the arrival day. She has gotten great deals as a result, but we are both experienced travelers and don’t recommend you start out with this strategy if you are brand new to booking and staying in hotels. The best hotel deals are often found closer to your arrival date. If you employ this strategy, make sure there are no major events occurring in your destination that will create unusually high demand for hotels.

The exception to this general rule is if you are attending a conference that has negotiated a group rate at a hotel. To take advantage of this, you usually have to book before a specific deadline, so decide early whether or not to book at the conference hotel. Also double check what rates you can get at the hotel through other sites. Sometimes the group rate is the same as or higher than rates you can get through sites like

Where to find hotels

We like using,, and And as with air travel, if you find a price you like on a hotel, try booking through the hotel directly for better cancellation policies and loyalty programs.

The cheapest hotel prices are usually found using PriceLine’s bidding option, but you’ll need to invest time in researching recently accepted bids online, and the bidding rules can be somewhat arcane.

Hotwire’s “HotRate” option lets you purchase your hotel stay within certain price, location, and star-rating parameters, but keeps the identity of the hotel secret until after you’ve booked. This option requires some risk tolerance, but one of us has used the HotRate option frequently over many years and never had a poor experience.

Hidden fees

Whereas with air travel the cheapest fares can quickly add up with unexpected expenses, when it comes to hotels, it is often the more expensive properties that nickel and dime you with added fees for wifi, parking, toiletries, and sometimes exorbitant mandatory “resort fees” that you will be asked to pay upon arrival.

Non-hotel accommodations

Some of the best accommodations aren’t hotels at all but private homes, whether in the form of a room found on or a free place to stay via Both sites collect reviews on the individuals offering accommodation, which can help you decide whether you will feel secure pursuing this option.

If you go with AirBnB, check the cancellation policies closely: they vary with each listing. also has hostel and bed-and-breakfast options that can make your stay even more affordable.

Be aware though, that with these sites you are at the mercy of hosts accepting your reservations and there is a documented history of people being rejected on the basis of race, sexuality, gender presentation, and religion.

Packing your bags

Avoid excess baggage fees

Packing for airline travel is a delicate art. You want to have everything that you need but avoid excessive baggage fees (something we’ve learned ourselves through bitter experience). Check all airline or train baggage restrictions. If you have a connecting flight where you change from one airline to another, make sure your carry-on complies with both. This is especially important when flying European carriers, which have more stringent baggage restrictions than US ones do.

One of Vanessa’s favorite things to pack is a thin, light, empty duffel bag that can be checked if need be. On many airlines, the fees for checking overweight bags are higher than the fees for checking a second bag. If you get to the airport and realize that your bag is overweight, place some of your items in the second bag and pay the lower second-bag fee instead.

What clothes to bring

We suggest a “capsule wardrobe” approach in which you pack neutral basics such as black or grey pants, well-tailored dark jeans, and a few items that can transition from daytime academic events to dinners or receptions in the evening (a blazer, dress, trousers, etc. according to your style and gender presentation). You can then choose tops and accessories that inject color and personality. This will depend on sartorial norms in your field and on what you like to wear to work. Whatever your style, we strongly suggest that you pack a small and curated set of clothing items that work well with one another and can therefore be mixed and matched into a range of outfits for different contexts.

Checked baggage sometimes gets lost or delayed. Therefore it is important to have 1–2 outfits in your carry-on so that you could get through a bit of your visit without your checked baggage. Also, make sure that the professional items you need (like laptops, books, your printed talk, etc.) are all in your carry-on.

Freshening Up

Ideally, you have at least a few hours between the time you land and the time you have to fulfill professional duties. But sometimes, you’ll go directly from the airport to the conference, talk, or job interview. Or perhaps a search committee chair will be meeting you at the airport. In these cases you want to feel like you’re looking and feeling your best—which no one ever is after a long flight. To help, pack your carry-on with toiletry items such as moistened wipes, travel-size deodorant, and makeup, if that is part of your routine.

And lastly, Vanessa feels it has to be said: air travel is extremely drying. She likes to pack a small multipurpose moisturizer in her carry-on. If she’s feeling fancy, that might be shea butter; right now it’s a tiny tub of Vaseline. It can multitask as lip moisturizer, hand and body lotion, moisture for hair and scalp, and even makeup remover. It might sound frivolous, but especially for those of us who tend toward dry skin and hair, it can make a big difference in feeling comfortable at the end of a long trip.

The day before and at the airport

Checking into your flight

Typically, you can check in to your flight 24 hours before departure. We recommend checking in at your earliest convenience, since this will give you the best seat assignment selection and it might let you board the plane earlier and snag scarce overhead storage space for your carry-on. We also recommend checking the latest TSA airport security guidelines.

A number of airlines have apps that are worth it to download. They are updated with gate and departure information and allow you to check in electronically and access your boarding pass on your phone. Especially if you are rerouted, it is useful to have an automatically updated boarding pass.

When you check in for your flight, you might be asked whether you’d like to change or upgrade your seat assignment, take a different flight in exchange for a voucher, pay to fly a different itinerary that will get you to your final destination sooner, or purchase extra frequent flyer miles. Our view is that the seat assignment question is the most important. You do not want to be in the middle seat. The window offers the best opportunities for sleeping. But if you need to use the restroom several times throughout the flight or could use a little extra space, aisle seat is best. Also double-check any meal options to ensure your dietary requirements are met in-flight.


If you have a day pass to the airline lounge, use it. We recommend that you get close to your arrival gate as quickly as is feasible. Some airports are more spread out or confusingly laid out than they might at first seem.

Life hack: lots of people crowd into the gate area for their flight, even when the gate directly next door is totally empty. As long as you’re close enough to see, hear, or otherwise monitor when boarding begins and quickly get into line, you’re close enough.

Last-minute food and beverage purchases

Airport dining options are slowly getting better. If your budget and dietary requirements allow, consider purchasing or bringing your own meal to eat on the plane. Airline meals are rare and often not appetizing.

In-flight hydration is important, so you might purchase your own large bottle of water or fill a refillable bottle before you board the plane (you can’t bring a filled bottle through security, but an empty bottle can be filled once you get through the screening area).

We can’t tell you how many times a fellow passenger has had a “d’oh!” moment when we turn down expensive in-flight meals and bring out our take-out containers. However, you may not be able to bring food through customs.

On the flight

Getting work done

If you’re lucky, your flight will have wifi service and outlets. Even if it doesn’t, it is useful to bring things you can do offline such as reading a book or annotating a printout of your talk. However, don’t feel bad if you can’t get any work done on the flight. Turbulence, noise, or too-tight quarters might prevent it and that’s okay.

Eating and drinking in-flight

Many airlines are tight-fisted with in-flight snacks and beverages. However, carriers based in countries outside the US sometimes keep the alcohol flowing throughout the flight. That third glass of wine might seem tempting, especially if you are nervous about air travel. But drinking on the plane can exacerbate the drying effect that flying has on your body, and worsen the sensations of turbulence and motion sickness. Especially if you’re an inexperienced flyer (or drinker, for that matter!), make sure you’re keeping tabs on the heightened effects alcohol has on your body while 36,000 feet up in the air.

When you land

Finding a place to stay

You’ve made it! If you are particularly risk tolerant this might be when you book your hotel room. HotelTonight can find you last-minute rooms (or up to a week in advance), though if you land after midnight they no longer consider that “tonight.”

Before you book a room, make sure you know how you will get to the hotel, lest all your savings are eaten up by taxi fares. If you are arriving late you may even get a deal on the room rate—a hotel would rather book its room than leave it empty all night. Calling and being polite is always a good way to go, sometimes even better than booking through an app or website.

If you have a long layover, travel delays, etc. you might have to sleep in the airport. This site offers information on where you can sleep more or less comfortably in airports around the world.

Staying connected

If you are traveling internationally, investigate ahead of time whether your mobile phone will work and what wifi options are available.

For those on US cellphone plans, as long as you have a phone with a replaceable or unlocked SIM card, many countries sell cheaper local SIM cards than whatever international, global roaming plan your contract company tries to sell you.

Wifi access is not always dependable and in some countries you’ll need a local number to access free wifi. Do your research ahead of time. Once you are online, however, WhatsApp is a great way to keep in touch with people without using up messaging on your phone.

Getting around

Cabs are almost always the most expensive option (assuming you don’t take limos everywhere) unless you are splitting the cost with other travelers. Many airports have cheaper public transit or shuttle options, although they may take longer. If you can spare the time, the savings could cover a meal. Shuttles are often a bit cheaper if you take them to a major hotel or regular drop-off point (rather than a private address). If you can find a hotel or regular drop-off point (like a university) near where you are staying, it could save you some money.

If you are in a city where transit cards expire, sometimes folks coming back to the airport will hand them off to people exiting the airport. Also consider rideshare options such as Uber or Lyft that might be available in your destination town.

Other tips

TripAdvisor and FlyerTalk are two sites we like for local travel advice.

At the location


Never pay for wifi if you can avoid it. Particularly in hotels, even if you pay for the wifi it tends to be slow and not reliable. Use your phone as a hot spot if you can, or take advantage of free wifi in public areas, cafes, or stores. Sometimes you can get free wifi at hotels if you join their rewards programs.

NB: Never use public wifi to send sensitive information like credit card numbers or passwords.

Rewards clubs aren’t traps!

They are usually free and all that happens is they send you spam (which you can set up your email to stuff in a folder you never have to look at). Even if you do not use the same airlines and hotel chains every time, the small perks can be worth it.

You don’t need to stay in the conference hotel to take advantage of some amenities

They often have wifi in public areas and will store your bags, and you can always use the lobby bathroom if you come straight from the airport to a conference or an interview.

Staying healthy and happy

Like yoga? Do it when you arrive in your hotel room! Adrienne likes this video series from Yoga with Adriene, which you can download for cheap or stream online for free.

Like to run? If you are staying at a hotel the front desk can suggest routes, but Map My Run also has lots of local routes.

Maybe healthy/happy for you is drinking good coffee in the morning. A small French press or AeroPress with your preferred coffee from home is one of the bougiest things ever. But when you are drinking that instead of whatever one-cup wonder left for free in your room, you will thank us.

Regardless of where you are staying and why you are traveling, carving out moments of time and making space for activities that you need to recharge will make for a much nicer and more productive trip.


You packed light, but now you are out of socks and have two days to go! You spilled wine on the pants meant to last the whole trip! What to do?

Usually hotels have a guest laundry even if they don’t advertise it. You might also be able to find a laundry mat nearby. In a pinch, body wash and a sink can keep your clothes fresh. To help clothes dry faster, wring them out, roll them in a towel, and then hang them up to dry.

Enjoying where you are traveling

When we travel as academics we rarely focus on the touristy aspects of travel. Between job and informational interviews, presentations, networking, and catching up with old friends, the places we are visiting drop away. Try not to do this.

Network while exploring the conference location. Catch up with old friends while catching a local performance. There are almost always cheap or free things to do. We both enjoy walking around and absorbing the atmosphere.

Check out local papers, websites, and flyers to see what is happening. Look into museums, which occasionally have “suggested donations” or are free. Cultural events are often pretty inexpensive. You can research tickets, accommodations, and transit plans ahead of time, but when you get there, go with the flow and keep an eye out for fun things!


This was a big enough category we decided to make it its own thing. First and foremost, food outside of the main tourist areas and away from conference hotels is always cheaper and better. Public markets/food halls are a great affordable way to experience a space and taste local cuisine. Reviews on Yelp and Google Maps can help you find places nearby.

Do some research and find out if food trucks are a good options where you are visiting.

When choosing your accommodations, if you find a place with a mini-fridge or kitchenette you can go to the supermarket and stock up on cheap food. They do not always advertise but often hotels will help you microwave things even if there isn’t one in the room. Also, some hotels include breakfast, snack hours, or even dinner. It will not always be great, but it is there.


You might have more flexibility getting to the airport than you did on arrival. If that’s the case, try to find the cheapest return option. If you took a shuttle or public transit, you can usually get a cheaper round trip ticket than one way.

If you bought a lot of things, it is usually cheaper to pay to check a second bag than to check one overweight bag. You can buy extra luggage at the airport in a pinch, but if you brought a collapsible duffle bag though, you’re all set!

Know that duty free is not always cheaper. And in many cases you can submit a form to get back any tax you did pay on items (though it is a slow process).

If you are traveling through US airports with a US passport, you might also download the mobile passport app to help speed up the customs and passport control process (not available at all airports yet).

These are our tips for traveling well on an academic budget. Bon voyage!

About the authors


Vanessa Wills is a political philosopher, ethicist, educator, and activist living and working in Washington, DC. She is assistant professor of philosophy at George Washington University and her scholarship has been published in the edited collection Pursuing Trayvon Martin: Historical Contexts and Contemporary Manifestations of Racial Dynamics and the journal The Philosophical Forum.

Adrienne Shaw

Adrienne Shaw is an associate professor in Temple University’s Department of Media Studies and Production, a member of the School of Media and Communication graduate faculty, and author of Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer CultureHer current project is the LGBTQ Game Archive.

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