How Travel Hacking Helps You Pay For College

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I’ve been doing a ton of research lately on finding the right college, paying for college, and helping my oldest son get ready for his post-high school education.  He is finishing the equivalent of his freshman year (I say that because we homeschool), and he just took some placement tests to see if he could qualify for dual credit classes at the local community college in the fall. Hopefully, those classes will curb some of the cost of college when that time comes.

We are talking through the various stages of the college process with him. We’ve been asking him what and where he would like to study? We’ve also been talking about the cost of different schools and all the aspects associated with them. It has been a real eye opener for him and a little scary.

I’ve told him not to worry. We will work on this together and get him the best value possible for his college education. We plan on helping him with the savings in his 529 plan, but we still want him to have some skin in the game.  The more I look into this whole process, the more it reminds me of planning family adventures.

I call them adventures instead of vacations because a vacation is supposed to be relaxing. When you’re towing five kids around with you, there is very little relaxation going on. Besides, we are pretty high energy people and sitting by the pool is nice every once in while, but I can only tolerate so much of that, and the kids tolerate even less.

Going on epic family adventures can cause a big dent in the pocketbook. This is where travel hacking has been invaluable for our family.  I’m starting to look at college planning as one big four-year (or maybe less) adventure for my kids. Most of us get the opportunity to travel before we help prepare our students for college.  Not only did those skills you picked up learning to maximize those travel dollars get you some sweet experiences with your family, but it could be preparing you to travel hack in a sense your kid’s college education.  

If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I say “travel hacking”, then check out this post by Nomadic Matt.  Let’s dive a little deeper into how travel hacking helps you pay for college.

 Every time we travel we look at seven basic questions.

  1. Where do we want to go?
  2. How will we get there?
  3. Where will we stay once we are there?
  4. What will we do there?
  5. How do we get home?
  6. How can we accomplish our adventure for the lowest price?
  7. What will we do when we get done with the experience?


Let’s break down each question.

Where do we want to go?

Travel Hacking

When you are thinking about an adventure, you have to figure out where that adventure will take place. There are so many amazing places in this world. I don’t think I will ever run out of places to see and interesting spots to explore.  We can go to the ocean, the mountains, a big city or a small town. We could see someplace historically significant or a naturally beautiful formation.  The nice thing about travel adventure is you can always pick another one if you want something different. College isn’t so easy, but many of the same principles to selecting and paying for a wonderful educational experience apply.



So, we need to help our students find a place to study and grow for the next four years. We need to ask some questions. 

 How important is the geographical location? Do you want a school in the mountains? How about by the beach? Is snow a big factor?

There are tons of ways to virtually explore college campuses and the surrounding cities and towns in which they reside. Websites like,, and allow you to get a virtual tour of almost any campus you can imagine. You can even strap on some virtual reality goggles like these:

and get a 360-degree view by watching youtube videos.  You could also get on pretty much any college sports forum or university forum and ask the questions you might have about a prospective school. Even has reviews of universities. Websites like can give you heaps of information about the state and town of the college. There is an unbelievable amount of information available on the Internet before you even let the school know that your student is interested in attending.

Of course, as financially responsible high-income parents we realize the value of education, but we also realize how big an advantage our kids can have if they come out of college without any student loans or credit card debt. That is also our goal for vacations/family adventures. You simply don’t borrow money to go on vacation. We can save ahead and maximize our value.   The location shouldn’t be the only determining factor in the choice of school.

How will we get there?

Travel Hacking

This is a little simpler answer with travel hacking. We can basically go by land, air or sea. Depending on the location, the availability of airports, rental cars or boats we make our choice. Of course rewards points, seasonal values and the overall cost of different ways of transportation factor in as well. The college answer to this question is a little more complicated.


There are a couple parts to the answer of how our students get to their preferred school. 


  1. Some colleges have different admission requirements. Some demand higher academic performance. Others have service and standardized testing requirement.  Exploring the ins and outs of everything your student does in high school is another article, if not a book, but we need to help our kids find out what is expected and help them fulfill those requirements.
  2. We should encourage our students to explore categories that will help them stand out at the university they want to attend. Ask questions about service, areas of study, athletics and research. Find out what type of work history could help your students stand out.


  1. The other part of this is the actual transportation answer. How will your student get around and get to and from campus?  Will she have a car? Is public transportation an option? How much is parking? All the aspects of transportation have a cost. Cars require maintenance, insurance, and fuel. This can really run up the cost of college and potentially be pointless if your student only drives the car a couple times a month.
  2. If public transportation is a possibility this could save a ton of money over four years. Delaying the ownership of a car could mean the difference between breaking down and borrowing money or a debt-free college experience.
  3. Travel hacking could play into this with rewards miles. Is the train an option? Maybe an Amtrak card will help. What airline connects your student’s university city with her hometown. Can you get a card that accumulates their point system?


Where will we stay?

Travel Hacking

We need a place to sleep and keep the rain off our head where ever we are, but it is a major part of a vacation adventure budget. With our family of seven usually, VRBO or Airbnb are our best values with a two bedroom condo or apartment.  We can usually find these properties with a kitchen and plenty of room to relax for less than the cost of two hotel rooms.

If we add in the value of using universal travel rewards points or hotel points, we can knock off a significant portion of our accommodation expenses and save money on food because we cook most of our own meals in the provided kitchen.


The decisions we make with our students about housing can contribute to over half of college expenses.  Options like dorms versus off-campus housing will make a big impact. Having roommates will decrease the overall cost of college significantly. It also teaches your student to work and communicate with others in sometimes trying circumstances. Laundry facilities, utilities, internet access and access to public transportation will all be factors that contribute to housing costs. 


What will we do there?

Travel Hacking

For me, this is the fun part of traveling. We line up the goals of the whole trip. What national park will we tour? What museum or historic site will we see? Who will we see? This part of planning a vacation can really be expensive or affordable.  In our family, we are usually planning one or two more expensive activities and then taking the “best things in life are free” approach. Hiking, swimming and visiting parts of history are some of our favorite activities, and they tend to be pretty inexpensive.


This will take up a huge amount of your students mental capacity. They need to answer the question,

 Why even go to college in the first place?

For some of our students, college might not even be the right choice. This could save us all a lot of money in the short term, but if they make this choice our kids better have a plan and some life goals without someone handing them a diploma.

We need to help our kids look at the area of study they will pursue. Ask questions like,

Which school has the faculty that will help our kids accomplish their goals?


What facilities and activities are available?

What classes will they take?

Are there other opportunities at the school and the surrounding community that will help attain their ultimate career/family/life goals?


Mapping out a four-year strategy and the steps to get to their final destination will help your student stay focused and be less likely to waste money because he wandered around campus for two years figuring out what he wants to do with his life.

Planning schedules during the summers where there are other potential opportunities for classes, studying abroad, or working and internships can help your students save money and network for future opportunities.  Just like we would set up a schedule for our vacations, we should help our students map out a timeline of goals and classes to reach their college goals.  Of course, it will likely change over time and some flexibility needs to be factored in, but not having a path to follow in the first place will waste both time and money.

How Travel Hacking Helps You Pay For College

How do we get home?

Travel Hacking

Usually, we get home the same way we arrived at our vacation destination. This isn’t always the case. Some of us can find more value in extended layovers and allow us to tour other cities for a few days and recover from jet lag after traveling half way around the globe. Other times we can get a better deal on tickets if we use one airline to fly to our destination and another to fly home.  Just as we look at every angle when we are deciding how to get somewhere fantastic and amazing for vacation, we need to look at every angle to get us home safely, and for the best value.


This is a two part answer as well. Especially in the beginning, our students will want to come home more frequently.  Those transportation costs add up. We should look for ways to minimize those. From travel rewards points to ride sharing with other students or incorporating other trips the family takes to meet your student, these are all ways to help alleviate some of the costs of more frequent travel that comes with attending college.

Buying school related expenses with travel reward cards can help with these increased travel costs that come with attending school far from home. 

The right decision may be to stay in your hometown for college. This will definitely help with travel costs, but it can hurt in other areas. Students that live at home are less likely to graduate than those that stay near campus.  These are all decisions you as a family will have to make when selecting the right school. 

Also, we should help our students look at how they get to their ultimate home after college. 

Will they come back to their hometown?

Will they move on to another school for graduate or professional schools?

Where is the best place to find a job in their fields of interest?

Planning ahead and developing a network in these areas can only help. Also, looking at real estate and possibly investing in a multi-unit property could accelerate the new graduate’s net worth more quickly than renting or buying a single property.

Carrying on the energy of college by creating other income streams and encouraging entrepreneurship will make taking business risk, investing and succeeding with financial goals that much easier in the future.

How can we accomplish the goals of our adventure for the lowest price?

Travel Hacking

After we map out our decision, our activities, where we would like to stay and how we will feed ourselves, we need to look at the avenues we have to pay for these things. Discount lodging websites, general purpose rewards like Chase Ulitmate, Amex Membership rewards, airline points are the currencies we use. Other informational websites about travel and the best way to go about accomplishing our traveling goals will be the tools we use to find the best value for our traveling budget.


Paying for college has its own set of tools. They include scholarships, tuition reimbursement programs from the companies our student work at, and grants.  Also, our students could take on campus leadership roles that have cost breaks. Becoming a resident assistant or getting involved in the college fee committees can pay off with lower living costs and school fees. Writing for the school paper could get free access to major events happening on campus.  Playing in the band or sports scholarships are another way to curb costs. There are tons of ways for our students to positions themselves to save some cash on college and academic related expenses.

 Have a Plan

The best thing we can do when anticipating a huge expense in our lives and our students’ lives is to have a plan. Looking at all the ways available to maximize our college dollars and avoiding unnecessary fees can set our kids up for a brighter future. We can help them obtain a position that over half of the current students won’t get, graduating without student loans.

What helps you and your kids plan for college? Are you planning on using some of the same strategies that travel hacking employs? How do you plan for college expenses and prepare your kids to face these issues?


Tom is a doctor, husband and father of five with a passion for parenting and finance. When he isn't skateboarding, riding BMX, or jumping on the trampoline with his kids, he is reading and writing about personal finance. He helps high income parents educate and mentor their kids to become financially, emotionally, and intellectually self sufficient.

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