The Struggle is Real: Doctoral Student Travel Tips to Help Curve the Budget

In a doctoral program it is common for students to travel for conferences, presentations, and research, which over time can be very costly. Currently I am attending the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference and exposition in New Orleans, Louisiana and wanted to share with you a few of my doctoral travel tips to help with the financial struggles that can occur if not funded. My friend and I have presented together over 30 times in the past 2 years at around 10 in-person conferences in different states across the U.S. By my own personal trial and error, here are some travel tips that I recommend to get you through pricey travel expenses as you present your research, travel with advisors, and build your CV!

1. Find graduate student internal grants and funding sources.

Almost every university has a source for internal grants for their graduate students. At the University of Arkansas where I am located we have graduate student research grants, graduate student travel grants, departmental graduate student funding, graduate professional student congress (GPSC) research and travel grants. Each semester I apply for around $2000 in grants. Thus far I have been 100% funded, but the grants do not always cover the cost of all expenses and multiple conferences. If you do not know if your university has one be sure to ask around, send emails, and don’t be afraid to ask for money. Universities have lots of money that go unused and rolls over to the next year and in many cases is lost if not used within a certain time frame. The best time to catch them is at the end of a fiscal year where money needs to be allocated so funding is not lost. All they can say is no, but 9 out of 10 times, if the college or department is unable to supplement any additional travel, they have been able to point me in the direction of other funding sources within the university.

2. Skip the Conference Hotel, Book an Airbnb or VRBO

Conference hotels are convenient, but they can also be pricey and average about $250-$300 per night. All conferences are typically held at world-class resorts and popular tourist spots which come with some expensive resort fees in addition to the nightly rates. Don’t pay the crazy high price, unless you just want the convenience. There was a conference I once attended as a single presenter in Clearwater Beach, Florida that had gorgeous amenities for conference-goers and guests. The conference and adjacent hotel was gorgeous and very accommodating, but it was $269 per night for 4 nights. A little pricey for a student budget. One perk that many doctoral students do not realize is that regardless of whether you stayed at the hotel or not, if you were apart of the conference you also got all the resort goodies and complementary access (e.g., beaches, cabanas, food, coffee) so don’t let that always be a final deciding factor. Knowing I was on a budget, I started looking at Airbnb and VRBO. I was able to find a small 1 bedroom quiet bungalow on the beach by a manatee viewing canal for $90 per night about 3.7 miles away. For the price difference, including the ability to walk out on the beach in the morning and see the manatees across the canals, I was very much willing to drive in my rental car or take an uber the 3-4 miles which only added about 10-15 minutes to my morning routine.

My current trip in New Orleans, LA also had a high hotel conference nightly rate around $180-200 per night for a double bed room. Since I was traveling with a friend and co-presenter, we decided to book a gorgeous historic NOLA 3 bedroom house with 1.5 baths adjacent to the french quarter for $180 per night through VRBO for a similar price. However, we brought our spouses on the trip in addition to another couple and made a wonderful vacation out of it in the evening. While the girls worked during the day, the boys went out and played or we went our separate ways as couples when there were conference or scheduling conflicts. After the 4 night stay with cleaning fees and splitting the cost of the stay, each couple only paid around $280 for the whole week. We were also able to use the VRBO to cut the cost of food, drinks, and laundry. If each family brings a cooler of food and drinks from home to share amongst the group the less likely you will have to run to the expensive restaurants and grab overpriced food or run to Starbucks for a coffee.

3. Book an Early Flight, Get Free Flight Credit

I always book a super early flight in the morning or a flight the day before the pre-conference starts to allow for space to hop on a later flight for travel credits. I would say over 70% of my flights so far have been overbooked or a flight credit option is added prior to boarding or at the gate to accommodate specific passengers on a flight that might not be available. I always take the flight credit or make an offer (which you can do through the airlines’ app or at the gate) to be bumped to the next flight. So far I have racked up about $900 this year in free flight credits from getting on the next flight (usually about 3-4 hours later) which I then turn around to use on a conference later in the year. One time I was offered $600 to wait 3 hours for the next flight because they were overbooked by 14 passengers. I don’t know about you, but for $200 per hour I don’t mind to sit in the airport and catch up on some work. I find working station in the airport, get out my laptop, and rad, write, check emails, do journal reviews, edit, or just find something constructive to do. If there isn’t a flight credit offered, that is okay. I just arrive early to the conference, get settled in, and find some fun things to do.

4. Volunteer at the Conference

Some really large conferences need volunteers to function. Take the time to fill out the volunteer forms or email the conference directors directly to request volunteer work in exchange for conference registration. This could be in the form of volunteering to review conference proposals or actually helping out in-person with logistics. Conference registrations alone usually average around $350 and upwards into $500 with fees per person or more depending on the size. Don’t be afraid to ask for financial support, even in small amounts, especially as a graduate student, if you are able to help them in some way. Most conferences also have a much cheaper graduate student rate you can ask for (which typically have a promo code). Working 3-4 hour volunteer shifts can sometimes be equivalent to working between $80-$100 per hour plus you get to work the conference gaining insight into presenters, conference structures, and finding networks and resources that can help you land a job later.

5. Airline Credit Cards & TSA PreCheck

If you know you will be traveling across multiple states throughout your doctoral program, and you are good with credit cards generally speaking, invest in an airline credit card and rewards program based on where you are flying out the most. Before you choose one, be sure and check with your university as well because they typically have specific airlines (and rental cars) they prefer. Be sure to also book with your airlines member number through the university system (or if you book online) to earn points regardless of whether you or the university is paying. The “person” flying gets the points! These points can be used to redeem for flights and if you use the credit card to book you get bonus points. Plus you get perks like free bags to check on the flight, free wifi on the plane, and so on depending on the airline.

Note: Also be sure to get TSA precheck! I went from getting to airports 3 hours in advance for a flight to 1 hour to bypass the lines leaving more time for conference sessions or fun activities on the way home. No taking shoes off or getting everything out of your bag. Just walk on through the precheck line just like the flight attendants and pilots. TSA Precheck is around $85 and last 5 years and has been worth every penny!

6. CityPasses are your friend.

If you do mix work with pleasure, be sure to grab a CityPass if one is available. Most conferences are in major cities and all have a CityPass, GoPass, or something similar. These passes get you access to 20-30 different attractions for one price which is usually 50-60% entrance rate plus you get to skip lines and go straight in which helps if you are on a time crunch. So far I have used CityPasses for Chicago, Dallas, and Denver and it was worth every penny! In New Orleans they have what is called the GoPass which is very similar and gives you full access to 22 different attractions while you travel for a flat rate that averages around $40-$120 depending on the number of days you plan on staying. Each attraction is normally around $20-30 each so if you are planning to sight see it is a must!

7. Poster Printing Coupons

I you are presenting research posters, which is common for doctoral students at conferences, be sure to use FedEx’s monthly coupon code that can get around 20% off (around $30-40 off) research printing poster services. I also used Honey Google Chrome Extensions to automatically apply multiple coupon codes to ensure that I am getting the best deal. There are lots of similar options such as pouch that do similar promo code comparisons. Poster printing can get expensive and can range from about $200-$500 per year if not more depending on how many conferences you are attending. Also be sure check with your university to see if there is any free or discounted places to print your research poster.

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