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Semester at Sea on a (Low) Budget

I get a lot of questions about the expense of doing Semester at Sea, and how a financially challenged student may go about experiencing this unique study-abroad opportunity.

It’s important to know that it is NOT easy. Semester at Sea is pretty expensive in American terms, and even more so when you live in a country with a much weaker economy. I would not have been able to go were it not for bursaries and my parents’ assistance in getting a loan. This means students on a budget will need to be willing to make sacrifices. Again, in the USA it may be a bit easier because many scholarships can be directly transferred from your school to SAS. Again, international students are often not so lucky. Here are some tips for cutting costs wherever you are:

Budget-Travel

1. Scholarships scholarships scholarships

Apply for EVERYTHING. Appeal everything that can be appealed (the ISE needs-based scholarships can be appealed and that was how I managed to scrape a bit more together). Send out letters and CVs to every business you can think of. Start a GoFundMe campaign (mine was moderately successful and could at least pay for some of my textbooks). You may think you’ll be too busy to do a work-study, but you won’t – so apply for that too.

2. Go economy

Ask for an economy cabin. Mine was an outside cabin on the third deck and it was lovely. Having two roommates (compared to the usual one) was a tight squeeze but completely do-able. You do not need to waste money you don’t have on more “comfortable” accommodation.

3. Get off the junk food

Start cutting down on your soda and chocolate consumption long before the voyage. These are crazy expensive on the ship, and your fees include ample food three times a day. You definitely won’t go hungry.

It wasn’t quite this bad

4. Think carefully about textbooks

This is controversial, but textbooks are NOT imperative. For some classes, like literature classes, I would not recommend skipping the textbooks (I would have hated Illness Narratives without having my own books). But for many other classes you can get away with sharing textbooks or not having them at all. If you’re not from the States, know that textbooks there are CRAZY expensive. I paid more for a thin public health textbook than I did for my Kumar & Clarke! Know that the library does not as a rule keep copies of prescribed textbooks, and you cannot always sell your textbooks back at the end of the voyage. If you insist on having textbooks, I strongly suggest not getting them from the U.Va bookstore. Buy second hand, or on Amazon, or an earlier edition. The options are endless.

5. Bring enough clothes

It is always difficult not to bring too much clothing, and many students will say something like, “I’m only bringing the necessities because I plan on buying tonnes of clothes in other countries.” Sure, it’s nice to be the odd T-shirt or pants in various countries, but if you already own enough clothes, don’t add the additional stress of having to clothes-shop abroad. You need fewer items than you think.

6. Carefully consider currency

With the exception of China, I found that it was much cheaper to exchange currency from within the various countries (even Myanmar and Vietnam). Bring Euros, GBP or USD and you’re set for good rates. In the same vein, many people will tell you that you should bring lots and lots of crisp $1 bills – big mistake in our experience! SOME $1 bills are good for those times when you are still looking for a place to exchange or withdraw money, but overarchingly, people want bigger bills and will give you better rates for them.

7. Don’t do laundry

Hah! Of course you need to be clean, but having laundry done through the ship’s facilities will cost you about $6 for a tiny load. Not cool. I brought Sunlight laundry bar soap rather than detergent because it lasts forEVER, is super cheap and much lighter too. It’s easy to wash clothes in your bathroom and they dry reasonably easily if you only wash a few items at a go. I washed a few items every three days and never ran out of clothes.

8. Learn to love the place you’re in

Except for very few exceptions, I stayed in the cities where we ported, and did not regret it. Sure, it’s fun to travel to Beijing or Hiroshima or Hanoi, but it is also incredibly expensive. I learned a lot by staying in certain cities and exploring the nooks missed by the average tourist.

9. Walk

It’s incredible how using the train and bus adds up. In Japan, people were very kind in directing us to the right train stations to reach certain destinations, until we realised that we could walk in a lot of the instances! For example, we could walk from Port of Kobe to the train station, instead of taking the train connecting the two. I walked from Nijo Castle to Kyoto Train Station instead of taking the subway, and saw so much more in the process. In Hong Kong we walked from Harbour City to the Jade Market and the Ladies’ Market, and it was quite a distance, but we didn’t regret it. Sometimes the destination is too far, but very often a distance can be traveled on foot. Also be wary of purchasing day passes/week passes for trains unless you’re certain you will travel enough to justify the expense. I though that purchasing the tourist pass for the MRT in Singapore was bad judgement in my case.

10. Choose your SAS-sponsored trips carefully

Semester at Sea offers some awesome field programs, and you will always know that they are safe and organised, but they are incredibly expensive. I traveled to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam on a two-day trip for $30. SAS had a similar trip for one day, that cost a fair amount more. You must  be careful with travel agents, of course, but I would suggest only going on SAS trips when they are exclusives and something really special that you can’t possibly organise on your own.

11. Meet people (and couch surf!)

I did not couch surf on this trip, but I know people who did and had amazing experiences. Youth Journalism International did, however, hook me up with some incredible hosts (I should actually write a separate post about them) who showed me parts of their countries I could not have seen on my own, and who were so hospitable.

DSCN2968 (1280x960)
Vietnamese food… so much better than pizza!

12. Eat local

Local foods are cheap when you look around (Japan may be an exception, but everything is expensive in Japan). One of my biggest regrets was buying pizza in Vietnam. It was a tiny, flimsy piece with way too little cheese, and was crazy expensive. Eat local eat local eat local (with some caution and/or Pepto).

13. Do your research

I’m serious about researching a country before visiting it. This is really so you don’t look like an arrogant arse, but it also helps you out on the financial front.

14. Forget the gift frenzy

“Forget” may be the wrong word. You have a trip of a lifetime, and you want to buy some awesome things for the people you love. But sometimes you have to accept that you can’t get your loved ones everything you want. I got my family some really small special gifts. You may need to warn people beforehand that your budget is low and thus you can’t, for example, buy them a shot-glass in every country even if you want to. Also remember that you can give gifts in other ways, like a framed collage for your parents – if you’re creative, you can even write them a poem in every country, or paint a landscape in every country.

15. Bring medicine

I didn’t use Pepto, but if you do, buy it before boarding. Bring your own painkillers, but don’t worry about seasickness medication if you’re okay with meclizine, as it’s free on the ship. I needed Gentamicin eye drops at one point but it cost $22 (!!) onboard, so I took the risk of managing it expectantly (don’t do that, kids. I was okay, but it was still stupid of me). I’ll have a separate post on this too.

16. Trade

I had a really fun experience trading in Ghana. I got some awesome things in exchange for toiletries, for example.

17. Monitor your baggage

Shipping things home are VERY expensive. I’m so glad I didn’t have to do that (although I did have quite heavy hand luggage and some good luck).

These are some of the things that really helped me. For those who can afford it – there is nothing wrong with buying loads of gifts, or having your laundry done on the ship. But for those of you whose pockets are empty… there are ways of making it work.

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9 thoughts on “Semester at Sea on a (Low) Budget”

  1. Thanks for these helpful tips! I am going on SAS in Fall, and don’t really have much time to do my research now, but these definitely helped!

  2. Sound thoughts all. I was very happy to get out of the port cities, but you can do this pretty cheaply as well. I bought way too many souvenirs, especially scarves. To the “shotglass from every country,” I would add that focusing on a category like that can lead to disappointment! I would hate to spend time looking for a snow globe/magnet/patch or even a t-shirt and feeling the collection was incomplete. (I know someone who bought a Shanghai magnet online because it was the only port he missed!) It’s more of an experience saver than a money saver tip. My best souvenirs were from the last few ports, but they were also the hardest to cart home (an ostrich egg from South Africa and Moroccan pottery were the worst).

    1. Thanks, Lynn! Yeah, I thought I would buy a pin in every country and then I couldn’t find one in India of all places… so I just decided I would buy whatever was cheap and memorable. I can imagine that you had trouble with an ostrich egg and pottery… I really wanted to buy a Tagine in Morocco but didn’t, for that exact reason. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

    1. Hi Charmsie, not exactly. SAS is for all fields of study, and medicine is not excluded. It is usually more difficult to organise going on SAS when you’re studying meds, but I managed to organise it. I’m catching up on rotations during my holidays, and I did a research project as part of my “elective” on the ship. So it is possible, and it is awesome, it just takes a lot of planning (and it helps if your school sees the worth of doing such a program).If you have more questions you’re welcome to ask!

  3. Ah! I am so jealous that you made it into SAS. You go, girl, and I am excited to read about your adventures… question for you–how did you create a book review page? I’d like to start one up!

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