Breakfast in Germany, Lunch in Switzerland, Dinner in France. Total Cost: $0

While I was a student I traveled as much as I could. Of course, I could not afford a fancy Europe trip on my measly student salary. And, even though I was financially quite illiterate, I had the sense not to use my credit card for it. I didn’t need to – most of my travel did not cost me much money, anyway. I thought what I used was a generally known tactic among Ph.D. students. As it turns out, it is not. So here is a (rather long) write up about one of the most spectacular trips of my life, and how I pulled it off at practically no out of pocket cost. Hopefully, it will inspire at least a few other students to get off their a** and experience the world outside the lab without shelling out a shilling. Oh, and if you would rather just read the tips, feel free to scroll down directly to the bottom of the page.

It was the first year of my Ph.D. I was so excited with my decision to do the Ph.D., that I worked way overtime. When I had, what I thought then, to be my first breakthrough results, I promptly drew "the appropriate conclusions" and wrote a paper. My advisor probably knew that my conclusions were half-baked, but he nevertheless encouraged me to send the paper to a conference. I waited with bated breath for 3 months. Of course, the paper was rejected. But the reviewers were a kind bunch. They replied back saying that even though they think the conclusions were a bit premature to be published, I could submit a student poster to share my ideas with other students. It would be considered work in progress.

I jumped at the idea. With my advisors help I created the best damn student poster ever. Of course, it was accepted. The conference provided a few travel grants to students. I wrote the grant committee an earnest letter of how I would like a chance to share my ideas and meet other people working in this area, but the cost was prohibitively high for me. I also laid before them the sad story of how my paper got rejected and yet, how I persevered by submitting a student poster that got accepted. They probably laughed at my letter. But maybe didn’t have the heart to crush the spirits of a young 'un. So they granted me a scholarship. $1250 to cover the cost of travel, board and meals to present my poster in a conference in Germany! Just like that. My advisor was quite happy that I pulled it off. He told me that our department had separate grants for student travel, and if my travel were to exceed the amount of the scholarship, he would help me get a "research travel reimbursement" from the department.

The better half had started work by then and could not take a week off. So I contacted an undergrad acquaintance of mine who was working in Germany then. He banded together two of his other friends. And we started planning the trip.

The conference started on Monday. I arrived in Germany on Sunday, and checked in. That evening we had the registration and the welcome reception. The conference was for three days. I attended all sessions every day, quite literally from dawn to dusk, copiously taking notes, asking questions, meeting people and being fascinated by this bunch of people who shaped tomorrow’s world. It was an amazing networking opportunity. Some of the contacts I made then went on to help me a lot through the course of my Ph.D.

On Thursday after the conference, I met my friend and his other two friends. A goofy bunch we were. Our plan – a road trip. Our destination – a quaint resort town nestled in the French Alps called Chamonix. So we had breakfast in Germany and set off. Reached Switzerland, and hung out in Geneva for a few hours having lunch on the street side watching the famous Geneva fountain and taking the giant ferris wheel ride. We avoided the highways and drove though scenic side roads twisting and turning through vineyards – bunches of grapes within grabbing distance! It was summer and I was a bit skeptical at first about going to the Alps in Summer. But it was spectacular. Amazing shades of green all around. Glacier covered mountain tops. Words cannot do justice to that drive. We reached Chamonix just before dinner. Grabbed a bite and drove 12 kms up the Alps ridges to a remote chalet with spectacular views from the balcony. That’s the good thing about off-season, even students can afford to live in fancy places called "chalet" with free French breakfast of croissants and baguettes served with hot coffee by our generous hosts. Of course, it was a single bedroom chalet with only two twin beds and two of us had to sleep on the floor in sleeping bags. But when you are surrounded by so much natural beauty, you don’t notice these things :)

We stayed there for two days. We hiked, did glacier walks, went for tobogganing (why don’t any US destinations offer this – its so much fun!), took a cable car to the top of Auguille Du Midi which is 3800 meters above sea level, etc, etc. It was amazing. Caught up in the spur of the moment, we even signed up for hang gliding. Unfortunately, (or maybe fortunately, since it really would have dinged my budget!) the winds picked up and they cancelled on us. We found a small coffee shop by a tranquil lake surrounded by mountains and crashed in their reclining wooden chairs for a afternoon of do-nothing, instead! While returning, we took the highway to make some speed and once back in Germany, we took a few short trips to Heidelberg, Freiberg (amazing cable car ride to the top of the world!) etc.

When we finally calculated the cost of the trip and split it by 4, my share was a little over $200. (Ok, so I lied when I said the total cost was $0 in the title, but for a grand Europe trip, isn’t $200 ~= 0? :) Except for those 4 days, the rest of my trip was covered by the travel scholarship and the department research travel grant. This trip gave me a taste for what was possible. Subsequently, in the 4 years of my Ph.D. I traveled to Europe two more times and took several trips within the United States as well.

If you haven't tried this yet, and are still a student, you really should! Here is a list of ideas for using these tactics:

  • Travel grants sponsored by the conference: The requirements vary from conference to conference. Almost always, they will require that you should be a student. Sometimes, they might consider post-graduates too. Some conferences require to have an accepted publication in that conference. Some conferences prefer that you NOT have an accepted paper – the reasoning being that other sources of funding are easily available for those with accepted papers (such as the two listed below).

  • Travel reimbursement by your advisor: Professors have different sources of funding. Again, I would think this differs from one professor to another. My professor had different lines of funding some earmarked for research, some for equipment and few that covered travel. But if you have an accepted paper at a conference, I don’t see any reason why your advisor will not agree to reimburse your travel, unless he really does not have the funds for it.

  • Research travel grants by the department : My department supported travel grants for Ph.D. students to the tune of $400 per academic year. While this will not fund a fancy Europe trip, it should be good for local travel.

  • Travel scholarships through other means: I have been lucky enough to have all my travel funded by the first two methods above. If for some reason, you are not lucky enough, there are several other means to obtain a scholarship. For example, our university had a graduate student inter-mingle seminar where you had to attend several seminars over the semester and at the end they would grant two students a fully paid travel grant to attend the national seminar. Similarly, we had seminars for students interested in pursuing faculty opportunities, with one travel grant to go for the national meet. Also, a simple google search of the keywords "research travel grant" brought up several promising hits.

  • Volunteer for Conferences and Workshops: Generally, conferences try to pick their volunteers from the local schools where the conference is held. But if you have unique talents (Eg., have handled video streaming on large scale before), then the conference may be willing to pay for you to travel to the location of the conference to volunteer. At one of the conferences I went to, I shared the hotel room (the best way to reduce cost, when the travel grant is limited) with a person who was a volunteer for providing streaming support for the conference.

  • Finally, join as a summer intern at a lab in an exotic location: This is something I almost pulled off, but was rejected at the last minute :( A fully paid trip to France to spend a summer there, with board provided and a small stipend to cover the other costs. This may not be for everyone. Apart from the reason of the opportunity to travel, the other reason that spurred me was that the lab did cutting edge research in my field, so it would help me academically as well. Remember always, to keep an eye on the ball

If any of you have other tricks up your sleeves, or any fascinating stories of travel on a research grant, I invite you to share with us.

For now, Au revoir

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Anonymous said...

I traveled in Europe quite a bit several years ago. I found one way to really cut down on the cost of a trip was to stay in a youth hostel.

The price was right and you could meet all kinds of neat people from around the world. Reading your article has me itching to go back!

ispf said...

Hi moneysmartlife, Thanks for the tip about the youth hostel.

Yeah, even I was itching to go back while I wrote the post. Only, its not going to be next-to-free anymore and suddenly Europe seems SO FAR away :(