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Travel discounts for the college-bound

Getting ready to send your kid off to college? Or packing up your stuff and heading to campus yourself?  Airlines offer discounts and special programs to student travelers and their families, and the deals don’t end at the airport.
Image: college students
Airlines offer discounts and special programs to student travelers and their families, and the deals don’t end at the airport. Chitose Suzuki / AP file

Getting ready to send your kid off to college? Or packing up your stuff and heading to campus yourself? The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that this fall 19 million students will be enrolled in the nation’s colleges and universities, so you’re definitely not alone.

All those students will be learning a lot, of course, but they (and their parents) will also be laying out a big chunk of cash. Last year, the average tuition, room, and board paid by in-state students for one academic year at a four-year public college or university totaled almost $15,000. At private colleges, the one year bill averaged about $40,640. This year, like everything, college costs are even higher.

Once the tuition, room, and board bills are paid, there may not be much cash left over for actually traveling between home and the college campus. That’s why "Finding Travel Deals 101" should have been on all college students’ summer schedules. Lucky for you, we’ve already taken that course, done the homework, and are happy to share our notes on what we found. 

When it comes time for that chemistry final, we hope you’ll return the favor.

Airlines offer student deals and a chance to earn extra credit
For a while, Southwest Airlines’ College Rapid Rewards program gave college students enrolled in the plan a bonus credit for each one-way trip flown. Unfortunately, that program was discontinued this past July, but current enrollees still have until Oct. 15 to cram in a few extra bonus credits.

Southwest’s program may be fading away, but several other airlines, including Lufthansa, Air Tran, United, JetBlue and American continue to offer some sort of perks for students. Here are some of the more popular travel discounts:

For the past ten years, AirTran Airways has offered a discount standby program not just for college students, but for anyone 18 to 22 years old. (College student or not: on your 23rd birthday, you age-out of the program.) Re-branded AirTran U in 2006, the program lets young people fly standby for $69 on short segment flights and $99 on long-haul segments. There are some blackout dates and a variety of restrictions, but during 2008, more than 83,000 young people took advantage of the program. AirTran spokesperson Cynthia Tinsley-Douglas says this year’s numbers are looking much the same. But why offer such a great deal just for young people? Tinsley-Davis says the program is an investment in the airline’s future. “It’s a way to introduce our airline to a part of the market that doesn’t fly as much as business travelers or families do. And if they like what they see, after college they may choose to travel on AirTran.”

That’s the idea at Lufthansa, where the GenerationFly program offers any U.S. college student with a valid .edu email address discounted fares to Germany and most every destination the airline flies. As a nice bonus, part-time students, teachers, and faculty members are also eligible to participate in the program. And while Lufthansa doesn’t promise that all fares purchased through the student-oriented program will be lower than those that might be found elsewhere on the Lufthansa site, the airline throws in a few valuable extras just for students. For example, while the rest of us usually have to pay a hefty fee to change the departure date on a ticket, Generation Fly tickets include one free date change before or after departure. The program also sponsors the GenFly lounge, a Web site where program interns and other student travelers can get and share travel tips.

Florian Gmeiner, who oversees the Lufthansa program, says there are currently 70,000 subscribers to the Web site and that while general ticket bookings have been down elsewhere, “students as a target group are robust and are still traveling. In fact our student travel bookings are actually 50 percent ahead of last year.” Haven’t students gotten the word about the recession? Maybe not. “The recession doesn’t seem to be having such a negative impact on student travel,” says Gmeiner, “Many students have parents willing to send them abroad.”

Several other programs have special airline offers for students as well. The discounts promised by the Student Advantage Card (about $20/year) include a 10 percent discount on American Airline flights. And on its Web site, American Airlines offer discounts on vacation packages to students at about two dozen participating universities. JetBlue offers an 11 percent discount to students who have an ISIC card (International Student Identity Card), which costs $22 a year. Holders of that card can also book special discounted fares with STA Travel, one of the major discount student travel agencies, which offers tickets that allow changes for just $50.

And, while United Airlines United Airlines doesn’t offer any special discounts for college-age students, the carrier’s College Plus program gives students enrolled in both the College Plus program and the Mileage Plus frequent flier program a graduation present of 10,000 bonus miles.

The deals for student travelers don’t end at the airport. Amtrak and Greyhound and even some hotels also offer discounts to students who have either the ISIC or Student Advantage card.

Parents of college students get a break too
It’s great for students to get discounts on travel, of course, but what about parents, the folks who are often footing the bills for that pricey college tuition? Many hotels in and near college towns offer discounts and deals for those folks too.

Through September 13th, the Gem Hotels in New York City are offering a Student Move-In Rate that includes a subway map and a one-day transit MetroCard.  At the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, N.C., parents of students attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill can get free membership in the 1924 Club, which offers room discounts and preferential bookings during popular college-event weekends. Parents who refer others to the program can also get a $25 hotel credit. The Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley in East Palo Alto, Ca. offers a bevy of special services for incoming Stanford University students “and their anxious parents.”  The hotel gives guests a Stanford Survival Guide with maps, coupons and information about area resources, a Stanford University directory, and a special Stanford-themed treat from the hotel’s pastry chef. The hotel’s concierge will even put together and deliver student care packages and take delivery of boxes until a student arrives on campus.

“The most important thing for parents & students to remember,” says Sarah Schupp of, “is to always ask for a student discount.  Many businesses have one; they may just not publicize it.”

Harriet Baskas writes 's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , and a columnist for You can follow her on .