There are two things I really love: travel and free money. If you’re a human person, I’m guessing you also like travel and free money. Over the years, I have finagled my way into quite a few sweet deals that have allowed me to visit some of the world’s most enviable cities on all expenses paid trips. Now, the time has come where I will teach you how to travel for free.
Of course, there are a few caveats. Firstly, the kind of travel I am referring to is not the “credit card mileage points Couchsurfing” kind of travel–it’s the “application for trip sponsored by public/private entity” kind of travel. Secondly, this article is sadly limited to a specific subset of people. You will find it the most helpful if you are demographically similar to me, aka any of the following categories: an Asian American, a college student, or a college student at the University of Pennsylvania. Still, even if you’re not any of the above, you can read this article to get a sense of how to sniff out the many travel opportunities that lie in wait for you out there in the world. Some of them may sound too good to be true, but trust me, they are both pretty good and pretty true.
- The Kelly Writers House (Various Grants)
Eligibility: Penn undergraduates
The deal: $2500-3000 to go anywhere in the world
I love the Kelly Writers House. It’s one of the original reasons I really wanted to come to Penn, and though I wasn’t as involved with it as I would have liked to be during the course of my undergraduate career, the resources and opportunities it’s provided me have been priceless.
One of these opportunities is, of course, free money. KWH has a whopping three grants, totaling up to a sum of $8500, that they give to students each year to support creative travel-based projects. In 2016, I won the Cultural Preservation Writing Project Grant, which gave me $3000 to travel to London and Paris to do a cool independent research project on my favorite author and lifelong obsession, George Orwell. There’s also the Terry B. Heled Travel & Research Grant ($3000) and the Creative Ventures Capital Prizes (up to $2500).
So how do you win these grants? Well, all I did was send an email with a two paragraph proposal. Next thing I knew, I was handed a check and told to book my plane tickets. I was literally able to travel for three dreamy weeks in Europe, a continent which I had never previously been to, and engage in a creative project that had me poring over rare primary documents in libraries and hunting down old residential addresses in the cobbled streets of the Latin Quarter. And I had a lot of time left over to just be a tourist and hang out with my friends. I’m almost embarrassed to say how much.
- The Kakehashi Project
Eligibility: Asian-Americans under 25
The deal: An all-expenses paid trip to Japan for a week
Each year, the Japanese government pays for 200 young Asian-Americans to visit Japan in a week-long cultural immersion program called the Kakehashi Project. We regular schmegular second gen kids are shocked that we are so valuable to Japan’s strategic foreign policy, but do you hear anyone complaining as we descend upon decadent soba noodles and charge into seven-story stationary stores in Ginza, Naruto-style? No, you do not.
Should you get accepted, you are bestowed one round trip flight to Tokyo with checked luggage, hotels, meals, and transportation all covered. While in Japan, you get to visit government agencies, chill in an onsen bath in a ski lodge in the mountains, live and bond with an adorable homestay family in the Japanese countryside, and make a ton of new friends. It’s not literally a free trip in the sense that you have a strict itinerary you have to follow and you’re traveling in one big tour group all the time. But I was able to squeeze maybe about 8 hours of free time over the course of the week, most of which was spent shopping for snacks and omiyage to fill up the entire virtually empty luggage I’d brought with me.
I don’t know the exact monetary cost of this trip, but it must have been at least $10,000 per person, just for flight, hotel and transportation. Add in food, four dedicated bilingual tour guides, and months of fastidious coordination efforts, and wow. You’re basically getting a once-in-a-lifetime tailored cultural experience for free. I also have it on good authority that Kakehashi’s acceptance rate is literally 50%, so please, for the love of God, apply. There are two trips a year, one in December (during many schools’ Christmas breaks) and one in March. Yes, if you’re a college student and you go in March, you do have to skip a week of school, but let’s be honest…a lot of y’all do that anyway.
I also do want to mention here that while this post focuses on free travel, that’s not the entire point. The most valuable part of my Japan trip was all the amazing people I met, both Japanese and American, and the unique chance I got to engage with everyone from rural farmers to national and local government officials. You can read my most recent Forbes article on Japan’s terminal villages, which was a product of precisely this kind of cultural immersion and engagement, and a deeply touching experience that no doubt would have never happened without Kakehashi.
- The Kakehashi Project – Penn Edition
Eligibility: Penn undergrad studying International Relations, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Huntsman, etc. Or SAS grad student.
The deal: Same as above
If you are not Asian, you may have just read my entire summary of Kakehashi above with a mixture of despondency and chagrin. Well, good news: Turns out you don’t have to be Asian to go to Japan for free! Bad news: You do have to be a Penn student studying a very specific major in a very specific year.
This past January, the Penn Biden Center sent 9 students to Japan on basically a Penn-exclusive version of the Kakehashi Project. The dates vary year to year, as do the requirements (a couple years ago I think it was only open to Wharton students), but the structure is essentially the same. I guess you technically don’t have to be non-Asian to apply, but if you are Asian, your chances are obviously much better with the regular Kakehashi Project.
- JACL Youth Legacy Program
Eligibility: Asian-Americans under 25
The deal: An all-expenses paid trip to Los Angeles for four days
One of my friends from my Kakehashi trip informed me about this program, which is sponsored by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and the National Park Service. It’s a free four-day trip to sunny Los Angeles, and the point of the program is to expose young Asian Americans to the history of Japanese American plight and their own AAPI identities. You will be visiting Little Tokyo in LA, as well as Manzanar, the infamous Japanese internment camp about an hour away near Lone Pine, CA.
I didn’t apply for this trip, so I will not be going come August, but I am putting this out here as another chance for free travel if one of my fellow Asian Americans wants to take a swing up to the West Coast. Again, these trips are rarely literal free money being thrown at you to have fun, but, unlike those giveaway vacation raffles, which you have approximately a 0.0001% chance of winning, they are actually legitimate opportunities that you have a good chance of snagging if you submit a quality application.
- University of Auckland Summer Research Scholarships
Eligibility: College students and recent graduates
The deal: To live and conduct research in New Zealand
New Zealand has some of the best, most breathtaking natural landscapes I’ve ever seen. So imagine my elation when another one of my Kakehashi friends (yes, this group is intrepid!) notified us of a free travel opportunity that he had previously partook in and greatly enjoyed.
Basically, the University of Auckland will give you $6,000 to live in one of its biggest cities, Auckland, and conduct research over 10 weeks in the summer, which, remember, is our winter (assuming you are in the Northern hemisphere). I’m not too clear on the logistics because I haven’t done this program personally, but my friend says it was a great time and that he got to do a lot of leisure traveling around the country too. If you graduate in December, are taking a gap year, or just want to do some adventuring and exploring before committing to your next big move in life, this is a great opportunity. I would love to take it myself, but alas, full-time employment calls.
And that’s it! There you have my short but sweet list of free travel opportunities, including every single one that I’ve personally taken over the years. There’s probably a lot more out there that I haven’t heard about. If you’re a college student, I especially suggest you look into the nooks and crannies of your university’s myriad programs and scholarships, some of which are bound to involve travel, or at least productive output whilst abroad. Endowments are so big these days that I am certain there are millions of dollars just floating around right now, waiting to bless whichever opportunistic young thing finds them first.
As for my motivations for sharing my travel secrets, they are twofold. One–I’ve already made the most of my time on these trips, so there’s no point in me hoarding information. I’d love to see more people take advantage of my tips and tricks (and maybe bring me back a snack or two from whichever exotic destination you end up going to). Two–I strongly believe that travel shouldn’t be just an elitist luxury afforded by the wealthy. I want to show that you can attain leisure travel for cheap and, sometimes, for free! And you don’t have to be an Instagram influencer, international escort, or trust fund baby to do it.