10 Tips to Save Money on Away Rotations in Medical School

Image: Ruslan Ivantsov/Shutterstock

Summertime is high season for away rotations. After the grueling gauntlet of required 3rd-year rotations, many medical students welcome the beginning of the 4th year, when they can do rotations in their specialty of choice, often at an institution away from their home base.

However, away rotations are not cheap. Application fees, travel, housing, and food can put a huge dent in a medical student’s budget.

According to a recent study in the journal BMC Medical Education, the average cost of an away rotation is $958. But in some specialties, such as neurosurgery or radiology, the average cost exceeded $2,500 per rotation. Many students reported spending in excess of $5,000 or even $10,000 on their away rotations.

Reduce Your Away Rotation Costs

Here are ten tips to help lower the costs of your away rotations while avoiding having to scrimp so much that you compromise your performance.

1. Live close to the hospital

The first thing to remember about housing is that you won’t be spending much time in your housing. You’ll be spending most of your time in the hospital or the medical library. Therefore, you don’t need to stay in a particularly nice place for your rotation. The most important priority is living close to the hospital. You’ll be working very hard, and the last thing you want to do is trade 30 minutes of precious sleep for 30 minutes of commuting time.

2. Look into free housing options

Some hospitals will offer free or heavily discounted housing options. One of the hospitals at my medical school even offered free housing to rotating students. The housing options were quite meager, but you could wake up at 4:55 a.m. and be at the hospital at 5:00 a.m. Friends or family at other medical schools can also be convenient for free housing, but I would rather pay and live closer to the hospital for the convenience, rather than to stay with family who might live much farther away.

3. Explore your options for finding housing

RotatingRoom.com is the go-to website for medical school sublets. Craigslist and Facebook are other good options. You can search Airbnb for options, although it’s unlikely you’ll get the best price on a monthly sublet, since that website is designed for vacationers.

4. Rent out your place while you’re away

Since you’ll be out-of-town and be paying someone else for their room, you should also consider renting out your place through platforms such as RotatingRoom.com.

5. Drive instead of fly to your rotation

Consider making the long drive from your home medical school to your away rotation. You’ll often save money this way. However, take into consideration the costs a car might entail in your new location, such as parking. If you’re rotating in a big city like New York City or Chicago, it might be better to fly, since you’ll likely be taking public transportation everywhere anyway, and parking can be very expensive.

6. If you must fly, fly Southwest or other budget airlines, and consider any additional costs of flying

Southwest has a pretty expansive network that reaches most of the places you would be doing away rotations. They don’t always have the cheapest airfares, but they are the only major airline they lets you bring 2 checked bags for free. Delta, for example, charges $25 and $35 for the first and second checked bags, respectively. Since you’ll be packing your entire life into two checked bags, a carry-on suitcase, and a backpack/purse, you’d save $120 in checked bag fees flying with Southwest compared to Delta in this case.

In addition, Southwest does not charge change or cancellation fees. You can even cancel your ticket on the same day as your flight. This could come in handy if you plan to cancel your rotation or change your travel dates at the last second.

7. Take public transportation whenever possible

If you’re in a big city, use public transportation. It is cheaper than taxis or Uber. It can take a little bit longer, but it’s worth it. See whether getting a monthly pass can save you money compared to single-ride tickets.

8. Cook instead of eating out

Of course, cooking your own food will be much cheaper (and healthier) than eating out. The problem is that you won’t have much time to cook. A reasonable compromise would be to buy semi-homemade or freezer meals. During one of my away rotations, I ate a steady diet of Trader Joe’s freezer meals. Most of the “cooking” was simply defrosting and heating the food on a frying pan, and it was cheaper than eating out.

9. Buy books used or borrow them from a friend

I almost never bought books new during medical school. Always check the Used section on Amazon.com or Half.com — often you can get “Like New” books for significantly less than the “New” price. Then, when you finish your rotation, sell your books.

10. Check if your hospital has online subscriptions to your textbooks

Often your medical school will have the textbooks or review books you will need for your rotation. Before your rotation, go to your medical library and see whether it has any of the books you need. If they do, check them out and bring them with you on your rotation.

Also, check if your hospital has any online subscriptions to specialty textbooks. My hospital has online subscriptions to many of the major radiation oncology textbooks, so I don’t need to purchase them.

What do you think? Did you do away rotations during medical school? Did you use any tips or tricks to reduce costs?

A version of this post previously appeared on The Wall Street Physician blog.

Wall Street Physician is a physician and former investment banker who blogs about investing and personal finance topics relevant to physicians. You can follow him on Twitter at @WallStPhysician. He reports no conflicts of interest.

More from Op-Med