How can you afford to travel so much?
I get asked this question a lot. In fact, its probably the first question most people ask me when they hear about everywhere I’ve traveled. Though you may not believe it now, its possible to travel for month – even years – on a minimal budget. It all depends on your travel mindset and how you budget your funds.
In this post, I’m going to give you the real story of how I afford to do it. But before we get started, I want to note that reality and appearances are two very different things. I’ve had to significantly alter my expectations and redefine what travel means to me in order to make it fit within my budget.
The biggest cost of travel without a doubt is transportation. Planes, buses, trains, and taxis make up over 50% of my total cost. Transportation kills my budget. The easiest way to cut costs while traveling is to take it slowly.
I often tell people that their most valuable commodity as a traveler is time. In fact, traveling for a longer period of time and at a slower pace will always be cheaper because the transportation costs eat up so much of my budget. The best way to keep costs down while traveling is to actually travel longer.
Let me try to explain –
The most important thing I do before planning a trip is to determine my budget. My budget is going to vary significantly between different countries and regions of the world. Generally I like to use Thailand as a base for a moderate budget destination. In Thailand, I budget out about $1,000 a month or $30 a day. I try to stick with this as much as I can leaving a small buffer to go over every month. This is a budget set out with a normal amount of transportation use, however, staying in one place and getting to know the local area better can help cut at least 20-40% off my budget.
For example, when I was an English teacher living in Thailand, all of my expenses totaled to $500 a month. I had a great time and traveled around almost every weekend, but because I was stationary in an apartment, my accommodation cost was very low. Additionally because I could only travel on the weekend, I was not going huge distances but rather exploring places in my region which kept my transportation costs down. If I wasn’t working, I’m sure that if I found a cheap hostel as a base I could keep my costs down to about $600-$800 a month. I would have instead traveled around one region of Thailand at a time.
One of the great benefits of traveling at a slower pace is once I find a hostel or guesthouse with a good deal, I can spend several days there rather than bouncing from city to city. This allows me to take advantage of cheap accommodation rather than taking the first option I find in a new city as my time is too limited to search for very long. By having more time in a certain city, I can find a good rate and then stay there while exploring local areas.
This is not to say that I have to stay in one area and do nothing the whole time. I am saying that by traveling at a slower pace and changing cities once a week, I would not be constantly taking buses and flights all around the country killing my budget.
But this style of travel is not only applicable in Thailand, it is also possible in numerous countries with a budget travel scene. I could spend months traveling like this in Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mongolia, India, Central Asia and Eastern Europe just to name a few locations. In fact, by traveling at this pace in India, I could easily keep my budget under $20 a day and possibly down to $10 if I just wanted to hangout in one place and spend my days hiking in the Himalayas or lounging on the beach.
Just a quick example of India travel – I was in Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama, recently. I stayed in a hostel that cost about $4.50 a night and the place was actually quite nice with good showers, internet, and a clean common room. Meals in Dharamsala are between $0.50 and $2.00. There are also epic Himalayan hiking trails throughout the area which I could venture on everyday. It’s pretty easy to see how just hanging out in one place can really keep costs down.
A lot of people say they’ll never be able to travel because its just too expensive. Think about it this way – does it sound like fun to spend a month hiking in the Himalayan mountains, meeting interesting people, and learning about Tibetan Buddhism? You can literally do that for $10 a day in Dharamsala.
Unfortunately for me time always seems to be my most precious resource. With only five months to travel (it seems like a lot, but it goes by fast), I was unable to stay in the same place more than a few days without the dreadful feeling that I was going to run out of time and not see all I wanted to see. A lot of people think it would be impossible to quit their jobs and travel for months or even years, but I am telling you now: if you take it slow, you could travel for years with not that much money.
I think not planning a return date might be the most liberating part of travel as there wouldn’t be any pressure to see so much before returning home. For example, when I go on a short vacation, I’m motivated to spend a lot of money because I want to get as much out of the quick trip as I can. This past winter I went to Colombia with some friends. I spent $600 in just five days pretty much just going to the beach. I could have easily spent two to three weeks in Colombia for the same amount of money by spending time to seek out deals and not springing for the most expensive transportation option.
This sort of model gets much more difficult in Western Europe or places like Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. To be honest, I’ve barely spent anytime in Western Europe – its just too expensive. I travel to much cheaper destinations which explains why I can afford it. I’ve been to Australia, Japan, Belgium etc. but only for very short periods of time. During these periods I essentially put myself into overdrive trying to see as much as I possibly can before getting out to a more affordable destination. I happen to make it to these countries on layovers where I plan a few days in between flights.
Of course, everyone needs to save up before embarking on a trip of this length because working abroad is a lot more difficult than it sounds. I will get to this soon. Before heading out, I set a rough budget based on where I plan to go. I always make sure to have a credit card with me in case things go wrong, and I always carry extra dollars hidden away in my backpack to use if things go really wrong.
Another way I can afford to travel for months on end is because I redefined for myself what traveling actually means. I’m not visiting new countries to go bungee jumping or on expensive tours. When I travel, I am seeking out real local experiences. I don’t do the expensive activities. In fact, one of the reasons I started this blog was to help people avoid these expensive activities that don’t really add much value to the travel experience. Rather I want to help people break off the beaten path to find these sorts of authentic travel experiences.
I won’t get into the details of the concept now, but my point is that going on the fancy tour isn’t actually necessary. I would much rather get up early to check out a temple at dawn, go camping under the stars, or rent a motorbike and find a hidden waterfall. All of these activities cost next to nothing, and I think they give more meaning to my experience abroad.
Finally the last thing I do to redefine my travel experience is to actually look at what activities are valuable and will enhance my overall experience. Just because I am in a new capital city doesn’t mean I need to go to every museum. In fact I am actually not a big fan of museums, and I’d rather save my money on the admission ticket by walking around the city instead. I think one of the best ways to learn about a city is to take a walk around the streets and visit the parks where locals hangout. All of these activities are free.
Giving up alcohol while abroad was a lesson that took me a while to learn, but it is something I am so glad I stopped doing. Oh course we all like to go out and have a good time on the weekends, but I didn’t travel halfway around the world to spend my days partying with Europeans in hostels. I would much rather spend my money on alcohol at home when I am with my friends than on drinking with people I’d likely never see again. The amount of money I saved deciding to abstain from alcohol, the amount of weight I lost, and the amount of free time I had to explore new destinations made it probably one of the best decisions I ever made.
This is not to say that I completely gave up drinking, but I no longer wasted my money on it. If someone offered me a beer, I was glad to join them. One time I polished a bottle of vodka off before 10 am with some engineers who were trained in the Soviet Union. I just wasn’t actively trying to party.
I think by realizing I didn’t need to waste my time and money partying, I was able to redefine my travel expectations in a way that allowed me to have an overall more educational experience and save a ton of money.
Doing It Myself
I’m the type of guy that hates to ask for directions. Add this to a desire to do everything the cheapest way possible, and you get my DIY-style travel. One of the ways I keep my costs down is by figuring out how to get everywhere by myself. When I get to a new city I learn how to ride the local bus. I try to avoid taxis at all costs. If I see a package tour to visit an interesting site, I usually tend to find a way to get there myself using public transportation. All these sorts of things help me keep those transportation costs down.
Read any travel blog, and you’ll hear about how easy is it to get a job abroad. It’s not. Most countries do not want foreign workers competing with their citizens. They usually only accept foreign workers in very niche industries that cannot be done by locals. Often this means high-level corporate executives or engineers, but the good news is this also means English teachers.
One of the best ways to live abroad and to travel more freely is to work as an English teacher. Typically these jobs require a year long commitment so it is only for the more dedicated person. But for those on a budget with unlimited time, teaching English is an extremely rewarding experience.
As with working abroad in most countries, the language barrier is a huge obstacle to entering the labor market even if a certain country is more open to foreign workers. Additionally countries that are more open and need English speaking staff for international customers usually fill the jobs with low-paid Filipino workers. Some of these jobs at international hotels or on cruise ships might sound appealing at first, but the reality is that the pay is extremely low and recruiters won’t take Western applications seriously given the circumstances of these jobs. The only way to break into the international service industry is through high-level training (ex. a degree in hospitality) or through a very specific skill set like entertaining.
There is one way around all this where Westerners can work in low-skill jobs for relatively decent pay. A few Western countries – specifically Australia and New Zealand – offer work-holiday visas where Americans, Brits and other nationalities can come to these countries and work in the retail or service industries for a short period of time. Some countries like Korea also offer work-holiday programs as well, but the language barrier obviously is the biggest obstacle. An opportunity like this would be best for someone like a Korean-American looking to spend sometime getting to know their homeland.
A final option is what they call being a “digital nomad”. This essentially means working for a company that could be based in your home country, but your entire job can be done remotely. Some people will use an opportunity like this to live abroad and travel during their free time. While this does sound glamorous at first, the reality is that online jobs require a lot of stability in one’s daily routine. Depending on the job, digital nomads need to be able to access the internet almost every day. They need a quiet work environment to focus for hours on end. This is great if they want to rent an apartment in a foreign city and travel on weekends, but nearly impossible to do while traveling generally.
Decent internet access in the vast majority of the developing world is extremely hard to come by. For example when I was recently in Ethiopia, the internet would go out when it rained, and this was in one of the rare hotels where they actually had working wifi. Unless I rented an apartment and set up a reliable internet network, it would be impossible to do any sort of timely online work in Ethiopia. I encountered situations like this in dozens of other developing countries as well.
If finding paying jobs abroad is too difficult, many countries are happy to welcome foreigners as a volunteers in exchange for food and accommodation. This is great for places like Western Europe where accommodation can be so expensive.
I met a girl in Europe that told me she had been traveling for several months and whenever she got tired, she found nannying work online. She would stay with a family for around a month and take care of their kids in exchange for food and accommodation. It worked great for the parents because a regular nanny in Europe would be outrageously expensive. After a month of rest, this girl was back on the road with a new appreciation of the culture from wherever she was working. A quick google search can find opportunities like this around the world.
Another easy volunteering opportunity is WWOOFing or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Small organic farms around the world are looking for workers in exchange for food and accommodation. WWOOFing in and of itself can be a cool opportunity to learn more about farming and live in the picturesque countryside while saving money. This is great for places like Europe, but it can also be a cool way to see the countryside in a developing nation. Think of all the fresh food you could eat!
Ah – couch surfing. If you’ve never heard of it, Couch Surfing is a website where locals host travelers on their spare couches for free. I’ve done it before, but my opinion on it is mixed. To do it, you’ve got to be friendly yet at the same time have an extremely thick skin. I’ve heard great things about it as well as complete horror stories.
In my opinion, couch surfing is only financially worth it in very expensive countries. The hassle to find a place to stay is just not practical when a hostel would set you back $5-$10. For every new city. I had to send tons of messages and hope people didn’t fall through. On top of that, if my host didn’t live near public transportation, I would have probably spent the equivalent of a night at a hostel just on a taxi to their place.
Couch surfing does, however, have its benefits when trying to meet local people to truly understand a culture. I had a great time Couch surfing in Prague when I could have just as easily spent the night in a hostel. While it didn’t save me that much because accommodation in Prague is so cheap, the experience of going out drinking with my host and his friends was something I’ll never forget. The reality is that I probably spent far more money on beer and pork knuckle that weekend than I would have staying in a hostel.
I realize this is one of the reasons many people want to go abroad, but when I backpack, I don’t buy souvenirs or any other things that I don’t actually need. Only in rare circumstances where I have a really positive experience will I possibly consider purchasing a small memento to remind me of that destination.
If there is one thing I learned from traveling for months on end with a small backpack, it is that I don’t actually need that much stuff. If you read my top travel tips, I mention that one of the most valuable lessons I learned while traveling is how to live with very little. This lesson has transferred directly back into my life at home because now I live a clutter-free life. I’ve learned to differentiate between what I need and want, and this has saved me countless dollars at home and abroad.
~Take only memories, leave only footsteps~ <– I’m rolling my eyes at this one, but it actually is some solid financial advice.
If these tips helped you plan your next adventure, let me know in the comments below!