How Real People Afford to Travel the World For Extended Periods of Time
by Esther Goh
Traveling the world for an extended period of time sounds like a pipe dream, right? Something reserved for only those with a healthy trust fund or jet-setting job?
Not necessarily. If you’re willing to be flexible and adjust your expectations, you might be surprised at how far you can go.
(Before we go any further, a note: I know that extended travel isn’t realistic for everybody. Everyone’s circumstances are different; you know your own situation best. But for some of you, hearing about how others have done it may open up new possibilities. I know it did for me.)
Here’s my story: In 2013, my partner and I took six months off to travel around the world, starting in Asia, moving on to Europe and finishing up in North America.
We earned pretty average incomes in a high cost-of-living city (Auckland is frequently named one of the most expensive in the world). I write for a living, and at the time he worked an entry-level blue collar job. In the spirit of full disclosure though, we had some things on our side. We didn’t own much in the way of stuff (so there was very little to sell, dispose of, or put in storage), we didn’t own a house (no need to find temporary tenants), and we didn’t have debt (though others manage to travel with student loan debt). I also had the security of a job to come back to, as I was granted unpaid leave (travel is well ingrained into the Kiwi psyche, which is one thing I love about our culture) but that was just a bonus — we would’ve gone either way.
It wasn’t something I’d planned, to be honest. The original plan was to take a few big trips in my 20s to Europe, the U.S., and Southeast Asia. Travel has always been important to me and as soon as I graduated and joined the workforce full-time, I started saving for that first major adventure abroad. But thanks to a job change, a couple of years on we still hadn’t made that trip happen.
At the same time, my wanderlust was intensifying by the day. I started reading travel blogs and quickly stumbled across people who were traveling for a year or more, or even indefinitely. How were they doing it? And could we possibly do the same thing?
That first seed of possibility was planted in my mind probably less than a year before we actually left, so it all happened pretty quickly.
Here is my not-so-secret formula.
1) More money in. We lived frugally and I looked for extra ways to earn income. I’d been saving for years but definitely wasn’t in a place to afford such a long trip. Once the decision was made, I hustled and saved — mainly freelance writing and ghostblogging — like a mofo to build up the travel savings account.
2) Less money out. We travelled on the cheap — backpacking, hostelling, couchsurfing, volunteering.
Maximizing that gap between income/funds and expenses is the key to stretching your dollar. The strange thing about travel is that the longer you’re away, the less you spend on a daily basis as you tend to move slower. Here are some ways to travel cheap.
Cutting accommodation costs
Free accommodation is available through hospitality exchange sites. With some pre-planning and a little luck, you could find yourself crashing on someone’s spare bed, couch, or living room floor through the likes of Couchsurfing, Hospitality Club, Staydu or BeWelcome. It’s harder these days than it was a few years ago as more people cotton on to hospitality exchange, and is probably only going to get harder, but it is still an option.
Of course, it’s not just about mooching off others. Hospitality exchange is about going in with an attitude of give-and-take. You might cook a meal for your host, take them out for a drink, bring a small gift or contribute in some other way. Most hosts are travellers themselves and keen to swap stories. Often they’ll share insider tips, a different view of the city and culture or even show you around if they have time. You’ll be amazed at how welcoming most people are — they’re proud of where they live and happy to share it with you. We’ve hosted travellers a fair bit ourselves and I know that was the case for us.
We stayed with a few hosts in Europe and North America, and since accommodation is usually the biggest daily cost, this helped stretch our budget further. Couchsurfing is the big kahuna but we also had a little luck with Hospitality Club — in fact, one host actually reached out to me after seeing that I had posted plans to visit his city on my profile and invited us to stay. Here’s my overview of how some of the different hospitality exchange sites compare.
As an alternative to hotels, consider hostels, homestays, camping, or private rentals. Airbnb and other sites like it (Wimdu, HouseTrip, and 9flats, to name a few) allow locals to rent out space in their homes to travellers (this saved us untold amounts in Paris and New York).
Finally, housesitting and home swaps are another avenue to explore. The former involves living in somebody’s house and taking care of it while they travel; the latter involves a straight exchange, where you trade dwellings for a short time. These arrangements may last for a few weeks or a few months, and offer a comfortable, convenient way to travel the world. If you’re interested in finding out more about landing housesitting assignments, read this post by Nora Dunn, aka The Professional Hobo.
Another way to extend your time away is to volunteer. Check out WWOOF, Workaway or HelpX for volunteering opportunities. You’ll generally be expected to work in exchange for accommodation (meals may also be included) — that could involve anything from farmwork to cleaning, tutoring, or child care. Arrangements may last weeks or months — it varies widely.
By volunteering our time, we spent nearly a month on a farm in Italy and a week in the Black Forest for next to nothing. While I initially saw volunteering in pretty mercenary terms, these actually turned out to be some of the most memorable parts of our entire t rip. There were challenges, for sure, but they were also priceless experiences.
There are plenty of ways to earn money abroad, as long as you’re not set on necessarily furthering your career. Common jobs for young travellers looking to fund their travel that don’t require degrees or much in the way of work experience include nannying, bartending, waitressing, or working on farms, in hostels or ski resorts, or as tour guides. Some of these are seasonal gigs, so they’re ideal for saving up cash, then moving on elsewhere.
For some, working on a cruise ship or super yacht is the ultimate way to get paid to travel, especially since your food and accommodation will be covered, allowing you to save your entire income, more or less. You don’t necessarily need to have specialist skills, as there are jobs in areas like customer service and hospitality, but competition is higher for those roles as a result. If you’re prepared to work hard, live in cramped quarters and have very little time off, it’s an option to consider. Read more in Wandering Earl’s guide to working on cruise ships or Roger Norton’s guide to working on super yachts.
As an English speaker, your language skills are in demand abroad, particularly in Asia or parts of Europe. In some cases, simply being a native speaker is qualification enough; in others, TEFL certification or an undergraduate degree may be required. These positions are paid, and some programs offer assistance in finding local housing as well. There’s massive demand in Asia, and increasingly, opportunities in Europe as well.
Finally, consider what skills you have that might lend themselves to location-independent freelancing. Digital nomads — so named because they can travel the world and work from anywhere with an internet connection — often specialize in design, writing, SEO, or similar fields. (I did the odd bit of freelance work while we were on the road, but the vast majority of our trip was funded by savings.) There is no shortage of location independent travel bloggers who are permanent nomads and make their living online.
Finding cheap flights
Flights are bound to be one of your biggest expenses. But there are ways to earn free flights simply by signing up for the right credit cards and collecting miles. Nomadic Matt’s travel hacking guide offers more detailed tips. (This is mostly a U.S.-centric thing — it wasn’t an option for us.)
It may also pay to sign up to the mailing lists of airlines and travel agencies and keep an eye out for deals. We booked our flights through STA Travel, which specializes in trips like these, and has lower prices for students and those under 26.
Choosing your destinations wisely
The single easiest way to travel for cheap is to stick to cheap countries — and yes, that usually means less developed nations. If you’re not picky about where you want to go, there are lots of options. Long-term travellers favor regions like Southeast Asia because you can spend months in Thailand or Vietnam for the same price as a few weeks in Australia or France. For backpackers on a shoestring, the idea of getting by on $15 a day is pretty tempting.
Make a budget
It’s the $64,000 question: What does it cost to travel the world?
There is no single answer. It depends on where you go, for how long, and what you do while you’re there. There are bloggers who spend $15,000 a year, and bloggers who spend $40,000…
Research costs ahead of time. Check out Budget Your Trip for crowdsourced data from real travellers all over the world. It aggregates expenditures on everything from accommodation to entertainment, food, and transport, and projects budgets accordingly for those on low, average, and high budgets.
Be sure to visit the blogs of other RTW travellers, many of whom break down their budgets online. Jodi of Legal Nomads has compiled a list here. Bootsnall also recently posted a roundup of 11 RTW budgets, and these are less shoestring, more in line with the kind of trip we took .
Our trip cost approximately NZ$30,000 ($25,713) for two with only six weeks spent in a cheap region (SE Asia) and the rest of it in Europe and North America in the remaining months. That was a deliberate choice: I’ve always wanted to visit those destinations, despite the cost. Our daily costs on the road were generally on par with our daily costs to live our normal lives back home. (It’s only when you add in the extras like flights, for example, that the overall cost goes up.)
I find myself in a strange place, actually. We may have taken time off to travel around the world but unlike most RTWers, we’re not permanent nomads nor do we want to be. And thus we weren’t bare bones frugal. We occupy that middle ground between normal people (who work full-time and take short trips/holidays) and genuine long-term travellers. The former usually can’t fathom how we spent so little in six months, while the latter berate me on my blog for spending so much.
These methods may not be for everyone, but based on my own and others’ experiences, redefining travel and getting creative is the key for those of us who aren’t independently wealthy.
Esther Goh spent six months backpacking around the world in 2013 and blogged about it.