How To Find A Job & Travel The World, Gently

by Bhavya Reddy

I found myself unexpectedly living the dream for the past seven months, when I should have been in grad school. I worked as an English language assistant through the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF). Everyone’s role was a little different depending on the school, but I designed a lesson, usually something about the environment, and helped students practice speaking English. Being an assistant can be a hit-or-miss experience, but I went in with no expectations and was incredibly lucky with my placements.

We didn’t make a whole lot of money. For me, it was enough to live comfortably and travel every few weeks. I was able to make it to 7 other countries. We worked at most 12 hours per week and had 2 weeks off every 6 weeks, which left plenty of time to travel or pursue side projects.

This hadn’t been my original plan for how I would spend the past year, but the guilty environmentalist in me decided to take the opportunity to experiment with traveling on a low budget and hopefully with relatively low emissions. Before this trip, much of my travel abroad had been very carbon-intensive and expensive — trips to India to visit family and that time I went to the UK in high school — so I figured this would be the perfect opportunity for some travel that was gentler on the environment and my bank account.

It would also be a way to have the security of a steady paycheck and a home base while I gave myself permission to prioritize travel and experiences over financial goals for a few months, a dramatic shift in thinking for me.

Breakdown of finances

For American assistants, our salary came out to 790 euros per month. My base expenses came out to around 250–300 euros per month. I got lucky with my living situation and didn’t have a whole lot of starting expenses, except for 80 euros for the mutuelle, a supplement to our state-sponsored health insurance that would make up the difference for medical expenses, and 50 euros for the carte jeune, a card that let us travel at a discount on trains.

I was placed two small villages and lived in a town nearby, which was much cheaper than living in larger a city. My expenses were also fairly low because there are tons of discounts for people under 26: my monthly bus pass was only 5 euros per month!

I started out by playing this game with myself to have my groceries always fall below 10 euros a week, until I decided one day to buy everything I wanted and realized that it still came out to less than 20 euros per week. After that, I realized how silly it was to be scrimping so much on food, especially since I do have some dietary restrictions.

A solid 60 to 65 euros per month went to beer. While in hindsight it’s a little ridiculous that I drank away about 8% of my monthly salary, I have no regrets: the beer was that good.

This left 300 or more euros per month.

At first, I had grand plans to funnel some money every month into my Roth IRA and make advance payments on my student loans, but I realized that seven months was not a long time and that maybe someday when I was old I would look back and treasure the memories I had more than the $13,272 I might have (assuming that $1 saved now = $16 in retirement and that I was saving around 15% of my salary per month). After all, 15 euros could get me a train or bus ticket to Amsterdam, Paris, or London, only slightly more than a peak-hour trip to New York City from my house. I made the somewhat scary decision to prioritize travel once I had some buffer savings in place.

I’ve always had in the back of my mind that if I was one month ahead with my expenses, I would never need to live paycheck to paycheck. I know that’s easier said than done, but it was an idea that was reinforced by YNAB’s fourth rule (“live on last month’s income”). I therefore saved as much as possible of my first paycheck, which worked well since I didn’t really travel in November. This was enough to cover my regular monthly expenses and worked as a great buffer throughout the year, and it made me feel more secure; it was also able to cover my flight ticket out at the end.

I used YNAB for a couple of months to plan and track my spending, although I seemed to always be away at the start of the month and stopped using it consistently after a while. However, I still tried to enter my spending into the app so I’d have some record of it, particularly for cash purchases. I also hoped that that extra step would subliminally help me control my spending, and it did help during trips to look back and see how much I spent in a day.

The things I didn’t spend money on? I bought maybe 2 articles of clothing my entire time in France and only because a sweater and winter coat (15 euros at a thrift shop — still so proud!) are kind of necessary. I went to restaurants in town a handful of times; instead, we had potlucks and house parties and I was lucky enough to have kind friends invite me over for delicious home-cooked meals. I was also fortunate to have a place to stay immediately upon arrival and generous people willing to share beer and new experiences with me.

Travel that’s gentler

Along with thinking about my financial budget, I started thinking more about how that related to my “carbon budget.” I’m probably one of the few people who actually pays attention to the CO2 amounts printed on transport tickets bought in Europe, but I really liked having that information easily available.

I tried to start off the trip by getting the most out of my plane ticket to France; I had a stopover in Iceland, so I extended it for a day and went around the “Golden Circle,” which was surreal. I lived in the north of the France, which meant that within a three hour drive, I could pass from France through Belgium and the Netherlands and into Germany. For reference, I need to drive about 6 hours from my home in New York to get to Canada.

Along with the distances between countries being short, there were also tons of options for traveling cheaply and without a car or flight. The carte jeune meant that train tickets to Paris or Amsterdam were about 15 euros one-way. There were also cheap bus options available through IDBus, especially if booked far enough ahead of time. I did some ridesharing through Blablacar, which is essentially like hitchhiking but feels a little less sketchy since there are reviews for people (sorry, Ma). It came in handy for last minute trips, or that time we got stranded in Amsterdam, and it felt like we were being as efficient as possible when it came to CO2 emissions from driving. The cities I visited were generally compact enough to walk everywhere, or in the worst case scenario, take a bus, tram, or metro. I never needed to take a taxi. I also cut costs on travel by Couchsurfing or staying in hostels and Airbnbs.

However, the snag I hit when it came to “gentler” budget travel was the relationship between the cost of transport and carbon emissions. For instance, when I went to Strasbourg, I took Blablacar, which cost 34 euros and emitted 56 kg of CO2 per person, but when I returned, I took a train, which cost 68 euros and emitted around 3.6 kg of CO2. It was twice as expensive to travel by train but produced 3.3% of the emissions per kilometer. In addition, although it seems counterintuitive, flying could be fairly inexpensive, especially when compared to ground transportation. For instance, flight tickets from Brussels to Rome cost 40 euros round trip. Granted, this is one example of one trip and far from a scientific analysis, but it was interesting to see how sometimes the most carbon intensive options were also the cheaper ones.

I ended up preferring slower travel; it takes so much less energy to hop on a train instead of figuring out how to get to an airport hours early and remembering to put all my liquids in a plastic baggy. My last trip in France involved taking a train from the very north to the very south, and I was able to watch the landscape transform from flat to huge stone cliffs until it finally melted into the ocean. It really hit me just how much variation there is within France itself and was definitely a highlight of the trip. It also doubled as a great opportunity to get some work done, like my own personal Amtrak writers’ residency.

One of the stereotypes of American travelers is that we like to hop from one city to another, spending a day or two in each. This time, I learned to appreciate staying in one place for an extended period of time instead of checking cities off a list. For instance, during our trip to Nice, we were in one apartment for a week and were able to unpack our bags, buy groceries and cook our own meals, and navigate without a map. We only needed to take one long train ride for the trip, which again cut down on transport costs and emissions.

Living in one place for seven months allowed me to do a lot of staycations and see local sites that I wouldn’t otherwise know about, like the highest mountain of coal waste in Europe. For the most part, I didn’t have my heart set on particular destinations that were far away; I enjoyed seeing places that were relatively close by and accessible by train or bus.

Living in a smaller town also allowed me to see things I probably wouldn’t have seen had I gone there on vacation, like watching Santa Claus and some pirates rappel down the side of a centuries-old bell tower. It also helped keep costs down and possibly allowed me to get more practice speaking French than I might have had in a larger city.

Working and traveling at the same time worked out great for me; it was a comfort to know my expenses were covered by a recurring income, and for the workaholic in me, it was nice to be employed yet have the time to pursue other projects. I hope that ultimately this way of traveling allowed me to make the most of that plane ticket.

This story is part of our Travel Month series.

Bhavya Reddy is currently based out of New York, working on a master’s in environmental engineering, taking as many photographs as possible, and thinking about a very needy black and white cat living 3,573 miles (and 1036 lbs. of CO2) away.

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