How Can You Afford to Travel the World?

couchsurfing and traveling in tasmania australia
Today we have a question from the Reader Mailbag: Travel Edition.

Today’s question comes from Maggie. She asks:

“Please could you give more details on how you were able to afford to travel the world.

“What your planned budget was ahead of time, how you earned money ahead of time, how you saved money while you were traveling (e.g couch surfing or hostels), what other ways you cut expenses on food, transportation, and lodging, admission to tourists spots, etc.

“I really would like to know. More specifics would help me evaluate if/how I could implement this in my life.”

Maggie, if you want to travel around the world, do it. People regret chances they don’t take more than they regret the opportunities they took.

Let’s tackle your questions one by one.

#1: What Was Your Budget?

I budgeted $1,000 per month, excluding airfare and health insurance. That turned out to be an over-estimate.

In the Middle East I spent $600 – $700 per month, and that includes the high cost of being “on the go” – such as bus fare. If I had been grounded in just one city, like Cairo, I could have probably gotten by on $500.

Southeast Asia had the same pricetag. Food and housing cost more, but my travel pace slowed. Those two factors balanced each other out.

Australia, where I spent 10 months, and Europe, where I spent 3 months, both cost me an average of $22 – $25 per day, which comes to $660 – $750 per month. My “quality of life” (the sacrifices I made in order to live so cheaply) was rougher in Europe and Oz. I lived large in Asia and the Middle East, where $700 a month bought me daily massages and unlimited iced coffees.

#2: How Did You Earn Money Ahead of Time?

Back in the U.S., I worked full-time as a newspaper reporter and editor. My starting salary was $21,000 per year. No one goes into journalism for the money.

But I hustled. I worked full-time during the day and wrote freelance articles at night. I freelanced for food magazines and for women’s magazines. I reviewed Broadway shows touring through Denver. I wrote for niche publications for the “engraving industry” (how random is that?) and the smoothie-franchise industry (random again!). I wrote until my fingers hurt.

Earning is half the battle; saving is the other half. I lived in a cramped studio apartment. My $400 car was so rusty that puddles would splash into my lap as I drove. I whittled my living expenses down to $1,000 per month, including rent. I saved the rest.

#3: How Did You Save Money While Traveling? – a not-for-profit website that lets you sleep on stranger’s couches around the world – is a fantastic tool in some cities and hopeless in others.

In my experience, Couchsurfing works best in cities with low demand / less competition. I couchsurfed my way around Portugal, but it felt impossible to find a couch in Paris. If you’re considering, start hosting travelers while you’re at home.

Accept Invitations from Strangers

In the “offline” world (the “real world”), plenty of locals invited me into their home for the night. It’s amazing how many friendships you make just by striking up a conversation in a park or at the beach.

And these aren’t just young backpacker types who are eager to host. As I was using a free grill at an Australian park, I met a man in his 70’s (with a gorgeous wife in her 50’s!) who invited me to stay at his home in northern Tasmania so that I could watch his town’s annual penny-farthing competition.

(A penny farthing is one of those bicycles with a huge front wheel and a tiny back wheel. Apparently there’s a small town in Tasmania that dedicates an entire weekend to competitive penny farthing races.)

I had never heard of a penny farthing before I met him, but how can you say no to a guy in plaid suspenders and a bow-tie? I spent a week with him and his wife, didn’t spend a penny (no pun intended!) that entire time, and created fantastic new friendships with his entire family.

Of course, staying with people – either through formal venues like Couchsurfing or through informal venues like meeting 70-year-olds in a city park – only accounts for about 20 percent of my total accommodation. The rest of the time, I’d stay in hostels (in Europe or South America) or in guesthouses (in Asia).

During the times I traveled alone countries that only offer guesthouses (guesthouses sell private rooms, which are pricier than shared hostel rooms), I’d keep my eyes peeled for another female solo traveler. After some small talk, I’d ask her to be my roommate.

During my first trip to Thailand (I’ve since returned 5 times), I randomly met – and became insta-friends – with a British girl who rode to the islands on the same boat that I did. We roomed together, traveled together for a few weeks, and to this day — years and years later — we still keep tabs on each other through Facebook.

In other words, the more you travel, the more friends you make worldwide. And the more your friends are scatted across the globe, the more you’re able to travel. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. You simply have to launch it.

#4: How Else Did You Cut Expenses?

We’ve covered lodging costs pretty thoroughly by now.
travel edition saving money on food
Admission to Tourist Spots – My litmus test is: “Will I regret NOT going here?”

The Taj Mahal had a $20 admission fee and it was worth every penny. The temple relics of Bagan in Burma, the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, the Komodo dragons of Indonesia, the Van Gogh museum in the Netherlands, the all-day boat to the Great Barrier Reef, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion – these are absolutely worth the admission fee.

But some random museum for yet another obscure artist I’ve never heard of? No thanks.

Transportation – I took one trip (Denver to Spain) through frequent flyer miles. The rest of the time, when I had to fly (which was rarely), I used local airlines. In Europe, RyanAir and Easyjet are the cheapest carriers. In Asia, I used AirAsia – they offer a $99 ticket from London to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Occasionally I’d encounter “hiccups” that would cost me dearly. Last June when hundreds of pilots went on strike, I ended up stranded in Colombia and scrambled to buy a last-minute emergency ticket. But if frugality is a habit, you’ll have a “cushion” to cover these costs.

Food – The only time I ate at a fancy restaurant was on my birthday. The rest of the time, I ate in small cafes and roadside stalls.

I stopped eating meat in many places where I traveled, mostly for sanitary reasons. As an unintended consequence, this saved me a lot of money, as well.

I also limited my alcohol consumption, especially in Muslim countries where there’s a hefty sin tax on beer. Lots of travelers spend tons of cash on booze, then complain that they can’t afford to do something awesome like scuba-diving.

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  1. says

    I’m surprised you can do so much on less than $1,000 a month. It seems like a lot of people don’t realize that, and assume that traveling is really expensive. I’m guessing that’s the major expense of most trips, like you mention, is airfare and this costs the same whether you’re staying for one week or one month.

  2. says

    All of your articles are great but this is fantastic! Awesome sauce, as they say. And just the confirmation, information and encouragement I need to plan my summer travel. After a relationship ended recently I found myself really wanting to get away but wondering how a 40-something single woman travels to unfamiliar places and also what to do with this desire for companionship when I travel. Funny because I never thought of that in my 20s! And the reality is I often make friends easily and as an only child I’m happy or at least content being by myself at times. I think I am just used to having someone around, but I digress!

    So I am summoning the adventurous spirit of that 20-something woman and heading to some wine countries! (I have a wine appreciation/education website begging for my attention and new content at I’ll have to work on that alcohol consumption advice you gave (grin) but everything else???? Awesome sauce :-) Cheers and thank you!

  3. says

    You did great! My daughter & I flew from Houston to Paris & stayed a week in France. It cost us a grand total of $3000 for everything including airfare and car rental. So for about $1500 each we had a terrific vacation. We stayed at small hotels and inns for about 100 Euros a night. We planned very carefully ahead of time.

  4. says

    Unfortunately, airfare is as high as I’ve ever seen it. I used to be able to routinely find flights to Europe and South America for around $500 or less. Not anymore. Just priced out a flight to Bangkok and the cheapest I can find is $1400. I hope prices come down a bit by next fall.

    • says

      @KyleAAA — Are you searching for flights around Christmas season? Everything shoots up in December – early January. As for South America, try Spirit Airlines. Just remember they charge for carry-on bags!

  5. says

    Very interesting article. It sounds like I need to just get my butt out there and once I’m traveling I’ll realize how cheap I can live.

  6. says

    Great breakdown. I’m a big believer in the idea of “there’s always a way”. Most people think that the only way to travel is to make a lot of money but I like the way you break it down into how much you spend per day. Makes it seem much more doable.

  7. says

    This post is great; thanks for sharing! I love to travel, and I do plan to take time off for a round-the-world trip in the near future (within 5 years). I’ll definitely keep your suggestions in mind!

  8. says

    As an ex-TEFL teacher living and working in Thailand, TEFL teaching is something that I advocate in order to extend the time you can spend overseas. Topping up your pot whilst your overseas doesn’t have to just be about earning more money. Teaching is also a great way to meet other folks from your host nation (and abroad), to learn the local language, try new foods (some of Thai meals I had were in my school’s cafeteria) and to better understand their culture.

    Other than that, great post and some very useful tips. My word of warning would be to beware of relying heavily on cheap airlines. AirAsia are great, Easyjet aren’t so bad but Ryanair were petitioning to charge passengers to use the toilet not long ago and even wanted to introduce standing space at the back of their planes! They will squeeze every penny out of you if they can.

    • says

      @John — When flying discount carriers, its definitely important to read the fine print! Spirit Airlines, another discount carrier, is similar to Ryanair — they squeeze every penny out of you, including charging for carry-on bags, and they reserve the right to cancel the flight without notice, leaving you stranded (they did it to me, forcing me to pay big bucks for a last-minute flight on a different carrier). Still, they’re so substantially cheaper than their nearest competitor that I continue to (grudgingly) fly them. I just make sure to read the fine print first!

  9. says

    I went on a RTW a few years ago and stayed out for 11 months and went to 15 countries. We spent less on daily living expenses than we would have spent staying home. I think most people imagine that it will be too expensive b/c they base their estimate on how they spend money on a 2 week or shorter trip where they go to all-inclusive resorts and eat out at restaurants every night. The key is to stay in places where either: you can cook a meal, or where you can buy food or street food pretty inexpensively.

    Also, when you fly somewhere to stay for awhile, the price of the airline ticket is less of an issue. For example, if I was to fly to Australia for 3 weeks, I’d be much more likely to bemoan the price of the ticket as opposed to if I went for 3 months to a year. BTW, Oz can be quite cheap if you like to camp b/c the camping there is amazing and you can even do it for free, esp if daily baths aren’t necessary. ; )

    • says

      @Stephanie — Exactly!! I find it hard to justify taking an expensive flight to another country if I’ll only be there for 2-3 weeks. Recently my best friend asked me to join her in Brazil. I wanted to go, but she could only get 10 days off work, and I just couldn’t justify spending all that money to be there for just 10 days. It makes much more sense to me to go somewhere for a long time — I spent 10 months in Australia. And I camped for free A LOT. :-)

  10. says

    Did you do travel writing or freeland writing AS you travel? Any tips? My wife is trying to break in to freelance writing. You could email me if you have any willing advice.

    @KYLEAAA – you should check into frequentflyer miles and accumulating those.

  11. Ophelia Simmons says

    It sounds like I need to just get my butt out there and once I’m traveling I’ll realize how cheap I can live. I used to be able to routinely find flights to Europe and South America for around $500 or less. Funny because I never thought of that in my 20s! I’ll definitely keep your suggestions in mind!

    • says

      @Ophelia — Please do! You’ll find that the flight is usually the most expensive piece of the puzzle. If you’re willing to stay in locally-owned (non-brand-name) hotels or hostels, and eat the food that the locals eat, you can travel very cheaply and have a more authentic experience.

  12. says

    I agree with most of the things said over, but how about safety. If you travel the world alone, is it easy to just meet people and sleep in their couch or follow them in a private place..?

    • says

      @Vizajet – The group has a pretty good “peer review” screening mechanism, in my opinion. You can read reviews of couchsurfing hosts left by other people, giving particular weight to reviews left by friends-of-friends.

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