Welcome to another round of Answering The Reader’s Mail: Travel Edition. I like keeping this blog interactive!
Today’s letter comes from Maggie. She asks:
“Please could you give more details on how you were able to afford to travel around 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 the things they don’t do more than the things they did.
Let’s tackle your questions one by one.
#1: What Was Your Planned Budget Ahead of Time?
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” – which means a huge chunk of that money went to 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 was pricier, 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?
I worked full-time as a newspaper reporter and editor. Out of respect for my ex-company I can’t tell you my exact salary, but I will say that entry-level news reporters don’t earn much. 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 You Were Traveling (e.g. couch surfing or hostels)?
Couchsurfing.org – a not-for-profit website that lets you sleep on stranger’s couches around the world, and in return asks you to host other travelers on your own couch back home – is a fantastic tool in some cities and is hopeless in others.
In my experience, Couchsurfing works best in cities with low demand / less competition from other travelers. I couchsurfed my way around Portugal, but it felt impossible to find a couch in Paris.
If you’re considering Couchsurfing.org, start hosting travelers. You’ll meet people with inspiring stories and tips, and you’ll treat others in the same way you hope they’ll treat you.
Look Ma, I Have Friends!
In the “offline” world (the “real world”), I met a surprising number of people who would invite us into their home for the night. It’s amazing how many friendships you make by simply 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 we were using a free grill at an Australian park, we met a man in his 70’s (with a gorgeous wife in her 50’s!) who invited us to stay at his home in northern Tasmania so that we 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 he was such a charismatic old gentleman that I couldn’t resist. How can you say no to a guy in plaid suspenders and a bow-tie? We ended up spending a week with him and his wife, we didn’t spend a penny (no pun intended!) on accommodation that entire time, and we created a fantastic new friendship.
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), this is how I met – and became insta-friends – with a fun brunette British girl named Sara Kate. 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: What Other Ways Did You Cut Expenses on Food, Transportation, Lodging, Admission to Tourists Spots, etc.?
We’ve covered lodging costs pretty thoroughly by now.
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. I didn’t have single trip travel insurance so I had to cough up big bucks for a last-minute seat.
I learned my lesson: use insurance for events that are both unlikely and expensive – in other words, for worst-case scenarios. The unlikeliness of the event keeps the premium low, and the costliness of the event makes it worthwhile to be protected.
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 (who knows how clean they keep those street cart kitchens?) An unintended consequence is that 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 cool like scuba-dive.