Now that I’ve officially been on the road for 2 1/2 years, I think it’s about time to share how I’ve managed to travel for as long as I have. This is one of the most common questions I get asked by people when they discover I’ve been away for so long. “How is it possible?” some ask. “You must surely have taken out loans or have been racking up credit card debt all this time. Perhaps you’ve won the lottery and didn’t tell anyone!” Truthfully it’s neither of those things, so this post is going to answer the big question and talk about a few of the things I’ve done to make long-term travel a possibility.
But first, let’s go back to the beginning a little while before I even left home. It was 2011 and I had just graduated from university, not really sure exactly what I wanted to do even though I had a shiny new degree. I knew for a fact though, that I wanted to travel. I never studied abroad when I was in uni, so I made it a goal to one day have the experience of living in another country. Fortunately, places like Australia and New Zealand make it easy for Americans to get working holiday visas. So shortly after graduation I made it my goal to find a job and work for a year, saving up as much as I could, and I would then spend a year abroad in New Zealand. While it took much longer than I anticipated to find a job (I was unemployed for nearly 8 months), I finally ended up working for Washington State Parks for two summers and at a local hotel in between seasons.
In total, I worked for 1.5 years and managed to save up $14,000, which is actually more than enough to qualify for a working holiday in New Zealand (which requires only $4000 NZD to sustain yourself when you first arrive in the country in case you don’t find work right away). The reason I saved up for so long was because I still had student loans to pay while I was traveling and I wanted to have a big cushion of funds to live off of so I wasn’t so stressed about having to find a job right away when I left. Of course, being able to save so much wouldn’t have been possible without the help from my parents, who allowed me to live with them during this time period so I had very little rent to pay (compared to what I would have been paying if I still lived in the city) and things like food and phone plans were all paid for.
Another factor that helped with savings was rethinking the way I spent my money by keeping track of my expenses. Using a nifty little apps like CashTrails, I started to watch where most of my money was going on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. After a few weeks, I began to see and prioritize on spending and buying things I actually needed (fuel, insurance, loans, etc) and less so on things I didn’t (eating out, going to the cinemas, etc). There are lots of little expenses we pay almost on a daily basis without thinking about it. A $4 Starbucks frappuccino may not seem like a lot, but if you get one several times a week it adds up in the end. Realizing this really helped change my spending habits and I became much more efficient at saving money that could be used for better things later on (like traveling).
Fast forward to September 2013 and I’m on a plane jetting across the Pacific to start a new life in New Zealand. In retrospect, all it took to get there was a willingness to never give up, hard work, and a lot of patience. But what about the actual traveling part? Surely once you start traveling your bank account starts to drain? This is true, but fortunately there are so many ways in which you can stretch your dollar to travel longer.
As I said earlier, I traveled to New Zealand on a working holiday visa (and later Australia), which allows people from participating countries to work and travel within NZ for up to a year. Of course when you’re getting paid to work, you replenish your travel funds as you go. But even when I wasn’t working, there are plenty of ways to keep spending costs down and stretching dollars a little further. Here are some of the ways I saved money while traveling:
Transportation is typically one of the highest expenses you’ll pay for on a trip (especially airfare), but there are plenty of cheap alternatives to get around. As much as I love taking trains, I usually opt for riding the bus which is a lot cheaper and while it may take longer, it saves a lot if you have the time. Sometimes the bus even comes with free WiFi, which makes the time seem to pass by a lot faster anyway. Another faster alternative I recently discovered here in Europe by carpooling with other travelers. Sites like BlaBlaCar (available in Europe only it seems) is one of of a few out there where people offer open seats in their cars for those who are looking in going the same direction. You just split the cost of gas along the way. So rather than taking an £80 train ride from London to Bath, I got there for only £14 by carpooling in the same amount of time and made a new friend along the way. Then of course there is always hitchhiking, which requires a higher degree of caution of course, but it’s free, and you meet really interesting people along the way. I got around most of New Zealand this way!
While it’s tempting to eat out all the time when you’re traveling, especially after you’ve spent a whole day touring around and exploring and you don’t really feel like cooking, you save so much by doing your own groceries and cooking your own meals. Most hostels have their own kitchens anyway. If I stay in one place for a few days, I’ll cook up one big meal that can feed me for a few days, saving both time and money.
Visiting Places Where Your Dollar Goes A Long Way
Sometimes deciding where to travel can also save you money. In some parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and South America, the cost of living is so low you really don’t spend that much on a daily basis. In Southeast Asia, for example, it was actually cheaper to go out and eat (you can easily have a decent sized meal for $2-5) than buying groceries. Hostels and guesthouses typically go for $5-10/night (even cheaper if you share a room with friends) and transportation and most activities are relatively inexpensive compared to other parts of the world.
I’m not really that big of a drinker to begin with compared to your average backpacker, which has also helped keep costs down. In places like Australia and Scandanavia, where everything is fairly expensive, a beer can cost up to $10 each! So I usually avoid drinking in places like that. Not so much in countries like Germany where they’re known for good beer or France for wine and it’s cheap!
Carry As Much Cash As I Plan To Spend
When you travel long term, it’s important to create and stick to a budget to keep track of your spending. It’s common to spend more when you bring your wallet with you everywhere, so what I usually do is only bring as much cash with me as my daily budget allows and if I run out, then that’s all I have to spend for the day. Of course for special activities and events it’s fun to splurge every now and then. But sticking to this method has helped me save heaps, and if I ever do get robbed (still hasn’t happened yet) I won’t be losing everything so it’s a lot safer as well.
I’ll admit, I actually hate staying in hotels when I’m traveling solo. You normally pay too much money spent for something you’ll only use at night, and it gets pretty lonesome having a room all to yourself. Usually I prefer to stay in hostels since they’re cheaper, have a much better social vibe where you can meet new people, and sometimes include little perks like free breakfast and bicycle rentals. I think I’ve been pretty lucky with hostels I’ve stayed in, there are good ones and bad ones, and I’ve stayed in some places that felt more like a home than a business. And it’s not only for young people, I’ve met some really interesting older people staying in hostels as well.
When possibly, I usually try and stay with friends whenever I can because A, it’s always nice to see your friends again, and B, you get a free, safe place to sleep! It’s also nice because you also have a sort of a local guide to show you around and hang out with. When I don’t have friends to stay with, every now and then I couch surf, another alternative where you don’t spend a dime and you have opportunities to meet and connect with new people.
I could go on about saving for accommodation as there are so many alternatives to sleeping in a hotel (Airbnb, House Sitting, Camping, etc), so I’ve written a seperate blog post on how to save on accomodation while traveling!
Cleaning for Accommodation
This kind of goes along with the last point in terms of reducing the costs of your accommodations. While I was living in Australia and New Zealand, there were a few times where I volunteered to help with cleaning around the hostel in exchange for free accommodation. Although I may have had another paid job in the evenings usually, it didn’t consume a lot of my time, just a couple hours in the mornings. In New Zealand especially, I hardly spent anything on accommodation the whole 10 months I was there and all those saved dollars went to better use elsewhere.
Changing Spending Habits
Most of all, realizing where your money goes and adjusting to buying mostly things you need versus things you want has been a game changer for me. It’s amazing how your mind thinks when you start traveling long term, because you’re always thinking in terms of what your spending now and how that could be used on something more rewarding later. Traveling became a priority for me, so I did all I could to cut back on other expenses so I could put more money towards my trip. I would much rather forgo that daily Starbucks run or trip to the cinemas if it means I can have another day of traveling. There are a lot of little things we spend on a daily basis, that add up over time. Once I realized what all those little things were, I started to prioritize my spending on experiences rather than materialism.
Traveling doesn’t have to be as expensive as most people make it out to be. There are loads of people out there who are doing the exact same thing I am, it’s nothing original. There are ways to do it if you have the time and are willing to do something a little different. If you’re the kind of person who likes to stay in all inclusive resorts, eat out all the time, and do package tours that might be a different story. But if you’re the backpacker kind of traveler, then you can easily get around on a budget if you’re willing to stretch your comfort zone. And travel is usually a lot more rewarding when you do.