Travel Notes

How I Afford to Travel

February 17, 2016

I’ve been travelling around the world on and off for fifteen years, sometimes long term and sometimes on short holidays. But regardless of how I travel, or where I travel, there is one thing I’m always asked:

How do I afford to travel?

I’m asked this by friends, family and strangers, in person and online (and I’m guessing there are a few blog readers who have wondering the same but are perhaps too shy to ask!)

I know that talking about finances can feel a bit ‘taboo’ but I want to answer this question because it’s the same exact question I had before I started travelling! I was a poor college student, living paycheque to paycheque, daydreaming about travelling the world but wondering how on earth I could make it happen??

The short answer is there is no one answer; it’s a combination of hacks, hard work, sacrifice and a lot of good luck. The truth is travel isn’t possible for everyone, but the good news is it is possible for many people who think it’s out of reach. Here are the details of how I make it work for me.

All the details of how I afford long term travel (and practical tips to help you afford your own adventure.)

HOW DO I AFFORD TO TRAVEL

First things first – the question of “How I Afford to Travel” is really two separate questions:

  • How much do I spend on travel?
  • Where do I get the funds to travel?

I’m going to start by addressing the first question because the truth is I spend a lot less on travel than you may think. In fact, the real ‘secret’ to frequent, long term travel is learning to spend less on travel >> I usually have a budget of about $150 USD/week! (Although of course sometimes I spend more or less depending on the trip I have planned. On my current trip I have a bigger budget but I saved more in advance – more details at below.) Here are some of the ways I keep my travel costs low.

TRAVEL TO CHEAP COUNTRIES

The vast majority of my travels have been to developing countries where the cost of travelling is very low. For example, in Guatemala or Laos, you can easily live off less than $20/day.

Some regions to consider travelling to if you’re on a tight budget are South America, Central America, Southeast Asia, and parts of Eastern Europe (although there are expensive destinations within each of these regions.)

TRAVEL SLOW

Whenever possible, I prefer to travel slow. In general, the slower you travel, the less you spend:

  • You save money on transport costs (buses, trains, etc.) These costs can really add up, even in developing countries.

  • The longer you spend in one place, the more ‘inside’ tips you get to know (like where to buy cheap groceries or which bars have the best happy hours!)

  • Sometimes hostels/guesthouses offer discounts for longer stays. (This is especially true on Airbnb – use this link and get an additional discount off your first trip!)

  • When you travel slow, you tend to enjoy more free activities (like hiking and people watching) because you’re not trying to pack as much as possible into each day. You still spend money on activities, but your overall cost per day goes down.

I’ve also found that slow travel invites more opportunities; you have more time to meet locals or other travellers, often leading to fun (and money saving) adventures – like the time I hitched a free ride from Guatemala to El Salvador with a van of surfers (in exchange for my limited translating skills!)

RELATED POSTS: How to Find Cheap Round the World Flights (Tips from a Former Travel Agent)

TRAVEL WITH OTHER PEOPLE

I’ve travelled alone and absolutely loved it, but it’s often much cheaper to travel with friends or family. You can split accommodation costs, car hire, groceries, etc.

For example, earlier this year I did a private tour in Morocco with friends. The tour price was per car, not per person, and I would have paid double the price if Mike and I had gone alone.

All the details of how I afford to travel long term (and practical tips to help you afford your own adventure.)

LOWER YOUR STANDARDS

Sorry to be blunt! But if travel and adventure are your ultimate goals, sometimes you have to sacrifice comfort (or cleanliness …)

Here are just a few examples of times my standards have hit rock bottom:

  • Slept in filthy and/or basic hostels (mattress on a cement floor, sheets as wall, squat toilets)

  • Forgone comforts like air conditioning, fans, or even windows in the heat of summer (sometimes to save as little as a $1 a night!)

  • Chosen local buses over tourist buses (turning a 5 hour trip into an epic 14 hour journey!)

I’ll be honest, this gets harder to do as I get older! But a good money saving tip is to use a ‘high-low’ approach: rough it for a few nights and then reward yourself with a more comfortable option.

VOLUNTEER OR DO A WORK EXCHANGE

This is one of the best ways to travel on the cheap. There are a variety of sites (WWOOF, Workaway, HelpX) where you can find free or low cost opportunities to work in exchange for room and board.

A few years ago I volunteers in Thailand with Safari Park Volunteers and the total cost for two weeks (including full room and board) was less than $300. I also spent a summer in China, teaching English for 6 weeks, for only $500 including flights from the US. (Here is the program website, but note that I worked with them 15 years ago – I have no idea if they are still reputable.)

RELATED POSTS: Thinking of Volunteering Abroad? 6 Travel Bloggers Share Their Stories From Around the World

All the details of how I afford to travel long term (and practical tips to help you afford your own adventure.)

WHERE DO I GET THE FUNDS TO TRAVEL?

Hopefully I’ve been able to show you that it’s possible to travel for less than you may have originally thought! I truly believe that you can have an amazing adventure with as little as a few thousand dollars to get you started.

But of course – the longer you travel, the more money you need! And I’ve travelled long term several times (including my current trip) so I’ve obviously needed a lot more money to fund my trips.

So it’s time to get personal. I’m not suggesting all of these methods are suitable (or possible) for everyone, but I’ve tried to be as honest and transparent as possible about how I have funded (and am currently funding) my travels.

EARN MONEY ABROAD

In my early twenties I funded my first long term trip by working abroad.

I moved home for a few months to save money for a one way plane ticket to Europe (these days you can find fares for under $300 or you could get a credit card with a frequent flyer point offer.) After buying my ticket I had $500 left to live off until I found a job.

I ended up working for 6 months in the UK, 4 months in Ireland, and nearly a year in New Zealand (and I did a lot of travelling on the weekends and in between jobs.)

Here are a few things to know about working abroad:

  • If you’re young (usually under 30) there are ‘Working Holiday’ visas that allow you to work and travel. You don’t need special skills and the application process is usually very simple. There are different rules depending on where you’re from and where you want to go; Google ‘Working Holidays visas for {insert your nationality}’ to find more info. I used BUNAC to work in the UK and Ireland; the visa scheme I participated in is no longer available for Americans, but there are some alternatives.)

  • I was able to travel long term because the wages abroad were much higher than what I earned in the States doing similar jobs (waitressing, pub work, office admin.) It was also possible to find jobs which included room and board.

In interest of full disclosure I want to mention two things: firstly, it was very risky for me to go overseas without a backup plan or more savings (but I was young and very optimistic!); and secondly, before I went to New Zealand my brother passed away and I received a small inheritance. However, I spent very little of my inheritance on travel and continued to fund my trip by working abroad.

BORROW MONEY

In my mid twenties, I funded what I like to call my ‘quarter life crisis’ trip by borrowing money. (I did save some money but I borrowed much more.) I have very mixed feelings about borrowing money for travel.

On one hand being in debt is absolutely one of the most horrible feelings in the world. It’s a slippery slope and can easily get seriously out of hand. It took me a very long time to pay off all the debt I acquired travelling and I wasted so much money on interest payments.

On the other hand, this trip (and a few other smaller trips I funded by borrowing money) have absolutely shaped my life. I know with 100% certainty that I would not have the life I have right now if I hadn’t gone on these trips. So I have no regrets about my choices.

I think that ultimately, I feel that borrowing for travel is similar to taking out a student loan. (After all, travel teaches you so much about life.) It’s a personal decision and you need to think carefully about what you can afford and how you will pay for it later, before signing on the dotted line.

RELATED POSTS: 5 Unexpected Lessons I Learned From Travel

SAVING MONEY

I currently fund my travels by working, living simply, and saving money. It’s not sexy or exciting but it’s true!

For the past two years I worked full time in a ‘normal’ paying administrative job and my husband had a similar job. During this time, we paid off all our debt and started to save between 50-75% of our income.

How? By living well below our means. Here are a few examples:

  • We lived in a small studio apartment (bathroom and kitchen was shared with our neighbours.)

  • I drove a small, older car and my husband walked to work.

  • We bought most of our clothes, household goods, etc secondhand (and we didn’t buy much.)

  • We chose not to have cable TV (actually we don’t own a TV), Netflix, and we don’t have phone contracts (we have older phones and prepay what we need.)

  • We buy a lot of our groceries at local markets (and buy what’s in season), limit our meat consumption (we eat meat but in small portions), and reduce food wastage. (Check out this post explaining our Simple Eating philosophy.)

We aren’t completely frugal – we choose to spend money on things we love (like eating out – our weakness!!) but we choose not to spend on things that don’t really matter to us. A few years ago I started adopting a minimalist lifestyle, which has made savings so much easier.

RELATED POSTS: How I Became a Minimalist (Why I Choose to Live with Less)

ON A FINAL PERSONAL NOTE

I believe that life is about tradeoffs. For the most part, you can’t have everything, but you can have what you want most.

For those who are curious, I’m not employed. I don’t have a job waiting at home for me and I don’t make money on this blog (at least not yet, although I do hope to do so one day.) I used to own my own home but I sold it a few years ago. I don’t have security in the traditional sense.

However, I do have savings and investments (seperate from my travel fund) and at this stage in my life I’m confident in my ability to find work when I need it. I never burn bridges, I have a good professional reputation and a network of references. Am I guaranteed work when I need it? No, of course not, but I’m okay with that. At this stage in my life I value freedom over security.

My plans for the next few years are to continue travelling. I will work along the way when I need to and I’m not sure when (if ever) I’ll return to stable, 9 to 5 work. Maybe I’ll regret this decision one day but for now, it’s what feels most authentic and right for me. Choosing to travel is about choosing my priorities.

I hope this post has given you some insight into how I afford to travel (and given you some ideas about how you can travel too – if you’re so inclined.)

What sacrifices have you made to travel? Or what sacrifices would you make to travel? Let me know in the comments! x

photo credit : (top) Sergio Vilas // (middle) Steven Lewis // (bottom) Josh Felise // Used with permission

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  • Wow– this is the most transparent piece on this topic that I’ve ever read. So insightful– and full of realities that are rarely ever represented on pretty travel blogs or on Instagram. Thank you so much for this; I completely agree that long-term travel requires real, long-term sacrifices. It’s not for everyone, but for those of us who love adventure, it’s more than worth it.

    • Thanks so much Daisy 🙂 It was a real challenge to write, but I’ve tried to be as honest as possible. I hope I’ve conveyed a balanced picture! xx

  • Three cheers for lowering your standards! 🙂 I’m reminded of this time in China when I took a 14-hour ride on an overnight bus that had no bathroom and played super loud techno music, and in case that wasn’t bad enough, at 3am the bus drove onto a ferry and they made us all get off and stand in cold sloshing water on the deck for an hour. It was awful. And by awful, I kind of mean awesome (and I definitely mean CHEAP).

    Anyway…these are such great tips — thanks for sharing them!

    • Haha – yay for lowering standards 🙂 It reminds of me of a quote that goes (roughly) something like this: If you want to be rich you need to earn more or want less. That bus ride reminds me of all the travel moments that drive you mad at the time, but make great memories. Thanks for sharing yours xx

  • Christine

    Great post, Jenn! It’s important to prioritize your travel savings if travel is something you want to do. I deprioritize other spending areas in my every day life like dining out or clothing so that I can save that money to go abroad.

    I have no problem lowering my standards when I travel except my partner works in luxury travel so he’s use to the 5-stars and comfort. It’s nice to have that luxury sometimes but I travel for the authentic local experience. We’ve compromised with our Asia trip by splitting the cities up so he plans our itinerary for half of the places we’re traveling to and I plan the others. Problem is, it’s his first time to Asia and he’s not use to the “cheap” prices. Last week he brought up taking a hydroplane from Hanoi to Halong Bay! We’ll see how that goes 🙂

    • Ahh Christine, I definitely understand! I used to work in luxury travel for a bit myself 🙂 Now I try and do the high/low method and throw in something a bit nicer every once in a while. (The key is always doing something a bit ‘rougher’ first, not the luxury first, so that you’re not disappointed! Good luck with your trip planning xxx

  • I love how you added photos of the heading titles. And you’re right; it’s different for everyone (for me, too!) but I loved hearing how you do it. You’re spending on what matters to you, so thumbs up!

  • This is a great post Jennifer and shows that travel can be a possibly as long as your prioritize it! I have funded my travels through my savings (I don’t really work right now or have a job back home waiting either), but I’d also be hiding part of the truth if I didn’t admit that my bf making some money online. So we don’t have to lower our living standards too much (I’m pretty sure I will never live anywhere with a squat toilet!). But we do look for the most reasonably priced rentals in a city and eat local food or cook if that’s cheaper. And when I tell people how much our travels cost, they are always surprised that the two of us travel for LESS money per month (including rental, food, fun stuff) than what we were spending on rent alone back home in Los Angeles!!

    • So sorry Anna – I was sure I responded to this comment but somehow it’s not here … anyway, thanks so much for sharing a bit about how you fund your travels! I completely agree that so many people don’t realise that travelling is often cheaper than ‘living’! Happy travels x

  • Kelly

    Thanks for sharing this with us! It helped a lot!

  • Frugal Millennial

    Interesting tips! I don’t currently travel because I’m paying off student loan debt, but these tips will come in handy in the future. Thanks for sharing!