When people discover how long I have been travelling (three years) one of the first questions I am asked is ‘how do you afford it?’ Now let me be completely honest straight away. I wish there was a magical answer to this, some secret I could share, but the truth is I too must use the traditional exchange system of cash for goods/services. I did try offering British Airways a goat in return for an economy ticket to Costa Rica but alas, they were quite insistent on payment via Visa or Mastercard. It was probably for the best as I don’t even actually have a goat. So the bad news is you do still need money. The good news is, not as much as you might think.
We’re led to believe that if you opt out of the conventional system of living you will be left penniless, destitute and pretty much screwed as soon as you become ill, elderly or are in need of any assistance. Although I don’t personally agree with this, it might happen, I really have no way of knowing. Many people living within the conventional system can, and sadly do, find themselves screwed plenty of times anyway, there are no guarantees in life. My priorities right now are not about saving money or building any illusions of security, instead I am trying, not always successfully, to embrace experiences and let go of the desire to try and control what happens next. So with that attitude in mind, here are some of the ways I have learnt to travel on a budget.
What do you want?
It is important to have an honest chat with yourself, and ask what you want to get out of your travels. If the answer is to do nothing but sip cocktails on the beach of an exclusive resort in the Maldives then I suggest you get a second job immediately and start saving, or marry very well, or maybe sell your child or something (I’m pretty sure the cute ones fetch quite a high price). I know plenty of people who love the idea of travelling but aren’t prepared to give up the comforts they’ve become accustomed to. There is nothing wrong with this whatsoever, but bear in mind travelling whilst living the high life is going to be much harder. If however the answer is slightly less glamorous and more about “an experience” then read on…
(Photo: A different way of life: Cooking lesson with a friend, roadside dining, voluntary work caring for abandoned and mistreated horses)
The expensive part of travelling is the travel. Yes shocking I know. The cost of planes, trains, and automobiles really cut into your budget. My solution is often that I simply don’t travel that much when I’m travelling! When I pay to get to a country I make the most of it. I mean I REALLY bleed the experience dry. For example, I spent 3 months in just one small village in Sri Lanka. Not hopping from destination to destination does have its advantages. You get to know an area, country, and the people a little bit more and it becomes less of a tourist experience. You also can get cheaper deals because you’ve had time to figure out how things work and are better at haggling.
(Photo: Flying over Sydney Australia, and the patchwork fields of England)
At some point though moving is an unavoidable part of travelling, and flexibility is not surprisingly the key to good deals. Now, bear in mind I don’t have a full time job and need to fill the hours in the day with something…I invented a little game for myself, which I call the “Skyscanner Game”. When searching for flights enter the country you are currently in. Then instead of looking for any specific destination, search for flights to ‘everywhere’. You can also search entire months rather than specific dates. It returns a list of worldwide destinations starting with the cheapest. If you don’t care where and when you go, you can get some very cheap deals. If nothing else it’s super fun to discover you can get to the Congo for a few hundred dollars.
When you’re in a country where internal travel can be pricey, like New Zealand and Australia, transfer cars are a great option. When somebody hires a car or van, but drops it off in another location, companies don’t want to send an employee to pick it up and drive it back. So there are websites where you apply to move it for them. They give you a certain amount of days to do it in, and often include fuel and insurance. Free travel AND free accommodation = winner.
I met a guy from Spain who had been travelling for over a year, yet his short flight from South East Asia to Sri Lanka was the first transport he’d paid for. He had hitch hiked all across Europe and throughout Asia for free. Similarly I met a Canadian guy who did the same sort of thing, but on his bicycle. Now, cycling around the world is really not for me… but it’s about working out what does feel like a good option for you.
If you are prepared to do a little bit of work you can live almost cost neutrally. Help exchange/work away is a very popular option with travellers these days. You do a few hours labour and in return get a place to sleep and sometimes food, and the rest of the day is yours to do what you want. There are several websites you can sign up to or I’ve arranged my own work exchange with businesses and people, just by contacting them directly. It is usually just a short term arrangement, anything from a few days to a few months, which makes it perfect for travelling around.
(Photo: Camping life: Open fire cooking, washing in streams, fresh fish)
When I was in New Zealand I bought a very beat up old car with a girl I met, and we travelled around for a few months sleeping in a tent at beaches. When we left we then sold the car and got our money back. I also spent several months sleeping in a tent on a cliff top in Portugal. There is such a freedom from living in a tent, and a connection with nature that is hard to beat. As a woman travelling alone I’ve never just turned up somewhere with this as my only option. I’ve always got a feel for a place and decided whether it seems appropriate. You can only work within your own comfort zone and I just trust my own intuition about these things.
If the thought of camping makes you want to weep, then maybe house-sitting could be for you. I met a girl who for an entire year in Australia avoided paying any rent by looking after people’s house for them whilst they were away. There are lots of websites you can sign up to, and find a place for shorter or longer periods of time.
One fellow traveller messaged me a year after we first met to ask, “How on earth are you STILL travelling?” My reply was that I try not to spend that much money. She conceded, that’s her problem, she does. The truth is she was looking for a different experience to me and wanted to do trips and costly activities at a destination. She would rather get a taxi from the airport than work out the public transport system, or hitch hike. She wasn’t so keen to try street food and favoured restaurants. It all adds up.
(Photo: The best things in life are free: Going for a dawn surf, camping under the stars with friends, and playing in the sea)
For me it has been about working out my own priorities. The aim of the game isn’t save as much money as possible, or I may as well be at home. It’s meant to be fun or there’s not much point ultimately, but only spend money when you think it is worth it. I wanted a surf board, and so was prepared to sacrifice other things and buy one. A life on the road eliminates so much unnecessary spending that we get into a habit of. I no longer pointlessly buy clothes, household items, furniture, beauty products…the list goes on. I also got a lot better at realising how much entertainment is free (or very inexpensive), what pleasure there is in the nature around you, talking with new company, journaling, painting, reading. I also no longer have bills and contracts that eat away at your finances; Satellite TV, phone contract, a car lease. In short, these days I largely just buy things I need, and it has surprised me how very little in reality you do need.
The hardest thing I have found is not actually making money but instead the anxiety I occasionally decide to subject myself to over my finances. Will I be able to make some money when I need to? What if I can’t get any work? What then??? What if the sky falls in and aliens land and blah blah blah (you get the idea). Like with absolutely everything in life fear is the biggest obstacle, and the reality is never as bad as the panic you can create in your mind. Away from a steady salary there are in reality plenty of options to make money.
(Photo: Yoga teacher training in Kerala, Southern India)
I asked some of my more attractive male friends if they’d consider prostitution so I could become their pimp, and although one initially seemed receptive to the idea in the end I don’t believe his heart was in it, so I’ve since been forced to explore other options. Personally, I like to write, and have an established background in journalism, so I do copy-writing and sell articles. I simply found the work through internet searches, and applied online. Last year in India I trained to become a yoga teacher, although I spent money to do so, it is now also a skill I can use to make money with. I actually enjoy doing a variety of things, especially when I know it is not forever. Do I want to get up at 7am every day for the rest of my life and clean a guest house? No, if I’m honest probably not, but for a month when you are meeting new people and earning some money, it’s pretty fun. Most people eventually tire of their work, no matter how exciting their job is, so the chance to make money from a mix of things can be rewarding.
Take the opportunity to think of what skills and talents you have, and I don’t just mean qualifications or your previous work history. Chances are you are actually capable of doing many more things than you ever gave yourself credit for. These are maybe things that once upon a time you would have never dreamt of making a career from, but could come in very handy. In Bali I met a guy who enjoyed surf and photography, and so he decided to combine the two and sell his pictures. I don’t know what your skills and passions are, but I know you have them.
I am not suggesting that you are not already very nice, I suppose what I actually mean is be open. Before I started travelling I perhaps could have been considered occasionally socially awkward. It’s not that I was rude or weird (I don’t think anyway!) it’s just the thought of small talk and being around new people often made me squirm a little. In fact I once went on holiday alone, and turned down the offer of having a group dinner in favour of finishing off some work. It was the first day of my holiday and rather than mingle with strangers I DID WORK.
(Photo: From travels in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India. It Is the connections you make that enrich the experience)
When you are open and share with people; share your story, share your time, share your attention, you will start to notice how many go out of their way to share with you, and help in any way they can. From meeting people and spending sometimes just a few hours with them, I have been offered (and accepted) the invitation of a place to stay in countries all over the world. So much of my time has been spent at the kind invitation of others. These chance meetings and connections you make change and shape your entire experience. After meeting a girl at a party in Italy she invited me to visit her in Turin, a couple of months later I was at a lose end and decided to take her up on that offer. As soon as I arrived I fell completely in love with the city and stayed over a month, when I had just intended to go for the weekend. On another occasion, someone who I had briefly met saw through Facebook that I was travelling through Switzerland, close to his parents home, and suggested that I stay a night at his mum and dads house. At first I felt a little odd knocking on the door to the house of two complete strangers (whose son I barely even knew) but I quickly got over it, and ended up enjoying a wonderful evening of dinner and conversation with them. I realised that this is the human connection we so often avoid in our regular lives , and it is all a part of what makes travel magical.
The money myth…
I know that I will never be able to convince everybody that the next statement is true. The difficulty of travel is not about finding the money. It is not really about whether you have cash to get around, whether you will find somewhere to stay, whether you will be able to feed yourself. The biggest hurdle to you travelling RIGHT NOW is about whether you can adjust your mindset. Can you break free from a way of life that was taught to you from birth, and that you have most likely followed for as long as you can remember? Can you ignore (or learn to live with) the fearful voice inside that says without a steady job you will end up living in the gutter? Can you look at your current spending habits, the home comforts you have become used to, and realise they are just empty symbols of having a satisfied life? Can you leave the security of only spending time with “your sort of people” and be prepared to connect with your fellow man, no matter how alien they or their lifestyle seems to you? These have been the source of all of my travel demons and my travel delights, because the truth is the real hurdles to travel are in your mind, and not your wallet.