I have been travelling full-time for almost 4 years.
Judging by my Instagram feed and blog, I am living a life most people only dream about. Gallivanting around the globe to experience some of the most beautiful places in the world, I am the envy of all my friends and every new person that I meet along the way. And the most common question I’m asked is:
“How on Earth do you afford it?”.
No. I’m not independently wealthy. I haven’t received a large inheritance (I’m very thankful my parents are still alive) or won the lottery (I wish!). The reality is far more mundane than that.
I saved money while I was still working
I have always been a person who saves money. This practice was instilled in me during my childhood by my mum and dad who never had a lot of money but who saved diligently so they could send me to University. Saving was what our family did. Saving is what I still do.
I admit that I was fortunate to have well-paid jobs for the 15 years before I abandoned the workforce. But this is not a necessity. Provided you earn enough that you have even a small amount of “disposable income” after you cover your essential expenses, you are on your way. It all comes down to what you DO with your money.
Many people choose to spend it. I chose to save it. It is very easy to fall into the consumerism trap, and I do still succumb at times. But generally, I choose to forgo the fleeting pleasure that spending money on most things produces, and save my earnings for more fulfilling and long-term experiences. In my case, this involves traveling the world full-time, but it can be any long-term dream that you have.
I travel in relatively cheap countries (mostly)
The cost of living in the developed world is far more expensive than in the developing world. This should come as no surprise to anyone. It also means that there is a very big difference in the cost of traveling in these places. You can spend far longer in most parts of Central America or South-East Asia than you can in Europe or Australia for the same money. Fortunately, the regions of the world I’m most keen to experience tend to be those that are still developing.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past 4 years traveling through Central America (avoiding Costa Rica), South America (watch out for Chile and Argentina), and Central Asia (otherwise known as the ‘Stans’). With a few exceptions, these parts of the world are relatively cheap by the standards of developed nations, meaning that even my Australian dollars go a long way and I can travel for long periods of time for little money.
I travel slowly
When people go on a holiday of a few weeks, they tend to spend 2 days here and 2 days there and are always on the move. This is understandable. All of us want to get the most out of our short visit to a different place and experience as much as possible while we are there.
One of the advantages of long-term travel is that this pressure is relieved. I usually spend a minimum of 4 days in any one place, and often far longer. For example, I stayed put for 3 weeks in Antigua, Guatemala and chose to spend 6 months based in Quito, Ecuador. This means that I get to explore where I am in far more depth, interacting with locals and discovering things that aren’t listed on TripAdvisor or in your guidebook of choice. I may still visit all the places in a country that another person would, but this is stretched out over a much longer time. The only additional cost is accommodation and food (both of which I talk about below) but my same budget is spread out over months, rather than weeks. When you travel like this, 4 years goes very quickly!
I stay in dormitories in hostels
Prior to travelling full-time, my last stay in a hostel was in 2001 in NYC. Based on that experience, I vowed “never again” and would always stay at a hotel in a private room with an attached bathroom whenever I went on holidays. Given my frugal nature, I would (of course) try to find the cheapest decent option in town – but this was a non-negotiable.
I am therefore very grateful to all the travelers I met in Nicaragua in 2016 who convinced me to stay at the Hostel Casa Verde in Santa Ana while I was traveling through El Salvador. This remains the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in (it has near perfect scores on all the major accommodation sites and is the only accommodation I’ve ever blogged about) and broke down my mental block that hostels were dingy, dirty places that were only suitable for young backpackers on a shoestring budget.
It turns out hostels have come a long way in 15 years!
If you choose according to the online reviews, hostels these days are usually very pleasant places with at least one common area, kitchen, and both private and dormitory accommodation. They are also much cheaper than a hotel and give you the option of cooking for yourself (more on that in a minute). Yes, you will likely have to share a bathroom. But in my experience, the bathrooms are usually kept quite clean by hostel staff.
I stay in dormitories because I am usually traveling alone and it is the cheapest option. Theoretically I’m only in the dormitory to sleep, so why would I pay extra when most the day I’m out and about exploring or hanging out in the common area? Occasionally I come across travelers who don’t understand the appropriate etiquette of dormitory life (don’t turn lights on in the middle of the night, don’t make noise when others are trying to sleep), but most people are generally considerate and try not to disturb you. That being said – I always bring an eye-mask and earplugs – there is invariably a snorer!
Note: if I am traveling with someone else, I still go for hostels but in a private room. Usually they cost just a little more than double the price for a dorm bed, and I do admit it is nice to have your own space.
I rarely eat out
Before embarking on my grand adventure, I was living in Melbourne – the “Foodie Capital” of Australia. Despite this, I would go out to a restaurant perhaps once every few months or when I had a friend visiting. That’s it.
This is also the way I travel.
It is very rare to find me in a restaurant or café unless I have met some people who I really connect with and who suggest a night out. I’m usually exploring markets or trawling the aisles of the supermarkets (interesting experiences in themselves) to purchase ingredients so that I can cook my own meals at the hostel. There are plenty of tasty recipes that require a minimum of ingredients and can be easily prepared in even the most basic kitchen. You save a TON of money by doing this.
That being said, one of the true joys of traveling to a new place, and one of the top things on my personal list of things to do while I travel, is to try as much of the local food as possible. So yes, I will go to a restaurant if that’s the only place I can sample some local delicacy. But more typically I try to find it somewhere cheaper or do a cooking class so there is more to the expense of the experience than just eating a meal.
I very rarely drink out
Going out for coffee (either sitting down in a café or as a takeaway) is now so commonplace in the developed world that we think nothing of it. But if you pause for a moment and do the sums, one cup of coffee each day in many places in the world really adds up! With this one daily habit, you are essentially drinking a significant portion of what could be your holiday budget.
Before I started on my nomadic lifestyle, I almost never indulged in this practice unless I was in a situation that required it, such as a business meeting. I still don’t. I’ll happily make myself a tea or coffee at the hostel I’m staying in (some hostels even have appliances for making drip coffee) and I always carry tea-bags with me.
Similarly, if I do find myself eating out, I always make sure I have a filter bottle full of water with me (no, I don’t buy water either). Or, if I feel like a treat, I will order one non-alcoholic drink and sit on it the entire night.
I really encourage you to do the calculations. You will be surprised how much you can save by simply changing your drinking habits both at home and while abroad.
I am myself
A lesson I learned very early on in my extended travels is that it is not mandatory to tick off everything listed on TripAdvisor. I’d already abandoned guide books several years earlier as I wasn’t interested in most of the “attractions” they highlighted, but I found I was still overly influenced by recommendations I found online.
This epiphany struck at the end of a cigar factory tour that online sources rated as one of the top things to do in the town I was visiting. I don’t smoke and I had previously done a cigar factory tour in another country (the experience was not really very different), and as I was walking back to my hostel, I found myself wondering why I had bothered. It was a sobering thought to realise my answer was “because TripAdvisor told me to”.
From that moment, I vowed to just “Be Lisa” in my travels. I adopted this from Gretchin Rubin’s 12 Personal Commandments in the book “The Happiness Project” (well, hers is actually “Be Gretchin”) and something I remind myself of constantly. For example, I’m generally not interested in churches, statues, fountains or most museums and art galleries. And while I recognise that these may be highlights for another person, but they are just not my thing. However, I do love tasting local food and trying my hand at any local handicraft – so now you now know what I spend my time and money doing while traveling.
If you learn to ignore your FOMO (fear of missing out) and be selective about what you choose to do while traveling, it saves you money and frees up your time so you can more fully enjoy other experiences that are better aligned with your interests.
What are you willing to sacrifice?
The above are some of the key ways I saved money before embarking on my extended travels, and how I limit my expenses while on the road. It is how I’ve managed to travel full-time for 4 years.
Yes, I have made/make many sacrifices to be able to pursue my life of full-time travel. But in the grand scheme of how I want to live my life, these are actually very minor. I happily choose to forgo a daily coffee so that I can fulfil my dreams and pursue more satisfying long-term dreams.
Are you willing to do the same?