If I were to tell you that you could travel the world for free, would you drop everything right now and go? Most would likely not believe me.
Despite the ridiculous number of resources that the Internet age has borne to help us travel cheaper, the overwhelming perception is that travel has to be expensive. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Resources to find affordable (and even free) travel options exist these days in droves. There truly are no more excuses that money is an obstacle to experiencing the world.
Everything we need in order see the world can be ours for cheaper than it ever has been before. With his unconventional and ruthlessly effective approaches to money, lifestyle design, and entrepreneurship, Andrew Walton reveals how it’s possible to travel longer, farther, and better, on any budget, even if you don’t have room for one at all.
What do you love the most about travelling?
The practically endless opportunity!
Travel is the death of stagnant, life-sucking routine and the birth of creativity, excitement, and a sense of purpose.
It’s like a choose your own adventure story where the main character is you and the adventure is your life. Through travel, instead of the primary options to choose from being “go to the office” and “do housework” we can also choose go to the market / temple / beach / museum / forest / river / cafe / safari and so on, as well as 100s if not 1,000s of different activities.
Such opportunity is an amazing thing, and something that we ought to capitalize on! I love how every day I wake up knowing that I’m living my life without holding anything back.
What inspired you to start travelling?
Ironically, I left Canada for the same reason most people come: to create opportunities for myself.
I had health issues that saw me not talk for 2.5 years in my early 20s. At the same time I couldn’t use my hands, so no typing, writing, or even sign language to communicate. I ended up dropping out of university just before my final year because of this, and needless to say I wasn’t working a 9-to-5.
Fast forward several years, and my girlfriend of the time and I went to the Grand Cayman Islands and “talked” about traveling the world for a year using some “words” we created with arm movements.
It was the best I had felt in ages. So when I finally recovered enough to talk a bit each day and handle my basic needs, I rejected the idea of going right into some job that I probably couldn’t keep anyways.
Instead, I sold all my stuff, bought a plane ticket overseas and decided that – succeed or fail – from now on I’m living on my own terms and not letting circumstance decide for me.
I’m still travelling to this day so I’d say it’s worked out alright.
Why is travel the only thing you buy which makes you richer?
In his seminal book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely explains that people who buy experiences, not things, experience both immediate and long term increases in happiness.
So while travel might not be the only experience that fits the bill, I’d argue it’s the best.
Travel is an experience that keeps on giving – keeps on enriching. It’s an investment in ourselves. Much unlike “stuff”, which keeps on taking our space, time, attention, and money. Think of the car that loses 30-40% when driven off the lot, requires insurance, upkeep, repairs, garage and/or parking space.
Personally I find myself richer investing this same time, money and energy in travel.
Why don’t the majority of people travel?
I think the #1 barrier to travel is money. And specifically the belief that we need more of it to travel both long and well.
Despite the ridiculous number of resources that the Internet age has borne to help us travel cheaper, the overwhelming perception is that travel has to be expensive.
Of course, this will be hard to change in a billion dollar industry where exorbitant advertising budgets are the norm. All the images we see of travel in ads, magazines, and on TV tend to be of the luxury variety, and that’s not about to change.
To make matters worse, most budget options have an aura of fear surrounding them – often undeserved. Like when the FBI launched an anti-hitchhiking campaign in the 50s because activists were using it as a means of getting to rallys.
The result is the average consumer sees themselves stuck between shelling out a ton of cash for a luxury vacation, or faced with the threat of imminent death from unseen foes lurking in the shared bathroom of their budget hostel.
Reality isn’t at all like this.
So how do you afford to travel?
I don’t focus on minutiae like the price of dental floss, or taking a local bus to save 2 hours of walking, but on a few, key big wins that account for 80% or more of a normal travel budget.
This makes my travel surprising cheap and stress free.
Like anyone, it all comes down to the balance between income and expenses.
For starters, I keep my expenses low by traveling slowly. I don’t fly often, which is often the biggest cost on one’s travel budget. When I do fly, I get great prices, which we can discuss a bit later.
After that, I try to rent an apartment in my destination, which is better than hotels by far and can be more convenient than hostels – though these too are options. For instance, I stayed in Kuala Lumpur for about $100-120 a month in a hostel, and I rented a single room home on the island of Koh Samui in Thailand, a 5 minute ride by scooter to the beach (pictured below), for ~3700 Thai Baht in March 2014 (105 USD).
In Russia my rent is more like $160, but the current economic crisis makes this a strange number as I’m not using dollars at all. A better measurement than dollars is time, especially while you’re abroad, and it costs me about 9h of my time (per month) to afford my accommodation here.
So note that you don’t have to hitchhike and CouchSurf to keep costs down, even though I recommend both and do them myself.
As for income, there are a ton of options which I cover in my guide 101 Ways to Make Money While Traveling. I tend to teach English privately (I also used to do distance Skype lessons with a Japanese company), translation work (Russian to English), marketing consulting (particularly SEO), and freelance writing.
Note that I don’t make a cent from travel writing/blogging. It’s not necessary to make money from travel to travel!
Why don’t you need to be rich to travel the world?
Money is not the only thing of value. For those without money, we can use time, energy, and plain old human ingenuity to get what we want.
Let’s start with a thought experiment: Can you get all the things required to travel and live comfortably for free?
The answer is yes:
Accommodation: CouchSurf, house sit, volunteer, certain work exchanges.
Transport: Hitchhike, bike, or walk. Also: free flights with travel points.
Food: Go to markets at closing time and get the unsellable stuff, ask restaurant owners for extras, table dive, barter or trade labor.
Clothing & other necessities: Barter or scavenge.
So we’ve already proved it’s possible without any money.
But this isn’t super luxurious, right? We’re at “possible” but not “desirable” for most folks. Though that said, we’re actually not all that bad off. Even this $0 model doesn’t require sleeping under bridges and dumpster diving.
Still, a few upgrades would likely be nice. And it’s very simple. Take this $0 starting point and add a bit of cash into the system until our minimum quality standards are met.
Several hundred bucks and we’ve covered insurance, fresh food from markets, and toiletries in many destinations. $400 and we could live in Thailand, Kuala Lumpur, or Russia in non-luxurious, but totally adequate conditions.
If you still feel that travel has to be expensive – make things concrete. Find out the exact costs to stay in your dream destination so you have something tangible to save for instead of feeling a vague sense of lack.
If I know that I can live in Peru for $550 a month, I don’t need to worry about money. I can look at my finances and say “hey, I can do this right now” or “hmm, I need to do something else to make this happen. Now what could that be?”
All the resources to find affordable travel options exist these days. There are no more excuses. Big travel companies do not have a monopoly on your travel budget. Everything we need to see the world can be ours for cheaper than ever.
Give us some tips for financing world travel?
I like to stick to simple principles literally any person can start implementing today. To me solid finance comes down to 3 things:
- Separating our income from expenses: We need to learn to start putting some money aside – no matter how much we make. Even 5% to start if it’s tough, because it’s about the habit first and foremost. For as long as our income and expenses are linked, no travel goals can be reached. We think more money will solve the problem. It doesn’t. Breaking the “spend as much as you earn” cycle does. The best part is anyone can do it. Start now.
- Focus on big wins, not minutiae: Refinancing your mortgage; getting rid of an old, money sucking car; and consolidating your debt could save $100s if not $1000s a year. That’s way better than clipping coupons for hours to save $0.25 on jam.
- Automation: Decisions you have to make every day are the path to failure. For instance, trying to save money by giving up your morning coffee is doomed to failure, since every morning you have to burn willpower against your desire. Look for the big wins instead.The same goes for setting aside part of our income. If we have to physically do this every paycheck, it’ll be harder than if we set up our bank accounts to automatically do it. Nothing to think about means no chances to fail.
Other than that I’d suggest getting a hobby, something where you don’t need the external world to entertain you. This will help keep expenses down on the road, be a source of joy, and possibly even income.
For example, I love learning languages. Katia knits. I used to play guitar, which could potentially be a source of income as well as a hobby. My enjoyment isn’t tied to the spending of money, and this makes huge budget differences over the course of the year. I still love going to the movies and to cafes, but I don’t do it because I need them to fill a hole in my life.
How much money do you really need to travel the world?
This is a topic that particularly interests me, so I save every budget I find in a folder.
We all have different thresholds for comfort, convenience and the like, so what I can say is this:
Jodi from Legal Nomads has a nice budget section on her About page linking to a ton of “round the world” flights. This type of travel seems to ring in at about $1,500 per month or $18,000 per year. This is also the exact amount that Nomadic Matt suggests in his book “How to Travel the World on $50 a Day.”
I think there’s a sufficient amount of evidence to suggest that this number is accurate for the average budget traveller who moves to a new spot every 2-4 weeks and tends to fly.
However, I think we can do better than this. To me, my number would be $1,000 per month. $750 for normal living expenses plus setting aside $250/mo for future flights. That’s living on half of what conventional budget travel looks like. I usually do it for less, but I think for most people $1,000 will be just about the right balance between budgeting and spending – at least at the start.
This really doesn’t require something extraordinary if we spend our time in parts of Asia, Central or South America, or have some arrangement that helps cover all or part of our food and lodging costs.
It’s really a matter of matching a skill you have to a need someone else has and trading things. Money, time, labor, goods – whatever.
As for putting everything together and making it happen? Well that’s why I wrote my guide to traveling the world on any budget.
Best tips for banking abroad?
Banking can be one of the most complicated topics on the planet if we let it – even more so banking on the road. So as with many things, my strategy is to keep things as simple as possible.
There aren’t too many things we require of a bank: security of funds, easy access around the globe (availability of ATMs or branches), and low or no ATM fees.
US citizens are lucky: a Charles Schwab Investor Checking Account will eliminate all ATM fees worldwide.
The rest of us aren’t quite so lucky. An HSBC Checking Account can be opened by non-US citizens and is a popular choice for travelers because they have ATMs all around the globe. Unfortunately ATM fees are still in effect.
I use a simple 3-account system to keep my funds safe.
#1: A personal checking account: This is for non-travel purposes, such as paying bills or a mortgage back home. I also use this for my website’s expenses. This account can be used to replenish a travel account in an emergency.
#2: A travel checking account: An account for travel expenses, including cash withdrawals. This will be the most active account and therefore the one the most at risk. I’m fairly aggressive with this one, keeping a very minimal balance on it at all times – except when I’m about to go take out cash. In this case, I’ll top up the amount I’m about to withdrawal.
#3: Travel Savings Account: This account has no cards attached to it and can only be accessed online (or in person at a bank). I use this to transfer cash into my travel checking account when needed.
With my preferred style of slow travel, I usually end up operating in the local currency and rarely have to go to the bank for cash – hence very few ATM fees.
What are the best ways for travellers to protect their cash?
One of the best ways is the most simple – a wallet with a chain that attaches to your pants. I’m wise enough to know that if a skilled pickpocket wants to get into my pocket, they’ll probably succeed, but most of them aren’t ready to disengage the wallet from the chain. It’s not foolproof, nothing is, but it stacks the odds in your favor.
Money belts are another option which are incredibly effective against anything short of physical violence, but not so comfortable to wear. I use one for short trips if I don’t know an area but not in general.
Matt Karsten from The Expert Vagabond has a nice idea to sew a pocket in your pants and even has a guide.
But for most people, the path of least resistance is usually the best.
As for leaving money in my bag, I don’t do it. I trust myself more than any secret compartments.
In more practical terms, keeping cash safe is mostly a matter of good decision making. Getting incredibly drunk in a strange town and trying to get home at night is a recipe for all sorts of things to go wrong. Criminals look for their prey late at night under just such circumstances. That’s not to say don’t, just understand the risk factor is higher.
What are your tips for finding cheap flights?
This topic I think is much simpler than it seems. The price you’ll pay is directly proportional to your 1) flexibility and 2) patience. I have a really simple system to figure it all out.
Searching for Tickets – Preliminary Research
My 2 obligatory searches are on Skyscanner & Kayak Explore. They let you see prices to multiple destinations simultaneously, which makes the search process much more streamlined. Even if you already have a destination chosen, it might be cheaper to fly to a different city, spend some time there, and then go overland to your final destination.
I did exactly this at the start of my adventure, flying into Prague for 3 days, then taking the train to Avignon in France for the same price as a direct flight. I never would have found this option if I hadn’t seen on Skyscanner some rock bottom prices from Canada to the Czech capital.
(Note: to quickly scout overland opportunities use Rome2Rio.com)
Here’s an example of what I mean:
If I wanted to go to France or Poland, I could likely fly into Germany (Frankfurt in my experience often has the best prices from North America), spend some time there, and grab a train or use one of Europe’s many ridesharing services to get to my final destination at no extra cost.
Proof (via Rome2Rio):
Even the most expensive option, the $120 train, results in a slight savings on our part. This will be even bigger by choosing another option.
Searching for Tickets – Drilling Down
After choosing some candidate destinations it’s time to get specific about when and with what airline we fly. I start by looking for the perfect day to fly on. Lots of services have a “flexible search option” that will allow you to search 3 days before or after you selected date.
Here, I expand my search to other search engines such as Momondo, Hipmunk, and CheapOAir.
If you’ve never searched with multiple engines before, try out 10-15 and see which ones you prefer. I use 5-8 on average at this stage. I feel any more than this is just going to waste time.
At this point you should have narrowed things down to your top 3-5 options. My final step is to always check with the airline carrier’s website itself – such as Delta, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic, or whomever is flying your chosen route. Sometimes you can find a deal that wasn’t made available to these aggregating sites.
I love this system because it doesn’t just get great results, it’s also efficient. To me, spending 17 hours searching for a “deal” doesn’t make sense – out time has value too.
When to Buy
Multiple studies have shown that 8 weeks out is the cheapest time to buy. Weekends are also more expensive times to buy, as well as fly.
Therefore if there’s less than 8 weeks before you fly and you find a good price, buy now. Or look for a flight at a later date.
If it’s more than 8 weeks out you need to ask yourself: Is the savings I might get by waiting worth the extra I’ll have to pay if prices go up instead? Say you’ve found a bargain ticket – is it likely prices will drop another 10%? Not extremely likely – it’s already a bargain!
One exception I can think of is if you’re searching on a weekend. In that case, it might be wise to wait until midweek.
Factor in the fact that then I have to wait and monitor the price and worry about it. Our time and energy are worth something too, and I’d rather snag some tickets at a good price and have peace of mind than gamble on the deal of the century.
What options are available for cheap or free accommodation?
Here’s a travel myth that desperately needs busting – that finding a place to stay has got to cost an arm and several legs.
There are actually a huge number of ways to get free accommodation:
- Hospitality exchanges: Where you stay for free, usually with the expectation you’ll spend time with your host, but not obligatory. Sites such as CouchSurfing, Hospitality Club, Global Freeloaders, and WarmShowers.org.
- Home Exchanges: Why not swap homes with someone in the country of your dreams? Everyone gets a vacation, and without the hotel fees! Try: Home Exchange, Trampolinn.
- Volunteer/Work Exchanges: Organizations such as WWOOFing make it possible to volunteer on organic farms in return for room and board. Also try Work Away.
- House/Pet Sitting: A favorite of many long-term travelers, as you get to stay in someone’s home in return for looking after the place while the owner is away. The 3 most popular sites are Trusted House Sitters, Mind My House, and HouseCarers. Note that each site charges a yearly fee (from $20-$99 depending on the site).
- Working at a hostel in exchange for a room. You can check out a bunch of opportunities here.
For cheap accommodation there are 3 methods I recommend:
- Renting a home or apartment the way locals do (no luxury palaces for this traveller)
- Budget hostels (hostelbookers.com is all you really need)
- Sites like AirBNB, where you can rent a home or room, oten for rates just a bit more than hostels.
It’s really just a matter of choosing something that suits your taste. Who knew it could be so easy!
Alternative options to consider for cheap or free transport?
The freest options are of course: hitchhiking, biking and walking. Even though I’ve done a fair bit of hitching and I love biking and fully endorse both, they aren’t nearly as accommodating to the average traveler as “conventional” ground transport – busses, trains, cars, dog sleds, and horse drawn carriages.
So I’d like to look primarily at those modes of transport most people would be comfortable using.
Most of my searches for overland transport start with Rome2Rio.
I love getting great deals, but I value my time even more, and with R2R I can see bus, rail, carpooling, car rental (fuel cost) and even boat transport all in the same search. They have route plans even between those tiny towns most people never hear of.
This includes price ranges and estimated distances. Since they also show air routes, you’ll often be able to see at a glance if it makes sense in terms of time and money to go by air or ground.
Of course, this is not a 100% accurate picture of reality, but it does give us a surprisingly good basis for further research.
One of the best things about R2R is that it can help you find local bus/train services – something that’s difficult to do on Google without knowledge of the local language (you’ll end up with tours, luxury services, and other big search sites). Just click on the desired route and you’ll see who runs it.
Taking the previous example, say I’ve never been to Europe and I don’t know who operates bus lines in Greece:
Now we’ve discovered Euro Interlines and can go directly to their site for further searches if we want, drilling down the same way we did for plane tickets (routes, times, overnight options).
Whether you use Rome2Rio or a different search engine, the above technique is limited by the amount of information published online. In many parts of the world you can only find route info at bus stations themselves. In both Thailand and Russia I’ve taken privately operated transport vehicles (usually large vans equipped to handle 8-12 people) that had no online listings for way cheaper than what you can find online.
These are often how locals get around, and you often need to be lucky to find them.
Or you can just ask a local.
If you’re traveling outside Europe or the English speaking world, this sort of transport is much more common and possibly the norm. If you’re in Western Africa, good luck finding online timetables for local bus routes in English.
This technique is simple: I’d pop on CouchSurfing or another travel community site (Lonely Planet’s ThornTree forums for one) and ask around for these local options. Or you can wait until you’ve arrived and ask around. This is what I do, as I have enough experience to know things will work out when I’m on the ground.
A recent sample result: Saint Petersburg to Helsinki for $20. Compare that to the best price I found online: $35. That’s the power of going local.
Tips for eating well on any budget?
My biggest advice for eating well on any budget is to focus on your transport and lodging costs. These are the biggest expenses for an overwhelming majority of travellers. Finding a place to get mangoes and kumquats for $2.50 instead of $2.75 per kilo is cool, but if you’re spending $35 a night on your room, you’re looking for savings in the wrong place.
We have to make food decisions 3 times a day on average, whereas we have to choose a hostel or flight just once in any given time frame. Getting those big decisions right make a huge difference.
Within the realm of food itself, there aren’t too many big wins. To me there are only 3 that count for all but the tiniest of budgets:
- Eating in tourist areas vs anywhere else;
- Drinking alcohol during meals vs water; and
- Eating at restaurants vs buying food at supermarkets.
Say if someone ate out at restaurants 3x a day, sometimes in tourist areas, and always took coffee, tea, or an alcoholic beverage, I’d recommend a small change like 1-2 restaurants per day and 1 drink. Further optimization should only be done on a case-by-case basis or out of necessity. Even this much will be pushing some people too hard.
But I have to reiterate, eating well is a function of your approach to travel as a whole far more than it is to food itself. It’s not intuitive, but it works.
What is one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you started travelling?
Honestly? To start a travel blog! In a rather short time it’s created a bunch of opportunities for me and I’ve connected with so many other amazing travelers at the same time.
Why should people travel?
Travel helps us understand people – particularly ourselves. It helps break down our illusions and biases about the world and see things the way they really are.
This is especially important in a world that’s increasingly connected with every passing day.
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Photo Credits: Featured Photo + all money images by Images Money. Hostel photos by Barnacles Budget Accom. Koh Samui Beach by Iker Urteaga. Bike on the beach by Beverley Goodwin. Guitar playing over Santorini, Greece by Mike Mentz. Asking a local by Gabriel Rodríguez. Cocktail by Bart Speelman. Grocery Store by Sharon & Nikki McCutch.