“How can you afford to travel?”
This is a question we get asked over and over, and since I’ve been reflecting on what’s now been a full year of travel, I thought I’d do a post that explains how we’re making it work. The answer is three-fold: we travel on a tight budget, we work while we’re traveling (both in-person and online), and we saved up before we left.Affordable destinations, work exchange, and other keys to funding long-term #travel & creating a #digitalnomad lifestyle. Click To Tweet
Traveling on a Budget
For us, budget travel has meant choosing affordable destinations, forgoing some luxuries, and being conscious about where we spend our money. But perhaps most importantly – traveling is not as expensive as you think.
The Real Cost of Travel
First, a word on how much it actually costs to travel. The idea that traveling is expensive and only for rich people is a sad myth perpetuated by… I’m not exactly sure who. Ask any backpacker or budget traveler, and they’ll tell you the truth. Of course, some destinations are inherently more expensive, and there are plenty of ways to blow money anywhere if you want to. But while traveling in Southeast Asia for the past year, we’ve spent significantly less in total than we spent on rent alone in Boston.
Some specific examples? We pay around $15 per night on accommodations, and our meals normally cost between $1 (for street food) and $5 (for Western food in a nice sit-down restaurant). Coffee, beer, and fresh fruit smoothies (which are gloriously available everywhere) are $0.50-$2. In most places, a bike rental runs $1-$2 per day, and a motorbike is $5-$10. And those yoga retreats that sound so indulgent? They can be less than $300 for a whole week, all-inclusive.
Have we convinced you yet that traveling doesn’t have to be expensive? This isn’t to say that “everybody can afford to travel,” because that’s obviously not true. But if you choose affordable destinations (South Asia, Central America, and Eastern Europe are other budget-friendly regions) and are willing to forego some luxury, you definitely don’t need to be “rich” to do it.
Saving Money While Traveling
In addition to being choosy about we where go, we take lots of other measures to keep our costs low. We travel slowly, usually staying in each place for a week or more, which is useful not only for saving money but also for getting work done (see below). We travel by land instead of flying and take public transportation when possible, which is good for our wallets and for the environment.
We often see sights independently instead of through organized tours, and take advantage of free things to do wherever we go – like exploring markets, taking self-guided walking tours, and hanging out at beaches or parks. We choose basic accommodations, usually eat street food or go to inexpensive restaurants, and mostly stick to local beer instead of imported wine or fancy cocktails.
That’s not to say we travel so cheaply that it’s miserable, which I’ve seen people do. It’s more about splurging on the things that actually make us happy and foregoing the ones we don’t really care about. We gladly pay extra for A/C during the hot season, sleeper cars when we take overnight trains, and salads at hipster cafes every once in a while.
Working While Traveling
Even when you’re traveling on a budget, though, the expenses add up eventually, and the only reason we’ve been able to stay on the road for so long is because we work while we’re traveling. The work we’ve done in some of the places we’ve visited has helped further cut our expenses, but our actual earning comes mainly through freelance writing, which we can do from anywhere.
Work exchange typically means doing a job in exchange for accommodations, meals, or other benefits, instead of being paid in cash. We’ve had a few different work exchange positions over the past year, which have helped us cut our travel costs, given us valuable experience, and introduced us to some awesome people.
When we left the U.S., I intended to look for opportunities to teach yoga in the places we visited, but wasn’t really sure how feasible it would be. As it turns out, there are many, many studios, hotels, and retreat centers all over Southeast Asia (and elsewhere) that hire traveling yoga teachers on a work exchange basis.
I’ve now taught in both Cambodia and Laos, and these teaching positions helped us cut our costs by providing meals, accommodations, and other benefits – and they gave me a chance to do something I love.
Even better, the place I taught in Laos had positions for both of us. The studio was located inside a hotel whose owners also run a few other businesses in town. While I was teaching, Ryan was doing photography and social media for the studio, two hotels, a café, and a pony farm (yes, pony farm).
It was really the perfect set-up for us… If you know of any businesses that simultaneously need a yoga teacher and a photographer/social media manager, let us know!
I should add a caveat here: while work exchange is very popular, the unfortunate reality is that it often takes jobs away from local people, which is especially problematic in developing countries. Many places hire foreigners to do things like housekeeping, gardening, and bartending on a work exchange basis – instead of providing a job to someone in the local community. While it’s not completely without issue, I feel much better about taking positions that require skills or certifications that aren’t easily found locally.
Another type of exchange that’s available to most anyone who’s reasonably responsible and loves animals is housesitting. While it doesn’t require a specific skill, I think housesitting’s still a good exchange option for travelers, since many countries don’t have a strong culture of owning pets or caring for domestic animals.
Housesitting is pretty much what it sounds like. You stay at somebody’s home while they’re out of town, and receive free accommodations in exchange for looking after the house and in most cases (and most importantly) taking care of their animals. Most housesitting opportunities are primarily about pet sitting, and all four of our housesits in Thailand last year had animals.
We’ve talked about this before, but when you’re traveling long-term, it’s a real treat to stay for a few days or weeks in an actual home with amenities like a kitchen, furniture beyond a bed, and more than two square feet of free space, not to mention the furry friends who live there. Plus, housesitting provides a comfortable place for us to focus on our writing.
Remote Work As Freelance Writers
Besides desperately wanting to travel, a big part of what pushed us to leave our jobs in the U.S. was a desire to work for ourselves. In fact, creating this digital nomad lifestyle is largely a goal in itself, and the fact that it can fund travel is just a perk.
A “regular” job brings so many benefits: a reliable income, health insurance, paid vacation, retirement savings – things many people consider non-negotiable. But getting those benefits can mean a huge amount of stress thanks to demanding bosses, long hours, and toxic work environments, not to mention that they come at the cost of the freedom to live on your own terms. For us, it had started to feel like it wasn’t worth it. Fortunately, working remotely and working for yourself is easier and more common than ever.
We knew we wanted to do more with writing, which fortunately is well-suited to self-employment and working remotely. I’ve always loved writing, which has been a big part of many of my past jobs, even when it wasn’t in my official job description. But I wanted to make it a bigger part of my work.
Now, Ryan and I have worked as freelance writers for a couple dozen clients, mostly entrepreneurs and small businesses. In writing about activities like hiking, camping, and kayaking, Ryan gets to draw on a lifetime of experience with them and share his passion for the outdoors with others. And my experience has made clear what I already knew, which is that I have three big passions: travel and outdoors, yoga and wellness, and non-profit and international development work. Disparate though they may be, working as a freelance writer lets me touch on all three.
We also get asked a lot of questions about whether we make money from this site – and the answer is technically yes, but only a teeny amount. We do earn a little bit through affiliate sales of products or activities we recommend (when readers buy or book something through a link on our site), but the vast majority of our earning comes from freelance work outside the blog. But we love having a corner of the Internet to call our own and having a way to share our travel experiences and tips. Importantly, it also serves as a portfolio of our work that we can show potential clients.
Of course, writing isn’t an easy way to make a living, especially in the beginning. Most people have to start small and work their way up slowly, which is why having some savings was crucial for us.
Saving Money for Travel
So, we travel cheaply and earn money while on the road – but we still had to start with a cushion, and that meant saving up before we left. Of course, we were very fortunate to have both had steady jobs with good benefits in the years before we left. By foregoing certain luxuries, we were able to put money away.
Once we knew we wanted to make this lifestyle a reality, it became easier to cut expenses at home, because we knew being able to travel long-term would be worth it. It helps that we’re both pretty frugal by nature and averse to things we consider a waste, and we’ve always been very aware of whether expenses are really “worth it.” Traveling, yoga classes, eating at our favorite restaurants? Worth it. Designer clothes, expensive décor, the latest electronics? Not.
So, no, we’re not rich. We just made an effort to save up before we left, and now we travel on a budget and spend a lot of our time on the road working. This lifestyle is very much not for the risk-averse, and it’s not a perfect set-up. We stress a lot about how much we’re making and spending, and about things like healthcare and insurance (as Americans…), not to mention taxes and retirement. But we’re learning and growing and working toward our goals, and for now, that’s enough.
Are you interested in hearing more details on any of these topics? Let us know in the comments!