“How do you afford to travel so much?!”
Apparently it’s sort of a taboo question because not very many people actually asked me, but I’m quite sure everyone was wondering – nine months is a really long time to be away without a job.
First things first – I’m not going to pretend that everyone has a fair chance at doing what I did. I’ve enjoyed a lot of privileges that other people don’t have. My parents were able to cover my college tuition, so I don’t have endless student loans to pay off. During the summer, I was able to live rent-free while I borrowed a car and had a full time job. Obviously I’m very lucky, and I realize that life is a lot harder for most other people.
So, I’m in no way trying to convince anyone that it should be easy to just save up a few thousand dollars, quit your job, and drop everything to leave the country. All I am saying is that once you start traveling, it doesn’t have to be as expensive as you might think.
Here are some of the things I did to limit my spending and extend my time abroad as much as possible.
The most significant way I saved money was becoming an expert at avoiding paid accommodation. Hostels in Europe are relatively cheap, but over the course of nine months, those 15-20 euros per night add up to an enormous expense. Of the 258 days I was away, I only spent 36 nights in paid accommodation – and 21 of those nights were in Morocco, where hostels run at about 6 euros per night. If you add it all together, I spent less than 400 euros on hostel beds during the whole time I was away.
So where on Earth did I stay for the other 222 nights?
I stayed with a lot of friends – some people I already knew before I left America, some were online friends that I met in person for the first time in Europe, and many were just people I met along the way. If someone invited me to stay with them, I always said yes and tried my best to actually make it happen. These are experiences you may never have again!
I did work exchanges in France, Spain, and Scotland, during which I hardly spent any money at all. Generally, the arrangement is that you work for about 5 hours a day, 5 or 6 days per week, and in return you get free food and a free place to stay. If you’re lucky, you’ll also meet wonderful people and live in beautiful places that are way off the beaten tourist track. Work exchanges are definitely a great option for someone looking to save as much money as possible, but keep in mind that they are extremely hit or miss. I had two absolutely fantastic experiences (France and Spain) and two others that weren’t very fun at all (Barcelona and Scotland). However, I strongly believe that things don’t always have to be fun in order to be good experiences. I have great stories to tell from every work exchange I did, and I met a lot of people I’ll never forget (including my boyfriend!). The three work exchange programs I’d recommend are WWOOF, Workaway, and HelpX.
If you aren’t familiar with couchsurfing, it’s basically a website where you can arrange to stay with people for free. In return, you’re usually expected to hang out and try to get to know your hosts – maybe share a meal together while you exchange life stories. Honestly, people thought I was crazy for doing this as a single woman, and I do have to admit that there are a lot of creeps out there. While nothing bad actually happened to me, I did have a couple of super weird experiences with couchsurfing hosts (most notably in Ireland). That said, the vast majority of people I stayed with were incredibly kind, generous, and interesting. My Syrian host in Glasgow made me a full Syrian dinner on my first night with him. I stayed with a vegan couple in Glasgow who cooked a delicious vegan meal for me, and another Glasgow host picked me up from the train station and bought me beer and pizza. I stayed with a lovely couple in London who traveled all the way to Gatwick Airport to pick me up after agreeing to host me last minute, cooked me breakfast and dinner every day, and even offered to host me for Christmas (unfortunately I already had plans). My host in Ireland (not the crazy one) took me on a day trip to Newgrange, and even met up with me again when we both happened to be in Madrid. My host in Prague introduced me to her friends, took me sightseeing, and cooked delicious food for me. Overall, I wholeheartedly recommend couchsurfing – not just as a money-saving method, but mostly as a way to meet interesting people and possibly make lasting friendships. Just be careful and look out for creeps!
I never expected this to happen, and starting a relationship abroad was the last thing on my mind when I flew to Europe. But it happened – I fell in love with a foreign man, and I stayed with him in Madrid for almost three months altogether. I also stayed with his family in England during the holidays, which was good news for my bank account since hostel prices skyrocket around this time. Obviously this situation won’t be the case for everyone who travels, but I just got very lucky and saved an incredible amount of money this way.
It’s true – you can find very cheap flights with budget airlines in Europe, but those costs add up if you fly somewhere new every week. I don’t believe in the whole idea of “checking places off the list” – what’s the point of going somewhere if you don’t have enough time to truly experience it beyond the superficial sightseeing? I prefer to spend a couple of weeks in a place. So, even though I was in Europe for many months, I really didn’t go to that many places in relation to the amount of time I was away. Fewer destinations and fewer plane tickets means less money spent!
Obviously, I still used a lot of transportation – it was my biggest expense in Europe by far. I used skyscanner to look for the cheapest flights, and I usually tried to take the bus instead of the train. Buses are usually dirt cheap compared to any other method of transportation. However, use your common sense. If the bus journey is going to take up most of your day, spend the extra money and just take the high-speed train – for instance, the train between Madrid and Barcelona takes 2.5 hours, while the bus takes nearly 8.
Sometimes you just get desperate though – one time, I could not find last-minute flights to Morocco for less than 200 euros, so I made an 18 hour journey from Madrid to Chefchaouen via overnight bus, ferry, taxi, and another bus. It saved me around 150 euros, but the travel time was three times as long. Was it worth it? Honestly, I’d do it again for the pure adventure.
I spent countless hours on planes, trains, ferries, and buses, but long journeys are just a part of traveling that you can’t really avoid.
General money-saving tactics
- I didn’t really buy any souvenirs. I didn’t have any space in my bag, and I’m also just not a huge souvenir person. I prefer remembering a place through photos and memories, not objects.
- I tried to avoid eating at restaurants all the time – I went to the supermarket instead. Most hostels have kitchens you can use. Sometimes I just bought bread and cheese for the day (I’m not recommending that health-wise, but it’s cheap).
- If I was running low on shampoo or toothpaste, or if I needed a sweatshirt, I could almost always find someone who was looking to get rid of it. In hostels, people are constantly looking to leave stuff behind to free up space in their bag.
- I didn’t go clubbing (it’s just not my scene) and when I did buy alcohol, it was the cheapest kind.
- In Morocco, it’s really easy to get scammed as a tourist. When looking for a place to eat, I learned to look for restaurants in which there were local people eating. This is a sign it’s not a tourist restaurant, and therefore will probably be more reasonably priced.
- I went to Europe with two bags and came back with one. I got so tired of dragging all my stuff around, and even more tired of paying baggage fees for my flights – sometimes the baggage fee was more than the flight itself! If possible, only travel with a carry-on bag – trust me, you don’t need as many clothes as you think you do.
That being said, I think it’s important to know when to be cheap and when not to be. I’ve been “the cheap friend” my whole life, so I have to remind myself of this quite often, but sometimes it’s worth it to spend more.
- Take the high-speed train if you have limited time.
- If the cheapest flight arrives in an unfamiliar city late at night, spend more and get a different flight that arrives during the daytime.
- Sometimes, organized tours are the best way to go. If you don’t feel like figuring out every last intricate detail by yourself, just go with a tour. I did this on the Isle of Skye and in the Sahara Desert and loved the experiences I had.
- Try some really nice local food and beer. Get dessert too.
People were shocked that I managed to live off my savings for such a long time, but I think a lot of people assumed I was staying in hotels and eating in restaurants the entire time. Not the case! I lived pretty ruggedly, made friends as I went, and put my trust in strangers.