I’ve noticed a lot of travel writers getting flack lately by the masses for being ‘unrealistic’ and ‘obviously already rich’. George Takei recently posted Matt Kepnes excellent article “The Ultimate Guide to Traveling When You’re Broke” and the comments were astounding in their ignorance. Ranging from “more like 50 ways to end up dead” to “obviously a trust fund baby” the comments were mostly negative. Matt travels alone, and yes, he is a young, white, male and that comes with privileges, sure. People expect all advice to be suitable for all people. If those detractors had taken the time to read his blog they would have found stories about people of all ages, nationalities, ethnicities, and wealth levels traveling the world.
Here’s how I did it.
First some background: I moved out of my parent’s house when I was 18 years old. I did not go to University right after High School and I lived either with a boyfriend or alone for all the years before I traveled (there were a few brief stints back at my parents – like when the pipes burst in my apartment and I was home for 4 months while it was being repaired) but mainly I lived alone and paid my own rent, and paid my own bills. I also started an RRSP (this is like a 401k) when I was 19 and was lucky enough to have my place of work contribute a bit to it as well.
In 2008 I lost my job in oil & gas because of the economy so I went back to serving (in Calgary at the time minimum wage was $8 an hour, plus tips). I also decided I wanted to do something else, and travel so I saved some money ($2,500) and took the CELTA course. My lease was up at the beginning of 2010 so I moved back in with my mom for the 6 months before I left. This is not an option for everyone and I GET that but I was lucky enough to be able to do that. Had I not been able to do that, I would have moved in with a friend who had a room for rent relatively cheaply ($300/month).
I worked my ass off in those 6 months. I picked up any extra shifts I could at my waitressing job, I saved all my tips and put them in a jar guarded by my financially savvy younger sister. I didn’t go out very often and I saved close to $9,000 (that’s $1,500 a month. If I had lived with my friend that number would have been around $7,200 – still not too bad for 6 months). That works out to about an $18,000 a year salary.
I drove with my dad down to Vegas and stayed there for a month researching Central America and planning. I booked my ticket to Mexico City for about $300 one way. I booked a tour on a last minute deal for 3 weeks for about $1,100 (that left me with $7,600). In Mexico City I made friends with a group of people who were amazingly nice and ended up ‘couch-surfing’ in one of their spare bedrooms for about a week. People are kind if you let them be.
After the 3 week tour, I stayed in hostels and ate cheaply – one week I bought a loaf of bread, peanut butter and jam and made myself sandwiches to eat all week. I ate street food that was delicious, and I shared rooms with up to 8 people in hostels. This is not for everyone but it worked for me! I wasn’t 18 or a ‘dirty hippy’ either; I was 26 years old and a professional looking for a job.
After 4 or 5 months of traveling around Central America (buses are cheap, hostels are cheap, food is cheap) I started to look for a job. I ended up finding a volunteer English Teaching job in Costa Rica – yes, volunteer.
I did however get to stay with a local family in exchange for teaching at the local school. I got 3 meals a day and had a great experience with them. I stayed with them for 7 months, taking weekend trips here and there and a weeklong trip to Panama for my birthday. I booked a flight home for $600.
Meanwhile I had gotten a job offer in Eastern Europe. I accepted the offer and was home for 2 months before leaving again – I again worked my ass off to save money. The job I had been offered paid for my flight to and from Europe and gave me a monthly stipend of about $170 (once again, this was a volunteer job) and a homestay with room and board.
I was in the Republic of Georgia for 6 months and traveled to Poland, Armenia, and Turkey and all over Georgia in that time. Two of my co-workers and I couch-surfed in Turkey together and a few of us stayed in hostels in Armenia. We ate cheap food, drank cheap wine, and took cheap transportation (amazing overnight train from Armenia to Georgia, anyone?)
It is possible to travel ‘alone’ as a female, you will make friends, you will meet travel-buddies, you will stay with strangers who become friends, and you will be fine. Don’t be reckless. If you’re nervous, meet up with your couch-surfing host ahead of time for a coffee and stay with only females. I didn’t hitch-hike personally but I know a lot of people who did and it’s a lot more common in some areas of the world than others. I found the buses to be cheap and safe. I never got sick from street food and I don’t have the most awesome stomach.
I spent a grand total of $12,500 over 18 months in 10 countries (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Georgia, Poland, Turkey, and Armenia). I didn’t travel hack (or even know what that meant) I didn’t rack up a ton of debt, I actually only had 1 credit card with a $1,200 limit that I only used if I had to pre-book anything (like a flight). I didn’t come home poor.
In fact, I moved in with a friend when I came home in 2012, found a job within a few weeks, and worked two jobs for a couple months to save money for university, which I started 6 months after I got home. I moved into my own place that summer and here I am. Working full time, not in crippling debt, not living at home, and still making time to travel at least 3 weeks a year until I finish university.
It can be done.