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.
Whewww we were all a little hungover this day. Too much fun! We went for breakfast at Cafe y Amor – it was busy, but the food was good. I had a sloppy delicious fried egg sandwich with cheese, bacon, and other greasy stuff to ease the hangover. Also, coffee. This cost me 16 BZ. After sleeping the morning away, 3 of us decided to go snorkelling in the afternoon. We did the half day, 3-stop tour with Carlos from Hicaco Tours. It was a great trip – we went to Shark Ray Alley, Coral Gardens and “the Channel” and saw tons of sharks, rays, and eels (yikes)! We got fresh fruit on the boat. Cost was 70 BZ.
We ate dinner at this amazing italian place – Pasta Per Caso – handmade fresh pasta with only 2 items to choose from each night (changes depending on ingredients available for the day). The owner and his wife were awesome, and the pasta. Wow, so good. I had Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino (garlic, oil, and pepper flakes), while my boyfriend had Orecchiette with tomatoes and pancetta. Both were amazing. We also tried the garlic bread, wine, and the rum cake dessert. This is a tiny spot but if there’s no room the owner will tell you what time to come back – do it. So good. Dinner was around 30 BZ each.
Walked around once more, checked out a reggae duo at the pizza place (beers – 4 BZ) and spent the evening relaxing.
Total Cost: 175 BZ (includes breakfast, snorkelling 1/2 day, dinner, drinks, hotel ~ $87.50 USD)
We had an awful breakfast at a place whose name escapes me right now – it was close to the Paradise place, kitty-corner to it really. The server was forgetful and kind of rude, the food was wrong and took FOREVER. It was cheap but we wouldn’t go back here, 10 BZ.
Since my boyfriend missed out on the snorkelling the day before, we decided to go snorkelling. Our friends went scuba-diving and liked it a lot. We went with Carlos and Francisco from Hicaco for a 4 hour trip with lunch. The spots we stopped were Shark Ray Alley, Hol Chan Marine, and Coral Gardens (a different part than yesterday’s tour). It cost 110 BZ and the lunch was pretty mediocre, but we saw a lot of turtles, sharks, fish, rays, etc. I would do the half day trip over this one. My bf got burnt because we forgot to use sunscreen. Whoops. Still a fun trip, and we were really glad we did it.
Had delicious food (lobster nachos, sushi) at Caribbean Colors Art Cafe, as well as good coffee, for 20 BZ each.
Dinner at Habeneros was delightful. I had the Thai Snapper (44 BZ) – the peanut sauce was awesome. We all shared a couple pitchers of sangria too (20 BZ per).
Total Cost: 249 BZ (includes breakfast, snorkelling with “lunch”, actual lunch, dinner, drinks, hotel ~ $124 USD))
Boo, last day here! We ate at Caribbean Colors again – I had the lobster scramble bagel (and stole some of my bfs breakfast nachos) and coffee. It was 16 BZ. The bagel was so big that I had half of it wrapped up and ate it on the boat later. Good portion sizes there for sure.
We took the water taxi back to Belize City around 1:30 and a cab to the airport for $40 BZ total (10 BZ each and easy to catch one right outside the ferry terminal). We ate lunch at the airport – they didn’t take credit cards so we had to take out more cash. $20 BZ for lunch with one beer.
Total Cost: 46 BZ (includes breakfast, cab to airport, and lunch ~ $23 USD)
TOTAL: 1764 BZ (so $882 USD)
FLIGHTS: $490 CAD (at the time USD and CAD were pretty close)
EXTRAS: $200 BZ (bottles of rum, hot sauce, souvenirs)
GRAND TOTAL: $1,472 USD per person
You could definitely spend a lot less than us if you stayed in hostels, didn’t splurge on nice meals, buy fewer souvenirs, don’t drink a lot, and didn’t take all the tours that we did. We expected to spend $1500 so we were pretty happy with this overall cost.
All in all it was a fantastic trip and we all had an excellent time. I was very happy that my friends and boyfriend all had a great time since none of them had been to Central America before and weren’t sure what to expect.
You better Belize we’ll be back (sorry, I had to).
We booked our flights after finding a deal on yycdeals.com (a Calgary specific flight deal site) but you can keep your eyes open for deals year round. Our flights were $490 USD each, round trip, with layovers in Houston. Most of the amounts in this post are in Belize currency: $1 US = $2 Belize (BZ).