It breaks my heart when I hear people say they’d like to travel but they can’t afford it.
Or worse, they’re older people and they say they WOULD have liked to travel, but they didn’t because of financial constraints.
Many people just can’t travel, because of obligations and responsibilities, their health condition, priorities, and dozens more reasons. I get that. And I understand and respect that not everyone even wants to travel.
What I want to make the case for is that someone who would like to travel, and who otherwise could, but isn’t mainly because they believe they can’t afford it, might be overestimating the costs and thereby depriving themselves of fantastic experiences.
My perspective emphasizes long-term travel — months or years at a time. But much of what I’ll tell you applies to shorter trips, too.
I’m writing this from my own personal experiences traveling in Southeast Asia and Europe for three years (and counting).
I lived in Southeast Asia for 16 months from the end of 2016 to spring of 2018. Then I broadened my horizons to Europe, including Spain, Portugal, and the British Isles. I’ve also spent part of the past three years in the USA and in Australia.
How I’ve managed to do this is a long, complicated story. And I could spend all day giving tips and tricks for travel. But my mission right now is specifically just to show you that travel doesn’t have to be as expensive as many people assume.
My story in 100 words or less
I started traveling in the first place because I needed to reduce my cost of living. I couldn’t afford to live in the USA. I’d left a relationship and was out on my own at the age of 49. I was working freelance as an editor and writer but not making enough. I didn’t like my obvious options — trying to get some ridiculous job just to make ends meet, moving into a friend’s basement, or becoming a permanent WWOOFer — all of which seemed depressing and exhausting.
So I sold my truck and flew to Bangkok. The rest is history.
It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
The Flight Over
I flew to Bangkok from LAX on a China Eastern promotional fare of $450 round trip. (And then didn’t use the return! :-D)
Especially if you’re flexible on where and when you go, or willing to fly at an inconvenient time, low fares aren’t super hard to find. Try “cheap ticket” websites or Twitter feeds, sleuth around sites like Skyscanner, Momondo, and lastminute.com, and subscribe to the airlines’ own newsletters.
In Southeast Asia, I stayed mostly in dorms. That means there’s between 4 and 12 or even 16 bunks in a single room, and they provide bedding and usually a towel and toiletries. Often you can choose either a separate female or male room or a mixed room. There’s shared bathroom facilities, and usually a kitchen and other common spaces are available. Typically they serve a simple breakfast for free (cereal, toast, fruit, and tea/coffee). I generally paid between $3 and $8 per night for a dorm bed (up to $12 in Bangkok). Some dorms are bare bones and not that comfortable, but some are really cushy, with privacy curtains for each bunk, built-in charging stations, and flip-down desks with lights. And they’re fantastic for meeting other travelers.
For a little more money, private rooms can be had for around $12 per night and up. Last time I was in Bangkok I stayed in a lovely (but tiny) studio apartment with a kitchenette for $14 a night.
In the 16 months I spent in Southeast Asia, the very most I paid for a room was $25 — for a snazzy Western-style hotel room next to the airport in Medan, Indonesia.
You can also get a little more adventurous and do homestays — living with a local family in their house. It can involve work exchange — maybe you help a farmer plant rice in exchange for a room and meals.
If you browse the listings on Agoda, Booking.com, or Travelfish, you can get an idea of options and costs for lodgings. But book direct with the places if you possibly can — it’s much better for them.
In Europe, the cities can be fantastically expensive — and I imagine this is why travel in general has the reputation of being super expensive. It’s a shock to go from $25 for a fancy hotel room in Indonesia to potentially $75 for a dorm bed in London.
So in Europe I stuck to small towns and usually stayed in carefully selected Airbnbs by the month. By being flexible about location and type of rental, I was able to find places for between $400 and $600 per month. In Ireland I rented a room near Sligo in a shared house for art students and got to hang out with sculptors and other creative people; in Spain I stayed in a teensy, centuries-old apartment in a white village near Malaga for two months and ate local strawberries every day. Traveling became less about doing a lot of activities and more about restfully soaking up the people and place wherever I was. You can always hop on a bus and make a day trip to a bigger town or city, to the beach, or to sights.
Food & Drink
Practically anywhere in Southeast Asia, you can enjoy incredible, world-class street food for a pittance, or buy fruit, vegetables and other ingredients in the local market and prepare them at your hostel. Or you can go out to Western-style restaurants and pay Western prices.
In Georgetown, Malaysia — where I spent about 4 of those 16 months — I would usually fill up on toast and tea at my hostel, then I’d go around the corner to a café, get another cup of tea, and work on their wifi for a few hours. The tea would cost about 6 ringgits (around $1.50). In the afternoon I’d have a fruit smoothie from a street vendor or buy a bunch of bananas or a pineapple. For supper there were Indian places where you could get a more-than-filling sit-down meal for about 11 ringgits — under $3. I also liked a nearby tourist-oriented but chill little Italian-ish place that had a fantastic vegetable-y penne pesto with garlic bread, for 15 ringgits.
These prices are fairly representative of Southeast Asia in general, with local variations, of course. Sticking to a frugal budget was a little easier for me because I don’t drink, don’t party at all, and I’m vegetarian. Your mileage would vary wildly depending on what you like to eat and whether you’re willing to shop in the local markets and cook for yourself.
When I’m in Europe, I lock costs down hard by almost always cooking for myself and eating in a very simple way. A lot of bread and cheese, oatmeal, salads, home-made vegetable/bean soups, rice, polenta, and fresh fruit. I’m currently in the Azores, and I’m on track to spend about $105 on food for the month. That includes a couple of sit-down lunches in town (10–12 euros) on errand days.
Those are the major ones, but of course there’s also things like your passport, visas that some countries charge for, possible airline baggage fees, local transportation, shopping, and entertainment/sightseeing. Some are unavoidable, but some can be drastically minimized.
Key: Minimize expenses back home.
Not having a rent or mortgage payment makes all the difference. Selling my truck meant I didn’t have to pay for storage, insurance, or registration, and it gave me a chunk of cash to set off with. For a while, my only monthly bills were $27 for my storage unit back in Arizona and around $22 per month for my cell phone.
I waver a little about whether I should encourage people to travel, given the environmental impacts. I’m traveling less, myself, for that reason.
But I think that if you haven’t been outside the United States, and if traveling interests you at all, visiting other parts of the world can be a vitally enriching and eye-opening experience. It’s probably the best way to get perspective on our privileges and responsibilities as Americans, appreciate the hardships and challenges that most of the world’s population face, and find out first-hand that the way we live as Americans isn’t the only way.
Please tread lightly and be mindful about the effects you have on the places you go and the people you encounter.
But if you want to go, and you possibly can — please go!