When I stepped off the plane and into Asia, I instantly became wealthy. In Indonesia, my ATM receipt alerted me that I was down to my last 117 million; I was buying avocados with fifty-thousand-rupiah notes. In the Philippines, my pockets bulged with fat stacks, and I slung hundred-note bills around like a University of Miami booster at a high school football game. “What do you want? A necklace? A dress? New shoes? A miniature wooden boat for the mantle? What does my baby want? A banana shake? Yeah? Does my baby want a banana shake? Bam. Here’s a five hundred. Get yourself a jumbo. No worries, mate. Don’t even need the change.”
If you wonder whether an odyssey like mine is financially realistic for you, I answer with a resounding yes. My family was never destitute, but we’ve often struggled. My pops will live the rest of his life on a lean retirement allowance, and my mom works as a hostess at Applebee’s. So how did I make this trip happen?
First, as I began my research, and as I started working my way around the world, it surprised me to learn how far an American dollar will go abroad. I departed on this trip in the heart of a recession, arguably the greatest financial crisis since the Crash of ’29, and I still had a year’s worth of rewarding experiences. The trick is to figure out which countries fit your travel budget. A hamburger in Copenhagen costs four times as much as in Prague, and Prague is one of the coolest cities in all of Europe. For the average price of renting a one-bedroom apartment for one month in Raleigh, North Carolina, I could rent my own private room on Ometepe Island overlooking Lake Nicaragua or a full two-bedroom apartment on Útila Island (in the Caribbean) for two months. I could do even better on a white-sanded beach in Thailand. I saved money in inexpensive countries (Honduras), and let my bank account loose in more expensive ones (New Zealand). Japan is pricey, as are Singapore, Taiwan, Norway, England, Australia, and many other countries, so one either figures out how to travel there creatively or dodges them altogether. Forget Switzerland until your rich aunt dies.
Interesting enough, though, I spent less money on this yearlong trip than I would have spent back home during the same year. That is, if I take all my expenses—flights, ground transportation, food, drink, lodging, entertainment, language classes in Guatemala, and hydrogen peroxide to cleanse my bovine-probe finger—and line them up against what I would have spent at home on my car, gas, insurance, apartment, food, entertainment, and two weeks of vacation. I hopped through seventeen countries on four continents for less money than it would have cost me to commute, vacation, play, eat, board, and buy a few cool new technological gadgets back in the States.
A trip like this requires sacrifice. You must sacrifice while you save for your trip and sacrifice while you are spending on your trip. What are your priorities? I essentially had two simple rules before I left, two means of keeping my spending in check: One, no souvenirs. Perhaps a wild idea for you on your own travels, but I already had a bulging backpack that burped something out every time I opened it. I also don’t have a permanent home to start hanging paintings, laying rugs, or displaying hand-carved wooden boats. Besides, more often than not, buying souvenirs is like picking somebody up at a bar at 2:30 A.M.: you get home and wonder, Good Lord. What was I thinking?
Two, moderate spending on alcohol. Alcohol can kill a travel budget. That “one more beer” you just had to have offers a sad substitute for admission to hot springs or an ATV rental up a volcano the next morning. So many people I met—too many people—were passing on fun side excursions because they were “watching their money” while buying drinks by the armful. Alcohol never got in the way of me doing what I wanted to do. I kept my intake manageable and mostly bought bottles from the store rather than in rounds at the bar.
I used disposable razors for five weeks at a time. I checked books out from the library on my Kindle. I slept on whatever surface happened to be available at the time—from bunk beds in hostels, to the beach house in Honduras, to a resort in the Philippines, to tile floors in eight airports, to any of a wide variety of (free!) landing spots via Couchsurfing.
My eating varied, too. In Guatemala, Beatríz offered that, “If people can afford to only eat street food, maybe they shouldn’t be traveling.” I disagree. You can find some of the best—and least expensive—food in the world at open-air corner stands. When I wanted to sit down and have a more formal meal, I did. But I knew I couldn’t eat out every day, so I often cooked, although usually with haste and without ingenuity. Maybe one day I’ll be selecting from an extensive wine list, but right now I’m just as happy ordering empanadas from a lady on the street corner with a fryer and a cooler full of cow that got split open over the weekend.
There are two tricks to spending money on the road.
First, be simple. I packed minimal clothes and only those that would wash in the shower and dry quickly, a week’s worth of drawers and socks, a quality pair of shoes, sandals, a sleeping bag, soap, a towel, a washcloth, a water bottle, ibuprofen, Band-Aids, Neosporin, diarrhea medicine, tweezers to keep my eyebrows tidy, a toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, Q-tips, a laundry bag, a journal, three pens, a headlamp, a digital watch, a pocket knife, my debit card to keep on me, a credit card to keep separate in case of emergency, a Kindle, my passport, a copy of my passport, and a camera. Everything else, I reasoned, could be found along the way.
Second, be creative. Ultimately, this trip cost me less than staying at home only because I was creative with my planning and execution. In Honduras, tuna orzo Alfredo became a staple because the supermarket in La Ceiba marked the ingredients down on an almost permanent basis. In Granada, I met Evu, who had been on the road for just over thirty years—since age sixteen—earning his money from paintings he sold. Ugly paintings, too.
I shopped around: bungee jumping in Slovakia offered jumps from a higher platform, a more scenic view at one-fourth the cost of the jump at A. J. Hackett’s company in New Zealand.
I also saved money shopping around for flights. To wit:
For weeks I kept my eye on a flight from Costa Rica to New Zealand, because my research showed it would be—by three times—the most expensive leg of my trip. Any over-water flight is expensive, and there’s nothing but a vast emptiness of water between Costa Rica and New Zealand. For eight weeks, starting five months before I was set to take off, I watched this flight, waited for it to go down. I clicked the box noting my travel time as flexible in order to find a lower price. All eight weeks those numbers held firm without any signs of retreat. This flight was going to cost me $1,604, and ready to concede defeat and be put out of my misery, I contemplated buying the damn thing, lest it could go up.
Then an idea popped in my head, born of my previous traveling experience. I once flew from Raleigh down to Atlanta to get over to Charlotte, a ludicrous move, just so I could save the equivalent of dinner money. I considered the application of this same wisdom to my current predicament. What if I flew a little out of the way?
San Jose, Costa Rica is not an airline hub. It’s not a thriving metropolis of the Americas. People don’t fly through there on their way to get anywhere; it’s where they end up or it’s where they begin. It’s a tourist destination for flights coming from the north and the south, sure, but the population isn’t nearly what it is elsewhere in Latin America—Santiago, Chile; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Mexico City, Mexico. Surely one of these places would have a cheaper flight to New Zealand.
Nothing. All flights from South America filtered through Santiago, while the flights up north went through Mexico City and cost just as much. Most were far more expensive than $1,604. Then I checked Los Angeles: $551 to New Zealand. My heart fluttered as I readjusted my seat. I checked the flight to Los Angeles from San Jose: $263. By combining two segments on my own, I cut the flight price nearly in half in exchange for an extra nine hours in the air and a flyby in Fiji to pick up a few additional passengers.
Too easy. Extra air time meant extra frequent-flyer miles, and since Ivana and I were creating our own itinerary in New Zealand anyway, our flight schedule wasn’t pressing. The extra time meant I had to spend money on two extra sandwiches, but it also meant time to read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
The second way I was able to manage this trip is that I made saving for it habitual and fun, an easy lifestyle change. I sacrificed four fundamental things in the two years that I hustled to save for my journey: food, lodging, car, and clothes. I ate out once or twice a week, otherwise opting to cook my own food at home or at a friend’s house. I lived in a four-bedroom apartment with three roommates, each of us with our own bathroom and a common living and kitchen area to share. I drank Tony’s booze at his apartment before going out, and then bumbled from bar to bar drinking Diet Cokes on the rocks. I drove a seventeen-year-old Plymouth Sundance that coughed fumes when driving under twenty miles an hour and wouldn’t kick out air-conditioning when going up an incline. I tended bar at the Hilton Garden Inn and promptly deposited all my tips in the bank. I sought inexpensive local entertainment—movies at the dolla-fitty, tennis, games of pool—but splurged for occasional weekend trips with friends. And when necessary, I shopped for clothes at Walmart or Target.
None of these were real sacrifices, though. Being a miser is not a sacrifice; cooking your own food is not a sacrifice; driving an old car is not a sacrifice. Leaving a wife and newborn to go fight for your country is sacrifice; two jobs while raising a son and a daughter without assistance is sacrifice; donating a kidney is sacrifice; handing out ramen noodle flavor packets to trick-or-treaters after the bag of candy is empty is sacrifice.
Saving for this trip was simple. Delayed gratification. It’s simple to favor your own cooking or pass on a shiny car when you’re surveying with wanderlust the world map on your wall. Your roommates aren’t that bad; the dolla-fitty shows the same movies as the real movie theater, just a month or two later. The anticipation of your trip is very real, as is the prospect that this could actually happen, so you tolerate those niggling forfeitures while visions of daiquiris and the sunset on a Thai beach appear in cloud bubbles over your head. “Just six more months to save,” you say.