This article, and the entire website of RTW Expenses, is to showcase the real expenses and lifestyle of a couple traveling around the world on a budget.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. That’s pretty much the mindset we had to take when we first decided to travel the world back in 2008. If we thought about the enormity of the trip, we probably never would have gotten on the plane. But by focusing on the daily budget we set, it made the entire trip seem doable and real, and in just over two years of saving and downsizing, it was.
Before we boarded our one-way flight to Ecuador in 2010 we decided we would track every dollar, yuan, peso, euro, and ruble we spent on our adventure. RTWExpenses.com is the result of that experiment, and we’ve made our monthly expense reports from the first three years of travel available for aspiring travelers to better plan their own budgets. Along the way we’ve shared our tips and suggestions for how we were able to save money as well as the mistakes we made so you don’t have to.
Life has turned out very different than what we imagined before we left the United States, which is a fantastic side effect of long-term travel. If you would like to read more about our experience or dive into the books we write along the way, we’d love to see you over at Married with Luggage. You can read about how we turned our travels into a lifestyle, what discovering the world together has done for our relationship, and what kind of opportunities opened up for us when we took on a traveler’s mindset for every aspect of our lives. We still pinch ourselves that this is the life we now lead.
Traveling full time has been one of the greatest opportunities for discovery in my life. I’ve learned more about myself, my relationship with my wife, and cultures around the world than at any other time in my life. However, since this is an article about expenses, I’ll confine the discussion to the financial side. (NOTE: if you’d like to read about what a life of adventure has taught us as a couple take a look at the book we wrote on the subject.)
Following is a series of lessons we have learned first hand in our time exploring the world. We’ve made a ton of mistakes along the way and hope that by sharing our lessons you will be able to save money early in your adventures and enjoy your time on the road even more.
Style and Speed
The two primary areas which will determine how much you will spend are style and speed of travel: the style in which you travel and how fast you move.
Style is how you want to travel. Staying in 4-star hotels is a very different style to sleeping in dorm rooms or renting a hammock on a beach for a week. There are many, many different options and you can find a host of alternatives in most parts of the world. The most important aspect here is settling into a style that fits YOU. Don’t compare yourself to others and feel that you need to travel with less (or more) comfort. This is your adventure, no one else’s. Whether you choose to sleep in private rooms in a hostel (this was our style) or stay in big name hotels it’s your choice. The key is finding a style that will allow you to enjoy each step of your journey.
Speed – how fast you travel has a significant impact on how much you will spend. When we first started planning our trip we thought we’d “see the world” in a year. We laid out a crazy ambitious plan that had us flying between cities and continents, at what now feels like break-neck speed. The benefit of moving faster is you can cover a lot of ground and explore more of the world in a shorter period of time. The downside is it will cost far more. We discovered that we love to travel slow, to rent an apartment or a room for weeks (or months) at a time. This slower pace allowed us to get to know the area and people more, but was also far easier on our wallets. Often times you can get significant savings, often over 50%, by booking for a longer period. Plus, if you have the time to avoid air travel you can see far more of the world on a fraction of the cost by taking buses, trains, or as we have done many times – walking.
Housesitting is a fantastic way to save money and to live like a local around the world. We’ve taken care of a houseboat in Amsterdam where we fed the swans who swam up to the window each day. We’ve looked after a manor house in England for a month and walked along the canals each day. We’ve picked fresh fruit daily and written while staying in a 300 year old farmhouse in Portugal. And we spent 2 months surrounded by llamas while enjoying a taking care of a home in the Ecuadorian Andes.
Housesitting has been one of the best discoveries on this trip as it has provided us a new way to see the world and within our budget. Plus, we often get to look after pets which is something we both miss in this lifestyle. It is a tremendous opportunity if you are flexible in your travels and ready for new experiences.
Click here to read How to See the World by Housesitting, which we write as a primer to get started. Plus, included in the article is a code to save you money on the service we recommend.
Living Like Locals
What we quickly discovered when we started our trip is that we cannot think of this as a vacation. In our previous life while on vacation we would eat out at every meal, take cabs between locations, and often stay in the tourist centers near all the sights. This approach may work for a one week holiday, but if we wanted this trip to last we had to change our approach. Thus, we decided we would “live like locals” whenever possible both to help stay on budget and to see an area in a different light.
This meant we started eating where the locals ate. We headed outside the city center and away from the tourist areas (where the prices are high and the quality is low) and went to places filled with people who lived there. We’ve eaten at road side stands while sitting on plastic stools in China, enjoyed chicken and rice in a dirt parking lot surrounded by tuk-tuk drivers in Peru, and sitting at a counter eating ceviche in a Mexican market where no one spoke English. By hunting out these experiences we saved a ton of cash, but more importantly we enjoyed amazing food with the people who live there.
Over the course of 3 years we have only rarely taken cabs, and only as a last resort. Instead, when we arrive in a new city we make it a point to figure out the public transportation. We ask for help from the locals and watch what they do. From the subways in Beijing (WOW, those are crazy) to the songthaews (trucks with benches in the back) in Chaing Mai, Thailand we’ve been able to get around without much hassle. We’ve also made mistakes going the wrong way, getting off at the wrong stop, and not having a clue what was going on but this is part of the adventure. But through it all we saved a great deal of money and enjoyed each and every new experience.
In addition, we learned early on the importance of skipping the big meal out in the evening. In Peru we were taught an old adage they say “We eat like a king for breakfast, a prince for lunch, and a pauper for dinner.” We were immediately intrigued and decided to give it a try. We started eating big breakfasts, usually wherever we were staying. Then, we would make lunch our one meal out for the day. The benefit was that lunch is often the same menu, but at a much lower price. We have enjoyed some fantastic meals, but at a price that we could afford. Dinner is now usually salad or something small to nibble on over happy hour. Not only has this new approach saved us money, but together we’ve lost over 85 pounds. Clearly, those Peruvians are on to something.
Art of the Ask
Never be afraid to ask for a discount. Often when we arrive in a new city, if we don’t have accommodations, we will go to a hostel or hotel and ask what last minute deal they can offer us. Since they are unlikely to sell out their rooms at the last minute you give them a bit of business and you can save money in the process. Of course, this is not as likely to work during peak vacation seasons (more on that shortly).
For us, the “art of the ask” has resulted in some of our most unexpected adventures. For example, while on the way back from Antarctica I asked one of the ship’s crew what they did after the Antarctic season. She said they would take the ship north across the Atlantic up to the United Kingdom, enroute to Norway for the Arctic summer. I asked if we could ride along. They told me that they had never taken passengers but would entertain the idea. Two weeks later we re-boarded the ship as the only 2 passengers for 5+ weeks sailing across the ocean. It never would have happened if we had not been willing to simply ask the question. Click here to read more about this crazy experience.
Ask for what you want while on your adventures and you’ll be surprised at how many unexpected opportunities come your way.
Avoid peak travel seasons
As I alluded to in the previous tip, traveling in peak vacation season is not only more crowded but also more expensive. Whether that be July/August in Europe or January/February in New Zealand, these are the times when it will be hardest on your budget. In August of 2012 we arrived in Europe after an overland journey from Thailand. We spent the next month fighting crowds and struggling to get train reservations due to the swell of people. Not only was it frustrating, but the costs of travel and accommodations were almost twice what they had been on our previous trip.
If you can plan around it, head to areas during their “shoulder season” which is usually the 1-2 months before and after high season. The weather is typically good but the prices will be lower and the crowds far less. This is a great way to see Italy, France, Germany, and Spain within most budgets.
Know Where You Go
Where you go has a big influence on how fast your money goes. Thailand is cheap. From the accommodations to the food it is one of the most economical places we’ve been on our travels. On the flip side, Russia is crazy expensive. Just getting the visa is a long and expensive ($14o each for 30 days), not to mention getting there or the high price of food.
As you will see in the Average Cost per day by Country chart below there is a big difference in the prices around the world. At the same time, the exchange rate can have a good, or bad, influence on what it costs you at the time. Knowing this going into each new country will help you mentally prepare for the sticker shock or to plan out your time to move through more quickly depending on your budget.
Let’s Get to The Numbers
Over the last 3 years we’ve established a travel style and speed that works for us. We tend to travel very slowly whenever possible, either through long-term rentals or housesitting. The benefit is not only in saving money with the accommodations, but we are able to cook many of our own meals which is an added bonus. I’ve discovered a love of cooking and tend to try out local recipes in every location we go.
We tend to stay in private rooms in hostels when we are staying in a location for less than a week. Most hostels are nothing like our vision before we left. They tend to be wonderful experiences where we can meet interesting people and get ideas of what to see or where to go next. We find that hostels are the perfect place to stay in many parts of the world (South America, China, etc). On the rare occasions that we rented beds in a dorm is was strictly due to cost and is not our ideal. While in Moscow, for example, we rented beds for 3 nights due to the outrageous costs in the city. It was not ideal (thanks to the loudest snorer we’d ever met) but it did allow us to experience an amazing city on our budget.
We also walk everywhere. We like to explore a city or country by foot whenever we can. We’ve walked all over many of the cities in Europe, skipping transportation and enjoying the sights along the way. We’ve also walked 500km in Turkey along the coast, which gave us yet another perspective on this interesting culture. By slowing down to walk we’ve trimmed our budget as well as our waistline.
Now that you know how we travel, let’s look at the numbers.
Note, these are TOTAL expenses for us together. They include airfare, accommodations, health/life insurance, etc. All expenses are reported in US Dollars and were converted based on the exchange rate at the time
- TOTAL spending for 3 years of full-time travel: $77,192 (average of $25,730/year)
- Overall Daily Average (1096 days on the road): $70.50
These costs represent a fraction of what we spent each in our previous lives in Seattle. Without the high mortgage and costs of a car we were able to see and learn more than we ever could have done with our 3 weeks of annual vacation.
We are hooked on this life of adventure and exploring and are loving the freedom that we created that moment we stepped onto a new path in 2010. Since leaving we have written four books about our experience making this incredible life change, we’ve become avid hikers, and have a greater appreciation for the world and people around us. We have no plan to stop feeding our curiosities through travel. But after 3.5 years we decided we wanted a small base from which to write.
We spent a year considering alternatives and talking about the ups and downs of putting down some roots again, even if only part time. In the end we fell in love with a small, white-washed village in the Andalucia region of Spain and bought a small casa in the middle of it all. Now we split our time building a community in Spain and working on our Spanish with heading out on new adventures around the world. It is the perfect blend for us now and we are loving every minute of it.
We have no idea what the future holds for us anymore than you do, but we are happy to embrace it all as it comes to us.
For more resources about creating the life you want with the person you love click here to visit Married with Luggage. We share lessons we’ve learned along the way, funny stories from our adventures, as well as ideas to help you as you plan your own adventure. We look forward to getting to know you.