Everyone these days seem to be telling you to travel. Quit the grind. Meet people. Enrich your life. See the world. But no one ever likes to talk about money. They expect you to figure that bit out on your own.
Travel isn’t free and it’s not always easy, either. Sometimes it’s expensive and hard at the same time. When I was traveling in Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, I was never without a fresh stack of 10 100 dollar bills (dated from the last two years, never older, no blemishes). And that was just for bribes. So, yeah, money is a real thing and travel is impossible without it. If you want to be an adventure traveler, you can expect to spend some real cash to do so.
Let’s talk details: I left the USA in 2003. I was one year out of college. I had been working mostly on a Christmas tree farm, drinking dangerous amounts of Jameson and Guinness, trying to hook up a lot, and spending the rest of my time watching Kubrick movies and smoking weed. So… pretty standard 23-year-old. Another lost American living at home with college debt. I made a decision to get out. I sold my car, set up a Western Union account, and did some research. Two months later I was on a flight.
Along the way, I learned a few things. If you’re about to leave the confines of college life, home life, or early work life in order to hit the road, hopefully these pieces of advice will help you figure out how much it would cost to travel the world realistically:
Lesson 1: INVEST YOUR MONEY ELSEWHERE
It cost me $3000 to move to Prague. This outlay of cash included: a certification as an English teacher, incidentals for two months until I had a salary, a deposit on a furnished, shared apartment, purchasing a cellphone, etc. Three. Thousand. Dollars. That initial investment led to a year of mental growth, unchecked bacchanal, and deep travel that started me on the path of adolescent trapped in an adult body to an actual adult capable of real adult relationships and experiences.
It was that easy. I applied for a course that fed me lunch and housed me while I was trained. I had a little cash for drinking and exploring. I paid for a one way ticket to Prague from Seattle. That was it.
By the time I finished my course, I had made friends and was able to easily share an apartment, which lowered costs dramatically. I was paying around $500 all in to share a three room apartment with two other people. I found work easily, which covered bills going forward. Prague is dirt cheap.
Yes, the six weeks after the comfort of the course were rough. Generally in the Czech, you are not paid your monthly salary until two weeks after you turn in your monthly time sheet. I foolishly spent a little too much money having a little too much fun before my first paychecks came. My flatmate and I would eat rice and cucumbers during the week. On Fridays we’d treat ourselves to a pork steak with our rice. That was a long six weeks. But the bonding of being in a foreign land and trying to make a life of it, no matter what, was awesome. After we started getting into the community, we picked up extra jobs: teaching privately, working in bars, etc.
Eventually, we were eating at fantastic restaurants and taking taxis where ever we wanted to go. And we were able to explore the region with trips all over the Czech, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Germany and Austria. Thirteen years later my flatmate and I are still super close friends even though I’m in Berlin and he’s in Dubai at the moment, and our children are now friends who will have their own adventures soon.
Lesson 2: LEARN AS YOU GO
After you spend a year learning the ropes of living abroad you realize there are some pretty sweet deals out there for people who want to take up that lifestyle. I spent the last few months of my time in Prague planning my next destination. I was going to Moscow. I spent the summer in between these two destinations clearing land in British Columbia to save for my Moscow trip. By the time I left for Russia, I had $5000 in the bank.
Moving to Moscow didn’t cost me anything. My visa and flight were covered by my new employers. I spent about $500 of that “moving” to Moscow. In actuality I spent most of that money dicking around Prague and Berlin for a few weeks before making my move. The rest remained virtually untouched until I started traveling around Russia.
This is where life starts to get interesting. In further afield places, and when you have a year’s experience behind you, you can get jobs where your travel to the country, health insurance, visa, and accommodation are all paid for on top of your salary. On top of this, most places give you about 30 days of vacation time, usually by law. This was my situation in Moscow and Jakarta. Having all your bills and housing paid for means you have a nice salary to spend at will. Remember that Western Union account I set up? Yeah, after my one year deferment expired on my student loans, I just sent the payment back to the U.S. from Russia every month. After six months working in Russia, I had saved enough money to spend the next six months traveling around the world.
Russia is not expensive. Moscow can be super expensive, sure. But generally the day-to-day expenses of life are not. I would go to my local supermarket, which was open 24/7 and had a sushi counter at the front, and spend around 2500R for the week’s groceries for two people. At the time that was around 30 bucks. Then everything else was already paid. So my partner and I would spend the weekends (which started Thursday night btw) going to museums, bar hopping, eating at Moscow’s finest eateries, and traveling around western Russia. And, let me repeat, that was all while saving enough to spend the next six months traveling.
By the time we reached Jakarta in 2006, we were married. We’d joined our lives and that was that. We were one of those traveling couples. In Jakarta we had the same set up as Moscow, only this time our home came with a live in maid who cooked our dinners and kept our house spotless. I was able to step up my cooking game massively by sitting with our maid as she cooked and listening to her stories and recipes. I miss her.
Indonesia is legitimately dirt cheap. Like, $2 for an excellent 90 minute massage cheap. With our years of teaching experience, we were able to straight up save an entire one of our salaries every month AFTER paying our student loans. We literally had zero restrictions on where and when we ate and drank in Jakarta. We traveled around all of Indonesia at will. We even paid our last credit card off while living there.
A huge roadblock for people who want to travel to far away places is the insane costs of some long haul tickets. Well, when you’re already in that part of the world, exploring those places is usually insanely cheap. A flight from L.A. to Bali, say, is well over $1000 on a good day. But if you’re already in Jakarta, you can easily fly to Bali for less than $30 (not to mention the fact that you’re saving over 20 hours travel time as well). Living and working in different corners of the world saves you massive amounts of money in the long run if you want to explore that region.
By the end of our tenure in Indonesia, we had enough cash to spend the next nine months traveling back through Asia to Europe overland. Those six weeks eating rice and cucumbers in Prague never seemed further away.
Lesson 3: PICK THE RIGHT CAREER
After exploring Indonesia, my wife and I didn’t really know what to do next. My wife is a music teacher and I was teaching English. We were fast approaching our late 20s and 30 was just around that corner. We knew we weren’t lifers in the English teaching world. We wanted more. We just didn’t know what that was. So we took our savings out of our Indonesian bank, and flew to Singapore, applied for an Indian visa, and booked a train to Kuala Lumpur. I tended to be pretty cynical about people traveling to “find themselves.” My cynical mid-20s response was always to just look in the damn mirror.
The only thing that irked me more than that were people who went to India to find themselves, or some kind of enlightenment. As if India has some magic that only existed there, trapped by the Indian Ocean and Himalayan mountains.
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What I was taking a #photo of from the #mountain #top. #Kachendzonga #Himalaya #India #Nepal #morning #amazing #beauty #whywetravel #instatravel #instagood #instagram #instalike #instaindia #instanepal #incredibleindia #clouds #blue #lodge #hike #travel #traveler #traveling #travelgram #travelphotography #photographer #sky
Nine months on the road is not cheap. We started planning while staying with old friends from Prague now living in Singapore. I was recovering from Typhoid, so I spent a lot of time online. Side note: do NOT get Typhoid. It sucks.
We worked out $500 per month per person for travel, accommodation, and food. We reserved $500 for visas each. And an extra $2000 for contingency was put aside. All told, we spent $12,000. That’s $6,000 to travel around the world per person for nine straight months. On that trip we visited, wait for it, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech, Poland and the U.K. And we even took a break to visit the USA for a couple weeks once we got to Turkey.
Twelve of those weeks were spent traveling around India. I was travel writing at the time. My pitch was that we’ll go to the places in between the tourist traps and traveler’s paths. The places that Lonely Planet skip over. The places where the real India can be found. Ho-boy was that a mistake. India very, very carefully invents an image for foreigners to experience for a reason. Without getting too deeply into caste and Dilat politics and issues of deep misogyny in Hindu culture, we had a rough time in the first few weeks. It eventually broke us. After spending a night on a platform in a remote town on the west coast, we decided to stick to the foreigner’s trail. We went straight to Goa and spent over a week recovering. That is: eating fish vindaloo, drinking coconut moonshine, and hanging on the beach everyday.
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Fishing on #Colva #beach #Goa #India #incredibleindia #beach #beachlife #sunset #sun #dusk #themagichour #sea #ocean #fish #fishing #nets #thegoodlife #southasia #asia #travel #traveler #traveling #travelphotography #travelgram #instagoa #instafood #instagram #instalike #instaindia #instatravel #nofilter
The following weeks in India were full of amazing highs and devastating lows. But that is travel. You must be able to see the bad and accept that there are serious problems facing humanity in some corners of the world. And then you will start to see yourself in a way that is evolutionary. It’s all about how you react, how your politics change, what actions you take when seeing humanity’s most depressed peoples. (And not over simplifying by claiming an entire developing nation is “happy” just because some kids in the slum smiled for your camera.)
After climbing a Himalayan mountain on the Nepali-Indian border in West Bengal, we took a 30-hour train journey toward Delhi. You have a long time to think on such journeys. We were in second class, riding with the locals. Every time we got on the train someone would ask us, with a shocked look on their face, why we were on the train and not flying. We were white after all, and must be rich. By this point I would just smile and climb up to my bunk. I wasn’t going to get into a conversation about how wasteful I thought it was to fly around India when I could be experiencing it on the ground.
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First day of #trek to #Sandakhphu was like walking through a Tim Burton set. #Himalaya #India #incredibleindia #hike #mountains #moss #forest #haunted #timburton #adventurer #photographer #travelphotography #travelgram #traveling #travel #wanderlust #worldtraveler #adventure #instagood #instagram #instalike #instaindia #instatravel #stairs #mist
As I lay on that hard blue cot chained to the train’s walls, I realized that I loved travel. I loved telling stories. But I didn’t want my life to be lived on the road. We needed a home base. We needed a life where our travel was paid for and recreational was just that: fun. Epiphany struck. I would go to film school and become a filmmaker. I could live in a number of film orientated cities. I could tell stories. I could travel the world making films and documentaries. I could afford to go on vacations for R&R.
Then I realized I’d “found myself” in India. Well played, India.
I became a filmmaker, writer and photographer (I also chef and mix cocktails part time). I’ve since traveled around 20 countries just for work, all paid. My flatmate from Prague became an international attorney and has been stationed in four countries and traveled to at least a dozen more for work. One of my best friends from Moscow became a U.S. Government employee and has been stationed in four countries around the world, and again traveled extensively in between. And we all have kids who have been born abroad and are already racking up stamps in their passports.
Lesson 4: DO IT BECAUSE YOU WANT TO
Choosing to travel and work abroad is life changing. The only advice I can give is that it is not for everyone. We all have to accept that. But for some of us, living life any other way is just impossible.
Most of us have come close to paying off our student debt by this point. Thank you, Elon Musk, for PayPal, that really made life easier! Most of my close friends who have devoted their lives to the road have no crippling mortgage(s), or car payment(s), or much credit card debt. Mostly because we’ve rarely had to pay for travel or housing once our experience and careers kicked in. I can hear the complaints for a lack of concrete equity or commodities. We do have a spiritual equity that is worth more than owning a box in an apartment building, or a car that loses its value the moment it’s driven from the lot. The life that opens up before you when you embrace the world, and your fears, is a life you cannot put a price tag on.
You don’t have to travel far. You don’t have to travel at all. I’m not here to judge you one way or the other. All that I am going to say is that there is another way. You can pay those college loans from anywhere in the world. Stop giving banks your money for a house or apartment you probably don’t like that much anyway. Give that money to experiences. Sell your car. Feed that money to your personality. Then it won’t matter where you find yourself.
Traveling teaches you how to deal with failure. But when you fail on the road, you have no choice but to push on. You can’t just climb in your mom and dad’s bed and wish for it to all go away. You have to carry on down that road. And that road always leads you home.
Costs of moving to Prague:
One-way airline ticket SEA-PRG $400, English Teacher Cert Course $1000, 10 weeks spending cash $1000, first months rent and deposit $500, cellphone $100 = $3000 total.
Costs of moving to Moscow:
$20 for a SIM card. $500 for first four weeks spending money (I spent more as I had money in the bank). Flight, visa, housing, paid by company.
Costs of moving to Jakarta:
$200 for living costs for four weeks and a new SIM card. Flight, visa, housing, etc., all paid by company.
Costs of traveling around the world for nine months:
Budget for travel, food and accommodation $4500, cost of visas $500, a contingency of $1000 = $6000 for seeing a massive part of the world.
A lot of us can come up with $3000 to move abroad and find a job. Certainly not all of us. But many. If it’s the right move for you, embrace the risk and take the leap.
Zachary Johnston is a director, writer, traveler, and part-time chef and mixologist. You can see for yourself on Instagram @ztp_johnston, or on Twitter @ZTPJohnston.