In the year 2014 I travelled for six months of the year, by the end of 2015 I will have travelled for around 8-9 months of the year and in 2016 who knows, I might travel for the whole year.
Here’s the question. How can a working-class girl, who enjoyed a six year stint at University and has never earned more than about £16,000 a year afford, with no outside financial support, to travel like I do? How do I fund this jet-setting lifestyle?
Okay. A few things.
Travelling on the Cheap
It’s not a jet-setting lifestyle. I travel on the cheap, sometimes very cheap. I have only, so far, travelled extensively in South East Asia. In the next few months I will be exploring East Asia and next year I hope to go to South America and North America, if I can afford it. I haven’t travelled extensively in Northern Europe or Central Europe or Japan or the US or Canada because I just can’t afford to.
The countries I have spent a lot of time in, such as Vietnam where I spent three months earlier this year, are crazy cheap. People tend to overestimate how much it costs to travel, particularly in South East Asia. Just to give you an idea, my flight here to Kuala Lumpur cost £440 and that’s a return. The place I’m staying in Kuala Lumpur costs £8 a night and when we move on to the next place we’ll take a train or bus that’ll cost less than £10 to travel about a fifth of the way across the Malaysian peninsular. My lunch cost about £2, although I am sitting in a Starbucks right now because I needed to use the wifi and spent £3.50 on a Frappucinno so, you know, I’m no budgeting expert but wherever I can I go for the cheap option. One star hotel over a three star, bus or train over a flight, street food over a restaurant and cans of lager from the Seven-Eleven over club nights with a cover charge and $20 cocktails.
I never really keep track of my money or work out a budget or anything like that because it bores me to death but I do try to stick to a vague daily or weekly spend that changes depending on where I am. Some places are just more expensive and there’s nothing you can do about it so instead of penny-pinching to the point where I can’t enjoy myself I just make sure that what I’m spending evens itself out when I go to cheaper places or places where there isn’t much to do except lie on the beach anyway.
The cost of living in the UK is so high that if you take off the cost of the flight, it can work out cheaper for me to be travelling than living in the UK. Of course, in the UK I’d have a job but I’ll come to that.
Pre Travel Lifestyle
Let me start by saying that I am just awful at saving. I read a lot of blogs on this subject before my first trip that promoted a Spartan lifestyle I knew I had no chance of recreating. I’m a sociable person and I love my city and would hate to have to sit at home every night, never going to new bars and restaurants, never going to the cinema or theatre and generally missing out on every fun thing ever. But what I’ve learned over time is that you don’t have to. You don’t have to sacrifice everything to save but you do have to make some lifestyle changes that make your money more disposable.
I think of myself as a bit of a late-bloomer. I won’t get into my whole work-life-study history but I was about 24 when I decided that I wanted to write and I wanted to travel and if I could exist doing just that then I’d be happy. At the time I had just started the second year of a Master’s degree at Newcastle University. I self-funded my Masters degree because there isn’t a great deal of funding out there for people who want to self-indulgently waffle on about Wong Kar Wai and Film Noir and contemporary feminist literature which is fair enough. But the fees were a big hit and I had no savings and only earned maybe £8-9,000 a year working part-time on a casual basis in a museum. I was skint.
So my boyfriend and I took the decision to move out of our dreamy little red-brick flat in the suburbs and into a shared flat in the city centre with a friend. Our friend owned the apartment and we rented a room from him which meant we only paid a small amount of rent, half of what we were paying in our own flat, and because we lived in the city centre, close to the uni, close to the museum, I sold my car. We walked everywhere and saved money on rent, car insurance, tax, bills etc. The saving began. Once I’d finished my Masters I took a full time job at the Museum working in the Documentation department, continued to work my casual job on the weekends and did copywriting from time to time. Shaun continued to work at the cinema he had worked at for years and took on an insane number of double shifts. I stopped wasting money every time I got paid on MAC lipstick and shoes I’d never wear and in just three years we had saved almost £15,000 between us. We sold anything we could, moved out of our shared flat and hit the road. Easy as that.
Earning on the Road
Of course, £15,000 doesn’t last that long. Not between two people and not when you have to come back to the UK twice in two years due to health-related wobbles.
So how have we managed to keep it up?
I can earn money while we travel through copywriting, something I have done on the side for about 4 years. It’s only in the last six months though that I have dedicated enough time and energy to my web writing that I can earn enough to support myself through this alone. I now write for a few different websites on a regular basis and have a good enough reputation on the online agency I am registered with that the work is pretty much always there for me when I want it. It’s not the kind of writing I want to do long-term and I am trying all the time to write travel features and personal essays that I hope to have published in more literary magazines and journals but for now, the copywriting works great.
At some point we may do some kind of work while we travel, either on a voluntary basis for bed and board or for pay. I can’t pick fruit or labour or do any of that stuff but I could au pair or do office work or teach English, something like that. Never say never.
As soon as we come back to the UK, Shaun picks up his old job and works like a single mother with a deadbeat husband who won’t pay child support while I laze around, complaining it’s too cold to go outside and occasionally wandering to the library to tap out a few thousand words on stately homes to visit in the UK or where to eat in London.
We couldn’t afford to dip in and out of the UK if it wasn’t for the generosity of our families. Both times we’ve came back to the UK we’ve been put up by family who have shared their homes with us, no questions asked, no end date demanded. Without them and their generosity we might have had to change the plan all together, get a flat, get jobs, effectively start again back in 2014 when it went a bit wrong.
The big thing problem most people have with travelling long term is the sacrifices you have to make at home in order to leave. Cutting all those ties is liberating but also a little disorientating. I’m thirty years old and I have no home, no car, no real job. I haven’t even got a mobile phone contract. But on the plus side I can go anywhere I want in the world and my time is completely my own. For me this is a good trade off but for many people it’s too much to give up. No lifestyle is perfect and to achieve what you want in life will always take sacrifice. The tricky part is working out what you want from your life and what you’re willing to sacrifice to achieve it. Once you’ve done that, you can do anything.