So, How Did We Afford Travel For a Year Anyway?
I pitched Isla across the stream toward, Rob. Then, I hoisted Oskar across the water. (Damn that nine year old was getting heavy.) We scurried down the path, looking behind us to make sure no one was following. As we tore down the overgrown trail, we came face to face with a menacing bull. He stood up and veered his head toward us. “Quick, into the cornfield!” We raced through the field to the sound of rustling of corn and the tramping of our feet. We emerged from the field, crawled through a barbed wire fence. We were at the edge of the Ruins. Finally.
We peered over the stone wall, waiting for the security and the tourists to clear. Alas, there was a break in the traffic and we carefully lowered ourselves down the stone wall, catching the kids, and casually sauntered out into the ruins, hearts racing and pounding. We should have just paid the damn entrance fee.
We’d visited Machu Picchu two days earlier. It’s an emotional and moving experience to achieve the number one experience on your bucket list. But, it was also really freaking expensive to get to a forgotten city perched high up in the Andes of Peru. It involved a flight, a bus, a train ride and a hike.
Playing Uno at Machu Picchu
After visiting Machu Picchu we were staying in the quiet town of Ollyantambo, Peru. From our hostel we could see the sun setting over some interesting ruins that we wanted to visit the next morning. When we inquired about going, we learned that in order to visit these ruins, we had to buy an expensive 3-day pass that provided access to all the ancient sites in the area. And the novelty of visiting ancient Inca ruins in the baking sun, quite frankly, was really starting to wear a little thin with our six and nine year old. In fact, by the end of the day, Machu Picchu had devolved into a game of UNO.
We were lamenting to our hostel owner about how we’d like to see the ruins, but couldn’t drop that much money when our kids would be exhausted and whining within two hours.
“That pass is too expensive. I’ll tell you how to get in the back door, without paying,” he said.
And that’s how we found ourselves pitching our kids across creeks, confronting bulls, running through cornfields. The kids, of course loved the adventure, and always ask when we can bust into more ruins. Or, when we’re in line buying tickets for a museum or attraction, Isla will now always loudly pipe up why we don’t just try and sneak in like last time? Or And are you going to tell them I’m still 4 so we can get in for cheaper?
It wasn’t our most proud parenting moment. This is dodgy, embarrassing shit and I can’t believe I’ve putting this on my blog. But when you’re traveling for a year, you just inevitably land yourself in some sticky situations. These things don’t happen on your two-week vacation to Disney or the Grand Canyon.
Back to that burning question…So, how do you afford to travel for a year? I get this question at least five times day. Thankfully, there are more practical, less embarrassing tricks to financially sustaining travel for an entire year. Here are a few of them:
EAT STREET FOOD AND HIT LOCAL MARKETS. Some of the best food we’ve had comes from a guy grilling pork or making fish tacos out on the street. We find cups of fresh squeezed juice for less than fifty cents or chicken empanadas for a buck. When we left home, Rob said he’d never eat street food— way too sketchy. I’m not getting sick. Blah. Blah. Blah. Along came pork satay skewers in Thailand and the next thing we knew, Rob had peanut sauce slathered all over his face. The food is fresh, you can watch them cook it. And we can feed the family for five bucks. We also hit the local markets for produce and meat. On more than one occasion I’ve watched the butcher hack apart a pig or chicken on my behalf.
Some of the hostels and guesthouses we've stayed in have fantastic rooftop bars!
HOSTELS. Hostels are cheap and awesome. They are full of interesting people. We’ve met professors and beekeepers, filmmakers and scientists. Hostels often have family rooms and kitchens. And these are not the hostels of the 90’s that I stayed in when I backpacked around Europe, waking up next to a smelly, hungover skinhead because they oversold the dorm beds. These days, hostels have kitchens, courtyards and pools.
Both our kid and us loved Shiralea Hostel in Thailand and the guys who ran it. We had so much fun there.
Another great option we use for longer stays is Air Bnb. The point here is, stay out of hotels if you are traveling long term. They will decimate your budget. Avoid sites like Expedia and Booking.com; they inflate prices. When we contact the hotel directly, we find we could get rooms for half the price. (Also, I can’t stand the fact that booking.com feels the need to tell me that 4 people are looking at the exact same room right at that moment. Piss off, your tactics don’t work on me.) We were forced to use Expedia for New Years Eve because we suck at planning and couldn’t find a place to sleep anywhere because apparently New Years was a big deal. At the hotel we learned that people were paying a fraction of what we’d paid through Expedia. Argh.
KITCHENS. We try to stay in places with kitchens. Or, at the very least, places that offer a kettle and a fridge. The less money you spend in restaurants, the longer you will travel. (Occasionally, we do hit up a locally loved or well-reviewed restaurant, but nothing annoys me more than dropping $30 on unmemorable food). We constantly travel with a bag of groceries that contains cookies, crackers, soup, peanut butter, nutella sandwich fixings, oatmeal, coffee….which brings me to my next point.
A hostel kitchen overlooking Lake Titicaca in Bolivia.
SOURCE YOUR OWN COFFEE. I cannot abide bad coffee. I spent a small fortune procuring coffee from coffee shops on the first part of our trip. A Flat White in New Zealand ain’t cheap. You can save the equivalent of the cost of a college education by supplying your own coffee. We bought a little portable coffee press from MEC and we pick up a bag of good quality coffee. All we need is hot water and mommy’s happy; we save $10-15 a day on java. And thank god, quite frankly, because they seem to serve instant coffee everywhere we’ve stayed in South America. Bleh.
Checking out the Giant Tortoises on the Galapagos Islands - with my MEC coffee press/cup.
CAMPING. We camped for 3 months in New Zealand and Australia. Let me just repeat that – we camped for 3 months in New Zealand and Australia. Yes, I’m probably losing about 90% of my audience with that statement. We did rent a campervan in Australia, but it only fit the kids, so Rob and I were relegated back to the tent. (And now no one is reading this post. )I don’t know how the hell we did it, because I’m a girl who likes her amenities. But, there are campsites with clean bathrooms and hot showers— they even have blowdryers! (That doesn’t negate the fact that there are also some terrible ones too!) For 3 months we stayed in our 5000 star-hotel and spent very little on accommodation. The camping really grew on me and when we talk about our trip, everyone in our family agrees that freedom (free) camping up the coast of Australia was probably one of the absolute best parts of our trip.
Monkeys chilling out by our tent in Thailand.
TRAVEL APPS/SITES We use a bunch of different apps to track everything from expenses to booking flights and accommodations. (When I say we, I mean Rob and Oskar.) With the right tools you can buy really cheap flights and find inexpensive accommodations. Also, having some sort of app to track what you are spending (or in my case overspending) is pretty important. Or so I’m told.
hostelworld.com – finds cheap hostels anywhere in the world
airbnb.com – books apartments and houses; excellent for longer stays
expensetracker – tracks expenses
skyscanner – finds cheap flights
Googlematrix – finds cheap flights
xe – currency converter
Trip Advisor – won’t necessarily save you money, but will prevent you from wasting money on bad food or accomms
LOCAL TRANSPORTATION. Using local transportation meant we rented motorbikes, rode in the backs of trucks, used subways, took local busses. Cabs and tourist-class transportation ares really expensive. My parents are visiting right now and they wanted to experience South America like us so we took a local bus up the coast in Ecuador. 6 of us road for $22. It was a white-knuckle ride and my poor mom almost hurled. Needless to say, we hired a van to take us back down the coast for $100, lest we all be covered in my mom’s breakfast.
I remember landing in Singapore in the sweltering heat at 11 pm. It was tempting and would have been so easy to jump into a cab. But we took the subway, and then hiked the 3 blocks to our guesthouse with all of our bags and packs. The kids were tired and miserable. But we know, in the back of our minds that even though it’s not always easy, this is how we sustain our travel. We survived We did the same thing in Quito in the pouring rain and in Bangkok and in Kuala Lampur. The private cars and cab rides add up. I want to see the world, not the insides of taxis. Also, it’s really good for our kids to see how real people travel, rather than how tourists get around.
Driving across an airplane runway on a motorbike with Oskar in Thailand. Gotta love local transport. Watch out for planes!
It’s not always glamorous, but it’s always interesting; we’ve seen spectacular sites, had incredible experiences. We didn’t treat this like a two-week vacation, but a way of life. And, oh what a life it’s been.
In a few weeks, we’ll be returning to all of the comforts and luxuries of home. I won’t have to carry around a mini grocery store. I’ll hop in my car when I want to go somewhere. I won’t have a 50lb pack on my back every time I step outside the house.
When we were breaking into those ruins, dodging that bull, it kind of felt like we were on the lam. And, in a lot of ways, that’s what this whole year has been like. We’ve been on the lam, running away from ordinary life for a while. It’s been hard, but pretty damn fun and exciting. This blog post started out being about how could you afford to travel for a year? But really, how could you afford not to?
Occasionally we splurged - a day trip on a yacht in the Galapagos. Embarassing my family with the Titanic pose.