I love to travel and it has recently become like a full-time job for me. However, unlike having an actual job, most travelers don’t garner an income from backpacking through South America. Afterall, your new cultural experiences aren’t worth much when you need a place to sleep or need to put food in your stomach. Generally, those who choose to travel on a long-term basis tend to fall into seven categories when it comes to financing their endeavors;
They take out huge loans and max out credit cards. Those who choose this approach aren’t necessarily in traveling for the long-term and maybe are using it as a stop-gap as they transition to the next stage of their lives (i.e. starting a new job, gap-year before college). This approach can be slightly risky as they likely don’t have the financial resources to pay off their debt in an expedient manner thus accruing interest.
They are being bankrolled by wealthy parents. This category is limited to a select few. The problem is not lack of those that come from upper-class backgrounds but rather the willingness of their parents to fund a lifestyle that has a limited return on investment. The ones that choose this approach are most likely gap-year students.
Go-Fund Me. I will go on record and say that I despise those who use this approach. The only exception is if you need money to fly out to a disaster relief zone to provide aid (it can cost over $1000 to fly to a place like Nepal from the US), and only then would I limit that to the cost of transportation and airfare. However, there are those who abuse the kindness of strangers and will beg for money so they can go party in Costa Rica while working on “sea turtle conservation” projects. My opinion is travel is an expense similar to buying a new car or a Rolex. Those who use Go-Fund Me for personal travel are like homeless people that beg for money to buy drugs.
Monetizing Their Travel Blog. Those who fall into this elite category have been (literally) paying their dues for years while building up a loyal fanbase. They had a game plan and found a niche for which they could establish a brand. Given the plethora of travel blogs on the internet today that cover the same topics, it is extremely difficult to do this. Even those that have been successful in doing so aren’t necessarily making money off their blog but by selling merchandise via their brand. While it can be cool to be a “professional traveler”, there are also requirements such as managing a staff and going to marketing meetings which can take away from actually traveling.
They live on a shoe-string budget. This approach is extremely popular with European travelers who like to travel through Central America and Asia for months at a time. They start with a decent pool of money and will literally have their entire trip planned out before they even set foot in their first country. In addition, these travelers will stay in $10 per night hostels that sleep 12 people to a room. While I have taken this approach before, I personally think that most of the fun from traveling comes from being spontaneous and living life on a budget definitely inhibits that.
Voluntourism-I recently tested this approach when I went to Puerto Rico to work on a disaster relief project (although that wasn’t my motivation for going). Generally, the way voluntourism works is the traveler does various projects for a local organization in exchange for things like food and lodging. Voluntourism can be a rewarding and exciting experience IF you find a great organization such as the one that I worked with in Yabucoa (All Hands and Hearts). The downside to voluntourism is that it has gone mainstream in recent years and there are few programs which are actually free. Most arrangements are made through companies such as International Volunteer Headquarters that charge exorbitant “program fees”. It is also important to keep in mind that engaging in voluntourism can be equivalent to have a full-time job where independent exploration is reserved for weekends.
Those who save a ton of money beforehand or have independent income. This is the category in which I currently fall into with regards to my current endeavors. I am mostly afforded this luxury because of my age and years of professional experience under my belt which has allowed me to travel comfortably. The average world traveler (mid-20s and fresh out of school) will not fall into this category. Also, unless you are an extremely successful stock trader, the independent income you make while traveling won’t be as much as you would make in a traditional job. However, you do gain by having a lower cost of living in most places (assuming you get paid in USD or EUR) which actually can net you more money than in a high-end first world city. With that being said, it is very important to be smart with your money to stretch it out as far as possible.
This site was initially designed for my international experiences which have occurred outside of the continental United States. However, this weekend provided me a unique opportunity to experience other countries in the heart of Washington DC. Through the Around the World Embassy Tour program, many foreign embassies were open to the public. This weekend the non-European Union embassies were front and center with 51 embassies opening their doors. Not only was this event free but most of the embassies were concentrated between the Dupont Circle and Van Ness-UDC metro stops making them fairly accessible through public transportation. It was a delightful experience in which I would compare to going to Disney World. While many of the lines were very long (I averaged about 25 mins to get through the embassies that I visited), it was well worth the exposure to several unique cultures through food, art, and music. This blog consists of pictures and videos from my visits to some of the non-European Union embassies including;
Drum Performance outside of the Trinidadian Embassy
The line outside of the Argentinian Embassy
Embassy of the Republic of Botswana
The Peruvian Embassy
Canciones de Peru
Inside the Iraqi Embassy
A party at the Embassy of Uzbekistan
As an avid international traveler in both my professional and personal life, it is has always been very “inconvenient” coming back into the United States. Since the tragic events of 9/11, and the subsequent creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the United States borders have been (and are continuing to be) secured unlike anything seen before in modern history. The change of policy has resulted in extended waits for travelers coming back into the United States via air and ground. Specifically, the first time I tried to cross back into the United States from the San Ysidro (Mexico) border in a car, I ended up waiting for 5 hours on a highway while people tried to sell me everything from tortas to puppies. While my wait at airports haven’t been as long, it still can be tiring to have to wait 45 minutes to an hour in a customs line after a 7+ hour international flight. Fortunately, US Customs and Border Protection has offered a remedy to this issue through its “Global Entry” program. I recently applied and was granted entry into the program. This entry discusses both the program and my application process.
What is “Global Entry”?
According to the US Customs and Border website, the Global Entry Program is part of a series of “Trusted Traveler Programs” which allows expedited entry for “low risk” travelers into the United States. At airports of entry, members can use specialized kiosks to process their customs documents instead of waiting behind hundreds of travelers in the regular lines. In addition, members are provided a membership card that allows for expedited entry through the land borders connected to Mexico and Canada. The program also includes TSA Pre-check which can be used during domestic travel.
That sounds cool, how do I sign up?
The application process is straight forward. First, you need to create a profile on the US Customs and Border website. Once you’ve created your profile, you will then be able to apply for several programs depending on your traveling habits. For international travelers, Global Entry makes the most sense to choose because it includes most (if not all) the benefits in the other programs. The application fee for global entry is $100 USD. The good news is you only have to pay it once, and if approved, your membership is good for 5 years. The bad news is if you are denied, then you don’t get a refund.
What does an application consist of?
Once you’ve paid the required fee, you will then be allowed to apply for the program. The application itself is similar to a security clearance form. For those of you that have no idea what I am talking about, the application asks you to list where you have lived and worked for the last 10 years (maybe 7) and the countries you have travelled to during that span. You are also required to upload documents (i.e. passport) to verify your citizenship. The application includes a series of “disqualifying” questions such as criminal convictions and past customs violations. While this process sounds intimidating, in reality, it is pretty easy and filling out the application generally takes less than an hour.
How long does it take to process my application?
This is where it gets tricky. It literally depends on the traveler. It can take anywhere between a week to a few months to get “conditionally approved”. You will not be able to move on in the process until you obtain that approval. From my personal experience, it took me over a month. However, I had a more “complicated” application than the average traveler. It was slightly frustrating as many of my friends and co-workers were approved inside of two weeks. I would recommend you apply for the program at least 3 months before your next known international trip.
I got conditionally approved but I stink at interviews, should I be worried?
Once you obtain the long (or short) awaited conditional approval you are free to schedule your interview at select airports or field offices. Timeslots online tend to fill up quickly, so you may have to wait a few weeks to get an appointment. However, there is hope for those traveling in the immediate future. In my case, I am fortunate enough to work right across the street from a processing center, so rather than wait for my appointment date (November 23rd), I went in as a walk-in two weeks prior and was seen immediately. As for the interview itself, it is an interview in name only. Basically, the agent will verify the information on the application, and you will most likely be fully approved before walking out of the door.
I am fully approved; can I immediately travel the world using my new benefits?
It depends on your method of travel. You can immediately use the Global Entry kiosks at the airports. However, you will have to wait for you Membership Card to be mailed to you prior to using the land borders. One word of caution, because it happened to me. If you have multiple passports, make sure the names match. In my case, one passport had my middle name while the other didn’t. I was unexpectedly required to choose which one I wanted to link my benefits to. That was a decision that I was not expecting to make when I walked into my interview. As for the passport I didn’t choose, I would have to reapply (and pay another $100) if I wanted to get the benefits.
Is Global Entry worth the hassle?
As a frequent international traveler, I am already licking my chops considering how much time I will save as a result of my membership. However, if you are more of a domestic traveler, there are cheaper programs available. If I only went out of the country once every three or four years, then I probably would not enroll given the 5-year time-frame on the membership. In the end, it is important to do your own research and pick the program that is right for you.
Decisions dictate the dollar when you are traveling abroad. Every choice you make has a consequence on your wallet. Sometimes you will feel the effects immediately, other times you may realize it later when you review your monthly bank statements. However, consequences don’t necessarily have to be negative and making good financial decisions could make your trip even more enjoyable knowing you aren’t breaking the bank. I’ve personally spent weeks relaxing on world class beaches and paid less than my monthly phone bill whilst doing so. This list specifically highlights a few cost-saving decisions that have made my trips affordable and exciting.
Packing Light- In the United States, we are conditioned to buy big bulky suitcases for traveling. The airlines have caught on to this and have charged exorbitant fees in order to accommodate the typical American traveler. As I point out in The Common-Sense Packing List, the less you pack the better. Not only do you avoid the astronomical baggage fees, but there are benefits such as paying less for laundry and allowing for flexibility when it comes to using public transportation (good luck trying to ride a chicken bus with a roller suitcase). In addition, having less room in your suitcase will help control your urge to buy unnecessary souvenirs.
Eat Local- Whenever I’m in an airport, either going to or from a foreign country, I always eat McDonalds. I do this because, while I’m in that said country, I stay away from any restaurant that has its origins in the United States. American restaurants thrive off of a capitalist business model. This means that they don’t necessarily have prices that correspond with the local populace’s income level and are usually comparable to what they charge in the United States (even if it is in the local currency). However, family-run local restaurants tend to cater more towards the service and experience side of things as well as pricing towards their customer base. While a cheeseburger at Burger King will still cost between $3-4, no matter where you are in the world, a 3-course meal at a local cantina could cost you even less depending on the location. With the advent of hostels, food tends to be the biggest expense for budget travelers so if you can pay less to eat more, then you are already ahead of the curve.
Say No to Alcohol- While I don’t drink on a regular basis to begin with, I definitely don’t do so when traveling. While you can surely find cheap beer (in quality and price) throughout the world, many people fall into the trap of buying so much of it that it nullifies the money that you would be saving. Alcohol also effects your judgement which may cause you to make other questionable financial decisions. In addition, alcohol is actually more expensive in tourist destinations (i.e. Punta Cana, Cabo San Lucas) than it would be at a 7-Eleven in the United States. This is because when you buy alcohol at such places, you are also paying a premium based of WHERE you are buying it (i.e. the nice beach overlooking the ocean).
Cashing Out- While conventional wisdom says never to have too much cash in your wallet, the opposite is true for when you travel abroad. You WANT to have as much cash as possible before you come into a foreign country. This will allow you to minimize you visits to the dreaded ATM. With various transaction fees, it generally costs between $13-18 USD to take your own money out of a foreign ATM. If you do this 4 times in a 3-week period, you are paying the equivalent of a 3-night stay in a mid-range hostel or hotel. While US dollars are welcome in most countries throughout the world, you can probably do yourself a greater service by arriving in a country with the local currency already in hand as you will almost always get a more favorable exchange rate at your bank than you would at the airport currency exchange window.
Beach, Beach, and More Beach- 95% of the beaches that I have been to throughout the world have been public beaches. In this sense, public is equivalent to free. While some higher end tourist destinations may have sections blocked off for resorts, there is always another section available for the public. Even renting a beach chair with an umbrella will cost you between $4-6 a day. You can use that chair for 6-8 hours while a 6-8 hour full day tour or activity may cost $80-160 in a day. Is laying at the beach day in and day out the most exciting way to spend a vacation? Probably not. However, people generally go on vacation to relax and not having to break the bank on a so-so snorkeling excursion is definitely a good way to do so.
Public Transportation- Is being crammed in a 5-seater van with 15 people the most comfortable way of traveling? Most people would say no. However, comfort often translates into dollars when traveling abroad. You could get a nice air-conditioned taxi for $45-100 or you could get in that crammed van for 45 cents. I am not saying you should never take a private shuttle or taxi, I am saying that those methods shouldn’t automatically be your first options and should only be reserved for special circumstances. Cheap and efficient public transportation is the one thing that you can find almost anywhere as it is usually needed to support the local population in their everyday lives.
In September 2015, while living in South Korea, I went to visit a small remote island in the East Sea called Ulleungdo. While the trip itself was smooth and uneventful, my attempt to return to the mainland peninsula was a different story.
It was the week before Labor Day weekend in Daegu, South Korea and I was nearing the end of my tour of living in South Korea after nearly 8 months. During my time, I had been nearly everywhere on the Korean peninsula as well as the well-known Jeju Island off the southern tip. The upcoming weekend would be my last opportunity to explore somewhere new before I returned to the United States. After days of researching and asking around, I discovered Ulleung Island (or Ulleungdo) through a Korean translator that I worked with. He told me that while the island was relatively unknown amongst foreigners, it was considered a “go-to” destination for locals. Upon further research, I discovered that unlike other destinations in South Korea, the Ulleungdo tourism page was entirely in Korean. I immediately knew this was the type of place where I could get immersed in the local Korean culture without the westernized filters.
2 days later I was on my way to the coastal city of Pohang. Ulleungdo was small enough to where there was no commercial airport and the only way on and off the island was through a ferry. After staying the night in Pohang, I arrived at the Pohang ferry terminal bright and early ready to start my next adventure. Pohang was one of three terminals which had ferry’s that went to Ulleungdo. It was extremely busy and crowded and I was one of the last people to get a ticket for the first ferry going out. The weather was sunny and there was no absolutely no wind (this will be important later on). The ferry was spacious, and the seats were comfortable. While the boat had limited entertainment options (no Wi-fi and only Korean speaking soap operas), my 3-hour journey was filled with excitement and anticipation.
The boat arrived in Ulleungdo and there was an immediate scramble for the exit by the ferry passengers. After pushing my way through large families and ferry employees, I was greeted by the salty air of the Dodong port. I walked up towards the dock and made my way towards the center of town. After trying 5 hotels, I was able to settle into a local bed & breakfast and prepare for my Ulleungdo adventure.
(I have posted extensive videos of my three days in Ulleungdo and they can be seen here)
After 3 fun and exciting days in Ulleungdo, I was more than ready to go back to Daegu. I had planned on taking the first shuttle back to Pohang on Sunday morning at 9 AM. I woke up and quickly packed my bag. As I was checking out of the hotel, the owner told me that the weather wasn’t looking good for the day. Not really understanding what that meant I gathered my things and waved down a taxi. Even though the taxi’s on Ulleungdo were the most expensive in South Korea, I gave the taxi driver a majority of my cash and asked that he take me to the ferry terminal located in the next village over. The driver looked slightly confused but took me anyway. When I arrived, the terminal was completely empty. Although I was about a half-an-hour early, there wasn’t even a ferry docked for loading. All the doors were locked, and confusion began to set in. After about 10 minutes of walking around, I decided to catch the local bus back to Dodong, the town I had initially stayed in. By the time I had arrived back to Dodong, it was running pretty hard and the wind had picked up significantly. I found my way to the police station where the only person that was there was a 65-year old Korean man that spoke no English. After 10 minutes of attempting to communicate with him, I gave up and called the Korean Tourism Hotline where I could talk to someone that I could understand. Without mincing their words, the agent told me the ferry would not be coming today and that they were unsure when it would come because there were two typhoons off the coast of southern Japan. For those that are confused, you must understand that this was a time period where the South Korean government was particularly sensitive to ferry accidents. A year earlier, in 2014, the MV Sewol sank killing 304 people (most who were high school students). While the captain of the ferry was eventually found guilty of murder for abandoning the ship, there was significant backlash against the South Korean government due to their perceived failure to enforce comprehensive safety standards. It became evident that the overcautious of approach by the South Korean transportation ministry concerning my situation was connected to that event.
As I left the police station, I faced another issue. I only had the equivalent to $25 USD in Korean Won (KW). While I had plenty of money in my bank account, actually being able to access it was the issue. Before leaving Pohang, I had withdrawn about 300,000 KW ($300 USD) to bring as emergency money. Even though Ulleungdo was an isolated island in the pacific, there were still 4 banks on it, so I figured there would be no issue in getting cash if necessary. However, as luck would have it, I arrived during the first week that all Ulleungdo banks required foreign debit cards to have a chip in order to access the ATM. Unfortunately, neither one of my debit cards had a chip and I would be unable to withdraw any cash during the trip. I also had to immediately pay 55,000 KW ($50 USD) to the hotel owners when I arrived to cover my stay. I then budgeted the remaining money to cover the three days on the island. However, with my stay being extended, I barely had enough money to cover another night in a hotel.
After sitting in shock for 20 minutes, I finally went back to the hotel that I had stayed at, and gave my last bit of money to check back in. I told the owner of my situation, and they said they could help me out. We ended up going to a restaurant which they co-owned and they charged $200 USD to my debit card and gave me the equivalent in Korean Won. This provided me much needed relief and I was very grateful for their willingness to help me out. In addition, I was given free meals on at least 2 occasions by local restaurant owners who sympathized with my situation. For the next four days, I woke up and went directly to the ferry office. It was not until the fourth day when I would finally be informed that a ferry would be heading back to the mainland peninsula the following morning. Sure enough, the next morning the ferry was sitting on the dock and the terminal was buzzing. What started as a three-day weekend vacation turned into 8 days of being stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. However, none of that mattered as I finally boarded the ferry and headed back towards Pohang ready to take on my next adventure.
For those who haven’t travelled abroad, they usually have two basic misconceptions about foreign travel. First, they grossly overestimate the difficulty of it. The other misconception is that it is expensive. However, neither one of these assumptions are valid. This discussion leads to my perspective when defining a budget traveler, a term that would have three different definitions if you were to ask three different people.
With the advancement of technology in an increasingly globalizing world, traveling abroad has become easier than ever. In about 7 hours, I can go from New York City to London on a plane that has Wi-Fi capability, leather seats, and a collection of the latest Hollywood blockbusters. In addition, while countries in the developed world (i.e. United States, United Kingdom, Japan) have always been prime destinations for international travel, tourism has emerged as a competitive industry in many developing countries looking to diversify their economies. Even the most remote villages in Laos have one or two homestays looking for curious tourists to host. In addition to the informal economic emergence, many governments have established sophisticated tourism bureaus that have offices throughout the country providing everything from detailed country maps to language-specific guides. There is also the private sector as there are hundreds of companies offering specialized tours that take care of every detail from transportation to providing lunches to customers. It is now possible for someone who has never travelled abroad to go to a country like Honduras (which doesn’t exactly have a great reputation for attracting Western tourists) and not have to speak Spanish or use local public transportation.
The other misconception involves the cost of traveling abroad. The misconception regarding the cost comes from two sources. First, most people travel using their disposable income or money that they have saved up. Unless you are a full-time traveler, your financial responsibilities in your home country don’t stop just because you decided to take a two-week vacation to Cancun. On top of the $160 (per person) kayaking excursion, you still have to pay that month’s mortgage, cable bill, and car note. The other basis of misconception is HOW people travel. You may be the hardworking person at your job, but when you are on vacation you inherently become lazy. It is understandable given that most people are only given 2 weeks a year to decompress and get away. However, it is that laziness that in the end will hurt your wallet. Everyone from 5-star hotel chains to grassroot tour companies are waiting to take advantage of your laziness for their own financial gain. What is not mentioned in my above example is that trip to Honduras where you won’t have to speak Spanish or use public transportation could easily cost you hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars. Service is a premium industry and while you may be comfortable riding in an airconditioned shuttle across the country, know that you are most likely paying 1000% over the local price to do so. It is your own fault if you are breaking the bank to go on a two-week vacation.
This leads me into the main point of this post……. How do you define a budget traveler? The internet is full of bloggers (including myself) that readily define themselves as budget travelers. First, the word budget is a relative turn because we all come from different socio-economic backgrounds. A first-term university student traveling through Europe on holiday has a drastically different financial portfolio than a mid-career professional looking to spend a gap year in Central America. Many bloggers get so caught up in the financial aspect of being a budget traveler that they only appeal to the narrow base that matches their financial background. I define budget in a more practical sense, in that it means being controlled in your finances whether you have $1000 or $100,000 in your bank account. In fact, some of the riches people in the world have admitted to being extremely frugal. Being a budget traveler requires discipline. It is setting a financial limit and sticking within that boundary whether you are traveling for three weeks or three months. It DOES NOT mean you have to force yourself to stay in low-priced hostels or avoid doing any activity that cost money. That is not being a budget traveler, that is just being cheap. I’ve stayed in 5-star resorts despite being a self-professed budget traveler.
Being a budget traveler also requires hard work and intelligence on the travelers’ part. As pointed out above, travel agencies and tour companies make a living off of people’s laziness. I myself have used a travel agency and can attest to the fact that you pay a premium for the convenience (you can read the post here). You often literally must go the extra mile to stay within your budget. For example, sometimes you won’t find a good deal for a hotel on Booking.com and actually requires that you physically walk an area to find economical alternatives. It also involves intelligence to know what activities you need a guide and which ones you can do on your own. While guides may be required for longer hikes or dangerous excursion, do you really need to hire a tour operator to take you snorkeling at the beach? It is being able to make sensible decisions after conducting the appropriate research that makes a budget traveler stand out.
In conclusion, being a true budget traveler is not about being able to brag to your friend about saving X amount of dollars while traveling through X country. Rather, it is about being able to maximize your travel experience at minimum cost. This is achieved by knowing your financial limits, setting budget to that matches it, and staying within that boundary during your trip WHILE doing as much as possible to experience the culture of the country you are visiting.
A lot of people go to Costa Rica for three weeks and romanticize about what life would be like if they could drop all their responsibilities and travel the world. As someone who has experienced life on the road, there are somethings about long-term traveling that I didn’t realize until I was a few weeks in. This post is to highlight some of the highs and lows about life as a full-time traveler as well as give you a few things to think about if it is something you are considering.
You Save Money by Traveling Full-Time- A lot of people think traveling is expensive. It is…………. if you have rent, car payments, cable bill, and insurance to pay for as well. The truth is our vacations only seem expensive because we have other fiscal responsibilities. If you are a full-time traveler, odds are that you will move out of your home/apartment, sell your car, and cut off cable. When I was done preparing for my long-term trip, the only expenses I still had to worry about was my $110 per month cell phone bill, a $40 per month storage unit fee, and $30 every three months for a PO Box. I also sold my car for about $3000 and got $1200 from my apartment security deposit so I even had money going in my bank account when I left.
Traveling is Cheaper than Living in the United States- If you take western Europe out of the equation, staying in a standard hotel abroad is substantially cheaper than living in an apartment in the United States. Even during high season in the Caribbean, you won’t pay more than $35 USD a night for a hotel room. In most other countries you can easily find hotels at half that price. For the sake of argument, let’s say your hotel expenses average at $30 USD a night. 30 multiplied by 31 nights is $930 per month. Outside of the Dakotas, Oklahoma, and Idaho, you are not going to find an apartment for $900 per month that doesn’t require you to pay other bills such as electric, water, and cable. To compare, my studio apartment in San Diego was about $1800 excluding cable and electricity. When you factor in exchange rates, the cost of everyday living through activities such as eating and public transportation is extremely cheap compared to the United States.
ATM Fees will be the Bane of your Existence- Think you will be able to roll up to a rural village in Cambodia and whip out your Visa to pay for that $2 plate of rice and chicken……think again. You will always need to have a consistent amount of cash readily available for situations such as that. While in bigger cities and tourist locations you can often use your credit card, if you really want to live frugally then you will need to pay cash for most of your transactions. Luckily, most countries have joined the party in the 21st century and have ATM’s readily available in most places. However, if you end up staying with your US Bank (which is practical given that you won’t be settled in a specific country), they will make sure you pay every time you want to withdraw cash. I have Bank of America, and every time I went to Scotiabank (which is supposedly their international partner) I had to pay a $6 USD fee from them on top of a $8-10 international transaction fee from Bank of America. With fees that high, I learned quickly how to survive off of $200 USD a month.
Long-Term Travel Can get Boring- During their three-week vacation to Belize, people often partake in exciting activities such as scuba diving, whale watching, and guided tours through caves and ruins. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you won’t last long as a full-time traveler if you plan on spending $80-150 USD a day on such excursions. It’s good to treat yourself every once in a while, but the majority of your days will be spent living life as you would in the United States, just in different locations around the world. You can get by for a few days walking around a city or town after arrival, but most of your time will be either at a hotel or traveling to your next destination. Bringing a computer or smartphone will definitely help you get through downtime.
You Need to Have a Purpose-It has been scientifically proven that someone’s happiness is linked to their perceived purpose in life. For the first two months of your travels, you can get by on just “wanting to see the world”. However, as you get more worn down, you will eventually have to find the inner motivation to continue your journey. There are many people who find their purpose in developing a travel blog and recording their experiences to share with others. However, you can also participate in various volunteer projects. Many countries actually have projects that provide free hostel style lodging to participants thus killing two birds with one stone. Whatever your purpose is, make sure you find it quickly.
You need to Make Money- Ideally, if you are deciding to become a long-term traveler, you want to have AT LEAST 10k in your bank account and have a credit card with a limit for the same amount. You also don’t want to have any significant debt hanging over you such as student loans. Even if you follow that model, money will still drip out your bank account like a leaky faucet. Even expert budget travelers eventually face the prospect of obtaining an income. Many people think that they can start a travel blog and all their financial problems will be solved. Here’s your reality check. It often takes YEARS for a blogger to get a big enough following to entertain the prospect of financial gain and that’s if they make all the right marketing moves. You can’t count on your blog to put food on the table. Some people turn to volunteer tourism in that they don’t get paid per se, but they don’t have to pay for lodging and/or food by doing volunteer work which keeps money in their pocket. Depending on your skills and where you are, you may have to get pretty creative.
Immigration-While I prefer to stay somewhere no more than a month, sometime people find places they like so much that they want to stay for an extended period of time. If you do so, then make sure you have the appropriate stamp for your passport. For US citizens, the standard is a 90-day tourist stamp upon arrival in the country. To go to Vietnam, I had to pay for a single-entry visa through the Vietnamese embassy in the United States which I believe was valid for only 30-days. Know how long you can legally stay in a country and don’t overstay your visa. If you want to stay longer than 90 days in a specific country, a popular way of getting around the burearacy is to cross a land border to a neighboring country and come back after a certain amount of time has elapsed with a new stamp. In addition, activities such as working and studying have their own visa requirements. Make sure you know the visa requirement in the country that you are in.
Reintegration- Whether you return to the United States or become an ex-pat, you will eventually have to settle down somewhere when everything is said and done. If returning to the United States, it will be harder than you might expect to reintegrate. For example, you may have been a successful accountant before you left, but a 3-year gap in your resume will do you no favors when it comes to getting back in the workforce. Don’t wait until you are coming off the plane in Miami to start figuring out what you want to do now that you are back. I would say start developing a plan at least 3 months before you arrive back in the US.
Chances are that if you are an American reading this, unless you have extensive backpacking experience, you are unfamiliar with the concept of a hostel. Although, you can probably find them in some of the bigger west coast cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, and Portland, they haven’t yet caught on here in the United States. However, they are extremely popular throughout Europe and can be found in virtually every country on the planet. Although I’m sure there is an official Webster definition, hostels are basically cheap communal houses that are meant to enhance the social experience in traveling. For someone planning to travel for a long period of time, hostels can be a practical economic alternative to staying in hotels. However, life in a hostel can be a culture shock if you are not used to it or you were an only child growing up. In the end, no matter how much money you saved during your trips, you can’t really call yourself a budget traveler if you’ve never stayed in a hostel. So, to prepare you for the rite of passage, this post is to give you an idea of how you can make your stay in a hostel as enjoyable as possible. Before I get into the list, I’ll tell you my story about how I stumbled upon a hostel. Being an American, I had never even heard of the word “hostel” prior to 2016. Whenever I travelled, I would always stay in mid-to-high level hotels. I always enjoyed the concepts of personal space and privacy even if I had to pay extra for them. That changed in December 2016 when I made my first trip to Guatemala.
During my trip to Belize in 2016, I decided to take the short trip across the border into Guatemala to see the Tikal Ruins. At this point in my life, I was nowhere close to as proficient in speaking Spanish as I am now. This was also back when I was still virtually “winging it” when it came to finding accommodation. After taking a shuttle bus from the Melchor border crossing to Flores. I was herded into a microbus with 6 Guatemalan men and a white European guy. The driver was talking extremely fast in Spanish, and I had trouble keeping up with what he was saying. After a 10-minute ride to Santa Elena, I was able to deduce that he was trying to get us to rent a room in his small hotel. Not really sure what to do, I left with the European as soon as the van stopped. He was going to Los Amigos Friends Hostel and told me it was really popular hangout for backpackers, I decided to follow him rather than mindlessly wonder around town at 8 o’clock at night. We arrived at the hostel and I was pleasantly surprised when the receptionist told me that they had a bed for 80 Quetzal ($11 USD). My excitement was tempered when I walked back and saw the girl in the bunk above my bed had dumped half her travel bag full of her dirty clothes on the floor right next to where I was to sleep. Thus, I had officially been introduced to hostel living. While Los Amigos turned out to be a great hostel, I did have to psychologically adjust to living with several other people in a close quartered environment. Now I regularly stay in hostels, and here are a few things I have done that have made my stays much more enjoyable.
Switch it Up- While hostels can be a fun and enjoyable experience, you need to make sure you get your “me time” in. Traveling can be stressful, and if you are always looking over your shoulder because you continue to share rooms with 8-10 people you don’t know, you won't ever have time to decompress. Most hostel offer an option for a private room at a reasonable price. Usually, if I’m staying at a hostel for more than 3 days, I will reserve the last few nights in a private room. This allows me to still save some money, but still keep my sanity.
Buy a Good Lock- Most stress that comes from living in a hostel comes from the fact that you have your only possessions in a foreign country in a room with 8-10 people you have never met. While most hostels provide lockers for small things (passport, money, credit cards), it is on the traveler to have the lock. By buying a good lock for your locker, and knowing that your most important possession are secure, does do a lot to relieve your stress.
Get Up Early……or Sleep Really Late- These are your two best options if you want to take a decent shower. Hostels have communal bathrooms that are shared among everyone in your dormitory. Some hostels have the same bathroom for everyone in the entire complex, even those staying in private quarters. These bathrooms generally have no more than 4 showers (if you’re lucky) for about 20 people. If you are one of those that likes to take a “princess shower” at exactly 8 AM every morning, then you will be in for a rude awakening. Generally, the busiest times for showering at hostels are between 7-9 right before the day excursions start picking people up. If I had a hike or activity planned, I would get up at 6:30 AM to shower. If I was staying in for the day, I made sure to sleep in until about 10 AM. That strategy has worked perfectly as I always seem to get a good shower in.
Download Movies and E-books on Your Computer- This will keep you from either having to go bar hopping every night to entertain yourself or turning in at 7 PM so you could sleep your boredom away. Even in the most remote countries, hostels generally have some sort of Wi-Fi connection. However, it wouldn’t even take me half a hand to count how many of them had a reliable and consistent Wi-Fi connection after 7 PM. If you are banking on being able to Facebook stalk or stream Netflix from your bunk on a Saturday night……think again. Many Wi-Fi signals in hostels tend to get overloaded with 15 people attempting to do that very thing making it practically impossible for anyone to do it. The Netflix App on my Android actually does have the capability to download episodes of various shows to watch offline which not only conserves my data usages but allows me to have an option for entertainment when I face such a predicament.
Be Social- Hostels are meant to enhance the social experience while traveling. However, if you are like me, you often won’t feel like investing the time and effort in getting to know people you will most likely never see again once you are headed to your next destination. However, being social DOES help make your hostel stay more enjoyable. Striking up a conversation with that guy or girl at the breakfast table could be the difference in spending your day going on a cool hike with a new group of people or confined to your bunk watching Netflix on your phone.
Don’t Drink at the Bar- Many people have miserable hostel experiences because while they paid $45 USD for a 3-night stay in the dorms, they lost half their travel budget buying $400 USD worth of alcohol during the all-day happy hour at the hostel bar. Most hostels overprice their drinks and food because they know people love convenience. That same vodka and tonic that is $14 USD at the hostel bar will be $8 USD at the bar two blocks down that is desperate for business. While it’s okay to buy a shot in order to break the ice and meet people in the hostels, once you’ve ESTABLISHED those relationships, get as far away from the hostel bar as possible.
Get out during the Day- The more you hangout in a hostel, the more it will feel like a prison. Hostels are not meant for comfort, they are meant to be a cheap place to lay your head at night. If you planned on being there during the day then you might as well pay a little more to stay at a hotel whose job it is to make your stay as comfortable as possible. While you may not have the budget to do costly excursions everyday of your trip, you should at least spend the day either exploring the town that you are in or going to somewhere close by and walking around there. By staying active during the day, you will also be too tired to worry about the quality of the hostel when you get back at night as you will be ready to go to sleep.
When spending a day at the beach, you are supposed to be able to relax and take in the sun and the breeze. However, if you have ever been to a beach outside your home country as a solo traveler, you may have been nervous and apprehensive. This is because, unlike going with a group, you are solely responsible for your belongings. There is no one with you that you can trust to watch your cell phone or money while take a dip in the ocean. For most people, there maybe a rational fear that some local kid will come and snatch your stuff as soon as you get out of arms reach of it. This causes them not to fully enjoy their beach experience. While it is always a possibility that something like that can happen to you, I have been to over 50 beaches around the world as a solo traveler and have yet had it happen to me. Here are a few things ways to lower your stress level and enjoy the beach as a solo traveler.
Take only what you can Afford to Lose- This is probably not the first thing that you want to read in a post like this, however, it is always a possibility that you will get your stuff stolen whether you are a solo traveler or traveling in a large group. By knowing your items are replaceable, it will increase your peace of mind. With that being said, you need to decide WHAT is actually worth taking on your beach trip. If the beach is 200 meters from your hotel, then do you really need to take your $400 iPhone?
Rent a Beach Chair- Most beaches (even “private” ones) have beach chairs that you can rent on the cheap either directly from an attendant or by buying a drink at a restaurant. This is probably the most surefire way that you can get an extra set of eyes on your stuff should you decide to go for a swim. It is usually bad for business if a tourist gets their stuff stolen while using their chairs. That doesn’t mean you should leave you wallet on the chair while you go throw back some cocktails at the bar, but this does give you some sense of security should you need to run off to the bathroom.
Get a Spot Close to the Ocean- Whenever I go to the beach, I make a beeline to the chair that’s closest to the ocean even if it costs me a little extra. This allows me a quick entry and exit into the ocean as well as the ability to have a clear view of my stuff while I swim. Even if I seeing questionable characters heading towards my chair, I can begin to make my way out of the water and be ready to confront them if necessary.
Put Your Stuff UNDER the chair- Many people leave their stuff either on or next to the beach chair or towel whenever they go into the water. As I learned as Military Police Officer, most crimes are committed out of opportunity and not necessity. A criminal is more likely to grab your stuff if they can make a quick escape. By putting my stuff under the chair, it requires them to bend down a dig it out, which may allow me to get the jump on them. If you don’t rent a beach chair, then look for something fairly heavy to put over your stuff (i.e. tree branch, garbage lid).
Wear Sunglasses while you Nap-If you plan on lounging out, make sure you have a pair of sunglasses. That way people can’t tell if you are sleeping unless they are right next to you. By not wearing sunglasses, it will be obvious whether or not you are sleeping which could attract unwanted attention. I even throw on my wireless headphones to give the impression that I am listening to music. While I have never actually taken a nap at the beach, I have been able to relax for hours on end.
Do not Sleep on your Stomach- If you are going to flip over for a back tan, then make sure you are able to stay awake. By falling asleep on your stomach, not only does it attract unwanted attention, but should someone snatch your stuff, you would be in no position to immediately chase after them even if you happen to wake up in time
Put Your Money in Your Shoes-Whenever I go to the beach, I either put some or all of my money inside the sole of my shoes. My shoes are so beaten up that I couldn't give them away. A thief will almost certainly assume that you keep your money in your bag and not your shoe. They usually only have time to grab one item and will always choose to grab your bag over the shoes.
Despite my extensive travel over the last few years, I didn’t leave the United States until I was 22 years old when I joined the US Army. My first recreational trip came when I was 24 and went to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. Even though I had literally driven across the United States twice, there were a few things that I wish I had known prior to my first foreign trip. Here are a few of them;
Leave Your Ego on the Plane- This tends to be an issue with American travelers. I’ve seen a lot of people who think because they have an American passport, they can do whatever they want in a foreign country. When I was going through customs in Mexico, I even had to remind one of my fellow plane passengers that he wasn’t in the United States when he started cussing out the customs agents because they wanted him to fill out his declaration card out correctly. When you are in another country, almost no one cares that you are an American citizen, and the ones that do just want your money. In addition, you are subject to the laws of the country you are visiting, and your American passport will not help you should you find yourself in a sticky legal situation. If you don’t believe me, go watch the National Geographic series Locked Up Abroad.
Temper your Expectations- Even in more highly developed countries such as Brazil or South Korea, there are certain things that won’t match up to what you are used to if you are coming from the United States or Western Europe. For example, even in Brazil’s bigger cities, things practically came to a standstill after huge thunderstorms resulted in street flooding and power outages. In addition, unless you are staying in an international hotel chain (i.e. Hilton), then a “3-star hotel” in Thailand maybe equivalent to a 2-star (or worse) in the United States. If you go into a country expecting an experience that it can’t provide, then you will be miserable with disappointment your whole trip.
Bring Only What You Need- Whenever I traveled throughout the United States, I always packed a big suitcase full of clothes even if the trip was a few days. Very rarely did I wear more than three outfits in my entire suitcase. It didn’t take me long to realize that method of packing would not work for trips abroad. If you need an idea of some good items to pack, then check out my earlier blog post here. In general, American’s tend to overpack because they think they can only find certain items in the United States. However, the opposite is true, it is often easier and cheaper to get most items in developing countries than it is in the United States as people sell everything on street corners. You should also account for souvenirs that you may want to take back with you and have a little extra room in your backpack.
Respect the Culture- Sometimes you may find yourself in a country where they have traditions or customs that are drastically different from your home country. For example, when I was in Laos, a tour guide was telling me how men in a certain sect of society “proposed” to their wives in that they basically kidnapped and held her hostage for 3 days until she gave in and married him. In the United States, that would probably get you 10 years in a federal penitentiary. However, in their culture, it was perfectly normal. Another example is when I was in Costa Rica (a stable and peaceful country), I saw the police beat a drunk belligerent until he was nearly unconscious. Although these instances are drastically different from life in a liberal democracy, you must respect the fact that it may be the way of life in the country that you are visiting.
Travel for yourself, not other people- This point seems kind of ironic given that I have started a travel blog that I hope gets as much traffic as possible. However, when you are traveling, you need to take time and enjoy the places you visit. Many people (myself included) get so caught in taking pictures and posting statuses on social media about their trip that they don’t fully enjoy the experience. In my last trip to the Dominican Republic, I deactivated my Facebook Account and it was one of the most enjoyable trips I’ve had. Not only did I build this website, but I wasn’t constantly worried about “one-upping” myself in an attempt to show off my trip on Facebook. Remember who you are traveling for, because 85% of the people you are trying to impress on Instagram won’t even see your posts.