Illustration by Ben Thomson
This article is supported by NAB’s Platinum Visa Debit card, which can elevate your overseas experience. In this series, we look at the interconnection between travel and money.You’re reading this at your desk, aren’t you? We know why you clicked—we get it. Literally everybody in the history of human employment has imagined buying a one-way plane ticket, dramatically walking out of the office, and never coming back. Two week holidays are fine, but the prospect of traveling indefinitely, surrounded by endlessly beautiful vistas with no emails to answer and no sad desk salads to eat, is way better.
Except it also feels extremely unattainable. Saving is hard, especially if you’re not totally sure how much money you need to achieve your goal. Travelling for a year or more sounds wildly expensive—exactly how many more emails do you need to answer before you hand in the resignation letter? How many more cups of procrastination tea do you need to make in the kitchenette?To find out, we crunched the numbers and talked to some seasoned long term travellers who are living the dream.
There are 195 countries in the world! But don’t take that as a challenge. While you’re plotting your escape from the office, it’s best to keep in mind that the price of travel varies drastically between destinations. It seems obvious, but when you’re serious about staying overseas long term, even tiny savings add up over time.Your dollar will stretch within South East Asia and South America, whereas North America and much of Europe are going to cost you more. “If heading to cheap and cheerful destinations you can easily slide by on $1,200 a month or less,” says Alex Reynolds, a full-time backpacker who chronicles her travels on the blog Lost With Purpose. She highly recommends India for the frugal traveller—she was living on about $500 per month there.If you’re adamant on experiencing those more expensive places, you might have to consider—uh oh—a bit of paid work. Not too much. And nothing too strenuous. Teach English, work at a hostel front desk, or freelance remotely—there are plenty of options.
Your destination determines your budget
“I travelled for a year through mainly first world countries, and I spent about $20,000,” says Peter Shaw, who quit his corporate job to pursue long-term travel and runs the blog Nomadical Sabbatical. He has never returned to full-time work, but does draw some income from running the blog and an online business.“If you’re hitting expensive destinations like Japan, or Europe, I think $10,000-$15,000 is realistic as long as you supplement it with some work. But if you’re going to cheaper locations, you could do it for $5,000-$8,000. I know people who have travelled while working a bit for more than two years who had only about $2,000 in the bank when they left.”Lia Garcia, who chronicled her year-long honeymoon with husband Jeremy on their blog Practical Wanderlust, saved up for the trip over a five-year period, assuming the money would stretch to cover her partner too. She discovered too late that what she’d saved wasn’t enough. Her tip: If you’re travelling as a couple, don’t expect costs to be halved. You’re still two people, even if it won’t feel like it after the first month of sharing flea-ridden hostel beds. “To be safe, I'd say to save up at least $20,000 per person for a year-long trip,” she says. Even if you’re planning to avoid expensive destinations, err on the side of caution budget-wise or you’ll end up having to come home early. “Budget $2,000 a month just in case—better to overestimate than underestimate,” says Reynolds.
There are plenty of tips and tricks to make your money last while you’re overseas. If you keep them in mind, you can probably leave home sooner. Your number one priority should be scrounging some free or cheap accommodation for at least some of the trip—shoot those long lost relatives or high school friends a message.“Accommodation is your biggest expense hands down. Crack getting cheap or free accommodation and you’re laughing,” says Shaw. If you don’t have those rich acquaintances to lean on, he recommends working for board on farming properties, or trading any professional skills (“people always need help with IT”) you have for accommodation. Couchsurfing is another option, as is sharing an AirBnB with a large group of fellow travellers to keep costs down.If you’re travelling long term, don’t expect to enjoy the standards of luxury you’re indulging in on your three week annual leave trips to Europe. Hotels are usually out, unless you’re in a really inexpensive destination. “Also they’re often boring, so there’s that,” says Shaw. “Sacrifice is something you’ll have to live with. Learn to live on less.”Except don’t sacrifice safety. “If a chance comes up to stay for free on someone’s couch but they give you the creeps… maybe don’t go for it.”Another major expense is food. But you can be smart about this one, too. “Cook as many of your own meals as you can,” says Garcia. “You'll save money and your health. Besides, shopping for food is honestly one of the most authentic ways to experience a new destination. Going grocery shopping at the mercados throughout South and Central America is so much fun!”
Money can go further that you think
The best thing about travelling long term is that you don’t have to think like a tourist. There’s no rush to see anything, so plan ahead and avoid peak season—this will save you plenty of money. You can also sign up for last minute tour specials on a whim, because your timing is so flexible.“Even if you're not traveling in cheap destinations, you can always keep costs to a minimum by traveling slow and doing as locals do,” Reynolds says. “Take public transportation, hang out in parks and natural areas, eat in local haunts, stay with locals. When in Rome, take it slow!” Or Paris, or Shanghai, or Rio de Janeiro.
If you’re finding it difficult to save for your travels, just know that it will be worth it. You’ll have the opportunity to work for the rest of your life—but you won’t always be young and free enough to stay up all night in Berlin, or scuba dive off the coast of Mexico.“I’d never trade the experiences I had travelling long term for a year’s salary with all the stuff that goes with it,” says Shaw. “I had the time of my life and saw amazing things, met great people, and have amazing stories to tell.”Reynolds says long term travel isn’t for everyone, but it was for her. “If you're less sure, experiment first by taking a few long holidays, or requesting a sabbatical for half a year or a year. If being away for so long feels right… it's time to submit your letter of resignation!”Garcia agrees—if you feel like long term travel is for you, it probably is. So start saving. “If you're anything like me, and you've spent years dreaming of travel, pining away and waiting for your life to begin, it will always be worth it.”This article is supported by NAB’s Platinum Visa Debit card, which provides a more seamless money experience when traveling with no foreign currency fees on international purchases. You can find out more here.