Canada’s great and everything, but living here definitely comes with some drawbacks. Like winter. And the skyrocketing housing prices. And ketchup chips (fight me).
If you’ve ever fantasized about skipping town and taking your career abroad, you’re not alone: Approximately 9% of all Canadian citizens live and work outside of Canada. From travel bloggers to online poker players, millions of people now their earn paychecks on the road.
We spoke with three full-time travelers — a cruise ship musician, a flight attendant, and an English teacher — to weigh some of the pros and cons of living out of a suitcase.
I always wanted to be a flight attendant as a kid. You too?
Not at all, I just fell into it. I’m an actor, and you’re always looking for flexible jobs on the side. It was a real time of feast or famine for me, and I showed up at an open call for flight attendants in Montreal. That was nine years ago.
Broadly speaking, has the job been what you’d expected?
It’s so different from training. You’re not saving people from the burning wreckage of a plane; you’re serving them coffee and juice. The company is always hiring, and so you’re constantly working with new people who are going through that transition and realizing that it’s not what they expected. It’s odd: You’re surrounded by people, staring at 300 new faces every day, but you’re also really alone. It can be soul-deadening. You need to have things going on the side, or just be really into being a flight attendant, or else you’ll get bored or depressed.
What’s the pay like?
Well, I only work two weeks a month, and I’m making more than my friends. And they’re university professors, realtors, managers at luxury car brands. So it’s a sweet gig for money. And you can still do other work if you plan it properly. You’re just a number at the airline, and that actually has some advantages. You can take as much time off as you want, and no one will judge you. No one knows who you are.
How about expenses? If a flight’s delayed and you get stuck in Shanghai, what happens?
Once you’re on company time, they take care of everything. When I show up to work, I actually relax a bit more — as long as you’re where you’re supposed to be, you don’t have to think about a thing. Your transportation is paid for, the hotels are all paid for. The hotels aren’t anything special, your usual commuter-type places, but I usually just crash as soon as I get in. And you even get a per diem to cover the meals you’ll be eating while you’re away.
Is it hard managing things at home? I imagine being away for days at a time could pose some challenges.
Sometimes the food spoils, because you’ve bought groceries for a week and then you’re called away for work. But after a while you start to get smart. Like, you won’t get a cat unless you have someone around to help you with it. And flight attendants tend to live together. We all have such erratic schedules. If you shared a house with five people, you’d probably see one other person at any given time.
Do you ever get to travel? Book a one-way flight shift to Ibiza or whatever?
I did that when I was first starting out, but I don’t travel as much I used to. Now, I mostly choose domestic flights so I can get home quicker. The whole company is seniority based, and you start at the bottom of the totem pole for scheduling. Every month we have to bid on the days we want for our schedule, and what kinds of flights we want to work. Some of the longtime employees only work nine days a month, they just fly to Hong Kong and back three times. They’ve made the most money out of anyone, and then they can just sit around for the rest of the month, or go traveling if they want. It’s a pretty crazy life.
Guitarist off a 16-month stint on a major cruise line
Why’d you decide to play music on a cruise ship?
I was in debt. And I’d just gotten a music degree, but I didn’t have much performing experience. I’d heard good things about working on a ship. I knew that I’d be playing for packed houses every night, and that I could earn actual money. You can’t get that touring in Canada.
How’d you get the job?
I applied directly to the company, though I know some people go through agencies. Then we did a couple of Skype interviews where I played them music they’d sent me just before the call. It was tricky because I’m really a jazz guitarist, and they need people who can play all kinds of music on sight. It’s not just old people on cruises. One night you’ll do a Frank Sinatra tribute, but the next day they want reggae or something. But I was able to figure it out, and I got hired. I did the Hawaiian cruise first and then the Caribbean cruises, and they covered my airfare to get me to the departure ports.
Nice. How was the money?
The wages weren’t great, it was around $2,600 a month. But I wasn’t paying rent, and could eat at the buffet for free. For staff, drinks at the bar were cheap, and laundry and using the gym were free. I probably spent about $40 a week, so I was able to pay down a good chunk of my debt in just a couple of months.
What was the lifestyle like on the boat? I’ve heard you’re not supposed to talk to the guests…
I remember having lots of free time when I was on the ships. It also got pretty lonely. The internet sucked, and I didn’t call home that often. You’re surrounded by people, but yeah, you can’t really talk to the guests. Staff members kind of stay together in their own groups, like the kitchen staff all stay together, and there were only about 10 or 12 other musicians onboard at a time. At the same time, I’d share a cabin with another guy in my band. It was like half the size of a single dorm room. So that was a lot of company.
Did you at least get to see the sights when the ship docked?
Sure, I’d go snorkeling, take a walk, or just chat with the locals. But fundamentally, it didn’t really feel like I was getting paid to travel. 90 percent of the time you’re on the ship. It was a really good experience for me, and made me a better guitar player, but I don’t know if I’d recommend it to someone who just wants to see the world. There’s not much of that.
Former kindergarten teacher in South Korea
Why you decide to teach English abroad?
I’d just graduated with a BA in sociology. I had no idea what my next step would be, but I was leaning towards education, and I knew I wanted to travel. I also knew plenty of people who’d gotten TEFL or TESOL certificates and gone abroad and they’d enjoyed it. South Korea had so many options, and the wages were good compared to other countries. It was something that I wanted to do for a while, but when it came to picking the city and the school, it was a bit of a whim. I wish I’d researched it more.
It wasn’t like I’d thought it would be. I was teaching in a hagwon (private school), and things were different than what the administrators had promised. My accommodations were really shoddy, and the school itself was run like a business. It was all about making the parents happy, not about the quality of teaching. I felt pressured to overload these kids with work. I also found it really difficult to get outside of the bubble. I didn’t speak any Korean, so I couldn’t really engage with people other than English teachers. And turnover was high, so I’d connect with someone, and then they’d be gone the next month. I also knew there’d be culture shock, but I don’t think I properly prepared myself. People would stare at me in the streets. I never got used to that. A lot of this was my fault, but the school definitely also screwed me over.
They didn’t pay me everything they should have. I was earning about $2,000 a month, but they didn’t give me a pension or severance pay. Those things are mandatory in Korea. It was a power imbalance too, because my employer owned my visa. If I stopped working with them to go to a different school, my visa and my housing would be taken away.
Despite the pay issues, were you able to save money?
I’ve always been frugal, so saving wasn’t an issue for me, especially with the rent being paid for. Groceries and produce were really expensive, so I mostly ate simple meals at restaurants. The food was great, and it was a good way to see the city. I also didn’t do much shopping or many big nights out. I think I saved about $1,000 a month.
Did you ever get a chance to travel while you were there?
I made one quick trip to visit a friend who was travelling in Thailand. I got seven days off with my contract, and the school actually let me have those. Korea also has a lot of state holidays. It’s easy to get three or four days off in a row and go on little trips. But I didn’t take advantage of it because I was feeling pretty depressed at the time. I mostly spent it on the internet.
Any advice for people who want to do the same thing? You know, without the exploitation?
I know my experience isn’t unique, but there are also lots of people who taught in Korea for years because they loved it. I heard better things from people teaching in public schools. They had better conditions, more vacation time, and another teacher in the classroom to support them. I wouldn’t say don’t do it, just do your research.