When I left home in 2007, it was simple. I had 700 Euros stashed in my luggage, a current account containing £3700 GBP with a Visa Debit card to get at it, and a couple of emergency credit cards. I’d be as stingy as possible, because it wasn’t much! But it was all I had, and I aimed to make it home before I was in the red.
Now, my bank balance is actually higher than it was when I left.
I’m going to share with you some of the ideas I’ve learnt from others and put into practice myself in order to do this, lest you depart on a long, open-ended journey believing that your finances are limited to what you set out with.
I’m not going to hold back on actual figures – it’s important to discuss these things tangibly. Admittedly, a lot of what I’m going to discuss will be most applicable to the bicycle traveller, but with a bit of initiative – and that’s the key to creating and using these opportunities – these ideas should serve as a starting point for many other forms of long-term travel.
Stretch Your Budget
Fierce budgeting is the obvious way to make your money go further. For the backpacker this means street food, hostels and Couchsurfing. Cycle tourists have it made, though – carrying a tent, stove and food rules out almost all need for accommodation and catering – not to mention the sudden disappearance of all transport costs. While the learning curve may be steep and stressful to begin with, once you’ve got to grips with the fundamentals of stealth-camping (and/or have become an expert at being invited into people’s homes), your living costs plummet.
I began in mid-June on that 700 Euros, and it was November before I needed to get the cash-card out. That’s around 150 days / 700 Euros = 4.7 Euros per day, on average. (That was in Europe and Turkey – costs in the Middle East and Africa were far lower!)
During the four-month crossing of Europe we spent a total of five nights in hostels and campsites, and the remaining nights we slept in our tents, in the homes of hospitable locals, or with Couchsurfers in the bigger cities. Often when I tell people this, I’m told it’s impossible. But it’s not. Try it!
While this can stretch your budget a long way, it’s impossible of course to travel completely free of the burden of finances. That’s what I’d thought, anyway, until by chance I met Verena Lepre in Switzerland. An exceedingly calm, balanced and wise lady in her 50’s with 12 years of cycle touring behind her, she taught me the guiding principle than a lack of funds shouldn’t put an end to one’s trip. She’d spent a year cycling alone in Europe without a penny to her name, befriending construction workers and farmers each day to exchange a few hours of work for a meal and a place to sleep.
Inspiring as that had been, she’d also (together with her photographer husband) travelled much of Asia by bicycle, stopped off in Hong Kong to print several thousand postcards featuring her husband’s stunning travel photography, and then hopped over to Japan for a year where the couple had supported themselves ingeniously by stopping in each town centre, erecting a small billboard to advertise their wares, and taking advantage of that great Japanese passion – collecting photographs!
The lesson here is to capitalise on what you’re really, really, honestly good at (their photos were truly awe-inspiring). The chances are that focusing on your skills and thinking laterally and enterprisingly about how to use them is going to work better than waiting around for opportunities to find you.
Find Your Skill (And Use It)
Before travelling I made my post-university living as a freelance website developer. While I’d aimed to put it behind me and just ride, it wasn’t long before I realised that I had a skill that was increasingly in demand – noticeably so in the developing world’s tourism sector.
I’ve been offered numerous opportunities to create websites for hotels, restaurants and tour operators, all eager to draw more business through online promotion, and while I had to turn most of them down through lack of time and resources, it prompted me to get tooled up with a small laptop for when such opportunities arise during my future travels.
In the small town of Weldiya in Ethiopia, I spent a few hours helping a young woman fix her computer problems. She ran a small internet cafe and print-shop. I didn’t get paid, and nor did I expect to, but she did offer me the free use of her computers and internet connection. Look at yourself and your skills, and find a niche in which you can use them while you’re on the road. Maybe you’ll be rewarded.
When I first arrived in Armenia during that bitter mid-winter and set to waiting around for the British Embassy to pull the necessary strings to rescue my parcels from the corrupt customs department, my natural inclination as a traveller was to sit tight with Couchsurfers and the friends I’d made. These five weeks spent in limbo were thoroughly unproductive, rather depressing, uncomfortably cold, and (I constantly worried) burdensome on my hosts. So I rented a small flat in central Yerevan for about £85 GBP a month.
It immediately gave me relief – a place to temporarily call home, and suddenly I could pass the rest of the winter doing pretty much what I liked. I borrowed a computer and scouted around for website projects. I contacted everyone I knew and was soon working on a couple of projects for a company I used to do business with back in England. I covered my living costs and was able to save a significant amount of what I earnt.
The funny thing was that renting a flat had never occurred to me until then. It seemed too… permanent. It didn’t fit with my idea of myself as a traveller-nomad, never putting down too many roots. The cost was prohibitive (you laugh, but in those days £85 was a ton of money!).
But it was the right thing to do – as well as enabling me to work, it also prompted a reassessment of my objectives. There’s more than one way to skin a cat – travel didn’t necessarily have to entail a permanent state of motion. A valuable lesson learnt, I would no longer be afraid to stop and live a little, if it seemed like a ripe opportunity to do so.
You’re Already An Expert In Something
I recently met a group of English teachers who’d been living in Baku. Teaching English as a foreign language has long been a favourite way for travellers from the UK and USA to earn money on the road. If you’re a native English speaker, and if you have any teaching experience (or are just bolshy enough to give it a blast), you’ve got it made.
Few institutions or individuals are likely to ask you for your qualifications – much of the time, it’s just practice with a native speaker that people are looking for. That’s what my friend Katie was doing in Istanbul when I met her. She gave lessons in an inner-city school; a job she had procured purely by virtue of being a native speaker (at the time she was in the country on a tourist visa). The teachers from Baku were enjoying travelling overland to their next gigs in Libya, Bulgaria and Italy, and said that the combination of teaching and travelling was sustainable indefinitely, and a whole lot of fun.
Travel writing and travel photography – ah. Anyone who’s ever tried to enter this field will know that there are a thousand aspiring hacks for every paid gig. But if you want to give it a go while you’re on the road, focus on your speciality, and use your contacts. Andy and I contacted the Royal Geographical Society’s chairman at the time – knowing of his fondness for round-the-world cyclists – and suggested an article on mountain-bike touring, which we’d made our unique thing.
Lo and behold, we were shortly thereafter commissioned to write an article for the RGS’s popular magazine Geographical, along with supplying a number of photos for the four page feature in April 2008.
I’ve now developed my photography to a point where I’m confident enough to try and hold an exhibition, which I’m planning to do before the end of the year, and people keep asking about ‘the book’, which I hope implies that people think my writing now worthy of publication – although I’m still nervous about the idea! [UPDATE: Janapar was published in January 2013!]
I guess the important thing is to avoid limiting yourself with too many well-intentioned but ultimately restrictive carefully-laid plans. But then I suppose it would have been a fearsome prospect to have left home thinking “well, I’ll set a course East and then make a living on the road”. A nice, comforting plan motivates us to set out, to “sail away from the safe harbour”, as Mark Twain put it. But once in motion, adaptability is one of the most important lessons for the long-term traveller to learn. To borrow another apt quote – “chance favours the prepared mind”.
I don’t stress half as much over my finances as I used to. (I even allow myself to eat normally once in a while!) It takes time to strike a balance between low expenses, creating something valuable (useful), and actually travelling. But once you’ve found that balance, there’s no reason you couldn’t travel that way until the end of your days.
The best resource I’ve found on making a living in unorthodox ways is Chris Guillebeau’s blog The Art Of Non-Conformity. Chris has produced some excellent Unconventional Guides* on the topic of making a living through your passions.