How To Plan Financially For Long-Term Travel (And Stay On The Road Forever)

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.

English road-signs

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.

Tell Stories

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.

29 Responses to “How To Plan Financially For Long-Term Travel (And Stay On The Road Forever)”

  1. Peter Gostelow

    Interesting read. You sound as much a skinflint as me. I haven't been quite so frugal this time through Europe, although have spent less than 50 Euro on accommodation in the last 2 months. From experience there is certainly a novelty of travelling on a very low budget and then being able to tell people how cheap it is to travel like this. On the other hand I don't want to miss opportunities (drink in a bar with good company etc) that might not arise all that often. I'm currently staying with people who run luxury cycle touring holidays – utter contrast to the usual lifestyle. I found myself on the guestlist of some pretentious club in Lisbon last Friday night – 10 Euro for a G+T -shameless. I could eat for several days on this if I wanted. You could have included the Warmshowers link as well by the way. Peter

    Reply
    • Tom

      I understand the kind of situation you mean. There have been a few uncomfortable moments in the last couple of years when it’s dawned on my host — just as we’re about to walk into the restaurant/club/bar — that I’m secretly desperate to squirm out of blowing two weeks’ food budget on a couple of drinks! (Must have been the sweat patches!)

      I completely forgot about Warmshowers http://warmshowers.org/ — Couchsurfing but intended for cycle-tourists. To be honest it’s not quite so useful in the 3rd world, but in the West it’s fantastic.

      Reply
      • Mirosan

        Warmshowers. Yes I agree not so useful in the 3rd world…..unless there is a way to use it to share something…. As you said staying in a rented flat to achieve something…well it would be awesome if you could have advertised any spare rooms on warmshowers to any other tourers to share the costs for a little comfort at 1/2 price. Maybe this option could be built in to WS?!?

        Reply
  2. Liz Allen

    Interesting reading.
    Regarding your abilities as a writer I don't think you need to be nervous about your abilities! Your writing is lively, entertaining, informative, evocative …………………..need I say more.

    Reply
  3. Marlène

    Great text Tom, thanks for sharing the insights! We are still to discover our "hidden talents" and hope that our plan to survive on a very tight budget while cycling will remain viable for as long as possible.. 🙂
    Marlène & J?drzej

    Reply
  4. Polprav

    Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post in your blog with the link to you?

    Reply
  5. Ben

    Makes for interesting reading, Bro – I definitely want to do some medium to long-term touring once my Canadian Immigration stuff is sorted out. Teaching English really appeals a lot these days also – thanks for the insight

    Reply
  6. Tom Allen

    Thanks for the comments. Marlene, looking forward to following your journey while I'm taking some time off! Polprav, no problem!

    There are loads of tried and tested job opportunities – work in a bar, be a film extra, pick fruit – but none of them really fitted this kind of lifestyle…

    Reply
  7. @worldbiking

    Thanks for speaking so openly about the cost of travel. It is truly amazing how cheaply one can live once you know the tricks of the trade so to speak. We have been biking through the USA for almost six months and spending less than we did when we cycled West Africa. There's no shame in being a cheapskate of it helps you live your dreams. Our trip is so much richer in experiences now that we regularly stay with hosts from Warm Showers and Couchsurfing. These organizations are not just about saving money, but about having meaningful encounters with locals.

    And by the way, when will the book be out, Tom?

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      I'd say they're far more about staying with local people than saving money, even though that's a great benefit as well!

      The cost of living on the road is so much lower than the cost of orthodox living that it really does defy belief. I'm sure that the fear-factor of losing a regular income with no safety-net is one of the main reasons that people's travelling dreams get shelved. Too many times I've heard from friends that they'd love to come and join me cycling, but they can't afford it and can't take the time off work.

      Before I left, I was afraid of running into a financial dead-end. It was only afterwards that I realised how much more you can get out of life when you spend less. It follows that you have to work less, so then you can spend that free time forging something more meaningful. Cheapskate is a loaded word – I wish there was a better one, maybe 'micro-consumer' or something. Funny how we're inventing new words for things that other societies have always done, just never forgot how to do like we did.

      Wow, that was a bit of a brain-splurge. I'll stop now. Book? I'll let you know…

      Reply
  8. Harry, WorldOnaBike.com

    Finding more and more great posts here, got to get back to work, paying fo the trip 🙂

    Anyway, great advice. I have more in my account than when i started 2 years ago and still have helped numerous people along the way with websites, marketing, computer problems, photos and more.

    We did Italy on a bike a few years ago on 5 euros per day (for 2 persons), of which half was spent on gelato. The rest? A pound of pasta, free camping, free fruits and nuts from the road and all kinds of spontaneous gifts (veggies, wine, cakes) from friendly Italians.

    I never worry about the costs, try to keep it down pay when I need it. It is too tiring trying to be minimalist 24/7/365, life is too enjoy. And as most biketravellers like to roam less fortunate countries, spending some cash is a great way to give back to the local community, especially if you can make your money from richer parts of the planet.

    Cheers and keep writing

    Reply
  9. Luis Mata

    Hi Tom.
    how are you mate? I hope everything is OK.
    First of all, I’d like to thank you for your post, I’ve read it and it was really, really helpful.
    I’m from Mexico City and my girlfriend (she’s from US) and I are planning a bike trip to Europe for this year, the difference will be that we will also want to rock and ice climbing across Europe too so this will be our climbing/biking adventure. We want to climb in every available zone within Europe and also try to summit on the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc.
    We are also thinking about filming the trip (that would be amazing)
    However, we don’t have a lot of money and we are thinking about getting some sponsor, I know we don’t need a lot of money but we (unfortunately) need some 🙁
    Anyway, I wanted to ask you if you have any advice (besides all from above) or any other idea of how to get an sponsor?
    And also ask you about bikes… which bike do you think would be the ideal for this kind of trip?
    Thanks in advance.
    -Luis M

    Reply
    • Tom

      Hi Luis,

      This article might help with the sponsorship idea. If you want my honest advice, though: work overtime, save money, forget sponsors and filming and go and have an adventure with no strings attached!

      Bikes – I would go with a basic road-touring bike. Europe is a place of good roads and bike shops. In fact it might be easier in many ways to wait til you arrive and then buy your bikes there! Especially if you start in Germany or Austria before hitting the Alps, there will be no end of places to get hold of good bikes for touring. People on Warmshowers might be able to help with finding bikes in specific cities, too.

      Hope that helps!

      Reply
  10. Chris

    You said you ate with an average of 4.7 Euros a day while in Europe. Could you recommend some food that you ate? On my last biking trip I ate so much! I don’t know how you could keep it down to 4.7 euros a day, while keeping all parts of nutrition in my diet.

    Thanks 😉

    Reply
    • Tom

      One word: Lidl 😀

      Bread, cheese, biscuits, jam.

      Vitamins and protein courtesy of fruit trees and kindly invitations!

      Reply
  11. Nigel Francis

    Good read as ever Tom.

    I am presently trying to put an itinerary/cost together for another life chapter.

    Working on £10 a day ($15 US) plus airfare. Wild camping or as much as I can get away with. Looking at Canada, US, New Zealand, Australia, Africa then home, if I want to or get there! But then just might get somewhere and take it from there! Going by your figures Tom, I have been a bit conservative! I am not a BB or hotel etc..kind’a’guy and happier in the corner of a field or wherever has a flat bit of ground. I like to keep to the principles of KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid).

    I come from various careers or as I like to call them ‘Chapters’. 6 years military, 3 years studied furniture design and crafts (cabinetmaker), 8 years salesman (had the car, had the woman, had the clothes, had the property, not really me but I was in it!). Now just closed another chapter, a guide and commercial safari pilot in Africa for 7 years. Moving on now to another chapter, me and my bike, KISS!

    I am also now very much a ‘micro-consumer’. Ebay has certainly been great in removing unwanted rubbish that we live with. It’s surprising how much clutter one can accumulate! Believing now one is richer with less. Some friends and family don’t see it but then they have not seen the light, KISS!

    In the two years I have been back in the UK I have cycled everyday to my place of ‘fund raising’ (generally known as a job!) middle of winter too. The harsher the weather the more opened minded you become. I look at cars now as disability vehicles! So never got round to needing a car, huge saving.
    need

    So I hope to be able to travel for less than £10 per day as Tom has proved. Just would like to get a bit more than his original £3700 in the bank before heading off.

    Reply
  12. Let Nothing Hold You Back from Travel - Voyager's Quill

    […] are just a few resources to help you out in that area: How to Finance Long-Term Travel The Currency of Pad Thai Why You Should Read “Refuse the Rat […]

    Reply
  13. Andres Korchoff

    I can´t tell how valuable and encouraging this read was, about your writing skills… just great, there´s a skill in amateur writing that professional writers lack “the amateur way of expressing your experience” I´ve been a short term traveller since I went on an exchange program when I was sixteen, I´ve travelled for periods of up to two months and as I live in Venezuela (vivid example of 3rd world) I´ve helped several people to travel around Europe and America with low budget designed plans, it has brought a certain reputation on me as the living travel planner on my city. Now I´m in Argentina figuring out wether to start a post graduate study here or go back home and set back to work, when the idea of “forget everything and get your a** back on that plane” suddenly stroke me. Now i gotta find a way to finance my journey and have the idea to write to a couple of magazines and Tv stations to ask for finantial aid as i want to turn my trip into a culinary adventure, since cooking is one of my greatest talents, i might also try to learn some photography essentials to follow your advise! well thanks anyways, it was amazing reading your post. Greetings from Mendoza — Andrés Korchoff

    Reply
  14. Hilary

    Hi Tom, great blog post! Your information has helped re-inspire me to plan my next trip. Money for most of us is always an issue on these trips, but from my experience (2 previous solo bike trips…NYC to Toronto and E.Yorks to Orkney & Shetland via Thurso in mid-winter on an old Raleigh with trailer and cat 🙂 and camping 60% of the time ) the hospitality of strangers never fails to surprise me. You mentioned some really good points, especially about taking advantage of rented accommodation, which at times is ideal for taking stock as well as earning more money. I learned a lot from my last trip and would personally rather save for a bit longer and buy better quality all-season essential items needed for stealth camping than to have the cheap and nasty make do and mend stuff-although it’s possible to still manage with them. There are certain products I would never use again for a trip though, especially in winter. Being able to network one’s skills is definitely an advantage and I’ve yet to try anything like this, so you have given me some interesting ideas. To quote a pneumonic I learned from my time in the Reg Army-“The Seven P’s”-Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents P*** Poor Performance 🙂 . Still, having Avenir Panniers instead of Ortliebs should not stop one travelling round Europe, but they’re no good for flash-floods and river crossings. Planning a trip for this summer down to Corsica, cycling all the way. Thanks for the tips and links Tom.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Thanks for the comment! What’s interesting, I think, is the evolution that happens in the individual. Starting out with whatever’s lying around will mean that the learning curve is steep, but it will teach you untold amounts about what works and what doesn’t. Then, if you’re ready to move forward, you’ll be better equipped to make good decisions because of all that experience (as your story shows).

      It would be a shame if people were prevented from taking the first step because they we’re led to believe it’s a much more serious thing than it actually is…

      Reply
  15. How To Cycle Around The World In 3 Easy Steps :: Tom's Bike Trip

    […] Spend time saving money. You could put tens of thousands of pounds/dollars/euros in the bank to create a feeling of security. Or your could sell everything you own right now, set off at the end of your notice period, and then simply avoid buying anything. You’ll sleep rough, eat bread and jam and fruit off trees, Couchsurf, accept all invitations, and avoid sightseeing (you can do that when you retire). When you’re low on cash, simply use the skills you didn’t know you had to earn more locally. […]

    Reply
  16. Tom

    Hi fellow Tom,
    This is about the fourth piece of yours I’ve read this afternoon and once again it helped to cut through a lot of the anxiety about my preparation for long-term touring. Great stuff, very well written, I’m looking forward to reading plenty more of your stuff.

    Cheers from Australia!

    Reply
  17. Olaf

    To give my own perspective: I spent on average 25 Euros a day on a two months bicycle trip from Germany to Istanbul (door to door). If you cut out the return airfare and a middle of the journey trip to a family member’s wedding it was about 20 Euro a day. Had I stayed more in my tent (and less in ho(s)tels) it would have been less than 15 Euro a day. However I do enjoy fast food, cola and bakeries and am not willing to give up on them.

    Less than a fiver a day *is* really cheap but as always your mileage may vary (as does your desired comfort level). Very inspiring nonetheless.

    For the aspiring long term cyclist with a “proper” job prior to leaving I do suggest making the tax law work in your favour: Many (most?) countries tax you based on your income during a tax year. If you earn less (because you only work half the year) you pay a lot less in income taxes (usually less than half, because most tax systems are progressive (the more you earn the more income tax you pay). Think of the tax exemption limit such as the first X Euro you earn per tax year are tax free and the marginal tax rate which goes up the more you earn).

    If you earn nothing (because you are gone for the whole tax year) you pay nothing of course, but you pay full taxes for the tax year before and after your trip.

    This means that if you leave for a year (example) it is better (from the taxation point of view) to leave in the middle of the tax year (i.e. July 1st) and return in the middle of the next tax year (i.e. June 31st). Therefore the tax man finances a (substantial) part of the cost of your trip because you pay twice less than half of your income tax (instead of once the full amount). Twice less than half is less than once the full amount. The difference is yours to keep and put towards your trip…

    Reply
  18. Jeff Gardner

    Tom, as ever you hit the chords of the ‘next’ dimension of cycle touring after the crowd learns to stop counting miles.

    Here, the end of reading terrific comments had me thinking aloud about skills offerings on the road. I’ve never done it, for my field is taxation in US history. Not a lot of sold-out auditoriums for that one. Olaf, (the comment above) makes observations surely useful for Europeans and probably most Americans. But, for those from USA, too many bring an advanced sense of purposeful travel but a first grade understanding of taxation.

    Being a Warmshowers host over many years, I’ve seen more electronics and more on-the-road income schemas. People on the road for long periods fret that gov’t will come hunt them down. But I have yet to see a single instance when anyone needed to file at all. Even those with some head-turning receipts. Some learned how to file properly; others with less exposure to history and law, probably most such people coming through, opted to live with the headaches and pay the tribute. It just always seemed odd — yearning to be so far ahead about life awareness but less willing to apply it in the “real world”. That is a larger lesson than dumb ‘ole taxation: travel is part and parcel life itself, not an excursion separated from it.

    Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. All can wake up now! Thanks for everything, Tom.

    Reply
  19. AJ Walton

    I’ve been traveling for just over a year now, and don’t plan on stopping! Enjoying your site and the mindset – we tend to think that money is the only resource we have to overcome challenges, but it’s our creativity that prevails when money’s not an option.

    Reply
  20. Nicole

    Hi, I’m a first year University student studying a sports based degree, however in light of recent events I have come to the conclusion that I need a change of scenery. I have always wanted to go travelling and now seems like an ideal opportunity. I’m thinking the best approach is to finish my first year and take a gap year out, and travel through Europe. If anyone has any tips or comments they would be greatly welcomed as it’s a big decision to just decide to travel. If anyone has any information on costs to start my adventure or what I should do first to prepare that would be great. Thanks.

    Reply
  21. Dana

    Great article! I am planning on setting out on a cross-canada trip next year. Montreal-> Vancouver and then…who knows. Do you have any idea how viable it might be to earn a little cash as a wandering bike mechanic? I’ve been in the industry for years and know my shit backwards and upside down, but I wonder about the difficulty of finding clients while on the move. I guess if all else fails, I could always do piecework, assembling at SportChek or somesuch, but i’d prefer to avoid it.

    Reply

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