A quick search on Google reveals a number of blogs and articles entitled ‘how to travel for free’, ‘how to travel the world for free’, ‘how to travel forever’, and other variations thereof.
Reading these pieces, however, reveals that they are not really about free travel at all.
Instead, they are – almost without exception – about how to earn money on the road, using tactics such as travel hacking, hospitality exchange networks and volunteering opportunities to avoid spending more than necessary.
This, to me, is not travelling for free.
At least, not in the sense that I wanted to explore when I boarded a train for the far end of my home country without a single penny.
Instead, I wanted to test out the idea of abandoning money altogether; neither possessing it, spending it, nor looking to earn it, yet seeing if I could pull off my journey all the same – and even enjoy it!
I’ll not lie: it was a terrifying moment, leaving my apartment, knowing my wallet was still lying on the kitchen table.
Like almost everyone else, I simply could not envisage life without money.
And as I made my way to the railway station, wandering among taxi ranks and newsagents and coffee bars and convenience stores, pockets empty, I suddenly noticed how dominated public life really is by spending and commerce and consumption. All that money flying around — it suddenly seemed like a crutch, a way of glossing life over, a means by which we could avoid really having to interact with each other on a personal level as we rushed around on our way to something far more important.
What – I wondered on the train to Penzance – would happen to me, setting forth to travel without any money in an environment like this?
Three weeks later I arrived in Edinburgh.
I did not spend a single penny for the entire duration of my trip.
I barely even thought about money, in fact, for I usually had more important things to worry about.
I’m not going to tell you it was easy. Nor am I going to claim that the experience has made me an expert in the art of money-free travel, because I don’t really feel that three weeks penniless across a single country was much more than a brief introduction.
I did, however, feel that I’d uncovered an entirely new way of existing in the world — at least, for me personally — and it has provided much food for thought.
So, in this long-form article, I’d like to try to share a little of what I learned with you.
How exactly is it possible to really travel money-free – and still enjoy the experience?
Reassess needs versus wants
Basic material needs are so passé these days — food, water, shelter. We know this.
In the Western world, though, we’ve gone way beyond it. We live in a society where unlimited credit and unbridled consumption is not just the norm but actively encouraged. Almost everything we buy is something we want, not something we need, to the point where we often have trouble distinguishing between the two. It’s an ideology so deeply entrenched that we’re barely aware of it, we’re so rarely forced to truly reconnect with what we actually need.
Please note that I speak factually here; this isn’t a lefty rant. The point is that having no money whatsoever moves the goalposts firmly (and rapidly) back into the realm of needs: food, water, shelter. Water can always be freely obtained, and you can carry your shelter with you in the form of camping gear, so food is usually the only material need that remains.
Travel, of course, has one additional requirement: transport. I chose to use a bicycle for my experimental journey; the perfect balance of human power, range, and the all-important connections it’d help me make with the people and places I travelled through, which I would soon learn was critically important. Walking and hitch-hiking would doubtless work just as well, as would any other simple form of human-powered (or food-powered, if you like) transport.
Relinquish the notion of independence
There is this notion of ‘independent’ travel, in which the traveller operates outside the realm of tour operators, guides and other hand-holding concepts. Sometimes, one can’t help but detect an air of superiority about those who evangelise it.
But independent travel still rests upon the crutch of money. So-called independent travellers are just as locked into the transactional system as everyone else. They’re just making a few more decisions about what to spend their cash on.
Without any money whatsoever, access to every traditional payment-based opportunity to satisfy your needs — i.e. to travel independently — goes out the window. Shops, cafes, hostels, hotels: these will no longer be part of your life. They exist to make money; you have none.
I realised on Day One that gazing longingly through greengrocers’ windows was fruitless, and that I might as well ignore such things altogether, instead thinking more laterally about getting what I needed.
Beyond the immature, individualistic notion of independence lies interdependence, the realisation that your fate is forever inextricably tied up with that of everyone else (and by proxy, and without wanting to sound too hippyish, every other living thing) — more important still, that you are better off that way.
Without the ability to divorce yourself from real human contact via the anonymising medium of cash, you will quickly realise that satisfying your needs will depend largely on the way you relate to other people. Whether that’s through random donations, in exchange for work or time, or simply someone sharing their surpluses with you, it’s people who you’ll come to rely upon as much as yourself.
By all means disagree, and attempt to subsist on foraging and bin-diving alone, but I’d wager you’ll eventually find its best combined with connecting with people. ‘Independence’ is a selfish goal, and in turn there are no social rewards for achieving it.
Lose control; set yourself free
At the beginning of the trip, I made the mistake of thinking that my usual routine of planning a few days and nights ahead would continue to work as well as it always had.
What happened in reality was that the commitments I’d made to be in specific places by specific times hindered my ability to experiment and get to grips with this new way of life.
Money, in the most practical sense, gives you the ability to get exactly what you want, exactly when you want it. Absence of money, then, means that you can only get what’s available in a given time and place.
So while I knew there’d be a handful of ‘safe havens’ (i.e. friends of friends) further up the road, I had to be much more flexible in the route I used to get there and how long it would take.
In short, I had to release my notions of control, instead seeking out opportunities on the fly, trusting my instinct and seeing where it all would lead. There were parallels here with the haphazard mode of transport that is hitch-hiking, and the process by which I found places to sleep while cycle touring.
It’s common to treat travel as a time for pleasure and hedonism, which of course ties in very well with the consumerist concept of spending money on nice food, cold beer and novelty experiences.
These things being unavailable through the usual channels, I realised that it was important to ignore the things that simply weren’t available, and to look for… not pleasure, but fulfilment from other kinds of experience.
Luckily, and as is often said, the best things in life are free. Sharing food, good company and helping others are well-known ways to glean intrinsic satisfaction from things that need have nothing to do with spending. But there are also the moments of peace and joy that arise spontaneously on the road via the most insignificant-seeming encounters.
Various buzzwords are nowadays used to describe the state of being open to these things: mindfulness, presence, awareness, consciousness, and various other spiritual or Buddhist-sounding terms guaranteed to bring about an uneasy silence at a dinner party. But all it really means is accepting what’s in front of you right now, appreciating it when it’s particularly beautiful, and quitting the endless search for the next short-lived pleasurable sensation.
Without money, here and now is all you’ve got. And it turns out that — with a bit of practice — it’s plenty. Recognising that is a skill and a half to have. Indeed, it might be the skill to end all skills.
Make peace with hunger (and other forms of misery)
Here’s another ingrained notion I quickly realised I’d taken for granted: three meals a day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. When I began investigating ways in which to feed myself without money, it largely revolved around satisfying the cultural preconception of what ‘feeding myself’ actually meant.
There was a time when I read a lot of science books (I’m too busy writing to have the time any more), and so I know enough as a layperson about the evolution of the human species and society to know that three meals a day is a far cry from the kind of diet and lifestyle we’re biologically equipped to deal with. Our metabolism is designed to store energy when there’s a surplus and fall back on it when there’s a scarcity, building and burning body fat as necessary. It mirrors the supposed hunter-gatherer routine of frugal consumption on the hunt, interspersed with lavish feasting when a kill is made.
Hunger is a driving force, a compulsive urge to find food. But it’s connected with long-term survival rather than short-term: you will not die if you don’t eat for a few days. It’s an overwhelming sensation, and a deeply unpleasant one when you’re not used to it. Strangely, though, I found that hunger became more tolerable over time. This is echoed in any number of fasting accounts you might care to look up.
What’s liberating — and therefore what gives you options — is knowing that you can get by without food when you need to. You can do this for several days with no ill effects. It might not be particularly pleasant, but you can continue in your search knowing all is not lost, rather than panicking and curling up in a ball, screaming desperately for your mother’s milk.
Eat junk food
Entire libraries could be dedicated to the topic of food waste. It’s one of the civilized world’s unspoken absurdities: that the best thing to do with perfectly edible food that cannot be sold is to put it in a bin and send it to landfill.
The issue is big enough to support a number of its own subcultures, the most visible of which is tramp culture. There’s a reason tramps go through the bins in public places: people put food in them, rather than giving the food directly to tramps. Bins are repositories for what mainstream society considers worthless, but one man’s trash is another’s treasure. In other cultures, begging and poverty occupies a revered role as an outlet for daily acts of charity. In ours, tramps get the shit kicked out of them while normal people put edible food in bin bags and leave it outside to rot.
The middle class has its own version: freeganism. It’s more broad than bin-diving alone, but in the context of feeding yourself, this is the most relevant part of the practice. I found a box of eggs (in date) and a tin of fruit (out of date) in a bin outside a house in a Devon village, which made for a tasty lunch. Later, I found several bags of carrots in the skip behind Iceland in Whitchurch on a Sunday morning. Smaller convenience stores, I found, tended to have much more accessible bins, as well as generally being located in quieter areas.
Though I didn’t try this myself on the trip, several people have since suggested asking at markets as they’re packing up, and in small bakeries around closing time. Outside of the catering trade, baked goods have the fastest turnaround of all, and bakeries fully expect to dispose of a certain amount of their produce on a daily basis. A friend of mine feeds his pigs on unsold stock from the bakery of his local Budgens, and has oft been known to set aside a few perfectly good pain au chocolates for himself.
Volunteer your time
Rumour has it that it used to be relatively common to find journeymen (known in the USA as hobos) travelling the nation, offering themselves up for casual work in exchange for food and a place to sleep. This was something I wanted to try. And so, when my contacts ran dry, I found myself knocking on doors, asking whether the occupants could use another pair of hands for a few hours in exchange for a meal.
This worked some of the time; it more often failed. I played the numbers game, simply trying again and again until I got lucky. My first gig obtained in this way was collecting asparagus bundles on a farm in Worcestershire, for which I was rewarded with a stupendous lunch and several hours of scintillating conversation while the rain came down outside.
There are some sensible ways to improve your odds. The first is to ask the right kind of people, and what that means in practice is finding people who are community-minded and who have sufficient authority to grant your request. A labourer on an industrial farm will fob you off, but the head of a family farm will be much more likely to engage. A slow-living resident of a small village will have a much better idea of who’s doing what in the immediate vicinity, and will be much more helpful than the zombies who inhabit the high streets of shit towns on weekdays. Village pubs are a great way to ingratiate yourself into communities as they are ready-made social hubs. Word gets around in small communities, and you’ll be able to follow a trail of breadcrumbs towards opportunities.
The second way is to consider what kind of help is actually going to be useful to people in the short-term. In general, this is either work which requires no skill or training whatsoever, or work at which you are an expert. Offering to do a job which will require more time to explain than it’ll take you to actually do it is bad value. So I found myself picking vegetables, sanding wooden chairs and washing pots on one hand, and advising on laptop specifications and tweaking bicycle gear indexing on the other.
The third consideration is how long you’re available for. The mistake I made in the beginning was assuming people would have a use for me for a few hours, but I more often than not found that people wanted at least a day’s work for it to be worth their while. (Needless to say, a few people entertained my whim regardless, giving me a token task to do before feeding me disproportionately and sending me on my way with a smile.)
The trick is finding the right type of community in the first place. While heading for the back-roads is a good way to do this, if you’ve internet access (I borrowed a smartphone and a friend’s BT Wifi account details), your first port of call should be your immediate contacts, your friends and family. If these leads run dry, there are websites dedicated to making these kinds of connections, such as HelpX or WWOOF, or even local Couchsurfing, Gumtree or Craigslist groups and listings. You could even use Facebook or Twitter.
It doesn’t really matter how; the point is that getting an introduction to a community will help enormously, especially if you’re not particularly gregarious or outgoing.
Freely give, freely receive
At other times it’ll be inappropriate to start blabbing on about wanting to work in exchange for food. You might just see someone who needs a hand then and there — a broken-down car that needs pushing, or a bicycle that needs fixing.
Simply offering to help, unconditionally, is a way of putting something back into that mystical pot of good fortune (or karma). What you’ll probably find is that it comes back to help you when you need it most. These things have a way of working out.
Mysticism aside, if you make yourself a helpful kind of person, you’ll probably become more receptive to the helpfulness of others. Too often we assume that approaching strangers want one of two things: a handout, or to sell us something. This jaded and cynical view can be cured simply by approaching others in the spirit of altruism, expecting nothing in return. Sooner or later, this kind of thing will become normal and natural.
Catch up with friends and family
When I tell people I stayed at the homes of friends and family whenever the opportunity arose, a surprising proportion respond with something along the lines of “that’s cheating!”.
Exactly whose set of rules am I cheating? Yes, I was travelling money-free. No, it wasn’t a novelty mission with stupid rules attached to it. The fact of the matter of simple: I possessed no money, nor any means of accessing it. Aside from that, I could and would do as I pleased.
It feels like this should be obvious, but I’d have visited friends and family along my route if I did have money — so why would I cycle past their front doors because I didn’t? It’s that silly notion of ‘independence’ at work again, that notion that it’s you versus the world, that you must make your own way with no help whatsoever. Bullshit. I appreciated the trip all the more for the opportunities it created to spend time with old friends, make several new ones, and generally enjoy the kind of good company that we as social animals crave almost as much as food, water and shelter.
What it also did was highlight how widespread our networks really are. I hadn’t the slightest idea that people I knew would have willing and helpful contacts scattered so broadly across the nation. Yes, there were massive gaps, but that was what everything else in this article was for.
I’d be willing to wager that if you announced today on Facebook that you were travelling the length of your home country and were looking for contacts along the way, you’d find just the same thing. What better opportunity to visit them and catch up?
Work out a (flexible) routine
After a couple of weeks, I found that the most practical model of living like this was to seek out a community where opportunities were ripe, make it known that I was working for food and that I’d be around for a few days, then see what emerged. Additionally, I stockpiled food that would keep so I could travel for longer between jobs.
Depending on your approach to travel, yours may well turn out different, but the point is that from all this experimenting and all these mistakes emerged a routine. The panic of being penniless had long since died away, replaced by a feeling that this way of life could be prolonged indefinitely. Who knew?
Get creative and embrace variety
I feel that what I’ve covered here is really only the tip of the iceberg. Money isn’t just coins and notes but a whole culture with all the rules and norms of any other. Once you step outside of that culture you’re free to roam as far and wide as your imagination takes you.
I am sure that you’ll be able to come up with far more imaginative ideas than me, but some of the things I wanted to try doing but didn’t (for lack of time) included making and selling beer-can stoves at markets, running pop-up bicycle repair workshops, learning an instrument so I could busk, and learning a craft that would be in demand wherever I went.
This last point, for the money-free traveller, is possibly the most valuable asset you can possess, reminding me of the German travellers I’ve met in the past, diligently keeping the tradition of the Wanderjahre alive — a tradition that we have sadly lost. I guess we didn’t value it highly enough.
Really, really appreciate what you’ve got
There is nothing quite as satisfying in this world as a meal you’ve endured great hardship and hunger before eating.
My money-free journey was full of this: renewed appreciation for things that I’d taken for granted by virtue of them having been taken away. While my ‘great hardship’ pales into insignificance in comparison with other hardships endured in this world, joy and suffering are ultimately relative, meaningless to anyone other than the one feeling them.
Bicycle travel is a great way to remind yourself what matters in life, with or without money. Appreciation of the little things was all the more accentuated when I was forced to use all my initiative and creativity to find them, rather than simply handing over money I’d earned previously by sitting indoors in front of a computer.
In this way, you can begin to see that travelling without money is actually something very positive, rather than a constant battle against endless hardships.
Reconsider what money means to you
And so it is that, having lived entirely money-free and re-learned the value of things, you may consider revisiting that old relationship and seeing if it looks any different. For while money is a crutch, a hindrance, an obfuscator of values and an enormous waste of energy for the most part, there do come occasions when a common means of exchange is genuinely useful.
For instance, while I have a deep distaste for many aspects of consumer culture and the way in which our form of capitalism has cultivated it, I believe that communications technology — used well — is generally a force for good, and I’m not going to claim that the internet or mobile phones would be possible unless they were built on globalised principles and centralised networks.
Mass transport, too, is truly valuable to society, spans nations and continents, and it would be foolish to propose that public transport and the infrastructure that supports it could function effectively without some form of large-scale organisation.
Institutions like these can’t function unless they agree on a common denominator for the things they exchange with each other and with the people who use them.
So it’s not black and white, in my view. It’s not that ‘money is evil’, nor that ‘money makes the world go round’. It’s just that so much of our existences have become consumed by its use that the original point of money has been all but forgotten.
Which made me immensely grateful when, after a long shift of pot-washing in the Lake District, the bar manager gave me £65 from the tip jar. I didn’t see £65; I saw only a train ticket to get me home at the end of this surprising and truly fascinating journey.
* * *
This experience has not turned me into a freegan, Luddite, anti-capitalist, ruralist hippy. It has not made me want to live money-free for the rest of all time.
Rather, I think the biggest lesson I’ve taken away from this journey is an extension of the one I often cite in support of long, meandering bicycle adventures. It’s a feeling of confidence in yourself — not arrogance, just a level of self-knowledge that stands up under pressure because you’ve been there before. You’ve a yardstick by which to measure things. You can put things in proportion, and you can respond appropriately. You’re not fearless, but there are many common fears over which you have now exerted control.
It’s a feeling that if all you took for granted in modern life was suddenly whisked away, if all the institutions that support your existence and provide for your needs suddenly vanished and you were left with nothing but the clothes on your back, an empty landscape, no knowledge of where you were or which way to go… that you would be able to stand there, look around you, and say — and believe — “This is OK. Everything is going to be OK.”
This is the final post in the series about my #freeLEJOG experiment. Here’s the first post if you missed it. I hope you’ve enjoyed following along!
I’m planning to compile these articles into an e‑book, telling the story of the trip and exploring the themes that emerged from it. If you’d like to hear when it’s ready, get on the mailing list and I’ll let you know. (You’ll also get a free monthly newsletter with the best bits from my blog.)