Yes, you read that correctly. It is possible to upgrade an economy flight ticket for free to business class, and get free bicycle carriage into the bargain. Pretty good, right?
This lunacy is a classic example of travel hacking. I’ve been experimenting with its various techniques for the last year or so, and I’d like to share what I’ve learned — specifically, I’d like to share how best to put these techniques to use in the context of cycle touring.
What Is Travel Hacking?
Put simply, travel hacking is the art & science of getting for free (or cheap) what would normally be a significant travel expense — flights and hotel rooms being the most common.
It’s usually done by carefully exploiting promotional offers made by credit card companies in partnership with major airlines and hotel chains.
These offers are designed, of course, to sucker the spender into the shackles of debt. Played correctly, however, travel hacking is a particularly satisfying form of consumer revenge, and a money-saving one at that.
Let me give you an example.
A Basic Example Of Travel Hacking
Last year I signed up for a British Airways credit card. I have no debts (other than a student loan) and thus a good credit record, so acceptance was a breeze.
The sign-up bonus at the time required that I spend a fairly meagre £750 on the card within 3 months — about the cost of a new low-end touring bike.
Having done so by moving all of my spending to the card until the target was reached, then paying it off in full, I received 15,000 ‘Avios’ points with British Airways’ frequent flyer network, the Executive Club. (I didn’t actually get on a plane at all.)
Then I cut the card it in half and closed the account, 15,000 airmiles richer at no cost whatsoever.
15,000 such airmiles, it turns out, can be redeemed for two flights on pretty much any Western European route flown by BA — for example, Munich, from where Tenny and I returned after our last cycling adventure on the continent this summer. Not just that, but it covered two business class flights.
Why waste the points on business class? There’s a very good reason. There’s the extra legroom, edible meals, queue-jumping at all points in the boarding process, and access to swanky business lounges (full of free booze & food) at the airports, where you may loaf for hours while grinning smugly at people in smart suits who’re wondering who let you in.
But the real bonus for the cycle tourist is the doubled hold luggage allowance. Since British Airways don’t charge extra for bicycle as part of your luggage allowance, that meant both our bikes and all our touring gear flew home from Munich with us for free as well.
So that few minutes time spent signing up for and administrating the credit card is saving us a couple of hundred pounds on return flights for our tour, and getting us upgraded into the bargain.
I’m sure you’ll agree that’s a pretty good trade-off. Particularly if, like me, you glean a disproportionate amount of pleasure from circumventing the ‘system’.
Getting Started With Travel Hacking
Relatively speaking, ours was a very puny beginners’ attempt at travel hacking.
But it’s a hobby for a surprising number of people, who sign up for several cards a year, claim the bonuses, and employ various other hacks to receive hundreds of thousands of airmiles while not actually flying anywhere.
US residents in particular have it made. The signup incentives are so ludicrous that there are even professional guides* available to help folk make sense of it all.
But the possibilities are growing for those of us based in the UK to game the system in the same way. This is particularly true if you’re a couple and you’ve both got significant purchases coming up (touring bikes and gear, for example), as it doubles your ability to meet these signup bonus criteria.
Deals change frequently, but the best such hack currently available in the UK is on the American Express Preferred Rewards Gold card, whose signup bonus alone (20,000 points) is enough for a free return flight to Istanbul.
Simply use the card to buy your touring gear (by spending £2,000 within three months), pay it off in full (it’s a charge card, so you have to anyway), cancel the card (to avoid the £125 annual fee from the second year onwards), and enjoy your free flights. Job’s a good ‘un!
So there’s my quick intro to travel hacking — a.k.a. getting free flights thrown in with your new touring gear.
There’s a whole subculture of travel hackers out there, and if you’ve got the time and resources to make it a regular hobby, it won’t take long to rack up the requisite points for free or heavily discounted flights much further afield.
Of course, with multiple cards on the go, this quickly becomes game of shifting money around, which can get a bit complex if you’re not on the ball. So if you’re financially illiterate, it’s probably best to steer clear. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…
Today’s guest post has been put together by the very clever Ramona Marks, who is far more financially literate than I and thus far more qualified to write this, the ultimate guide to financial planning for big adventures. She’s living proof that it works, too. Take it away, Ramona…
You want to go on a big adventure? Great! You’ve already done the hardest work. Making the decision to challenge yourself is a really big accomplishment, and you haven’t even gone out the door.
My husband and I knew that we needed to get out of the city we were living in. We wanted to live somewhere green and rural, but hadn’t found the magic spot. But instead of waiting for somewhere to appear, we decided to get our finances in order so we could move when we were ready. And at the same time, we started saving for a bicycle trip around Europe.
Three years later, we haven’t settled in one place and we’ve never looked back. We’re living in Europe by house sitting and working remotely. Each summer we go on a one to three month bicycle tour. We could never have imagined that we could re-engineer our lives in this way. Once we decided to go, our momentum carried us to where we are now.
The next step after making the decision to go is to figure out how you’re going to do it.
No matter what you decide to do, you’re probably afraid of the financial side of things. And that’s perfectly normal. It’s not easy to change the way you relate to money. But it is possible. We were both in credit card debt, had (and still have) huge student loan debt, and had no financial safety net to fall back on. Neither one of us comes from a family that could do more than let us move in for a couple of months. It’s nice to know there’s a warm room somewhere that we can always return to, but even that prospect — of moving back in with our parents — helped us to get out and succeed at living our adventurous dreams.
Anyone can change their spending and saving habits. Anyone.
Most people assume that financial planning is an innate skill and either they’ve got it or they don’t. There may be some people who find it easier to control their finances, but if you want to learn, you can learn. Do you know basic addition and subtraction? You’re ready to go.
Right. Here are the 7 simple steps you’ll complete in order to get on the road.
Of these seven, there are three steps to start checking off immediately:
Write up a budget of your current income and expenses
Set a daily budget for your trip
Create separate bank accounts
And four steps that will take some time:
Figure out what’s happening to the rest of your money
Pay off any credit card debt
Set aside money for long-term debt payments
Save the rest!
Yes, it’s ridiculously simple to whittle down financial goals into 7 steps. You don’t have to make it more complicated. There are no secrets that you won’t understand. If this sounds new to you, it’s just that nobody has bothered to tell you before. If it’s familiar, congratulate yourself on having a leg up. These are not complicated tools, just logical ways of approaching the way money comes in and goes out of your life.
Now let’s take each of these steps in turn and look at them in a little more detail.
1. The ‘B’ Word
Let’s start out with something scary: budgeting. Your personal monthly budget is nothing more than a tool you use to get a picture of your finances. At its simplest, it’s a list of every regular expense and all income, so you can see what your life actually costs. A budget is a list.
Creating a budget is not an instantaneous process. In fact, give yourself a couple of months to really get a handle on your budget. Most importantly, start paying attention now so you can figure it out within the next couple of months.
Today, perhaps right now, sit down with a piece of paper and your favorite writing implement and start listing the bills you pay on a monthly basis. Do it on paper. This list will include things like:
Loan payments (student loans, car loans, mortgage, medical or personal debt)
Insurance (car, health, liability, renter’s, home owner’s)
There will be others, probably. Anything you pay regularly. If an expense is not the same every month, estimate or calculate an average. Always lean toward higher amounts, round up. Any annual expenses should be included, but divide the annual expense into 12 and use that as the monthly amount for the monthly budget.
You won’t think of everything all at once. That’s okay. If you have credit card debt and you pay monthly, include that. But also look up and write down the total amount of all your debts somewhere on this piece of paper, so you know just how much money you’ll need in order to get out of credit card debt.
Move on to income when you stop thinking of expenses (others will come to mind eventually). Income is usually pretty easy. What is your take-home pay each month? Not your listed salary, but the amount that you put in your bank account and can spend.
You’re probably getting the picture. So let’s say you make €2000 per month and your bills add up to €1000. (This example is not meant to be realistic). The other €1000 is being spent where?
Well, obviously you’ve got to eat. This gets more complicated since you don’t get a bill for your monthly groceries. Try keeping receipts for a month and adding up your total expenses on groceries. This can be fun, really. How badly do you want to make this adventure happen? Is it too much to ask yourself to keep track of how often you eat out vs. eat at home? You’re doing detective work now.
2. A Daily Budget, Too?
An effective way to encourage yourself to be more thrifty is to calculate a daily budget for your trip and use the trip as the incentive to stop spending.
We set our daily spending budget at $100 per day for both of us, on average. That is a lot. Most people spend much less on bicycle tours, but we knew that to be comfortable we’d need to be able to stop and get a hotel from time to time. We also knew we’d be touring in Europe, which is notoriously expensive compared to places like, say, Thailand. For more information about budgeting for your trip, check out Travelling Two’s article on the cost of bicycle touring.
Once we had a daily budget, we convinced ourselves to eat at home all the time with a simple trick. Each time we were tempted to order delivery or go out for a meal, we would ask each other: “Would you rather have one more day out on the road, or would you prefer to go out drinking tonight?” Once you know how much money a day might cost on your trip, you’ll know just how many days you’re sacrificing each time you spend. Pose these kinds of questions to yourself each time you try to pull out your wallet.
3. Divide and Conquer
One way to impose controls on your spending is to actually separate your money along the lines of your budgetary hopes and dreams. You want to save £200 each month? Put it into a separate account. Want to cut down your spending? Give yourself a spending limit and transfer only that amount into your cash account. Make it harder to get the money out of various accounts so that you have to really think about each purchase.
And stop using your credit card. If you have to buy it with credit, you don’t need it. Cutting up credit cards is a nice idea, but most people are afraid to do that. Instead, try putting them in a jar of water and storing them in the freezer*. They’re still there, if you really, really need them.
Now that you have an idea of what your monthly household budget is, you know how much you make and spend. Isn’t it fun? Do you feel ashamed and afraid now that you know? Nope, you feel in control and a bit baffled because you spend all your money every month. Most people do. It’s way easier to spend than to save. Now you’re finding out how you end up with an empty bank account just before each pay day.
The next step is two-fold. First, you have to look at your expenses and decide what you don’t need or how you can reduce the outpouring of cash. The biggest expense for many people is a car. If you have one and can find another way to commute, get rid of it. You’re probably spending way more money on it than you realize. Ditch your phone and only use Skype. Cancel all your subscriptions. If you live alone, move in with a friend and lower your rent. Whatever it takes.
Next, and this is going to be the hardest part, you have to stop spending money. Just stop. Consider every penny. Cheap things still cost money. It doesn’t matter how great a deal you get, you’re still spending.
You’re probably going to buy things for the trip. But ask yourself whether you’ll be bringing it along each time you think of buying something. You want that cute pair of shorts? Are they going to be one of the three pairs you take on your bicycle tour?
5. Getting Rid of Debt
How can you pay off credit cards? How can you start to save without constantly dipping into your savings account? It’s very likely that you’ve created bad habits around money. Most people have. Now you have to reverse past decisions (pay off your credit cards) and build new, good habits (save regularly).
Paying off debt should be your first priority. Not long term debts, of course, because then you’ll never leave. But credit card bills have to be payed in big lump sums if you want them to go away. Paying the minimum amount can actually allow your debt to get bigger.
You have to pay off credit card debt before you put money aside in savings, for the most part. The interest rate on credit card debt is so outrageous that you’ll never benefit from saving money while you’ve got credit card debt. You are losing money over time. If you already have savings that could pay off the debt, consider paying it off with your savings. Sounds scary, right? But then, after it’s paid, you can put the same amount of money that you were paying each month to the credit card company straight into a savings account. You’ll save more each month and it will add up again more quickly.
6. Dealing with Long Term Debt While You’re Away
It may seem like saving for the trip is hard enough, but if you’ve got debts like student loans, you’ll need to pay those, too. There’s always the option of a deferral or forbearance, but consider those options carefully. In the long run they make your debt grow bigger than it would have otherwise. Maybe that’s an okay trade-off for you. Just think about it carefully and make a considered decision.
The alternative is to have yet another account where you put savings for those long-term debts. Set up automatic payments from the debtor and have the monthly payment amount deducted from the account. Add up the total you’ll need to pay over the length of your trip. You’re going away for three months and your monthly bill is $100. That’s $300 you’ll need to put in the account. And for good measure, put in an extra $200, so that for the first couple of months after the trip you don’t have to stress about the loan payment.
7. Save, Save, Save
And if you can start saving, start saving. Start small at first. The first step to changing your habits is to do things differently. If you can save €10 per month at first, do it. The only benefit of starting to save before you pay off credit card debt is that you’ll be getting into the habit of putting aside the money. It won’t take long until putting aside money will start to feel really good. People get addicted to saving. Think about that.
Create a piggy bank. A jar will do. Every time you come home with cash, put all the cash in the bank. Don’t leave home with cash (unless you need it for public transport). Cash is too easy to spend. Will you go get a coffee? Sure, you’ve got a fiver, right? Oh, you’ve got to make a €3 charge with your debit card? Never mind.
And if you can sell anything, sell. You’ll be able to put all the money you make towards paying off credit card debt or put it directly into savings for the trip. It will feel good to lighten your load of possessions, too.
We started selling furniture on Craigslist four months before we left. We also had two garage sales. At the first one, about a month before we left, we were naming high prices because we felt like the stuff we had was kind of valuable. At the second one we were practically giving things away because we were leaving in a week and we didn’t want to deal with stuff anymore. We made about the same amount, $500, at each garage sale.
A Financial Plan and a Calendar
Everyone’s financial situation looks a bit different. You may need to save for a longer or shorter amount of time, depending on the amount of money you need to save for your trip and the amount of money you can save every month.
Let’s do a bit of math. Let’s say your goal is to save for a three month trip and it’ll cost you about $35 per day. That’s 90 days at $35 per day: 90 x 35 = $3150. That’s your savings goal. You’re also going to need money for gear and the plane ticket, but let’s start with your basic needs for the trip.
Now let’s say that you need to pay off your credit card debt first, at it’s a whopping $2000. Crap.
How much money can you spare per month? Let’s say you can start out by reducing some expenses and putting $300 towards credit card debt per month. (Sounds like a lot? Start making your own lunches). 2000 / 300 = 6.66.
It’ll take about seven months to pay off that $2000, probably a bit longer because of the interest. After that, you can put that $300 into savings each month. How long will it take to get to $3150? 3150 / 300 =10.5 months. All-in-all that’s less than a year and a half.
You haven’t even figured out how much money you’ll make from selling your belongings or doing a bit of overtime when you can. Taking a few spare shifts from a co-worker. Picking up odd jobs on weekends.
We started the process of paying off credit card debt about two years before we left. At first, we just decided we needed to change our habits because we needed to save so we could leave. But we had no set date. We pooled our finances and used some savings I had to pay off much of my husband’s credit card debt. A few months later the money he had been putting towards that debt started going back into savings.
Once we really started saving, we set a date for about 9 months in the future. Four months before we left, we started selling everything we owned. For the last week in our place, we slept on the floor on our camping mattresses. But we were as happy as can be, because we were about to embark on the trip of a lifetime and we had the savings in the bank to make it happen.
Every financial problem has a solution. But unless you know what’s going on with your finances, you’re flying blind. Address each problem at it’s root and a solution will appear.
The really scary thing is that you’re going to be leaving your life behind and you may not know what you’re coming back to. Will you have a job? Will you have to move in with your parents? Should you save three months’ worth of rent and expenses so that you can start fresh even without an income?
If you own your home, you may decide to rent it out to pay the mortgage while you’re gone. What’s that going to involve? If it sounds overwhelming, break it into pieces. Problem solving 101: turn a big problem into a bunch of smaller problems that are much easier to tackle.
If you’re feeling anxious about taking this big leap, save for after the trip. Yes, there is one more savings account you might need. If what you need to do is set aside some savings for when you return, do it. All too often, people are afraid to do what they’ve been dreaming of doing because they feel they’re being irresponsible. Fine, be responsible and save so you’re not destitute when you return. You’re a pro at saving now, so just go for it. Extend the time before you leave so that when you leave you’re comfortable.
We have an account that has money saved for when we ‘settle down’. We said that if we had to use that money, it was time to stop and settle down. Guess what? The money is still there. We even try to add to it when we can.
This trip you’re dreaming about is going to change everything for you. You’re going to think about the world in a different way. You’ll think about life in a different way. And everything is going to be just fine.
Phew! Crash-course in financial literacy or what? Thanks, Ramona! Be sure to check out her own cycle touring blog. And don’t forget that plenty more on the subject of planning bike tours can be found on the mega resources page.
Today’s guest post is by 28-year-old Erwin Zantinga, a Dutch bicycle traveller who has spent the last six years Working Worldwide On Organic Farms (WWOOFing). Given its obvious relevance to the #freeLEJOG experiment, I asked him if he’d be interested in giving us an introduction to this now well-established world of casual outdoor work on the road. Take it away, Erwin…
It was 2008 and I found myself almost crying because of her departure, a new friend I’d known for just two weeks.
It’d been an intense fortnight of working, eating, talking, dancing and hanging out in lovely Sweden — Eekerö, to be precise — on a small piece of the world called Rosenhill Trädgård, the very first WWOOF farm on which I’d worked.
My name’s Erwin. I’m not naturally green-fingered, but they quickly became greener (and dirtier!) as I became a more experienced WWOOFer.
I originally found out about this global network of farms through a friend:
“Just try it! It’ll be a great way to spend a free year!”
So off I went to the website of WWOOF Sweden, found a farm that appealed to me and simply called them. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was preparing to travel. I packed my freshly-bought backpack and took a 24-hour bus ride to Sweden, arriving at the farm where I was welcomed by 10 young people asking if I wanted to join them for a game of soccer. I hadn’t even had time to put my backpack down.
This is the essence of WWOOF: togetherness. You become a part of the family you stay with, eating what they eat, sleeping on their land and learning the techniques they use to work with the soil, and sometimes even learning a new language in the process!
WWOOFing doesn’t feel like work — it feels more like helping somebody out for a couple of hours a day. There were days when you work 12 hours straight, too. But a great group dynamic makes 12 hours of hard work feel like a nice workout. At that first farm, I’d planned to stay for 2 or maybe 3 weeks. It was in December I realized that 5 months had gone by.
Eventually it was time to move on, and I found another farm, just above the Arctic circle, working mostly with husky dogs. Unfortunately I didn’t get on so well with the people I stayed with, so I lasted just 4 days. But WWOOFing does not oblige you to stay. It’s your time, so you can come and go whenever you want to. It wasn’t easy to make the decision to leave so soon, especially since they’d taken me into their home and fed me, but it just wasn’t going to work out.
The next place I went to was Bulgaria. One of the most exciting things about the network is the fact that you have no clue where you will end up and who you will meet. Will it be hippies in a shack on the edge of the forest? Or will it be a family trying to live in a self-sustainable way? What will the work be? How will the food be? Will there be other WWOOFers? Each and every time I find myself surprised, just by going to a farm or smallholding and seeing how the people live there.
I see the WWOOF movement and long distance bicycle touring as very much compatible, with huge potential for self-sustainability. A bit of weeding, a bit of welding and you’re ready to go again. Last year I cycled back from Hungary to my hometown in The Netherlands, and on the way I passed 5 different farms. I stayed for 3 days at each farm, working, as well as interviewing and filming.
Stopping off at WWOOF farms like this has some great advantages. You can rest, using other muscles then your legs. You get a real bed (sometimes even a double bed!). You get proper food, made on a real stove or in a real oven. You get space and time and proper tools to fix your bike. You have other people to talk to, instead of talking to yourself. And in general you get the feeling of staying in one place for more than just a night. It’s a change to work with the ground instead of just pedalling for miles on end. You emerge recharged and with renewed energy to continue your trip. Connections with your fellow workers are made quickly, too, and you might well find cycling companions with whom to continue riding.
Actually starting WWOOFing is incredibly easy. Simply check online if the country you’re going to (or are already in) has a WWOOF community of its own. If not, check the WWOOF Independents site to see if your country of choice is on their website. You pay a small membership fee in order to see the contact details for the farms. And then you just pick up the phone and call your future hosts. (It’s usually a good idea to call them again a couple of days before you arrive, so you won’t be left standing in front of a locked door.)
The most beautiful thing about my cycling-WWOOFing experience, I think, was the kindness of the hosts. Normally there is a minimum stay of about a week, but at these farms they happily let me stay for just 2 or 3 days. It was still hard work, of course. But when I left the first farm, they gave me a parting gift: 2 pairs of hand-made knitted socks.
And this is really why I WWOOF: the mutual sense of appreciation.
If you’re interested in learning more, check out my own video documentary about my cycling-WWOOFing experience:
Who knows — maybe we’ll see each other on a WWOOF farm in the future…
Thanks, Erwin! In addition to WWOOF, check out HelpX and Workaway — two work exchange networks on similar missions to enable (money-free) mutual help and appreciation between those who need it and those who can give it.
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, usually reveals that they are not really about free travel at all. Instead, they’re almost without exception about how to earn money on the road and use travel hacking and couchsurfing to avoid spending more than you need to.
This, to me, is not ‘free travel’ — 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 penny to my name.
Instead, I wanted to test out the idea of ditching 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 frankly terrifying moment, leaving that flat, knowing my wallet was still lying on the kitchen table where I’d left it. It really was. I, like almost everyone else, 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 didn’t spend a single penny for the entire duration. I barely even thought about money, in fact, for I usually had more interesting 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. In this piece I’d like to try to share a little of what I learned with you. How is it possible to really travel money-free?
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.)
A few weeks back I joined seasoned round-the-world cyclist Alastair Humphreys for a coffee in a secret location in central London (OK, it was the British Library canteen) in order to chat about bike trips — specifically, bike trips that could be made for under £1,000 and within the average annual holiday allowance. It’s all part of Al’s excellent #Adventure1000 project for 2014. What follows is an edited transcription of exactly what we discussed. Enjoy…
Tom: The biggest expeditions I’ve been on were cycling from the UK to Armenia over eight months, cycling around the Middle East and Africa for seven months and I’ve also done trips in Mongolia for two months and down the West Coast of the U.S. for two months as well.
Alastair: This is the sort of question that’s hard to answer and generally quite irritating when you get asked it, but I think it’s quite important: could you try and give just a couple of the highlights, the sort of things that you’ve really loved about these big adventures?
Tom: I think the biggest thing is the fact that you wake up in the morning and you have no idea where you’re going to end up at the end of that day, and you have no idea what you’re going to see or who you’re going to meet, that’s kind of what adventure means to me anyway. It’s the unpredictability and the surprises and the unexpected, and the knowledge that it’s very, very rarely a bad kind of surprise. You know, it’s usually pretty positive stuff.
Alastair: So let’s talk about your first big bike trip. Why did you choose to do that? Why didn’t you, say, go for a long walk or climb a mountain? Why did you decide to cycle?
Tom: Well, the reason I decided to cycle was, firstly, because it wasn’t about a physical challenge and I thought that a long walk would be a lot more gruelling than riding a bicycle, and as far as climbing mountains and stuff like that’s concerned, that wasn’t really what I was interested in. I was interested in exploring countries, meeting people, exploring cultures, and I wanted as much versatility in my means of transport as possible, and with the bicycle you can carry everything you need, but it’s not on your back, it’s on your bike, and that’s a lot more pleasant way of doing it.
You’ve also got a massive range of distance that you can cover in a day, from as little as you like to up to, on a really good day, maybe a couple of hundred kilometres.
Alastair: And what were you doing directly before you set off on that trip?
Tom: Before I set off I spent a year planning the first trip, which is way too much planning to be quite honest, but it got me to begin. I was working as a freelance website developer. I’d finished university for about a year when my friend Andy came up with the idea. I was at a bit of a loose end, wasn’t convinced that I was doing the right thing career-wise, and just wanted to do something a bit different while I was still young and uncommitted and had that freedom.
Alastair: Before you went, you had a year of planning and daydreaming. During that year, what were the main worries you had about that trip, and what were the worries that perhaps family were trying to impose on you, and then how did those worries compare to any problems you actually had during the journey?
Tom: I got massively bogged down in the intricacies of bicycle mechanics and what might go wrong mechanically. Massively, I mean ridiculous. And so I spent most of that year researching bicycle parts and deciding what would be the ideal components – you know, the ideal brakes, the ideal suspension, the ideal carrier rack and all this kind of thing. And I didn’t really pay much attention to the routes, I didn’t really pay much attention to the realities of how it would be to be living on the road, and I had no experience to go on in that respect either.
And so I was really just researching something I didn’t understand very well, and I guess the reason why was to try and build up confidence in something which I really didn’t have any experience in.
Alastair: How much training did you do for setting off to cycle around the world?
Tom: I did no training whatsoever. I didn’t even finish building the bike until the morning I left. I didn’t have time, because the last few weeks of preparation were so frantic in terms of getting the stuff, getting the gear together, that I didn’t actually have any time to test any of it.
Alastair: I remember the night before I set off to cycle around the world, my bike pump just arrived in the post, and I undid all the packaging and threw it all in the bin, then realised I’d thrown away the little nozzle bit that does the pumping, and my Dad had to empty the entire house’s bins over the back lawn to find this nozzle. I didn’t do any training either, on the assumption that you can have too much of a good thing and there was plenty of time to get fit along the way.
Tom: Yeah, I think when it becomes a lifestyle, and especially when it’s not trying to do anything particularly athletic, you can afford to go a little bit slowly at the start. You can afford to break yourself in a little bit more gently. The more time you’ve got, the better, obviously. The funny thing is, for shorter trips training makes more sense because you’re more time-restricted and your ability to pull the trip off depends more on your fitness in the first place, whereas if you’re going off for months or years, you’ll be as fit as you’ll ever be within about the first month, regardless of how fit you are to start with.
Alastair: The fact that your bottom hurts for two weeks matters less when your trip’s a year long than if your trip is only two weeks’ long…