UPDATE: I was honored to share these insights recently on the podcast Zero to Travel. To listen to the entire episode, click here.
Whether it's a sabbatical for rest and contemplation, a gap year to see the world or a way to build a new lifestyle, there are many reasons why someone mid-career might trade their 9-5 life for temporary (or permanent) travel.
Whatever the reasons, all require some degree of planning.
My partner, Perry, and I spent a year preparing for our long-term travel adventure and set off six months ago. During this time we have gained new perspectives on the transition period that we call 'The Road to the Road', and have compiled our best advice for those considering their own travel break.
Where to Start
Long-term travel isn't for everyone and the decision to pursue it should not be considered lightly. I try not to glamorize what we are doing, especially considering we are doing this on a budget. Since this isn't likely to be vacation-level travel, start by asking yourself a few questions.
Why you want to travel long term should be one of the first questions answered. A clear understanding of your purpose will provide the necessary motivation to persevere through some of the challenging times, like when you arrive in a country exhausted after 20 hours of travel and your Airbnb host doesn't show up and you don't speak the local language. It's not going to be sunshine and roses 24/7, but those mishaps make for the best stories so there is an upside even on bad days, but you will need to draw on that original inspiration from time to time.
I found endless encouragement in the book 'Vagabonding' by Rolf Potts (recommend the audiobook over text). Embracing the unknown while exploring the world is a powerful way to learn more about yourself-- and this became my raison d'être during the odd bad day which, so far, have proven to be better than the bad days in my previous life.
For more reasons to say 'yes', check out the inspiring website and podcast, Zero to Travel.
Deciding how long you want to be gone is also crucial. Is this a six month sabbatical from work and you intend to return to the same job? A year long break where you quit your job altogether? Or a way to build a new career and lifestyle as many online entrepreneurs have done? An open-ended return schedule (i.e. travel 'until the money runs out') may allow for more spontaneity but also require more attention/adherence to a budget.
WHAT'S THE TRUE COST?
Finally, be honest with yourself about the opportunity costs and trade offs. If you earn $80,000 and put $20,000 in savings towards a year of travel, $100,000 (plus the cost of not contributing to your retirement savings plan) is the value of your year abroad. That is the cost of checking off your bucket list of exotic destinations and unique experiences.
This is a very simplistic way to look at it and, of course, you spend money every day to live so there is some double counting, but the point is to consider the cost and what you are getting in return-- difficult as it may be to forecast. Money and experience aren't easily compared, so to assign a value to a given experience is equally as difficult before it happens as it is afterward. Think of a great travel experience you have had in the past. It's easy to add up the receipts and arrive at a precise cost, however, what you gained from the experience might be impossible to quantify.
Once the decision to go has been made, funding is the next area to turn your attention. Long-term travel is less expensive than you might think and plenty has been written on the subject of 'travel hacks' or tips to reduce the cost of travel.
I'll address a few of my favorites below, but what is a bit squishier is how much in total you need to travel. The obvious answer is 'it depends'-- on your comfort expectations, how fast you travel and where. There are trade-offs for everything. Some travelers go lower-budget on accommodation so they have more money for food experiences. Some travelers avoid higher cost locations in favor of budget-friendly countries. Some pet sit along the way to reduce accommodation costs.
So, how do you set a budget?
We took inspiration from the hugely successful travel blogger Nomadic Matt and his best-seller 'How to Travel the World on $50 a Day'. With two people, we set a $100 per day spending target. This helped us in two ways.
- It gave us a savings target to shoot for
- It provided some boundaries for spending on the road
We are budget travelers, but not super-budget travelers, so while that amount has been tough to hit in expensive Western Europe, we have had no problem shooting under par in Eastern Europe. We expect the same balance in our future Asia/Pacific travels between expensive countries like Japan/Australia/New Zealand and budget-friendly Thailand/Cambodia/Vietnam. In the end, we should easily hit our original target and will likely come under it as we become more comfortable with less comfort!
Once you have your budget set, here are a few of our favorite tips for saving money to fund your travels.
Write it Down
This proved to be an effective deterrent for spending. First, we wrote out all of our expenses to see where we could cut costs. Second, we wrote down every last penny going out the door and posted the list on the fridge for maximum visibility.
Maximize Travel Rewards
For what you do buy, investing in the right travel credit card is crucial. The business of credit cards is increasingly competitive, and providers must continually expand and promote rewards to catch consumers' attention. There has been a ton written on this subject by multiple experts including Extra Pack of Peanuts' Travis Sherry and The Points Guy. They can spell out which cards offer the best rewards and how to navigate the value of points, so I won't dive in too deeply here, but I will tell you which cards we selected and why.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
Universally lauded as one of the best rewards cards out there, the folks at Chase have upped the ante again. Our bonus was 70,000 points, but the latest offers are for 100,000 points. To secure our bonus points, we needed to meet a minimum spend of $3,000 within 90 days which we did (by putting all of our household expenses solely on this card) and then paid the balance off immediately.
In addition to generous sign up bonuses, Chase points are more valuable than most airline points. They can be redeemed within the internal Chase Rewards system at 1.25-2 cents per mile while most airline points are deemed a good value at 1 cent per mile. OR you can transfer them to a variety of partners including United Airlines and Starwood Hotels.
Our Chase Sapphire Preferred has become our everyday card on the road due to no foreign transaction fees on top of the great rewards structure. We are big fans of our Chase.
American Airlines AAdvantage
Because I already had a lot of American points due to business travel, the 50,000 point sign up bonus was a good value for me. American has some of the best rewards travel out there with USA-Europe flights starting at just 22,500 points. They don't make it nigh impossible for you to redeem your points either (take notice, Delta).
After meeting our minimum spend requirement on the Chase, we secured this card. Similarly, there was a minimum $3,000 spend in 90 days but with the two of us using it, Christmas expenditures, expensive investments in our travel packs, and a travel laptop for Perry, it wasn't difficult to meet it.
This is a back-up card and we don't plan to use it much unless something happens to our Chase.
So, what's the takeaway?
I had the same credit card for years, and when I figured out how bad the value of the points actually were, I was gutted that I didn't start with a better card sooner. With our two cards, we earned 120,000 free points on top of all the airline miles I already had. Between points and low-cost airlines, air travel is one of the lowest expenses in our budget despite traveling all around the world.
The Right Bank Account
During a visit to the UK before we began our year of travel, we used the ATM cards from our respective bank accounts of GMI credit union (me) and Wells Fargo (Perry) and were shocked to discover how much we paid in ATM fees. We knew there would be lots of cash withdrawals over the course of a year on the road and at $3.00 or more a pop, that quickly adds up. This relieves a lot of stress involved in obtaining cash, because 1) we don't need to look for specific ATMs to minimize withdrawal fees, and 2) we can withdraw cash frequently and thus do not have to carry large amounts of it at once.
We switched to the Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking Account where we are reimbursed at the end of each month for any ATM fees incurred. #winning
Leverage Work Travel
Sock away those points when traveling for business, no matter how minor. While we typically stay in apartments, every so often we splurge on a hotel and we do it with the points I saved from business travel. Also, while we usually take public transportation, there are times when a car is more efficient and I use points saved from car rentals to mitigate the cost.
Whether you are going for a few months, a year, or indefinitely, reducing the amount of stuff you have is a great way to prepare yourself for life on the road. In addition to getting practice living minimally, selling possessions can certainly help fund your travels.
After we listed out all of our expenses, we could see the biggest expenditures were rent and car payments. One of the first things we did was move into a small one bedroom apartment and sell one of our cars. This move freed up $1200 per month which over the course of a year contributed nearly one half of our savings target.
If you are renting, this is a pretty easy move, provided you aren't in the middle of your lease, but it doesn't hurt to ask the landlord if they will transfer your lease to another unit. If you own a home, this could be your chance to save money by selling, renting or even listing your property on Airbnb.
Once you move into a smaller place, it is the perfect opportunity to address clutter and excess accumulation. Selling possessions might be difficult for some, but we found it thrilling to offload stuff and make money at the same time.
Moving into a smaller place wasn't much of a hardship but getting used to one car took practice and patience. We had to coordinate our schedules a lot more and Uber helped, too. Turns out, we helped ourselves prepare for life in countries where walking and public transportation is de rigueur.
The Right Stuff
If we could go back in time, this is one area we would do over. The challenge of what to bring on the trip!
The first thing we would do is purchase our 44 liter Tortuga backpacks as early as possible. This would have prevented us from buying more gear than we ultimately needed. Once you make a commitment to the size pack you want to lug around, make it a priority to have it on hand so you can get used to it and figure out exactly what can and can't fit. This should help to prevent overbuying of travel gear.
Then, we would forget the quest for the perfect gear- pants, shirts, underwear, etc. We both spent way too much time on this. I recently wrote an article elaborating on how much the 'right clothes' are pretty much meaningless.
We chose a 44 liter pack as it the maximum carry on size for the majority of airlines. You will breeze through the airport while everyone is standing in line waiting to check a bag or waiting at the luggage carousel with fingers crossed.
While you can get by without much in the luggage/clothes department, one thing that you will need is a good international phone service. The ability to text the owner of your Airbnb, pull up a map when lost, or translate something from a menu is priceless. We switched to the T-Mobile international plan. For $50/month (one person) I have unlimited data (2G speed, so not amazing, but it does the trick) and texting in 140 countries. Calls are $0.20/minute, so it's not the end of the world if you need to make a dinner reservation or quick call for directions.
Where to Go
One of the best parts about the wait is planning destinations and experiences. This became a Friday night ritual for us where we would share our top locations and bucket list items that we could compare and begin building a rough itinerary.
This is where I discovered sleeping in a Mongolian yurt, visiting Estonia and seeing the Terra Cotta soldiers in Xi'an, China are high on Perry's bucket list. He found out that touring the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia and sleeping in a glamping hut were on mine.
In addition to being a practical thing to do, it turned out to be a lot of fun and a great relationship builder. If you are planning to travel with a partner, you are both in this together and there is nothing like creating shared experiences to bring you closer. Turns out, building that goodwill comes in handy during occasional tough days and long stretches of nothing but 24/7 togetherness.
Final Thoughts on the 'Transition to Travel'
While it might take some time to save the money and get your life in order, don't wait too long. After six months of planning, we bought our airline tickets ($600 for two tickets to London, thanks Skyscanner) to force an end date to our normal lives / a start date for our travel adventures.
Good luck let me know if you hit the road! I would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.