Have you reached a point where life’s repetitious routine has become overwhelming? Have the best laid plans fallen through? Maybe you’re not sure the right way forward, only that the path you’re on now isn’t it. Perhaps what you need is to step out of your day-to-day for a bit of a life-changing adventure. Perhaps for a week, two or ten. Before you say you can’t afford it, there are lots of ways to pursue an adventure on a limited budget. It’s what I did. Six years ago I embarked on an open-ended adventure. Now I spend half of each year traveling, and I’ve been to six continents, 48 states, 57 countries and in the process, became a better version of myself. Here are some ideas if you’re looking to do the same.
Why Are You Going?
Think finding yourself is only for the young and unattached? It’s not. You don’t need an excessive amount of time, unlimited budget and zero ties back at home to travel.
So, let’s talk about what you can do once you’re out of your routine. An empty beach and turquoise waters fit the bill for a lot of people. Or maybe you’ve got the need to flee but aren’t sure what to do or where to go. That’s fine too. When I started my extended travels in 2014, all I was sure about was I needed to go. I found the adventure as I went.
Here’s some “find yourself” inspiration. See what resonates with you:
See Some New Animalia. From Kruger and Addo in South Africa, to Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti in Tanzania, to Bwindi in Uganda, there are dozens of incredible safaris all across Eastern and Southern Africa. Seeing these majestic, and often massive, animals in their natural habitat during the daytime is perspective-changing in its own right, but in some parks you can stay the night and listen to their terrifying calls. Seeing my first elephant in the wild at Kruger is something I’ll never forget, and that entire adventure is still one of my favorites.
Climb Above the Clouds. Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa, but is summitable by people in reasonably good shape, depending on the route. After a multi-day hike, you’re greeted by a sunrise from the top of the world. That’s a life moment, to be sure.
Walk the Camino. If walking and hiking is your thing, consider the Camino de Santiago. It’s a walking pilgrimage that dates back to the middle ages. Though there are many routes, generally you begin at the French border with Spain, and work your way west across Northern Spain. You don’t have to cross the entire Iberian Peninsula if you don’t want to, I’ve met many people who have trekked this epic adventure for a few weeks and said it was incredible.
Sea, a Different World. You can become a certified scuba diver while diving the Great Barrier Reef. Swim with reef sharks and sea turtles, night dive into the inky blackness where you can see only what your flashlight illuminates. Endless coral and more fish than you can name.
Find Wellness, Mental and Physical. One of the traditional getaways to change your outlook trips has been to wellness retreats. From yoga in India and Southeast Asia, to Buddhist monasteries in Tibet, to spiritual escapes all over the world, there’s probably an option for wherever you want to go, and what you want to experience when you get there.
Other Important Things to Do to Find Yourself
Get Lost. I’m serious. Get lost a lot. This is what did it for me. I’d get some tunes going on some headphones and venture out to explore a new city, town, beach, wherever I was. Usually with no clear destination, merely a direction. Be safe, of course, and aware of your surroundings, but just wander. You’ll find food on the way. You’ll find something to do on the way. Google Maps can help you make your way back. You’ll find amazing little shops off the beaten path, beautiful streets far from the tourist spots, and at every turn, something new. It’s delightful. From Venice to Tokyo to Fiji and London, there’s no activity I like better than exploring a new place.
Learn. You’re going to be learning a lot on your adventure. I’m not even talking about museums and cultures, but just being on the road is a learning experience when you’re open to it. Many areas offer classes for travelers of varying types.
Language lessons are always helpful. Study Travel is a place to start for some languages. Some hostels might have an employee who offers lessons, or has a friend who does.
You can look for classes to learn some new recipes, or in my case, learn to cook at all. Many locations, especially those known for their local cuisine, will have a local somewhere teaching people a few dishes using local ingredients. I took a class like this in China and while I still consider “didn’t poison anyone” my benchmark for cooking, I did get a better sense of the history of the dishes and what separates the good from the bad.
You can also use your trip as a chance to learn something very specific. Road Scholar, for instance, offers educational tours all around the world.
Give Back. It’s certainly a noble goal to want to travel somewhere and help the locals. However, approach this idea with great caution. It’s entirely possible to do more harm than good, especially for short term stays. For example, if you’re paying a lot of money to a company for the opportunity, how much of that goes to the community you’re visiting? This isn’t to say you shouldn’t consider it, just make sure you do extensive research before you book. Not just the company you’re considering, but the area you want to visit as well. Make sure you’re actually doing good and not just appearing to do so.
Consider, instead, something like Woofing, where you work on a farm open to unskilled travelers.
Drive. Several times in my life I needed to get away, and for me there are few things more mood changing and mood improving than an epic road trip. In the United States we have one of the best road networks in the world. Pick a direction and go. If you stick with the highways (which you don’t have to), there will generally be a gas station, food and lodging within a reasonable distance. I’ve driven across once each way, and once in a big circle, and there’s nothing better for clearing your mind and seeing how vast and varied this country can be.
Outside the U.S., there are lots of road trip possibilities with varying levels of challenge. From the Trans-Andean Highway to the mountains of Morocco, there are endless options. Old episodes of Top Gear or Ewan McGregor’s Long Way Round can certainly give you some ideas. Personally I’m a huge fan of Scotland’s North Coast 500, which offers some truly miraculous, and often desolate, scenery, if you want something that’s like another world, but still reasonably close to a gas station that takes credit cards.
Go on a Lightly Guided Tour. Perhaps you’re not a frequent traveler. Perhaps you’re getting your first passport for this very adventure. And perhaps you’re looking at all these ideas and the thought of dropping into a country where you don’t speak the language and can’t read the signs has you second guessing this whole crazy plan. Fear not (literally), as there’s an option well suited for beginner, and even intermediate, travelers. I call them “lightly guided tours.” They’re not as structured as traditional travel tours. Instead, a local guide shepherds you from location to location, but once there you’re given a variety of things to do… or not. You could also just wander. I did two of these with friends before I started my extended traveling, and one after.
There are several companies that have these kinds of tours. G Adventures is the one I’ve traveled with, and they have tours all around the world for all ages or some ages. Intrepid is another. These smaller tours are also a great way to meet people. On all three of the tours I went on, I still talk with and see several people from them regularly.
The Bottom Line
Really, there are countless ways to explore and find yourself in the process. This is obviously not a complete list by any stretch. But these rules can help guide your journey:
- If there’s something that calls to you, do it.
- If you’re not sure what you need to find yourself, lose yourself someplace that just seems cool.
- Others might have advice for you about a country or region, but it’s your adventure. Plan (and research) accordingly.
Above all else: Go.
More on why you should travel
Where to Go Within a Reasonable Budget
Travel doesn’t have to be expensive. In some parts of the world you can live like royalty for just a few dollars a day. Usually “budget travel” evokes visuals of smelly hostels and bread buttered with more bread. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Budget-Friendly Travel Options
There are certainly plenty of places where your dollar will go a lot farther. For example, it’s hard but not impossible to live on $50 a day in Tokyo, including accommodation. In Taipei it’s hard to spend $50 a day. Yet both cities offer incredible sights and mind-blowingly good food. London can be brutally expensive, but other parts of England cost far less.
Things to consider:
- If you don’t have your heart set on a specific place, some areas are going to be a lot easier on your wallet than others.
- If you do have your heart set on a place, but can’t afford it, there are likely adjacent options that are less expensive.
- The biggest cities in a country tend to be the most expensive, but smaller cities might have a similar experience for you, for a lot less money.
Consider the Hostel
Hostels are a great way to save money and extend your travels, and they’re also a solid bellwether for how expensive an area is. Take two cities I mentioned earlier, Tokyo and Taipei. The best hostels in Tokyo run about $40 per bed per night. In Taipei, $20. Expect the overall cost of living in the area to be represented by the hostel prices. For comparison, in Boston, you’re looking at around $40, while in New York around $50.
If there are no well-reviewed hostels, the area might be expensive to live in, or not a highly visited area. Neither of those things are necessarily a bad thing, just something to keep in mind.
Another thing to check is how expensive a train or bus ride is between two cities. The Rome2Rio app/webpage is handy for this. Plug in any two cities and it will give you just about every way to get between them.
So, for example: In Mumbai, the top rated hostels cost around $10 a night, and a three-hour train ride costs $7. At the other end of the spectrum, a bed in the top-rated hostels in Paris costs upwards of $50 a night, some way more. A three-hour train ride, admittedly on the high-speed TGV, costs $120.
Keep in mind that costs may also vary with the specific time of year you are traveling. Europe in August is a lot more expensive than Europe in March, for example. One of the most expensive hostels I’ve ever stayed in was not in London or Tokyo, but Dubrovnik, Croatia, in August.
The cold and dark of February dragging you down? Bug out and go south. It’s summer in Australia. Perhaps Brazil for Carnival will get your mind off things. Most areas have a “busy” season that’s either obvious, or easy to research. Consider traveling during the shoulders of the season, a few weeks before or after. The prices will be lower but the weather will be similar.
The biggest single cost of most trips is getting there. Most travel booking sites like Expedia, Kayak and Orbitz let you set alerts for deals on flights.
Keep in mind:
- Prices vary by season, week, day (if Fred in Boise has a hangover) anything, really. Rarely do they vary dramatically, however. A $200 flight probably won’t be $2000 if you book a day later.
- The cheapest days to fly are generally Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. Think of when a business traveler would need to fly, then don’t do that.
- If your adventure involves multiple cities, one is bound to be cheaper to fly into and out of, especially if one is an airline’s hub.
I find Google.com/flights especially handy. It’s an extremely flexible and company-agnostic search tool that gives you date matrices to help you figure out what days in a month it might be cheaper to leave or head home. An “Explore Destinations” section lets you set up when you want to escape and for how long. Then it shows any flight deals within those parameters.
If you like flying a specific airline, check their route maps. United, for example, has a handy map. Other airlines have something similar. It might help you figure out that it might be cheaper to fly to Munich and take the train to your adventure in the Austrian alps than getting a connection, which always increase the likelihood of a baggage or timing issue.
More from the Frugal Traveler
What to Pack (and What Not to Pack)
Hot tip: You need to pack less. Way less. What’s the absolute minimum you think you could pack? Whatever it is, it’s too much. Unless you’re planning on going somewhere that requires heavy parkas and big sweaters, you should be able to travel for any length of time with nothing more than carry-on luggage. If you can’t lift it easily, you’ve packed too much.
My rule for packing: If you think you might need it, you won’t. Don’t bring it. Worst case you can buy it when you get there. Large suitcases are ridiculous for nearly everyone and only manage to be an anchor that slows you down. It’s endless hassle that’s easily prevented by packing less. Way less. I’ll keep saying it. I’ve traveled for months at a time with nothing but a travel backpack. Here’s a list of things to leave at home.
To give you an idea what I mean, here’s what I generally pack for one of my regular months-long trips:
- 5 pairs of underwear and socks
- 1-2 pairs of shorts or pants, 1 pair of jeans
- 5 shirts, mix of long and short sleeves
- 1 medium-weight pullover
- 1 swimsuit
On top of that, I’ve got work-related gear like my laptop and cameras, plus various toiletries and of course, extensive hair-care products. If you like going out, definitely add or swap in a nice dress or button-down shirt, ideally something you could also wear during the day. An extra pair of shoes, perhaps something nice for a night out, certainly wouldn’t hurt.
Every extra ounce is just additional pain on your back as you lug it across cobblestones. The less you pack, the less you’ll feel your luggage is a burden. And no one is going to notice you’re wearing the same five shirts. You’re traveling, so most people you interact with won’t see you for more than a few days in a row.
This, of course, is what makes it all work. Thankfully, doing laundry is easy. Sure you could wash out your skivvies in the sink, but you certainly don’t have to. I do laundry every 5-6 days. It takes a couple of hours out of a morning or evening, and costs on average $5. A tiny price to pay for luggage that’s easy to carry.
- Laundromats are very common in cities and even most towns.
- Hostels usually have laundry facilities on site. Hotels might as well, but often they are a lot more expensive.
I’ve seen hostels with everything from a single washing machine and drying rack to a full service wash-n-fold for a few euros. Sometimes you need coins, other times the machine is web-connected and accepts payments via an app, credit card or contactless. You don’t even need to bring detergent, unless you want to hand-wash in the sink, of course.
I hate wheeled luggage. All wheeled luggage. I appreciate that I’m in the minority on this one, but weeks of dragging luggage across cobblestones and up and down stairs tends to sour one on the idea.
I strongly recommend a travel backpack. Over at Wirecutter, the New York Times company that reviews products, I write the Best Travel Backpack guide. Travel backpacks are comfortable to wear, and come with an integral daypack. For years I traveled with and loved my Osprey Farpoint 55. This year, I switched to REI’s new Ruckpack 65. Compared to the Farpoint, the Ruckpack’s main pack is larger, which I don’t like, and the daypack is smaller, which I also don’t like. However it is a lot more comfortable to carry and is overall a bit better for most people.
Things to think about when getting a travel backpack:
- Get a backpack that seems a little too small. It will force you to revise down what you think you need to bring.
- 50-60 liters should be plenty for nearly everyone, unless you’re crossing multiple seasons or climates.
- If you can’t easily carry your luggage, you’ve packed too much.
- There’s no single, official “carry on” size. American-based airlines have different sizes than foreign carriers. Many budget airlines are going to charge you either way, carry on or checked.
Don’t — and I can’t stress this enough — get luggage you can’t easily carry. Our travel backpack pick is technically too large for carry-on, by about an inch on all sides. You wouldn’t know it, however. Getting luggage that is way too big to carry on just invites you to pack too much, which means you’ll be carrying too much, and that’s just a miserable experience.
I understand the draw of clever do-it-all travel gadgets, but I don’t like them. Quite often they’re overpriced and underbuilt, feeding off the common pre-travel jitters or between-travel dreamings. On my first extended adventure, three “travel designed” shirts from a well-known brand were practically threadbare after three months. Conversely, an off-the-shelf non-iron dress shirt I bought four years ago still looks and feels brand new, despite hundreds of washes and wearings.
One exception to this is a good plug adapter. Nearly all electronics can work pretty much everywhere in the world. All you need to do is to change the plug shape so they fit in the local sockets. I prefer simple, and cheap, plug adapters. They cost just a few dollars and fit anywhere. Some people prefer the single all-in-one cubes. Either way, over at Wirecutter I found some of both types that are worth considering. I’m partial to the Ceptics International Worldwide 5 Piece Set, which are small, light and should have you covered wherever you go.
This is another area where it’s easy to overpack. Smaller, lighter and less is the name of the game here too. Leave big laptops at home. Unless you’re a regular writer, perhaps a tablet, or a tablet and a keyboard, will suffice for you.
By no means vital, noise cancelling headphones are handy. They’ll quiet down noisy trains and planes to a duller din. They don’t create silence, mind you, but certainly make any long, annoying, droning sounds like engine noise, much more manageable.
My biggest must-have is a USB battery pack. These will extend the life of your phone, tablet and more. This is especially vital in places where you might not have an accessible power outlet for a day or more.
As far as big DSLR cameras go, do you really need one? Don’t get me wrong, I love mine and carry it (and three heavy lenses) everywhere. But don’t assume that just because you’re traveling you have to get one. There are other options, including excellent, and smaller, mirrorless cameras, or if you’re really not a photographer, consider just getting a new mobile phone, as the cameras on the high-end models can produce some excellent images. The key is knowing how to take better photos with any camera.
A Working Phone
Lastly, and perhaps most important, a working phone will change how you travel. There are a few ways to do this. First is to be on a service that works abroad. Google Fi is the best for this, offering 4G in pretty much every country for the same $10 per gigabyte as you’d pay at home. Sprint and T-Mobile come next, offering 2G speeds, but working nearly everywhere. AT&T and Verizon are expensive to use overseas, even their travel packages. If you’re on one of those services, consider getting a local SIM card. Swap out your current SIM, put in the local one, and for around $20 you’ll have high-speed internet.
How to Live Cheaply Anywhere
You’re going to need a base of operations, a spot to stay that lets you adventure during the day, and recharge at night. Ideally, it’s a place you feel comfortable. Maybe this is a tent and a forest. Maybe this is a campervan on the Great Ocean Road. If you can afford hotels and spas, awesome, we envy you.
Where you choose to stay can have a tremendous impact on what you get out of your adventure. For instance, when I started my extended travelling in 2014, I had no idea how important hostels would be not only for my mental well-being, but also in meeting people who now I can’t imagine my life without.
- Consider every type of lodging other than hotels, unless you’re rich.
- Hostels are for all ages and probably aren’t what you think.
- AirBnB, homestays, couchsurfing are all inexpensive options.
- In some countries, convenience stores might have better food than what you’d get at a grocery store at home.
- Buying metro cards will save you money in the long run, and you can look like a local when you use them.
One of the easiest ways to travel for less money is by staying at hostels. If this idea appalls you, you have the wrong idea about hostels. I had the wrong idea too before I started really traveling. I’ve stayed in hostels that are spotless, as beautiful inside as a hotel, and cost a fraction of what a hotel room would cost. They’re also a great way to meet new people. Most also have a communal kitchen. Imagine staying somewhere for $20 a night that is cleaner than your house but has a place where you can cook cheap meals? Doesn’t that sound like a different way to travel? Many hostels even have private rooms that still cost less than a hotel but give you some you space.
At a fantastic hostel in Melbourne, Australia, for instance, I fell in with an international group of people that not only gave me the camaraderie I needed at that time in my life, but set me up for meeting several other people who are huge parts of my life now.
If your thought is “I’m too old to stay in hostels,” well, I just passed 40 and I’m rarely the oldest in any hostel, or even the oldest in my room. And besides, maybe making friends with a bunch of young people will offer the change in outlook you need.
Want to live like a local? Live with a local. Stay with a local family and, along with inexpensive accommodations, learn what they think about life, the universe and everything. There are lots of ways to do this. Booking a room directly on AirBnB or HomeStay is one option, though that still costs money. The CouchSurfing app/website on the other hand helps put you in touch with someone willing to host you for a night or more, for free. The travelers I’ve met who’ve done it, all women incidentally, have enjoyed it. There’s even an option in that app to meet up with other couch-surfers in your area. Think of it like a social network but for futons.
Eat All the Foods
Depending where you are, there are lots of local options for great, cheap food. Local markets are a great option, of course. In Asia, especially Japan and Taiwan, convenience stores like 7/11 offer inexpensive and fresh foods. I, like you I’m sure, find the idea of eating sushi from an American 7/11 a terrifying prospect. However, over there, I wouldn’t give it a second thought. I prefer the onigiri “rice balls” though, for around $1. Two of those and a cold tea and you’ve got a great, cheap lunch.
Another advantage to staying in hostels, or in a home with a kitchen, is being able to make and store food like you’re at home. Buy ingredients for sandwiches and keep them in a fridge, or cook up a ton of pasta for dinner that week. That’s about as inexpensive as you can get when it comes to food. Kitchens in hostels are also a great place to meet people, especially if you have extra food. Everyone likes free food.
After lodging and food, the next big cost is getting around. There are ways to save some money here too, though.
Walking. Within a city, I prefer walking, which is free if you don’t count the wear and tear on your sneakers and ever-aging bones.
Mass Transit. Most cities with extensive public transportation have metro cards, like London’s Oyster, Toyko’s Pasmo, and New York’s OMNY. Not only do you feel cool slapping down a contactless card at a subway’s turnstile (well at least I do), these tend to offer discounted fares compared to buying per ride. Some cities are even easier, like Berlin and Vienna, which have no turnstiles at all. You’re just expected to have paid the fare. (And you should pay, because they do check and the fees for not paying are high.)
Escooters. Many cities have these convenient and fun rides, which may be more expensive than, say, the bus.
Uber. While Uber is in many cities around the world, many places also have their own version, or their own app for taxis. This is handy if it’s late, or if you’re lugging luggage and don’t want to bother with public transit.
Long Distance Options. Getting between cities is a different thing altogether. Personally, I love the train, but a bus is the way to do it on a budget. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re in an area famous for its trains, take the train. Getting across Japan and Western Europe is so much faster and more pleasant by train, if you can afford it.
Most other places, though, it’s the bus. However, the buses in most countries tend to be quite nice. Often these are better referred to as “luxury coaches,” with comfortable seats, power outlets and a toilet. Usually. Just thinking about the 26 hours I spent on one going up the East Coast of Australia still gives me back aches.
The biggest shift in intercity travel in the last decade or so is the rapid rise of budget airlines. Big in Europe and the U.S., these are springing up everywhere. Personally, once I’ve arrived in an area, I’d rather stay on the ground and see it all, even if it’s speeding past at 200 m.p.h. However, it’s often cheaper to fly in many areas, and if a train trip would take longer than four hours, it’s probably faster to fly (Anything less, and the train is faster, once you include getting to and from the airport, security, etc). Once again, Google.com/flights and Rome2Rio can help here.
More on how to live abroad on the cheap
What to Do To Stay Connected to That Traveling You
The end of any of my extended adventures is mix of excitement and sorrow. I’m excited to see my home friends, eat at my favorite restaurants, and sleep in my own bed. It’s always fascinating to see what has changed and what hasn’t. Maybe there’s a new building or two, maybe your neighbor finally mowed their lawn. Maybe your favorite pizza place still recognizes you and maybe, again, heartbreak that another favorite ice cream place closed.
With any luck, though, you’ll feel energized. Better able to sort out what needs sorting, better able to get back into your life with a new perspective.
Some tips as you reenter your old world to hold onto your journey:
Stay in contact with the people you’ve met. In this digital era distance is only a state of mind. If you’re feeling low late at night, guess what! Someone you met is probably awake on the other side of the world, looking for a distraction or maybe missing you too. Surprisingly, many people who travel don’t expect to ever speak to the people they meet ever again. I find this odd. If you’ve become fast friends, why not forever friends? Half my close friends now are people I met traveling. Not only have I met up with them again on later adventures, many have come and stayed with me at my house.
Save your photos and write down what happened. You may think you’ll remember everything, but no one’s brain works like that. Even if you’re not a writer, write down your experience. No one but you ever has to read it. Print out photos, or put together a photobook, and fill it with notes for what happened. In a few years you can look back and see where you were, literally and figuratively.
Social media, especially Facebook and Instagram, can be a great way to share what you’ve seen, and keep involved in the lives of those you’ve met. That’s certainly how I, gratuitous plug here, use my Instagram. Liking posts, and the occasional private message will go a long way to keep you connected. If they don’t reply, so it goes. Not everyone will. Those that do reply, they’re the wonderful keepers.
The post-travel hangover is real, but manageable. There’s a funk that sets in after being home for a few days or weeks. It’s hard to reenter the world after a travel adventure.
There’s always a worry that you’ll just settle back into your old routine. Don’t worry. This is normal. You can still keep in touch with your travel self, and fully absorb what you learned about yourself.
There will be challenges. My close friends at home understand that I’m not boasting when I start a story with “When I was in Barcelona…” it’s just weird to tell a story about something important to me without a location and by the very nature of my life (and soon, yours) that involves far-off locations. That said, less close friends, acquaintances, and so on, might hear the same story as boasting or one upmanship. There’s no simple answer to this, it’s just something to be aware of.
And above all else, the easiest way to get over that post-adventure hangover is to plan your next trip. There’s always somewhere else to explore.