My infatuation with travel started at 11 when my family went on a trip to France.
It felt so different from the world I knew; I was bewitched by the knowledge that simply boarding a plane could take me to a place where life could be so similar and yet so completely different. From then on, I took advantage of school vacations to travel as much as possible.
After high school, I spent a gap year in Ecuador, and during college, I studied abroad in Spain and backpacked around Europe. In my senior year, I realized all I really wanted to do was travel — to explore until I couldn’t go any farther. But I knew that dream would take money…
So I figured out how to save $10,000 in seven months, which would allow me to take a five-month trip to Southeast Asia.
And then, over the next four years, I did the same thing three more times — which helped me spend a total of 23 months exploring 10 countries.
It took planning and careful budgeting, but mostly it took diligence. Here’s what I did.
I Set a Departure Date
First, I gave myself a goal. I knew I wanted to travel for at least five months, and I knew it would take me a few extra months of working to build up my bank account. My final college semester was coming to an end, so I counted forward and decided to leave a week after New Year’s.
At first, it was just a random date, a way to be around for the holidays to see as much family as possible before leaving. But it felt like such a natural time to go, that I stuck to it as my start date. Plus, even though I was born and raised in New Hampshire, I’m the biggest wimp when it comes to cold weather, so escaping before the worst of the winter was key.
Setting a firm date to work toward made me feel more committed to sticking to my timeline and goals.
I Researched Cheap Destinations
To find out where my money would last the longest, I read blogs and looked at travel books to get a sense of what costs might be once I arrived in a country.
(Quick tip: use guidebooks as a loose guide, a sort of general idea. Prices can change from the time they go to print and you can always negotiate prices on the road!)
While there are certainly ways to backpack in Europe on the cheap, I found Southeast Asia was a fraction of the cost.
I averaged $18 per night in a shared room at a European hostel, but a private bungalow in SE Asia was just $3 per night. A meal in Europe would easily cost €20, whereas in Asia, I could have a street-food feast and only pay $2. A train ticket from Rome to Naples costs anywhere from $20 to 40, while an overnight sleeper bus from Vietnam to Cambodia costs $10 to $15.
You get the idea. You can do all your travel on the cheap, but some places are cheaper than others. Having a good understanding of your daily costs will help you avoid unexpected spending that can deplete your travel budget.
I Made a Budget
Then I established a budget. Because I worked only to pay bills and maintain a lifestyle, I had never broken down my daily or weekly spending to see how I was using my money.
But when I started thinking about not working for months at a time, I realized I needed to make sure I would have the money not only to travel, but to continue paying those pesky bills (ugh, student loans) that don’t go away.
So I started looking at what cost me the most in my daily living in the U.S. and how I could shave it down. And like most people, rent was No. 1 on my list.
So (dramatic pause) I moved back in with my parents and saved myself $300 a month. Of course part of that saved money went back into an “I’m living with my parents again” wine fund, but it’s OK to give yourself little leniencies to stay sane and still save.
I know that moving back in with the ‘rents might not be possible for everyone, either physically or mentally, but take a look at what you spend and get creative. Can you find roommates to split the cost of rent or move to a cheaper apartment?
I also looked at how often I grabbed coffee or lunch at a cafe and started making it at home. This may sound a little cutthroat, but I ditched my car — gas, maintenance and car insurance all add up quickly.
I even skipped a haircut or two. My salon charged $65 before tip… that’s six one-hour massages in Vietnam!
I Figured Out a Long-Term Travel Budget
Next, I focused on my trip budget and calculated what I thought I could save over the seven months before my departure.
I landed on a total of $10,000 to cover all my travels, plane ride to plane ride. I arrived at that number partly based on what I thought I could save, partly based on my research and partly as a blind shot at number that I thought would cover my travel for five months.
I also carefully tracked flight prices first to make sure I could get the best deal possible — but also to keep me motivated! When I reached 80% of my financial goal, I bought my plane ticket, and the knowledge that I was getting closer to my trip helped me stay on track, even when it was tempting to splurge on something else.
I Earned as Much as Possible
With my travel goals and budget in place I just needed the actual inflow of money to set it all in motion.
I found a waitressing job at a high-end restaurant (higher end = higher tips) back in my hometown, picked up every shift I could (without going crazy…no point in burning out before you even get to enjoy your hard-earned money!) and stockpiled my earnings.
I wrote down my tips every night and added them up for the week. I’m the first to spend cash if I have it on me, so I was careful to set aside my spending money for the week and put everything else straight into the bank.
I worked five or six days per week, each about six to eight hours, and averaged $600 per week. I would give myself $150 to cover my student loan, insurance bills and any other spending money, and put the rest in savings.
As I got closer to my departure date, I took my travel budget of $10,000 and moved it into a separate checking account, so I could keep an eye on it as I spent it during my trip.
I Set Myself Up for Success
While the money was obviously most important part, the flexible work environment also played a role in my choice of work.
As a popular venue for weddings, the restaurant’s business picked up during the late spring, summer and early fall months. I chose my travel dates to take advantage of those good-earning months and skip out on the slower winter months.
Plus, I worked hard and proved myself to be a valuable enough employee that my boss offered to have a job waiting for me if I came home in time for busy season.
For me, this was a win-win situation: I got the travel schedule I wanted, and wasted no time looking for a new job when I returned home — instead, I immediately started building up my travel fund for the next trip.
I Stuck to My Travel Goals, Even When It was Hard
Being smart about my spending also meant I was strategic about buying travel necessities. Instead of picking up a travel towel or electric adapter when I remembered I needed one, I’d wait until someone asked me what I wanted for my birthday or the holidays.
This way, my family would help me get the travel items I needed, instead of spending money on another scarf that would inevitably end up in a box in the attic while I gallivanted around on a beach in Thailand.
Most importantly though, for seven months, I was diligent and disciplined.
Almost every dollar went toward my travel fund. I even emptied my pockets to save my coins — and heads up, at the end of seven months, that jar had collected an extra $100! (That’s a week’s worth of meals in Asia!)
I might not have had the most thriving social life, and there were days when it would have been easier to grab a quick coffee or lunch at a café, but I didn’t because I focused on how much farther that money would go in Asia, and it did.
With my $10,000, I spent five months exploring Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. I had custom clothes made in Vietnam, sailed Ha Long Bay on a traditional Vietnamese boat, saw the temples at Angkor Wat, lounged on the lazy rivers of Laos and learned to scuba dive on an idyllic island in Thailand.
And I didn’t have to become a total recluse or give up everything I loved; I just had to make a plan and stick to it.
I used this same travel budget plan three more times, saving $10,000 for each trip and spending a total of 23 months traveling through 10 countries. Planning and budgeting became easier once I had one trip under my belt and knew what to expect while traveling.
In the end, with some forward thinking, persistence and a few short-term sacrifices, I was rewarded with some of the most incredible experiences of my life.
Your Turn: Have you ever saved up for long-term travel? How did you do it?
Elizabeth Fineberg-Lombardi was once given a T-shirt that said, “Work less, travel more”; words she’s tried to live by the last 10 years. Now that she has set down some roots in St. Petersburg, Florida, she’s always searching for ways to talk about experiences, share her stories (check out her blog: globaliz.wordpress.com), and generally promote travel, while taking on a new travel adventure… Florida!