Among the many questions I have received over the years that I have been traveling around the world, there is one that gets repeated consistently over and over again. It is a question that includes all cultures without exception and that comes from people from countries of all levels of development. It is the mystery par excellence, the fundamental enigma, the origin of the most untamed curiosity and also of the most hilarious prejudices: How do I finance my trips?
There is something that has happened to me many times when I am in a social situation, surrounded by new people. The kind of people that one meets randomly and with whom one usually shares casual conversations. They happen in the kind of places where people usually go out on weekends, to have fun or try to fight the boredom of routine. In those circumstances, some people, while holding giant glasses of beer or cocktails for which they had paid small fortunes (repeatedly), have asked me with an air of suspicion: "but how do you finance your trips?" To whom, while holding a glass of water in my hand and smiling, I answered: "Well it's easy, I do not drink alcohol!".
What may seem at first glance a relaxed joke that precedes the response of a more serious issue that needs more dedication to be explained, it is essentially where part of the response to one of the less mysterious mysteries is contained. Therefore, this brings me to the first point that reveals this mystery.
1 - Savings: what are your priorities?
Since I was little I have had very few things clear and as an adult, I have even less, but one of the things that I have never doubted at any point in time since I have use of reason is that I wanted to travel the world. From those days when I'd be hooked to a world map scrutinizing each and every name in it, to this day, being glued to Google Earth looking at 100% zoom the reliefs of different geographies and shapes of towns and cities, it is an uncontainable curiosity for discovery what drives me. It is an urgent need that always defined the framework of my priorities.
Since I come from a middle-class Argentine family, and Argentina is a country where the economy has the stability of a Mongol trying to walk straight after a round of 8 bottles of vodka and a currency that is worthless, I had pretty much one possible option: work and save.
For years, before each trip, I have saved every cent in my pocket to travel. Like an ant carrying crumb by crumb back to its nest, I have always worked putting every skill I could use, in order to save with only one goal: to travel the world. That became the priority around which all other aspects of my life revolved. On the other hand, since money was always limited and difficult to save, and I clearly understood that I could not have everything I wanted, establishing priorities became essential. I had to choose.
And I wanted to cross the Himalayas on foot instead of buying a car. I wanted to get to the heart of the Congo and breathe in the smell of the jungle instead of getting a flat screen TV or a Play Station. I wanted to sit and watch a sunset in Santorini from a Greek white house instead of taking out a loan to buy a house and enslave myself to a mortgage for the rest of my life. I was not interested in eating at expensive restaurants in Buenos Aires, but sitting in the streets of Calcutta to eat at a street stall, nor was I interested in having a wardrobe overflowing with the latest trendy clothes, I wanted to be on a remote island in Indonesia, preferably wearing nothing. I wanted to write notes about my trips by hand in a tiny notebook and feel the beautiful texture of the paper, instead of buying a Mac.
I have always had to choose and I have always set my priorities. Therefore, I have worked and dispensed with as many superfluous things as possible in order to save. I've been an office manager, a computer technician, a 3D artist, an English teacher, a graphic designer, an architect, a photographer and I've done it all to save money for travelling. As a result of the monetary difference that I was gradually making due to the choice I'd make, I kept penny by penny in order to travel.
Therefore, this is no mystery. It is saving and then investing your money in what you want the most and believe most valuable to you. In your daily life, what are your priorities? Where do you prefer to invest your money? What is more important to you, a car or a plane ticket to where you dream? A large TV with a cable subscription or see with your own eyes an unforgettable landscape? A dinner at a fancy restaurant or eating out on the beach under a zillion stars the white rice dinner that you cooked for yourself? When you know how to answer these questions, the answer is clear.
I started this article with an anecdote that is much less of a joke than it seems. When the question of how I finance my trips, comes from people who in one night, in front of me, are spending in drinks what I spend in a week or more of travelling, the priorities of each one are clearly in sight. There is nothing wrong with either of these choices, as I said, this is, after all, a matter of personal priorities.
Then, from this point, the following question arises: how much does one need to save in order to travel? Which brings me to the second point that reveals the little mysterious mystery of how I finance my trips.
2- Austerity: What kind of travel experience do you expect?
Just as during the time of saving before traveling I had to opt for the easy sacrifice of giving up several desires, pleasures, comforts and luxuries of daily life, I also understood that in order to travel as much as I wanted I would have to sacrifice many of those same things at the time of doing it. Once again, I was clear that, at least in my case, I could not have everything.
If my idea of travelling was to stay in comfortable hotels, with beds of clean and perfumed sheets, to have the possibility of taking a hot shower every day, to have privacy, good views, eat in good restaurants and snack at every corner, buy souvenirs, and visit each tourist attraction transporting myself comfortably, it will be evident that I would find myself in the following situation: I would need much more time to save and I could travel for a much shorter period of time and visit a much more limited number of destinations.
That is not my idea. My focus is exclusively on travelling and comfort and luxuries are almost always completely irrelevant to me. I have a deep appreciation for simple things. I feel comfortable sleeping in almost any place, be it on a bed or on a wooden floor, in my tent or under my mosquito net, indoors or out in the open. I do not need to bathe every day or eat at expensive or clean places. Instead, I like to bathe in the rivers or with a bucket of water that I do not need it to be hot either. I like to eat in street stalls, in local canteens, and also cook my own food. I also do not need variety, I can eat white rice or pasta every day if necessary, and I will be very happy. To all this, I add the fact that since I decided to travel by bicycle, I use my own body to transport myself, significantly reducing costs.
That power of flexibility and adaptability, and most importantly, the ability to be happy with very little, is what makes it possible for me to travel for so long extending the life and utility of my money. Many people may need those luxuries, but for me, the real luxury here is the actual experience of being able to travel the world, experiencing the culture around me every day. My travel costs rarely exceed $10 per day, but I usually have long periods in which they are easily below $5.
The level of comfort with which one wishes to travel is a personal decision and can only be established by each person. The truth is that whatever the case is, that will have a direct influence on the amount of money you need to save, the time you need for it and the quality of comfort when travelling that you want to have. Which is yours?
3- Generate income when traveling (optional and ideal)
I believe in the vital importance of self-sufficiency, that's why I never left for travelling without having enough savings to finance any trip I wanted to undertake. I do not want to depend on anyone, much less make others bear the burden of having to lend me money because I irresponsibly went bankrupt while travelling. So, first of all, I consider it imperative to have enough to finance myself from beginning to end and a little extra for the time when I get back until I get back on track.
Now, the possibility of generating income during a trip is extraordinary because it allows one to preserve or make very limited use of one's savings. This gives us a higher degree of freedom and also peace of mind since one will never have to be afraid of the possibility of running out of money.
In recent years I have achieved this modestly by combining my love for photography and story-telling with my devotion to travel. Combining an austere travelling life with moderate income and having savings as a reserve, the possibility of travelling can be extended in time with greater tranquillity. This is what I would recommend to anyone trying to implement using the skills that each one can put into practice. It's not necessarily easy but I think it's worth giving it a shot.
I think part of the curiosity and the prejudices that people have regarding those of us who travel a lot around the world come from associating travelling with some kind of luxurious experience. I also believe that it is because for some reason they cannot relate to our trips as a result of a simple personal investment, but rather as a luxury that belongs only to people with a lot of money. It is hard to understand for me because when I see people around me and the material possessions that they own, I do not ask myself suspiciously - "how could they have bought that car!?" - instead, I naturally assume that they have worked, saved and then bought what they wanted. It would not occur to me either to ask them, "Hey, how do you finance your 50" AMOLED TV and that brand new car in your garage? - because unless they are into something weird, I also assume that they are the result of what they do with the money they save working.
In the same way, my trips are the result of my desires and priorities, combined with a materially austere life. I haven't had any cars, I do not have my own home, I do not have a lot of objects that others have, I do not pay for insurance or take credits, but I have travelled in almost 100 countries, thousands of cities. I have made hundreds of friends all over the world and accumulated the quality of meaningful experiences that will stay with me forever. That is what brings most satisfaction to my life and that's where I invest my money. There aren't any real secrets behind: 1 - priorities 2 - austerity 3 - work.