The Cost of Full-Time Travel

by Nora Dunn on 4 January 2009 31 comments
Photo: Nora Dunn

“How much does it cost to travel full-time as a Professional Hobo?” I am asked this question regularly by readers of my personal website. And while I maintain that the cost of full-time travel is dependent on oh-so-many factors that are unique to every individual, I have just finished my year-end accounting for 2008 and am willing to share my own finances with the world.

 

2008 was a year for me spent entirely on the road. I opened the New Year on a remote corner of the Big Island of Hawaii, then traveled around for a week and moved to the other side of the island for four months. In April and May I spent six weeks traveling through Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, arriving in Australia in June. My first six weeks in Australia were spent in transit, first in Cairns for a few days, then enjoying a long drive from Brisbane to Melbourne via the outback. At the end of July I settled down in the rural countryside north of Melbourne, and that is where I remained for the rest of the year.

 

Despite Wise Bread reader comments about Hawaii being extraordinarily expensive, I must still emphasize that travel – and the costs thereof – are very unique to the individual. Before embarking on a life of full-time travel, I enjoyed my week or two a year of vacations like most people. Being from Canada, the stress was usually on going somewhere warm for a week during winter to sit on a beach and defrost, the cheapest option of which entailed a charter flight to an all-inclusive Caribbean resort. The week generally cost $1,000-$2,000 per person, all inclusive.

At the height of my career as a financial planner, I enjoyed more lavish trips, including a three-week bonanza in South Africa that set me back almost $10,000.

 

So I am well aware that the cost of vacationing is not cheap at the best of times, and can be downright exorbitant if we are not careful.

 

But the cost of traveling full-time is somewhat different. You are not searching for souvenirs, paying to see all the attractions (at least not as much as you may as with a traditional vacation), or constantly eating out at restaurants for lack of having kitchen facilities.

 

As a full-time traveler, I also save money by not having a home and set of regular expenses to maintain. I usually work in trade for my accommodation (occasionally with some additional perks thrown in there like internet or household supplies), and since I always have a kitchen, I prepare inexpensive and healthy foods at “home”.

 

The flip side to full-time travel, and where the expenses add up, are in transportation costs (airfare being the biggest culprit), accommodation costs between work-trade arrangements, and general sightseeing excursions that I treat myself to while traveling through.

 

So how much does it cost to travel full-time? Aah aah – patience; not quite yet. First, I will explain the sorts of expenses I incurred so you have a frame of reference. Here is a laundry list of the things I purchased over the last year, as well as regular expenses I incurred:

  • Travel Insurance
  • Flights
  • Accommodation for accumulatively three months (sightseeing and travel between work-trade arrangements; mostly took the form of hostels and camping)
  • Visa applications
  • Medical emergencies
  • Cell phone purchase
  • Cell phone expenses, plus long distance cards
  • New laptop purchase
  • New software
  • Internet charges (while on the road)
  • Car purchase (in Australia)
  • Miscellaneous car expenses (registration, etc)
  • Fuel costs
  • Car rental (in Hawaii)
  • Health & Wellness (some chiropractic treatments, vitamins, etc)
  • Business Association Memberships
  • Website hosting and maintenance
  • Professional camera purchase
  • Charitable donations
  • And of course, food! (including meals out as well as groceries)

 

As you can see, 2008 for me was not without a set of expenses that were unanticipated (like buying a new computer and cell phone, and paying for medical expenses not covered by travel insurance). On top of it all, I bought a car (crucial to get around in rural Australia), and of course, the cost of airfare made the biggest imprint on my pocketbook.

 

So how much does it cost to travel full-time? For myself and my boyfriend, we managed to get through 2008 for under $20,000. That is for two people. Split that in half, and it cost me $10,000 to live on the road for one year. Practically though, many expenses borne by both of us would have been necessary if just one person were traveling (like the car purchase, fuel, electronics, and phone charges), so although it is all well and good to split our $20,000 year in half to come up with a per/person number, it is unrealistic. I would wager that had it just been me on the road, I would still have spent about $14,000.

 

And even though I spent the majority of 2008 in relatively expensive global places like Hawaii and Australia, by being creative and realistic, I still managed to eke out a living on the road with an income that technically would see me below the poverty line in North America.

 

Has the perceived cost of full-time travel been holding you back from jumping off the edge of becoming a Vagabond like me? If so, the rug has just been swept out from under you. With some saving, some excruciating letting go, and some creative living arrangements, you too can realize a dream of spending life on the road…if you want to.

 

 

 

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Guest's picture

$10,000 or even $14,000 per person per year travelling full time is impressive. Wow. And you get to see the world too. Envy....and i want to do the same too when my children grows up.

Andrea Karim's picture

That's amazingly cheap - mind you, Nora, it helps that you are resourceful, friendly, and not lazy. I'm pretty sure it would cost me 20k a month, just in room service. :)

Myscha Theriault's picture

That's a pretty good total, Nora. I know when we did our six month deal, it cost us about 15,000 USD total for the two of us. However, we were racking up plane tickets left and right and knew that if we had stayed on the road we were going to do more of the stay in one place for a while and house sit like we did for a few weeks in Jordan. That really helps, along with the kitchen access.

Congratulations on a frugal year of fantastic travel!

Guest's picture
Denise

So how does the work-trade-live agreement work exactly? Is there a formal network?

Also, I agree that living overseas doesn't have to be expensive. I lived for four months in Europe, Turkey and Greece for less than $2,000. I didn't go hungry and still saw the sights.

The hubby and I are hoping we can make arrangements to live in Europe for two months this summer, with our baby, who would be about a year and change by then.

Guest's picture
lesliet

This sounds like fun, but as an older person, I would be concerned about provisions for health care/health insurance while traveling. Winging it is fine, I guess, but if you get some major health issue, like, say, for instance, cancer, then what do you do?

Guest's picture
Ben

Hi Nora,

Thanks for this post. It's been something I've always wanted to do. Can you please talk about the types of jobs you found and whether you needed work visas?

Thanks!

Guest's picture
Jared

I would love to travel all the time for about 6 months. I'm just afraid of letting go and leaving everything behind for that long. It would be fun though.

Guest's picture
Robert

Thanks for the interesting article Nora! My fiancée and I are working on getting things in order financially to travel abroad (for at least a year). This article is encouraging when there are naysayers around us saying that it's going to be extremely expensive, etc. etc.

Thanks again,
Robert

Guest's picture
April

Hi Nora,

Thank you for the inspiring blog, which was right up my alley. Do you know of many people who travel with their 2 yr olds?

Also, did you have the $20,000 saved upfront, or did you somehow manage to earn income along the way?

Thanks!

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

Hello all - thank you for the great comments! I will endeavour to answer the questions as best I can:

@Denise: There are a few formal networks to connect you with work-trade or other free accommodation options. Check out this link for a fairly comprehensive list:

http://www.vagabondish.com/8-tools-travel-long-term-live-rent-free/

 

@lesliet: I too, am not a proponent of "winging it" on the road. I travel with full health insurance, and am glad I have: my darling boyfriend has landed in the hospital twice already, once in Thailand for a week with Dengue Fever. Please click the link on "Travel Insurance" in the article above for more information on what to look for in a policy.

It is also worth noting that pretty much everywhere in the world except the States is considerably less financially crippling to get sick in. Either way, having a small savings accumulated to deal with such emergencies on the road is prudent planning.

 

@Ben: Many countries allow you to trade work for accommodation (as long as money doesn't exchange hands) on a simple tourist visa. I have planted, managed hostels, cleaned, and even painted pretty pictures in trade for my accommodation. More info on that here:

http://www.transitionsabroad.com/listings/work/shortterm/articles/caretaking_jobs_abroad.shtml

As for other work to pay for the rest of my expenses, I manage to eke out a living through the internet, which also requires nothing more than a tourist visa. My boyfriend uses various bits of expertise he has (from handy-work to bartending to fighting fires) to get working visas, or simply to volunteer his services in trade for goods and services we need. I won't advocate working for cash under the table, but will say that it is not uncommon either.

 

@April: Although I did indeed have money saved in preparation for leaving on my travels, I have tried not to dip into it, and instead have tried to make my travels financially sustainable with my income. If I were on a trip with a defined start and end date, I may have approached this differently. But since I am perpetually a Professional Hobo, I need to ensure I can stay on the road as long as I like.

As for traveling with a 2yr old, absolutely you can! I have a friend whose child was better traveled than I was before she was 3 years old! It will just involve a little more effort and coordination, and not all work-trade arrangements will be suitable for children. At the same time, I have indeed met other caretakers with children, who love life on the road as a family. It can be done if you want to do it.

 

Cheers, all! - Nora Dunn

Guest's picture
blush48

What a terrific article - well laid-out and you covered all the basics of your travels. I am inspired!

Guest's picture
Carlo

Hi Nora...great work on the budgeting! I will admit, my wife is the whiz when it comes to that. Most people's view of long-term travel is definitely skewed thanks to luxury vacations and the like. The difference is night and day between a 2 week vacation to Cabo and a 6-month trip to SE Asia (even Europe for that matter).

It always bugs me to hear people say "I wish I could do that" or "I'm so jealous" and things like that. Cuz the fact is, you CAN do it. There is no need to feel jealous. It comes down to "what do you want?" What are you willing to sacrifice to acheive it? It's amazing, when you think how much you have lived and experienced with only $20,000 for two people. Not only experienced, but how much you've learned, because, living on those means takes a lot of resourcefulness and learning about yourself!

We will be traveling Oz at some point, camping mostly (when not, will be couchsurfing or wwoofing and the like) and our goal is $1500 AUD per month.

Cheers!

Guest's picture
Carlo

Sorry, one question...what currency are your figures in? Should I assume Canadian?

Guest's picture
Denise

Hi there.

My hubby and I backpacked for a year, mostly in Asia, but we also spent 3 weeks in Europe, back in 2002.

It cost us a little less than $20K USD including our return ticket to North America for the entire year.

Wonderful year... The experience was every bit worth it, and it is definitely a great way to cleanse oneself from materialism and consumerism ways, and learn to be frugal in a fun, exciting, and sometimes scary way. ;-)

Guest's picture

Hello Nora, this is Andy of HoboTraveler.com Travel Blog, it was nice to discover another Hobo. I have traveled for over 10 years, almost 11, maybe 12, not really positive.

I can live on between 5 to 20 US per day, the 20 is easy, the five takes concentration. I lived in 5 for about four years until the invention of adsense.

I went over you list of expenses and I am not sure how long you have traveled? However, the longer a person travels, then many of the thing on your list will disappear as you see the are irrelevant.

Thanks for the information, the link will eventually work its way to my site. I do wish I could find this on your site.

Thanks from Andy of HoboTraveler.com Travel Blog and HoboHideOut.com where travelers are trading room for a submission and living fre.

Guest's picture
MJ

It's entirely possible to travel full-time; the major step is actually committing to doing it.

I've been traveling in Europe since May 2007, basically on an extended rock climbing trip, and just came home for the holidays. Then I'll be returning in March 2009 to continue until... who knows?

Our kind of open-ended trip required some saving in advance, so it's important to start thinking of saving now for a trip perhaps 1-3 years down the line. It's really key to create some kind of budget and factor in an additional 25% for unexpected things. Seriously, 25% is an adequate number. When the exchange rate (dollar to Euro) rose last year ($1.65 was memorable), my husband and I were able to stay afloat. We got the cheapest travel insurance, bought a car, lived in the countryside (cheaper than in the city), and bought everything at the discount grocery stores. And camped, when traveling to climbing destinations. We took lots of photos instead of souvenirs, and spent the money we saved on one nice dinner a month. I did a bit of freelance through the internet. We tracked our expenses, and so far we're doing okay.

I think people will be less likely to travel during this financial crisis, so it's a good time to save for the trip!

Guest's picture

That is a great post, I emailed it to my girlfriend and asked her, when can we leave? She said she had to go to Geelong (near Melbourne) today for work, but right after that was fine :-)

It is a very attractive option, and we could do it. We have a low-ish mortgage, no other debt, and we take a frugal approach to life.

Would like to hear about the downside of traveling like this though. Dodgy accommodation, things you miss from home, tough jobs you've had to do, items getting stolen or damaged. I guess I will have to check out your personal web site...

Kate Luther's picture

You go, girl! You're my new idol :)

Guest's picture

Travel costs really depend on how frugal or lavish a person can be. And after reading this, I started to envy a hobo's lifestyle. I want to be a hobo too!

Guest's picture

Nora, I was really impressed by your article and of course, your life being a full-time traveller. I didn't know someone who do travelling full-time! It could be expensive but you've done a great work at budgeting. It's good to know that you also have your travel insurance.

Guest's picture

If you plan your travels and plan not to spend extravagantly Nora's figure of $10K per person is quite doable. Hostels, traveling in inexpensive countries and cooking for yourself whenever possible will allow you to save cash so you can travel farther and longer. This is exactly the idea I had when I started my round the world trip.

Guest's picture
Guest

...but only $420 to travel for 30 years...

...why don't we just send all our Seniors on round-the-world trips for the rest of their lives and pocket the savings?

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

...why don't we just send all our Seniors on round-the-world trips for the rest of their lives and pocket the savings?

@Guest (above): Heh heh - great idea! One problem: the cost of travel insurance!

Guest's picture
Wendy

we are leaving in a couple of months to travel the west coast of the USA for a year. we will be working our way through on farms for room and board, and traveling with 2 dogs. i have budgeted $6K for the entire year. so, we will travel for a year or until the $$ runs out!

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@Wendy - Good stuff! Please do check in and let us know how you go over the course of this year. If you'd like, maybe you can submit a "

week-in-the-life

" piece to me over at The Professional Hobo! Come visit the Site and drop me a note if you're interested. Cheers...

 

Guest's picture

Very pleasant to come across your website and to see a few others doing the same thing. Our numbers are increasing!! Soon our favorite phrase "Homeless and stuffless" will have new meanings...
My wife and I have been living the dream for the last 15 years. We know how to adjust: when the stock market was high (it's been so long ago I can barely remember but that's another story) we were on a budget of $200K a year living in a ski-in/ski-out chalet in the French Alps, eating in Michelin-stared restaurants all over Europe. Then the dot.com bubble burst and our budget went to $40K a year while living in a 5-bedroom mansion in Goa with swimming pool and servants. In the latest financial debacle, we were very happy at $49/day in a one-bedroom apartment in a fancy building with swimming pool, jacuzzi, steam; we had great meals at $20 for both of us with take-home leftovers; that was in Shanghai.
Yes, we do have medical insurance (hospital only) bought in France. The $6000 yearly premium is our biggest budget item.
We do not earn any salary but we do sometimes trade work for accommodations or we attend fancy food festivals by volunteering to work at them.
We got to this point by saving as much of our earnings as possible over our 30 or so years of our careers; by selling our real estate; by not having kids; by not having parents in need of our assistance; and by easing into this lifestyle gradually over 5 or 6 years.
It's been most enjoyable and continues to be for the foreseeable future...

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@Dimitri - Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us! Just goes to show that a little bit of planning and a dream can come together beautifully. Cheers!

Guest's picture

Nice Blog… Thanks for the interesting article. I would love to travel all the time. It is very good to know that you also have your travel insurance.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@Anthem - Thanks! As for travel insurance, not once but twice have I made use of it (or rather, my boyfriend did), so I know the benefits of it through and through! Never leave home without it....

Guest's picture

Wow, Nora - thanks so much for this! I've been looking everywhere for real numbers when it comes to RTW travel, and they're extremely hard to find. Most of the articles I've found say things like, "Just do it, and everything will work out." Whimsical thinking is fun, but it doesn't work for someone as OCD as me!

I'll be taking a RTW trip with my girlfriend next year, and I'm glad to see an average of $10k per person with you and your boyfriend. That's extremely doable for us - and I'm excited to have a fiscal goal to work towards!

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@Casey - Brilliant; I'm glad this article helped! I think it really all boils down to the choices you make, and how badly you want something. The longer I travel full-time, the more I see how crucial it is to plan and take that first step...