How to Travel Full-Time for $17,000 a Year (or Less!)

By Nora Dunn on 14 February 2012 108 comments

For the last five years, I've been traveling the world full-time, and for less money than I've ever spent (and I'd wager less money than most people would spend) to live in one place.

My worldly possessions fit into one bag (just larger than carry-on size) and a backpack containing my laptop and computer gear. This small entourage (weighing less than 45 pounds in total) comes with me as I wander around the world, sometimes quickly, but mostly slowly. 

In 2011 alone, I traversed 13 countries and over 45,360 miles. Sounds pretty expensive, huh?

What if I told you it wasn't? What if I told you that both 2010 (a similarly busy year of travel) and 2011 cost me just over $17,000 (including some major non-travel related purchases)? Would you believe me?

Believe it. (Here's proof, with a full breakdown of where I went and how much it cost: My Cost of Full-Time Travel in 2011).

How to Keep Your Travel Costs Low

Of course, I could travel for way more than $17,000/year. The sky is the limit for what you can spend on the road, from food and accommodation to flights, destinations, and tours. I could also travel for less than this, if I made different spending choices. 

Here are a few of my secrets.

Don't Pay for Accommodations

In the entire year of 2011, I paid $173 for accommodation. And that expenditure was a function of a discounted stay at the Hilton in Stockholm as a luxurious “splash out.” The rest of the time, I had free accommodation in various forms, including...

Work-Trade/Volunteer

There are lots of creative opportunities to work in trade for your accommodation (and sometimes food) and enjoy a more immersive travel experience. Many of the sites that introduce you to these opportunities involve a monthly or yearly subscription, but in my experience it's well worth it. Here are some resources:

Hospitality Exchange

Got a few nights to kill at a given destination? Try a hospitality exchange, where locals who would like to host a traveler can put you up in a spare room or even on their couch. Good manners predicate you move on after a few days, and although it's a free stay, expect to provide a gift for your host and help out wherever you can. But there's also no better way to see how the locals live than to actually live with a local.

House/Pet-Sitting

After five years on the road, I've come to crave my personal space, as well as time to work on my location-independent career as a travel writer. So when other people hit the road to do some traveling of their own, I come into their homes and take care of the property, pets, gardens, and any other chores that require attention in their absence. I tend to the home fires for periods of time ranging from weeks to months, and I'll soon be enjoying my second three-month stint of house-sitting and dog-minding on the Caribbean island of Grenada, where I have my own beautiful free beach-front villa and use of two cars. 

Crew on Sailboats

My most recent foray into free accommodation has come in the form of volunteering on sailboats. Every boat is different in what it requires, from capable sailors or people with boat-specific technical skills to simply being an extra set of hands to share chores and provide good company. I started out with absolutely no sailing experience, and I have met all sorts of people in the cruising community and been aboard three boats in the last month alone. This is a whole lifestyle and way of travel unto itself.

Another way to get free accommodation includes home exchanges; check out more information on home exchange resources and etiquette.

Don't Pay for Flights

When I have to fly (which I try to do as rarely as possible), my long-haul flights are in business class, and cost less than the price of an economy ticket. I do this through the creative use of frequent flyer miles. I started out (years before I became a full-time traveler) simply as a passive collector with my credit card before delving into the world of creative frequent flyer mile accumulation through various promotions (here's the first big promotion I took advantage of in 2009).

Now I'm hooked, and always on the hunt for a frequent flyer deal, often accumulating thousands of miles each month without actually flying, which is easy thanks to my Travel Hacking Cartel membership.

Sometimes it actually works out better to pay cash for a flight, especially if it's a domestic flight. If this is the case, here are some resources and tips to ensure you get the lowest price, even after you pay for your ticket.

Travel Slowly

The slower you travel, the less money you'll spend on transportation, interim accommodation (for example, between when you land in a new place and begin a house-sitting or volunteer gig), and even set-up expenses like buying groceries/staples or wear-and-tear on personal effects like luggage.

And the slower you travel, the more immersive your experience will be, and the more likely you will be to develop relationships with locals (who may not want to invest the time and effort getting to know somebody who is simply passing through) who can in turn deepen your travel experience and help you learn what life is like around the world.

Your Travel, Your Style

There's more to full-time travel than these three techniques to keep your costs low. I made purchases that weren't totally necessary, and I could have further reduced my expenses if I'd gone without. I also could have spent more money on any number of occasions. But for the most part I've found a groove and a personal style for my own full-time travels; one that leaves me wanting for nothing and spending how I wish on what's important to me. And all for less than I spend to live in one place.

I also have a career as a writer and travel blogger that lends itself well to my travels, creating a lifestyle that is a career, and vice versa.

Budgeting for travel is very different for everybody, as can be evidenced by this informal spending study: Taco Tuesday: The Inner Mechanics of Budgeting on Vacation.

How much do you think you would spend on full-time travel? Would you give it a shot?

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How to Travel Full-Time for $17,000 a Year (or Less!)

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Guest's picture

This is a great post, Nora. Very eye-opening. thank you for sharing your secrets.

Guest's picture
Sharon

I want to as much travelling as I can before settling down and having kids because, let’s face it, travelling with kids for a few days will age you a few months. However, I don’t think I’ll manage to fit in the $17,000 a year budget as I like to travel with a lot of suitcases and I’m really bad at thinking before buying, but kudos to you.

Guest's picture

you can get travel ideas based on your budget @ flybreak

Guest's picture

I think this is really an amazing post. Its awesome if you can travel the world with just $17000. Every traveler must read this post.. Each tip is awesome.. Thanks for sharing

Guest's picture
Whitegirlin.asia

Loved reading this article, I have recently became a travel blogger and love a lot of these sites used that will defiantly help me with travelling cheaply. I find travel and accommodation the most expensive parts of any trips, so if you can eliminate those costs than you can definitely spend more time/money visiting other destinations!

Guest's picture
Allison

This is probably a lot of people's dreams! Great tips here!

Guest's picture
Julian

Thanks a lot for the inspiration!Really looking into the house-sitting option and also the frequent flyers - there always is a way!

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Wanders of a Yogi

Thank you for sharing your secret tips :) On my way soon !

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Massage-directory.net

That's inspiring. I think most of us want to travel and know the world, but form different reasons we are trapped into our daily routine.