I Traveled for 20 Months on $8,000. Here's How I Made It Through 23 Countries

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KEY POINTS

  • You can avoid paying for food and accommodation when you travel by finding volunteer work through Workaway and WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms).
  • To travel more efficiently, you'll need some financial tools: a budget, travel credit card, and high-yield savings account.
  • To travel longer, you'll need to sacrifice some creature comforts.

Between Dec. 29, 2014 and Aug. 20, 2016 I traveled around the world from Atlanta to Atlanta by way of 23 countries, including Ireland, Poland, India, Cambodia, New Zealand, Chile, and Brazil.

Such a lengthy time on the road could easily run up to between $60,000 and $120,000 for European trips, which would come out to about $100 to $200 per day, or between $20,000 to $30,000 if you're traveling where the dollar is stronger. Instead, I spent $8,000 -- $8,300 if we count my preparations (baggage, hiking shoes, books).

The truth is -- $8,300 was actually a lot for the kind of traveling I was doing, and I met numerous travelers who had figured out how to survive on much less than my savings.

I don't know how they did it -- though I suspect fewer showers might have been involved -- but here are a few things that helped me travel for 20 months on what could now last me roughly three.

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1. I volunteered on farms and homesteads

I could not have done what I did without two platforms: WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and Workaway.

These platforms have some differences (mostly in cost structure) but they're similar in one way. They present opportunities to volunteer on organic farms, homesteads, and other agricultural projects in some of the most remote and beautiful places in the world. Each opportunity is different, and you can choose which ones best match your skills and interests. But in each one you will work roughly four to six hours a day, five days a week, in exchange for accommodation and three meals (two of which are prepared for you).

Let me emphasize: if you're willing to work as a WWOOFer or Workawayer, you do not have to pay for accommodation or food. And while working on farms to travel might sound like an unorthodox vacation, I'll say this -- I had some of my best life experiences in the hands of Workaway and WWOOF hosts.

The platforms are easy to use: Once you purchase a membership, you can browse thousands of opportunities from over 100 countries. And it's not just farms, either. You'll find everything from hostels to beekeeping to animal sanctuaries. When you find an opportunity that interests you, you reach out to the host. You'll mention your skills, work experience (if you have any), why you think you'd be a good fit, and how long you want to stay. If your hosts accept you, they'll slot in their calendar.

In most cases, I stayed two to three weeks (sometimes upwards of eight) with my hosts and learned a variety of skills I would have never developed otherwise. I trained horses in Ireland and took part in an art project with an Icelandic-based painter. I gathered carob pods in Sicily and built ukuleles in Tasmania. I tended to a garden just below Machu Picchu, built adobe bricks for a community in Thailand, laid the foundation for a "bothy" on an isle in Scotland, and roofed bungalows along the Tatai River in Cambodia.

In this way I only paid for my travel (airfare, buses, TukTuk) and the occasional "side trip" to places like Angkor Wat or Torres del Paine. Very rarely did I spend money while I was WWOOFing or Workawaying, as my hosts would often keep me entertained, sometimes even taking me to local sights and paying for my entry.

2. I kept a strict budget

When I left Atlanta, I had roughly $8,000 in my checking account, which I had saved over six months from my first job. I was 23 and had no experience handling what was to me then an enormous sum of money.

It's absurd now -- with all the budgeting apps available -- but I documented every expense in a palm-sized Moleskine notebook with grid paper. I put the date to the far left and left the spaces to its right for purchases. It looked something like this:

May 17, 2015 $14.64 (lunch) $23.41 (stamps) $0 $0
May 18, 2015 $25 (bus) $10 (lunch) $14.73 (bus) $3.74 (coffee)
May 19, 2015 $0 $0 $0 $0
Data source: Author's notes.

Now, I realize now this is inefficient and might come off as obsessive (I kept track every day, even when I didn't spend money). But it made me feel I was in control of my finances. Since I only had $8,000 -- and I wanted to travel for as long as I could -- I needed to see where my money was going and what, if anything, I could cut to keep myself traveling longer.

Additionally, I was also charging every expense to my travel credit card, which in the end helped me pay for my flight from Sao Paulo to Atlanta. And while I kept some of my money in my checking account for easy access, I also had a high-yield savings account to earn a little extra on interest.

3. I roughed it

Make no mistake: This trip wasn't easy. Calloused hands from digging and chopping wood aside, my 20 months around the world led me to practice a lifestyle that was austere, solitary, and, for the sake of saving money, self-disciplined.

I didn't spend much on myself and rarely paid for an accommodation that wasn't a bunk bed in an eight-person room. When I did spend money on tourist experiences, it was usually because I knew I would never return to that part of the world again and wanted to see important sites before I left.

For transportation, I often hitchhiked, or, when I could, walked. In fact, at one point I had walked so much, I had worn the sole of my shoes down to the foot and began getting holes in my socks.

I also had a tent and would, when I couldn't find work, sleep in it. This I did primarily in Australia and New Zealand, where there were several free or low-cost campsites and the sheer volume of WWOOFers and Workawayers at that time led me to camp for several weeks.

I understand this kind of traveling isn't for everyone -- working on other peoples' farms in countries whose cultures are already foreign to you can be a learning experience and requires an openness to adapt without certain comforts. It might also challenge your consumption habits. Many of the homesteaders I encountered lived on what they grew, which wasn't much, and they treated grocery items with a mindfulness that most of us might find difficult to adapt to.

It's not for everyone, but if you can make it work for you, this kind of traveling can lead to transformation. Not only will you encounter new cultures, but you can come into deeper contact with yourself. And while volunteering on a farm might not earn money for your retirement, you'll give your retired self much to reflect on once the journey is done.

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