Here’s *Exactly* How I Budgeted to Take a Year Off to Travel the World
“How much did that cost!?”
That was the number-one question my husband David and I got after we returned from our year-long trip around the world together. Just as much as people wanted to know how we did the trip, they wanted to know how much the trip cost, and more often than not, their guesses were far higher than the real number.
Our 11.5-month, 20-country, east-to-west journey totaled just over $37,000 for both me and David, all in. To put it into perspective, that’s how much a Subaru Outback Limited costs. And to put it even more into perspective, from my research, a two-week European vacation for two people averages nearly $6,200.
Being in our early 30s when we left, David and I were at a point in our lives where we wanted to be nimble and efficient, but also uncompromising on some of our tastes and the basic level of comfort we had grown adjusted to over time.
Once we agreed upon the budget, we gave ourselves four months to plan and prep for our departure. It was an aggressive timeline, but saving for the trip was more nuanced. David had already been saving for some time as he had been thinking about traveling before meeting me, but I had less in my savings. I needed to save up quickly and not only for the trip, but also for a little cushion for when we got back home in case it took me some time to find work.
David and I employed the typical cost-savings tactics of living with extra roommates, cooking at home more and nixing coffee out, but I also made a few bolder moves. Up until that point, I had always worked full-time in advertising, but I decided to take the leap into freelancing. I took a three-month contract and made more at my hourly rate than I did working full-time. The benefit of this higher hourly coupled with the cost-savings approach we took in our day-to-day life helped me put aside a good bit of money in a short period of time. But the big boon was selling my car. I had a 2011 Honda Fit, which I was delighted to find had great resale value, and selling it contributed $11,000 to my trip funds.
Once on the road, we did as much as we could to stretch our budget as far as we could, but seven steps in particular made a significant difference. Here, I'll elaborate:
1. High, medium and low burn
When we planned our route, we designated regions as high, medium and low burn based on average costs of basics like food, transit and accommodations. We then split our route strategically so that we weren’t ever in high-burn regions like London and Sydney for longer than a few days or made sure we could stay with people we knew in those areas to offset the costs. In medium burn countries like Romania and the Czech Republic, we stayed with family and friends to balance our days. We also made the most of the low-burn opportunities like India, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia to help balance the budget over time.
2. Leverage the international network
The generosity we encountered on the road was humbling. Friends we hadn’t spoken to in years graciously welcomed us into their homes, and friends back home introduced us to their friends and family, who also (shockingly) hosted us. What’s more, new friends we made in Asia while traveling then invited us to stay with them in Europe once we got to that portion of our trip. We had met a lovely German couple and older English gentleman in a Thai cooking class, and all of them hosted us when we got to Germany and England. (They also came to our wedding the following year!) We were continuously surprised by how willing and excited people were to host us. This generous hospitality saved us roughly $7,100 based on average housing costs by region.
3. Live like locals
Vacations are inherently more expensive because you’re in “vacation mode.” On vacation the idea is to do, see, experience and eat at much as possible in a short period of time, and you often bop around from place to place. This adds up quickly and is part of why vacations are so spend-heavy. When traveling long-term, we ended up living like locals—cooking at home, slowing down our pace and not spending every moment (and dollar) sightseeing. What’s more, we found eating local food was far less expensive than eating non-regional flavors. In Thailand, a hamburger could cost $12 while pad Thai and a local beer cost $3.
4. The “time versus money” rule
While traveling, we developed a “time versus money” rule. This rule not only covered transportation costs and time, but it also addressed the speed of transport and the density of our agenda. If we wanted to hit a bunch of places in a short amount of time, we needed to accept that we would spend more. On the flip side, when we were looking to take it easy and really get to know a place, we generally spent less. This rule helped guide our decisions throughout the trip.
5. Getting savvy with credit card rewards points
David and I have always been active users of credit cards with rewards points systems, but we really took advantage of this during our travels. We each signed up for a credit card (Chase Sapphire and Barclay Arrival) during our trip and then closed them when we got home to avoid getting hit with the annual fees. Most of the credit cards rewards programs are geared toward travel, so when taking a trip around the world, most of our expenses were travel-oriented, helping us hit the bonuses much faster. The reward points we accrued throughout our travels ended up saving us nearly $5,000 on airline costs and $2,000 on other travel-related expenses. (Note: We opted not to do round-the-world tickets for more flexibility in our travel planning and because there were no real cost savings.)
6. Ask for discounts
We embraced the attitude of “everything is negotiable” and weren’t afraid to ask for help. As we traveled, we would share our story with each potential Airbnb host and kindly ask for discounts. Nine times out of ten we were given one, especially if we promised to leave their places cleaner than we found them.
7. Know when to afford luxury
While we were traveling, we found we sometimes needed a “vacation from our vacation.” We realized it was critical to take the time to rest when we needed it to avoid burnout. When we did decide to take a mini vacation, we made sure it was in a place where our money stretched further so we could really relax and not worry about the budget.
There were only a handful of times when we felt financially restricted on our trip, but those moments were few and far between. We came to appreciate that living on a budget doesn’t mean constant sacrifice and restriction. Rather, our budget was an opportunity to be more intentional with our time and money. The money we spent was truly an investment in ourselves, which was, after all, why we took the trip in the first place. It was a financial decision I will never regret.
Alexandra Brown is an author and marketing strategist. She has written about her family in the essay collection My Parents Were Awesome and about food, wine, travel and philanthropy for Whetstone Magazine, The Bearings Guide, The Rotarian and Nopalize.com. Alexandra and her husband, David Brown, live in Portland, OR, with their daughter. They are the authors of A Year Off: A Story About Traveling the World—and How to Make it Happen for You, published by Chronicle Books.