Backpacking on a Budget – How We Manage Long Term Travel

I’ve been very blessed to have spent the last four years living out of a backpack either on the trail or hostel hopping between countries. It’s a life that I never thought possible in my wildest dreams. But, here I am, doing the writing of the stories instead of the wishing.

Today, I want to try to finally answer the popular question “How do you afford all of this?”

But, it’s not as simple as it sounds. I didn’t just wake up one day knowing how to budget travel, and there is so much more to it than just listing what websites I use to book flights. I’ll do my best to stay on track. Ok, ask again.

How do you afford to travel long term?

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How We Make Money

Sean and I have worked in the restaurant industry off and on for nearly 14 years. With our experience, finding a job has never been a problem. The ebb and flow of the restaurant industry allows us to find a job wherever we go.

In 2013, Sean discovered Coolworks.org, a website that posts seasonal positions. He found a position cooking in a resort for the summer in Denali National Park, Alaska. Since then, we have made connections in the industry that have brought us to Stratton Mountain Ski Resort in Vermont, a gig in catering for Coachella Music Festival in California, and a winter gig at Togwotee Mountain Lodge in Wyoming. Coolworks posts all different jobs stretching across the USA including not only restaurant work but also snow removal and grooming, mechanics and repair, administrative and office, hospitality, event planning, outdoor guides, etc.

Seasonal jobs vary extensively, but we’ve been lucky to find gigs that have cheap on site housing. Working seasonal jobs has allowed us to discover a new part of the country even though we have to work full time while we’re there. Seasonal jobs tend to have some fun perks too. We’ve gotten free ski passes, employee snowmobiling outings, dog sledding, resort restaurant discounts, etc.

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The view from our dorm at Togwotee Mountain Lodge (WY) was not too shabby.

How We Spend Money

VERY CAREFULLY!!!

Over the past few years, we’ve cut out a lot of bad habits that were blindly draining our bank accounts . We closely monitor the money we spend in restaurants and bars, and we rarely ever shop for new clothes, shoes, any household items, etc. We comfortably thrive on $1000 each per month or less including all bills, travel expenses, food, etc.

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Saving up to explore South America was SO worth it!

Before my first big trip to Latin America, I went into full hermit mode to save money. Having a concrete goal helped me break a lot of bad spending habits. If you’re unaware of your spending habits, I invite you to calculate your essential annual spending (rent, bills, food, etc.) and compare it to your annual income. Is there a significant difference? Where does all that money go? I used to think I couldn’t afford to save money, but I was absolutely lying to myself. I buckled down and saved more than I ever thought possible in order to break the cycle by only allowing myself to buy what I needed. Even though it wasn’t fun, being strict with my money and learning to save changed my life.

Another reason we are able to travel long term is because we’re comfortable being uncomfortable. We don’t spend a bunch of money on fancy hotels and luxury resorts. We’ll even take an overnight bus to save money on accommodation, and we’ve spent more than a year’s worth of nights sleeping in a tent. If you’re okay with all of that, traveling long term becomes affordable because you’re not paying for a house. Rent, utilities, internet, furniture, and sometimes breakfast are all included in the price of a hostel.

With everything in life, traveling long term is certainly a trade off from the stability of living in one place. Even though we’re on the go and rich in experience, our lives are pretty bare bones when it comes to possessions and luxury.

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Would you give up your house to live in a tent?

My Travel Tools

Lodging

  • Hostels
    • I use Hostelworld.com to find deals on bunks or private rooms when traveling outside of the US.
    • During my five months in Latin America, I never paid over $15 / night for a bunk. Most of the time it was under $10 / night.
    • Sometimes I found better deals by not pre-booking a bunk online and just showing up in a town and winging it from there.
  • Hotels
    • We try to stay at hotels sparingly, but at times it is unavoidable.
    • I use Hotwire.com if we are getting a room last minute. This website books the room for you in a general area and with a given star rating without telling you the name of the hotel saving you a little bit of money.
    • I also use Kayak.com and often the deals are comparable to Hotwire even without the hidden name concept.
  • AirBnB
    • Check out Airbnb.com when traveling especially with a group. Often times, you can get a whole house for the price of a hotel.
  • Camping
    • Sometimes camping costs a fee particularly within a private RV park or State / National Parks. Within national forests and on BLM land, camping is often free. If you’re okay sleeping in a tent, this is by far one of the biggest ways to save money while traveling.
    • Freecampsites.net is a great research and planning tool to find free spots to pitch a tent.
  • Couchsurfer / Warm Showers
    • Full disclosure, I’ve never used Couchsurfer or Warm Showers, but I know many travelers that do. Both websites link travelers to hosts that provide at least a place to sleep.
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Cascada Verde in Uvita, Costa Rica, had the coolest place to lounge and a massive waterfall 5 minute walk away. Can’t wait to go back. Dorms start at $12 / night :D. Check out the adventure here.

Transportation

  • Flights
    • We use Southwest Airlines regularly as they often have the best deals, and they include 2 checked bags per person for FREE! They also have free flight cancellation (at least 24 hours in advance). I’ve definitely booked some flights unsure if we’d be able to make them, then cancelled and booked new flights using the credits.
    • I compare flights on Kayak.com if we are traveling without too much luggage. Kayak has the feature to view by month so you can easily see when to get the best deal.
    • I’ve gotten deals by booking far in advance and sometimes I’ve found better rates last minute. Tuesdays are supposedly a good day to fly and to book flights.
    • Flexibility in travel dates is a major reason why we are able to find great deals.
    • Check “nearby” airports and see if busing to the intended destination will save some money.
  • Bus
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    Waiting on the bus in Costa Rica
    • Megabus.com has been useful connecting us from a smaller city (Indianapolis) to a larger city (Chicago) to get to a bigger airport and, therefore, get a cheaper flight.
    • We rarely travel by bus in the USA  (Greyhound = no thanks) but have used bus travel extensively in foreign countries. Latin America, for example, has an impressive network of buses within and between cities and countries. Bus terminals in larger cities can be as big as airport terminals.
  • Train / Metro
    • While long distance train travel may seem novel, the time commitment and expense has not held up compared to flying. I always double check Amtrak.com, but typically the cost is the same as flying though taking the train takes significantly longer.
    • Metros or subways have been super helpful getting around in larger US cities like Seattle and New York City. It is usually a lot cheaper to use this form of public transit than taking cabs.
  • Car Rentals
    • We rent cars semi frequently when we travel. Doing a “one-way” rental (ie picking up the car at one location and returning it to another) has saved us tons of money over buses or trains. Plus, we get the convenience of having our own wheels. I typically book these through Orbitz.com or Enterprise.com. Both websites usually have free cancellation.
    • If you’re doing a “one-way” rental to or from an airport, check if there are any rental offices near the airport instead of at the airport. We’ve saved tons just by taking an Uber / Lyft between the airport and rental office or vice versa.
  • Cabs / Uber / Lyft
    • In the US, we use Uber and Lyft frequently. It makes getting around a city or to / from the airport very simple.
    • In other countries, we sometimes take cabs. Often, it’s the easiest, though not the cheapest, way to get where you want to go.
  • Travel by Foot
    • Really want to save? Travel by foot, combined with camping, is one of the cheapest things you can do with your time. Once your gear is purchased, all you actually have to buy is food and the occasional shower. You can travel indefinitely by foot for as long as you can figure out keeping yourself fed.
    • When travel by foot in the city is an option, we usually take it within reason. Cabs / Ubers will add up.
    • Curious? Hiking the Appalachian Trail cost us $3000 each and took almost 6 months. The Pacific Crest Trail cost us about $4500 each and took 5 months to hike. (Neither of these includes gear.)
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We’re kind of obsessed with traveling by foot. 5000 miles and counting 😉

Research, Planning, and Thinking Ahead

If you follow our Instagram or Facebook Page, you might think all of our trips happen on  a whim, but in reality, hundreds of hours of research go into every trip. As previously mentioned, I didn’t wake up one day knowing how to do all of this. It happened gradually as I researched and then put what I learned into practice.

If you’re thinking about a long distance hike or extended trip, just start googling it. Poke around my blog for stories about hiking the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail or hostel hopping through Central and South America. Look at a map. Check out other blogs like Nomadic Matt or join Facebook groups like Nomads – A Life of Alternative Travel or Girls Love Travel. Try to figure out what your travel objective (cities, mountains, ruins, beaches, cultural exchange, etc.) is and build a plan around that.

Remember, it’s not just about figuring out how to pay for it. It’s about embracing minimalism, being comfortable with the uncomfortable, and making a lot of sacrifices. For me, it was a want above all others. I traded basically my entire life and everything I owned in order to chase a dream of seeing the world. It didn’t happen overnight, but now, we’re finding it harder to stop than it was to start.

The picture below is a great reminder. I had no idea what I was doing, yet still somehow I planned, researched, and executed a five month trip busing from country to country speaking broken Spanish through 13 countries in Latin America.

And it was just the beginning of a beautiful journey.

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There’s Infinite Geography waiting for you to discover. Go see it!

4 Comments on “Backpacking on a Budget – How We Manage Long Term Travel

  1. Wow, that really is an amazing story!!! I hope i can tell a similar story as yours one day.
    Couchsurfing saved me a lot of money during my trip to Australia. It really works out fine. I still have to figure out how to save money though :’)

    • Thank you! You’ll get there one day 😊 I’ll definitely give couch surfing a try one of these days! Saving is the hard part, but so worth the reward.

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