Now that we’ve traveled through most of the Western Europe portion of our trip (I wrote this in Killarney, our second-to-last stop in Ireland, although it has taken me a while to post it), as well as blogged through US/Canada, I thought I would address how Inna and I are able to travel for a year. Lots of people have asked and the short answer is: we have money saved up. But that isn’t very satisfying, so I thought I would dedicate a post to it.
How We Are Able To Do This
First off, forget money: how are we even able to travel for a year? Quite simply, we are lucky. We have no debts (minus a mortgage, which I’ll address below), no kids, supportive family and friends, and no significant obligations at home. This is all very helpful in making a year of travel possible.
Taking a year off can be a huge disruption to your career. Luckily, our careers are in just the right spots to be disrupted. Inna was looking for a new job anyway; now she is simply taking a year off between jobs instead of going straight from one to another. And her resume is very strong, so we don’t anticipate much difficulty when it does come time to find a job (she almost found one in the short period between when she started looking and when we decided to travel for a year).
As for myself, I work in the film industry, and one of the great things about working in film is that you have the freedom to come and go as you please. Yes, I will have to give up some work, and I will also have to re-establish connections when I return, but the industry allows this, and people do it all the time (maybe not for an entire year, but Inna and I are all about going big). Also, I am currently focusing on writing, and you can write anywhere. Plus travel is one of the best things you can do to become a better and more inspired writer, which makes this year of travel a win-win.
As I mentioned earlier, other than our mortgage, we have no debts. No student loans, no car payments, no credit card debts, etc
For our mortgage, we bought our condo when the market was at its bottom, so we don’t owe much. Add to this Los Angeles’s high rental rates, and we are able to rent our place and use the income to pay off our mortgage, HOA fees, homeowners insurance, and property management fees, and still have a small amount left over for us.
Renting our place required us to empty it (renters weren’t interested in renting it furnished), which meant we had to get rid of our stuff. Again, this worked out, since most of what we owned was overdue for replacement. Minus little things, Inna and I only had five things of quality: our couch, desk, TV and Bluray player, a matching bookshelf and dresser, and our bedroom set. The TV and Bluray player we sold easily, as we almost never used them (we watch movies and TV on our computers). For the other items, we considered putting them in storage, but a year of storage was roughly equal to the cost of repurchasing them, which meant it was more cost effective to sell these items and then buy something similar when we come back.
For the small items we wanted to keep (mainly kitchenware and sentimental stuff), we packed them up and are storing them at our parents’ places. Thanks parents!
Our final significant items were our cars and computers. My car, although low in miles, was almost 20 years old and was on its way out. Likewise, Inna’s car was 11 years old and was getting up there in miles; it was just the right car for our roadtrip across the US. Same with our cars, our computers were old and we’d been putting off buying new ones. This trip forced us to finally get rid of our computers and buy lightweight laptops.
The most difficult aspect of our year of travel involved our dog. We looked into taking her with us, but for most of the world that was either not possible (islands, Asia, Australia) or not safe for the dog (the Middle East, Africa, Central America, northern South America). And where it was possible (Europe) it was expensive. In the end, we took our dog on our roadtrip, then shipped her home using United Pet Cargo. Now my parents are watching her and she is super happy, but we miss her so much!
Inna and I are traveling with two travel backpacks, two bags, and nothing else. Almost every Airbnb host we’ve met has commented that we are carrying surprisingly little for a year of travel. This is important for several reasons: it increases our mobility, reduces risk of delays, and most importantly we can avoid check-in and baggage handling fees.
So how are we doing this?
First off, our backpacks are specifically designed for travel. They are the maximum dimension allowed for airplane carry-ons and they are designed to carry a lot while distributing the load to not hurt our backs. And while airlines specify a maximum carry-on weight, some of which our backpacks exceed, we’ve never been checked on this issue, at least not yet (knock on wood)*.
Secondly, we are young, healthy, and have lots of energy. We are also not carrying everything we need; certain things (medicine, personal hygiene, first aid, etc) we buy as we go.
Third, we only packed 7-10 days worth of clothing, and we don’t mind wearing already worn clothing when we need to. As such, we are doing laundry about every 1-2 weeks. We are also traveling mostly in warm weather (northern hemisphere April through October, southern hemisphere/near the equator November through March), so when it comes to cold weather clothing, we packed even less.
All the clothing we packed is size and weight efficient. This is easy with warm weather clothing, but not so much for cold weather. For our cold weather clothing, Inna brought a thermal and a Marmot three-in-one travel jacket, which basically is a jacket with three layers, allowing her to wear the layers she needs and pack the rest. As for myself, I brought a lightweight windbreaker, a thermal, and an Under Armour shirt, none of which are heavy or take up much space. Between these items, plus gloves, beanies, and one small umbrella (all of which weigh almost nothing), Inna and I are set for the cold weather we’ll encounter on our trip.
We also packed frugally. The only non-necessities we brought are soccer cleats (but no shinguards) so I can play as we travel and GoPro accessories so Inna can record her dives. We also give or throw away whatever we aren’t using or no longer need (including almost everything from our roadtrip, which we gave to Inna’s cousin when we visited him in Pennsylvania). For cameras, we are using our smartphones; we don’t have DSLRs and lenses, or even point-and-shoots.
Because of our frugal packing, there are a couple things we would like to have but don’t, specifically boots and non-summer dresses for Inna, and a nice jacket for me. But we have what we need and we make do. It helps that we aren’t night owls, so we don’t need fancy dance/club attire, which can be bulky and heavy.
Getting Tired of Each Other
People have asked Inna whether we are going to get tired of each other at some point on our trip (for some reason, no one has asked me this…). We both can emphatically say no. We recently crossed the three month mark in our travels and in that time, we’ve only spent two days apart. It was these day that we missed being together, not any other day where we needed time apart.
How We Can Afford This
There are many aspects to this. First and foremost, it is important to know that travel doesn’t have to be expensive; through all the traveling Inna and I have done, we’ve gotten pretty good at traveling cheap.
First requirements for traveling cheap: no hotels and no car rentals. Airbnb makes our no hotel requirement easy: Airbnb is cheap, convenient, and super awesome. Most places provide free WiFi, full kitchens, laundry facilities, and some even provide snacks and breakfast. Airbnbs also provide privacy (we always reserve our own room), security (we only book with people who have good reviews), are often centrally located, and we get to meet and live like locals, which is our favorite part.
As great as Airbnb is, we aren’t Airbnbing our entire journey. In some cities, even Airbnb gets pricy (although it is always less than a hotel, and almost always less than rent in Los Angeles). In these situations, we either look at hostels or at Airbnbs outside of city-center but connected through public transportation (for example, in NYC we stayed in Brooklyn, and in Boston we stayed near Jamaica Lake). Also, for safety reasons, we are going to stay at hotels in India and Southeast Asia, but those countries are so inexpensive that hotels are almost as cheap as Airbnbs.
Not renting a car in the US was easy: we roadtripped, so we had our own. Not renting a car was also easy in most of Europe, where public transportation is so good that many locals don’t have cars, especially locals living in the city where we like to stay. Not having a car has been difficult in Ireland, which outside of Dublin doesn’t have the best public transportation, but it’s been good enough and we’ve made it work. As for the places we have yet to visit, there is no way we would rent a car in India or Asia, driving there is crazy! For Australia we are mainly focusing on cities, and Australia is too big to drive through anyway. Finally, New Zealand will be the one exception to our no car rule. Everyone has told us that New Zealand’s best sites are outside its cities; therefore, without a car we’d miss too much. Thankfully, car rentals are cheap there, and we are also going to buy a tent so we can camp and save money by not Airbnbing.
Visiting Inexpensive Places
It is amazing how inexpensive some parts of the world are. For example, when I visited Krakow, one of my favorite travel destinations, I had a comfortable bed, clean showers, and three meals (two of them hot) plus tea and cookies, all for $20 per day.
On this trip, we are spending a significant amount of time in places like this. We are mostly staying away from expensive countries (no Scandinavia, no England, no Belgium, no Japan or Korea, no to most tropical islands, and only minimal time in the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Australia), and we are also staying away from countries that require tours (most of Africa, the Middle East) and have high visa fees (Brazil, Russia, China). More than half our travels will be in some of the world’s most inexpensive countries (eastern Europe, India, southeast Asia). If you think doing this will limit what we will see and do, I promise you it won’t. We may not see everything but there is plenty we will see, and the other destinations will always be there.
Taking Advantage of Deals
It is very important to take advantage of deals when traveling cheap. And because we have so much flexibility on our trip, we can do this easily; we simply look for the cheapest, best deals, then travel at that time. We have found several resources that offer great travel deals:
- Flixbus, a German bus company that serves almost all of Europe. Flixbus almost always has one fare per day that is significantly cheaper than the rest. By booking these fares (and being willing to take buses instead of trains), we are able to save a considerable amount ($40 instead of $100 to go from Bayeux to Paris, and $60 instead of $600(!) to go from Bologna to Zurich). Also, Flixbus has free WiFi, which is great!
- Ryanair, Europe’s super low cost carrier, which, if you buy at the right time, can be ridiculously cheap. Using Ryanair, we flew from Paris to Bologna for $40, then from Bologna to Dublin for $100.
- WOWair, Europe’s international low cost carrier. Unfortunately, we didn’t book our flight to Europe with these guys, but we should have! They have flights from the US to Europe for as low as a couple hundred bucks.
- AirAsia X, Jetstar, and TigerAir are Asia’s low cost carriers. To give an example of these airlines’ rates, our AirAsia flight from Hong Kong to Sydney (a distance roughly equal to Seattle to London) was less than $400 for both of us.
- Outside these services, we use rome2rio to plan our travels. This website compares travel times and price by plane, train, bus, taxi, private vehicle, and more. After this, if we decide to fly, we use kayak to find the best airfare. We generally buy plane tickets two to three weeks in advance.
- In the US, we used the National Park Pass. Not only did this allow us access to every National Park and almost every National Monument for only $80, it also gave us significant discounts on federally owned campsites. These discounts were so much, I didn’t total them up, but I think the savings ended up being more than the pass itself.
- Finally, we own a travel credit card (Capital One Venture Card) that gives us a lot of points (we’ve had the card for three years and have already gotten ~$2000 in free travel from it, all at a cost of $60 per year). Not only that, our card has no international transaction fees, so we can use the card as much as possible without any added expense. And don’t worry, we pay everything off every month, so the card’s high interest rates don’t affect us.
Other Cost Saving Measures
Other ways we are saving money include:
- No cell phone calls. Remember that time before cell phones existed? That’s us now (kind of). If we need to make a call, we either use a LAN line or borrow our Airbnb host’s phone. Not being able to make cell phone calls has presented minor inconveniences, but nothing we can’t handle.
- To text, we use Whatsapp, which provides free texting with WiFi access.
- To call the US, we use free online services such as Skype or Google Hangout. Whatsapp also provides free calling services that we use sometimes.
- To receive voicemails, we use Google Voice, which transcribes our voicemails and then emails them to us. Audio of the voicemail is also included as an attachment.
- To get around within cities, we use Google Maps. When we have WiFi we plan routes and download maps to our smartphones, which we can then use when we don’t have WiFi. Also, GPS is free and works almost everywhere. Also also, we used Google Maps’s avoid tolls feature on our roadtrip, which saved us money when driving through the east coast.
- Free WiFi is almost everywhere, including Airbnbs, train stations, city to city buses, cafes, restaurants, and Starbucks. And like the US, in Europe Starbucks is everywhere.
- We don’t buy travel books; instead we download them to our kindle from the Los Angeles Public Library’s electronic catalog. Also, several Airbnbs have provided free travel books to use during our stay. And tourist information centers also provide a lot of great free information.
- Like travel books, we download almost all our pleasure reading from LAPL’s online catalog. And if we want to read an actual book (I do sometimes, while Inna is always happy with her Kindle), we simply buy a cheap one from a used book store, then give it away when we finish it.
- Before we left on this trip, we ripped all our DVDs to an external hard drive, which allows us to carry them around and watch them when we want. We chose a Lacie Mini for this because it is small, rugged, lightweight, inexpensive, and reliable. We also use this hard drive to back up our pictures and other documents.
- We cook a lot. We’ve cooked approximately half our meals, including all but two in Switzerland (Switzerland is very expensive), allowing us to save significantly on food/restaurant expenses.
- We walk and take public transportation. We only take taxis/Uber/Lyft when walking/bussing is not available, or when we are tired and need a break.
- We avoid tours when we can. For example, a public bus to Normandy was $5 while tours to the same destination were $30-$50. Additionally, guidebooks, Rick Steves in particular, often have self-guided tours, as do some tourist brochures, so we usually don’t miss much.
- We visit places on free admission days. The more travel time you have the easier it is to do this because your schedule is more flexible and you are more likely to be in a city on a free visitation day. So far, we’ve been able to visit MoMA and Newgrange on their free days.
- We choose less expensive options. Like the mini-Fenway tour instead of the main one, or eating at a pub instead of a restaurant, or eating take out instead of dining in.
- We don’t do everything. At least not everything that costs money. This is especially true of museums, where didn’t go inside any in Paris (we’d been to them before) or on the US west coast (east coast museums are better). Other items we skipped, or at least only viewed from the outside: Mt Rushmore, Monticello, the Bayeux Tapestry, an Escher exhibit in Milan, King John’s Castle in Limerick, and some others I can’t think of right now.
- We buy snacks and breakfast at the grocery store. This is much cheaper than buying food whenever we are hungry and from wherever we can find it.
- We buy in bulk when we can. This was especially true on our roadtrip, when we had a car and didn’t have to carry everything on our backs. For our roadtrip, we bought almost all our camping food from Costco, bought coffee in canned/bottled four packs, and bought firewood in bulk instead of individually at each campsite.
- And finally (and perhaps most importantly), we enjoy free activities. This includes attractions such as the Freedom Trail, Pikes Fish Market, Notre Dame, and Normandy Beach, but it also includes simply strolling around town, admiring architecture and public art, and listening to musicians in restaurants and on the streets (we always tip, so listening to musicians isn’t completely free, but the cost is nothing compared to the entertainment they provide).
Through my work as a filmmaker, I have gotten very good at budgeting. And while our travel plans are flexible to ensure we get the best deals, we are also on a strict budget, determined by a year-long sample itinerary we created before we left. Every expense is put into this budget, ensuring that we aren’t spending too much and that our money will last. Its all very similar to line producing; in fact, you could say I’m the line producer of this trip!
Finally, economics-wise, now is a great time to travel: the US dollar is strong, most likely as strong as it is going to get. Likewise, airfare is super cheap and gas is inexpensive, and a whole host of services (many of which are mentioned above) have come out that make travel easy and affordable.
Affording Cheap Travel
While we are traveling cheap, cheap isn’t free, and even a year of cheap travel adds up. So how are we paying for these inexpensive-but-they-add-up costs? As I mentioned earlier, we saved up.
Inna and I have been able to save money using various techniques. These include: avoiding debt, living off a single income, and prioritization.
Minus Inna and my mortgage we have no debts. The most common debt, student debt, I avoided by going to an inexpensive state school, while Inna also went to a relatively inexpensive state university. Helping matters was the fact that we graduated right as California’s tuition was increasing. Also helping matters was the fact that I was offered and accepted a job after my third year summer internship, which meant I was placed on educational leave of absence throughout my senior year, and upon returning to my company my senior year expenses (tuition and textbooks) were reimbursed.
Additionally, both Inna and myself worked part-time throughout college, and I also made a decent amount of money during my third year summer internship (engineering internships actually pay, not as much as full-time hires, but way more than college and summer jobs).
In addition to our undergraduate degrees, both Inna and I returned to school for additional education. Inna got her Masters at an inexpensive state university, half of which was paid for by her employer. I changed careers from engineering to film, but instead of going to film school (very expensive!) I went to a community college, one that had the same professors as the expensive schools and was free if you met three requirements: (1) be a California resident or graduate from a California high school (I fulfilled the latter and later regained my residency, fulfilling the former), (2) be 24+ years old (after four years of college and one year of employment, I was just about 24), (3) make under a certain income (I was because I quit my engineering job).
FYI: if you meet the above three requirements and also don’t have a bachelor’s degree, California will actually give you money to go to college. Or at least they would back in 2009.
To avoid car loans, we simply owned old cars. Old relatively low mileage Japanese cars are safe, reliable, inexpensive, and get great gas mileage, which is really all you need a non-business car to be (exceptions: big cars for certain hobbies, sports cars to pick up chicks). Inna’s car, the Mazda3 we took on our roadtrip, even had enough pep to make it fun to drive, despite it being old, inexpensive, and gas efficient.
We pay off our credit card in full every month. Always have. No credit card debt for us.
As I mentioned earlier, we bought our condo at the lowest point in the market, which means we save significant money by not paying Los Angeles’s crazy rents. We are currently renting our condo for way more than our mortgage, enough to actually make money off it, even with expenses factored in. Because of this, the one debt we have is actually making us money instead of taking money from us.
I should also mention that our parents have been instrumental in helping us avoid debt. Inna’s parents paid for her undergraduate education and her car, and my parents paid for the first three years of my education. They also allowed us to move back home after college (yes, Inna and I are part of the boomerang generation) as we continued our educations and looked for work. A giant THANK YOU to our parents!!!
Living off a single income
This is key. Inna and I have two incomes (more like one and a half, since mine is so variable) but we survive solely on hers, which means that all the money I make goes into savings. After a couple years doing this, it is easy to save up for a trip like this.
To live off a single income, it obviously helps to have a large income. Inna is an engineer, so her income isn’t small, but it isn’t as large as you probably think, especially since she worked at a small company and therefore made less than she otherwise would have.
So, how do we live off a single not huge engineering income? Simply put, we live frugally. We live in a condo instead of a house, we have old and mileage efficient cars, we cook most of our meals and eat out only once or twice per week. We shop at inexpensive stores (Target, Jons, and Trader Joes are our favorites), dine at inexpensive restaurants, buy items used, and avoid unnecessary luxury. We enjoy free or inexpensive entertainment, take advantage of free services (like parks and libraries), take public transportation, ride bikes, and have short commutes to work. We take advantage of sales and other deals (for example, did you know that if you buy Laemmle tickets in bulk, you can get them for as little as six bucks?). And so on.
As for my work, because film work is inconsistent, and especially because I spend so much time on my own projects, I always supplement my income with additional work. Most of these jobs don’t stick, and non-film work almost always makes me want to blow my brains out, but two have: cashering at the Hollywood Bowl and refereeing youth, high school, and recreation league soccer. Additionally, here’s a list of other jobs I’ve done:
- Math tutor
- Real estate open house sitter
- Resume and cover letter writer
- Copy and print center employee
- Studio tour guide assistant
- Post-production vault clerk
- Gym desk employee
I’ve also worked temp jobs, such as census taker and computer show set-up assistant, participated in focus groups and website testing, and created my own streams of income, including covering scripts, editing reels, and selling editable movie ticket themed event cards. Add all this to what I do make as a filmmaker, and Inna and I have managed to save quite a bit.
In a weird way, bouncing around and having an inconsistent income has actually allowed us to save more money. Because I have not yet made it as a filmmaker, because I am still fighting and aspiring and trying to get where I want to be, I have not yet earned nor do I want a life of luxury. I am in the trenches, and being in the trenches makes it easier to own old cars, avoid expensive restaurants, and do everything else it takes to live frugally. As for Inna, she knows what she signed up for, and deep down, she loves the life in the trenches, even if it isn’t for her personally. Plus, her income takes care of us enough to keep us sane, and give us a little bit of luxury when we need it.
Early on in our relationship, I told Inna that I would rather live frugally and travel than live a life of luxury. She agreed. We both love travel. We would much rather have old cars and visit the UK than have new cars and stay in the USA, we’d rather live in a condo and spend New Years in Costa Rica than live in a house and spend New Years at home.
This isn’t to say that we don’t love Los Angeles or the USA, because we do. We just love international travel as well: learning new cultures, experiencing new ways of living. But we also love our home country, which is why we started our year of travel with a USA roadtrip.
It also helps that Inna and I live in California. There is so much to do here, and even more when you include nearby Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and the Pacific Northwest. Because of this, we have plenty near home, and we can visit these places inexpensively. This is also the reason we hadn’t been to Yellowstone, Chicago, New York City, etc, before this trip, and it is also why we still haven’t visited the South, something we really want to do; that trip is next!
I know what you’re thinking, the above is nice, but what about some actual numbers? Unfortunately its still early in our trip for that, so I will report budget info in another post. Until then, we hope this post helps answer some questions!
* EDIT: Since posting this, we’ve discovered that some airlines in Australia check carry-on weight. And Australia only allows 7kg! So little. Because of this, we’ve had to pay for checked baggage here, but we only check one bag, not two, so we are still saving money, just not as much as we hoped.