[Originally published in Expert Beacon]
One of the biggest lies in traveling is that it requires a lot of money. Too often, people give up on the idea of making their adventures a reality because they are certain the idea is cost prohibitive—so why even dream? This idea is perpetuated by the inflated prices often shared by tour companies (a week-long tour in China costs $2,000!), which further perpetuates the belief until its bleakness is just accepted.
However, seasoned travelers will tell you that indeed, seeing the world can be incredibly cheap if you know what you want, do your research, and are willing to live modestly.
Do determine your commodity
There are two important commodities in travel: time and money. Few people have the luxury of having a lot of time and money, so most find themselves with scales tipping to one direction. Determine what is more valuable to you and base your decisions off this because actual cost is more than dollars.
For example, traveling from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Arusha, where most safaris take off can take 9-12 hours overland on a $20 bus journey that cannot be made overnight because travel by night is not permitted. A round-trip flight costs $350, and a one-way $200 by the local Precision Air airline.
The best shoestring travel is done when time is your friend and money your commodity. Take the bus. Enjoy the ride. Perhaps break it up and stop in Lushoto to bike in the mountains or Moshi to see Mount Kilimanjaro along the way. If you have limited time, the flight is the better value. Understand your commodity.
Do stay in hostels, couchsurf, camp
In addition to airfare, accommodations tend to be the lion’s share of the consideration for travel costs. Whether you want to go cheap to save money for other activities (skiing and diving are expensive hobbies!) or because your budget is truly limited, hotel alternatives are great ways to cut lodging costs.
All over the world, hostels and small pensions, or bed-and-breakfasts provide modest and clean places to stay, which can be booked via mega-engines like Hostelworld (www.hostelworld.com) or Hostelbookers (www.hostelbookers.com).
Also recommended: walk around town and pop into different places to just ask. Depending on your preferences and appetite, you can often book a room in a dorm for as little as $5 in some countries; in the same places, private rooms may go for as little as $20-30 for double occupancy.
Couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing.com) may help link you with a local willing to host you for free. And when climate-appropriate, a place to camp can be secured for free or just a few dollars a day.
Do budget on a day-to-day basis
If you have a Lonely Planet guide, there are often recommendations on how much on average to budget per country per day. On a shoestring, a daily budget (including accommodations, travel and food) should be range from about $15-$50, depending where you are. For example, in Bolivia, where accommodations in a hostel dorm can cost only $6, $9 is more than reasonable to encompass food, a few beers and local transport.
Do ask for advice, then do your own diligence. Really: do your diligence
Often hostels and hotels will have partnerships with local tour groups or travel agencies to take you on your hang gliding tour in Brazil or the sunrise hike at Tikal in Guatemala. Although sometimes they indeed may have the best guide or best price, it’s prudent to get as much information as you can and compare against your own intel. What this means is you should first have a general idea of what an activity or transport mode, for example, should cost.
Trip Advisor, travel boards, even Facebook and social media make this easy enough. Second, ask the hostel or hotel for their recommendations. Listen. Take notes. Then leave. Then, walk around town and check out competing travel agencies and even other hostels. Then make your decision based on cost and quality.
Remember: the best prices and the actual market price are not always advertised online.
When researching safari costs, you may find that a 5-day safari trip in Tanzania cannot be completed for less than $1,500, with most scaling north of $1,800 for a single person. However, on the ground, talking to fellow travelers and local agencies would reveal that in fact, operators work together to string together tours to make the most out of their investments in a truck and tour guide. Therefore, the actual market price of safari is $150 per day per person—half the cost of the lowest advertised price.
Do consider the value of all forms of transportation
While it may seem that taking a bus is always the cheapest solution, it is not always—nor is it always the most valuable. Consider that a taxi from San Ignacio in Belize to the Guatemala border only takes 20 minutes and $14 USD. If four people took a bus at $3 USD per person, you might save a hair, but the bus will not come for an hour, and you will need to get off and either walk an extra kilometer to the border or take a $2 taxi.
There is value in traveling in numbers, so do the math to ensure you’re getting the best bang for your buck and your time.
Do not be afraid to do nothing for a day
When time is your commodity, the incessant need to get the most out of every possible day, filling it to the seams with activities is less pressing. It is, in fact, okay to take it easy for a day in a picturesque hostel like the Lanquin, Guatemala, where the cost of a dorm is $6. Spending a day watching the river flow by in a hammock and chilling in the outdoor sauna is not time wasted. And it certainly is cheap.
Do not be afraid to DIY
For inexperienced travelers, researching bus companies, hostels, even trip itineraries may seem intimidating and daunting. Therefore, booking a trip through a tour operator or guide company may seem like the safer choice.
Although they are able to leverage volume for lower costs (e.g. their cost to enter a national park may be less than what you pay out-of-pocket for one person), don’t forget that tour operators and guide companies are businesses that have overhead and need to run profits. They are providing you a value-added service, which may potentially be worth something but is ultimately not cheaper (plus you lose the flexibility of being able to stay somewhere longer if you particularly fancy it).
It is extremely easy to do research with online tools and validate your research with third-party reviews and commentary. For example, look for the Hostelworld hostel with the best location and user rating, then read the actual reviews from other humans to make your decision. There is social accountability like never before, which also helps drive up the level of service.
Do not expect that you won’t get ripped off sometimes—no matter how savvy you are
It happens to everyone. Despite the best intentions, you get ripped off—either small time on a trinket that you pay five times the value for. Or big time, when you find that your private tour of the Sahara, which you’ve paid $500 for, is actually only worth $120.
The situation sucks, but the joy is in the journey. You can’t win them all the time, but you can control how you feel and handle it. Accept it. Learn. Move on.
Do not panic when you first get into a new city/country
This is the time that most errors are made. Arriving in a new country, you are struggling to understand the conversion rate while trying to figure out if you can take public transport into town or need to splurge on a taxi.
You are a bit frazzled, slightly unfamiliar, and this is when in confusion, a taxi driver might tell you your conversion of the currency is wrong by x10 (this gets particularly confusing in countries where the currency is in denominations of 10,000, for example), and you end up paying him $70 instead of $7. In the instant you realize something is wrong, the cab is gone, and you are left in the dust, literally, feeling extremely stupid.
Take your time. Figure out your conversions. Ask for help. Breathe. Then proceed.
Do not be a miser all the time
It sucks to count pennies. No one likes the guy who is always counting pennies. At the end of the day, traveling on a shoestring is more about value than it is about hard cost. Determine what is valuable to you, and pinch in the areas where you may not care as much (what bed you sleep in, for example). Put the dollars where it creates the most personal value. Like beer. Or diving with sharks.
Too often, money is the factor that drives people away from world travel. But, in fact, it’s easy to travel on a thimble budget of as little as $15-20 a day, if you pick the right spots. By having a modest approach and being willing to do the research and plan it yourself, a dollar can seem to stretch into $10. Having time as your commodity is frosting.
How bad is the job market actually?
Reading articles about leaving your corporate job to pursue your dreams – especially to the likes of TechCrunch, which likes to put out stories like “10 Reasons To Quit Your Job Right Now!” on a fairly regular basis – inspires you to believe that 1) you are unique; 2) you are impossibly talented; and 3) the only thing standing between you and true happiness is your 9-5. So, perhaps quit your job, buy a ticket, get a tan, fall in love, never return. Or quit your job, start a blog, start a business, write a book, sell your business, make millions… never return. (Note, for the latter, it helps to be funny. People who are not funny do not write good blogs. That’s probably why this blog won’t do so well.)
This is also incidentally the thinking that might have you quit your job only to find that you are not funny, not creative and not a leader [great Forbes article, by the way]. You are, in fact, not only unemployed but also unemployable.
On the flip side, the slave-driving corporate pundits, job-seekers and media might have you believe that the world is a terrible and gloomy place. Jobs are hard to come by. Good jobs are even harder. Good jobs in places that have a good culture. Forget it. Hold on and never let go. As James Altucher puts it, “A billion people in China need a job and they are gunning for your cubicle.”
So, what do I think about the job market; enterpreneurship; branching out and the like?
1) Successful people are just successful people: And let me continue this thought. They will continue being successful anywhere. When I was 21, fresh to Chicago with a public affairs internship, I bartended at a popular place in the West Loop to ensure I could eat at nice restaurants and you know, pay rent. I felt superior for having a corporate job and used it as an excuse for when I wasn’t such a good bartender [oh, this is just what I do on the side]. “Bullshit,” my manager said, looking at me squarely. “I don’t believe this crap about, oh I’m great at my day job but I’m just not as good here. When you’re really good, you’re good everywhere.”
Take life as a wandering nomad, for example: scanning through the blogosphere, there are plenty of AWESOME, HILARIOUS blogs that start with, “I was a consultant/banker/actuary working too many hours and decided to quit to pursue my dreams.” Inspiring? Absolutely. I’m 100% one of those schmucks who reads some good, witty writing and responds enthusiastically, “I’m jealous! You’re living the dream!” Let me tell you something else. Did you notice a lot of these guys start out their blogs saying, I was a consultant/banker/actuary? The guy who was a smart, funny, successful corporate cog turned into a smart, successful enterpreneur/wanderlust/funny writer/human.
2) There are jobs out there: I was recently in Belgrade talking to a guy who hosted me CouchSurfing, who, unlike me, had always managed to integrate travel with work, thereby creating slow travel. Although I’ve been to a good number of places, I’ve always engaged in the kind of high-paced travel you are forced into when time is your commodity: even when you have a month–you are constantly on a speed mission to see as much as possible because there is a clear endpoint. I asked him how he lived in all these places and still managed to have such a successful career, to which he bluntly replied, “Honestly, jobs aren’t that hard to come by.”
“But,” I protested, “Take me for example: I work in such a niche, and I feel like the work that I do is so removed from, say, being a program development manager in Lagos.”
“Two words for you,” he replied. “Transferrable skills.”
3) Corporate culture and leadership are defining [and whether the company actually walks the talk]: There are days that I wish I could say that I hated my job. [Ok, there are actually days that I do hate my job.] But most days – especially these days – I actually like my job. A lot. In part, this is because what I do is stimulating: I help corporations address environmental and social issues that impact their stakeholders and business. Sometimes this looks like saving the whales [ok, well, it’s never actually looked like that, but I’m making a broadsweeping generalization about pet-project philanthropy], and sometimes it looks like conducting community needs assessments and addressing, say supply chain economic development opportunities that really improve people’s lives and helps my clients get some positive attention.
But, I’ve also noticed changes of late that tell me the company is really striving to be best-in-class for its people. More holidays, enforcing vacation time and flexibility to name a few. It’s true that in the war for talent, particularly for Millennials who have higher social expectations from their employers, the best companies with the best culture and most interesting work get the best people. You can’t pay me to take a shitty job at a shitty company. This is my life we’re talking about, and it’s worth more than a paycheck. No matter how high. But internship at Kiva? IDEO?
This is a critical component to most CSR programs, and most companies will tell you that a top reason for investing in CSR is to engage employees and create a company their people are proud to work for. Particularly as more Millennials shun corporations to start their own ventures [it’s no secret the days of corporate loyalty are over], keeping the human capital edge involves having a strong culture. This looks like work flexibility and mobility; happy hours; brilliant leadership; global/travel opportunities; advancement; open mentorship; really allowing for intrapreneurship and not just saying it; no caps on PTO; the list goes on. No one is paying me to say this.
I wish I hated my job more because it would make it easier to pursue my life dreams. But I don’t.
4) . You owe it to yourself to follow your dreams. Someone will hire you again: If you are good, someone will hire you again. You owe it to yourself to at least make a go at being the happiest you could be.
A friend’s [who later went to co-found a start-up] former boss at a private equity firm once said to me that the problem he saw with most young people today was that they didn’t take enough risk. “Your 20s are the time to risk it all,” he said. You have time to rebuild later in life. [Read: you are missing opportunities for huge rewards. Little ventured, little gained.]
I often say [to myself because no one else listens…] that I’m more fearful of what I’ll regret not doing when I’m 80 – like not going for something that I knew I really wanted – than risking everything I’ve built today. I mean, I’m 27 living in a one-bedroom in River North. How much can you cram into an apartment? Are you?
5) Media lie about how bleak it is ‘out there’: It wouldn’t make for a very good news article if everyone was happily employed, would it? I’m not saying there are not anecdotally difficult situations out there, nor am I saying that there isn’t an age bias [e.g. easy to get a job as a single, mobile 27-year old with 5 years experience, right?]. What I am saying is that what I see in the real world, where I am gainfully employed, is different than what I read in the papers.
Every time I open a website, every day is a sad day. Like this recent New York Times article: With Positions to Fill, Employers Wait for Perfection. My goodness, look at this poor man who has been going to job interviews, strung along for months. What do I know about the job seekers market? It might be that bleak for everyone! This is what the world’s like. I’ll never get hired again. ARMAGEDDON. This is like the time in 2005 when my parents called me frantically asking if I was all right because there were riots in Paris, and they saw the burning cars all over the city in the news. Was I ok?! My reply: Riot? Oh, I think they burned a car in the suburbs somewhere. Sorry, Mom, can’t hear you. I’m at a bar! A bar!
Here’s what my empirical data tells me. My company is hiring left and right. My team is hiring. In fact, since I joined it in 2010, our size has grown 400%; we’re hiring a VP as I write. Most of my friends who have left jobs in the past year have left for other opportunities. My clients are hiring.
No, it’s not rainbows and daisies out there. Yes, it’s easier to get a job when you’re employed. Yes, it’s easier to be young and mobile. BUT, reporters need to find voices that fill the narrative they are trying to tell. Just as my views aren’t indicative of the whole, the compelling one-story is that it’s a twister out there. Reporters will find the voices (even if it is only representative of 10% of the population) to color the story.
Net, net, what do I know? I have no market research. I am not a recruiter. I have never been unemployed. I actually enjoy my job. I have a life of personal dreams that I’d love to pursue. I wrote this to draw a line between reality and bullshit, and I’m still figuring it out. Check back with me in a few years, and if I’m unemployable, I guess you’ll know.
With the wide (and growing) array of search engines and online platforms to book your next trip, it can be increasingly challenging to navigate what’s most important: getting the best deal. There is, in fact, little worse than the stomach-dropping feeling of booking a ticket today to see the fare drop $100 tomorrow….
[Read my article on finding the best deals: How to find the best travel deals using online sites.]