1 Travel the World By Not Paying Rent | The Billfold

Travel the World By Not Paying Rent

I’ve been fortunate enough to spend the majority of my twenties traveling across five continents and temporarily living in some of the most exciting cities on earth: London, Los Angeles, and New York City—with long stints in Paraguay and Belize. I’ve been able to afford this, not because of a trust fund, but because I rarely have to pay rent. Before you get super excited about reading this article and fantasize about all the places you’ll jet off to, let me explain that I have made almost the equivalent of no money. I’ve learned to be savvy. The trade-off for my wanderer’s lifestyle has been that I’ve never owned a car, maintained a rental lease after college, bought furniture (maybe a table, once) or seriously thought about having children. My bills consist of student loans, a smartphone, health insurance, and a subscription to a streaming yoga website. I don’t own much besides my laptop, camera, and clothes that would not be considered business casual. Still, for anyone with insatiable wanderlust, check out the following ways I’ve traveled on the cheap:

Back when I was in community college (I’m serious about having no money), I got a financial need-based scholarship to study James Joyce in Ireland where I encountered a lot of retirees who had a difficult time walking uphill and seemed slightly afraid of the Irish. I vowed to travel while I was young and work while I was old. A reverse retirement, if you will. If you’re in college or graduate school ask the financial aid office about scholarships for study abroad programs.


Coat check attendant. Babysitter. Waitress. Author’s assistant. These are all unglamorous jobs I’ve logged thousands of hours doing. In Los Angeles, I made a few grand working as a temporary nanny (while the stay-at-home mom recovered from surgery) and used the money to check out art museums in Buenos Aires and the beach scene in Uruguay. Craigslist and asking friends for connections seem to be the best way to find short term, cash paying gigs between trips.


Peace Corps
Aside from the free round trip airline ticket, the two-year commitment to helping communities in developing nations, and the character development of living on eight dollars a day, the Peace Corps offers volunteers $6,000 cash at the end of service. Of course, this money could be used for a security deposit or a car back in America. I used it to bike in China, swim in Thailand, and get cheap spa treatments in Indonesia. Applying for the Peace Corps can be competitive and take anywhere from three months to a year.


I’m a freelance travel writer. I’ve been paid everything for my work from exposure to a few thousand dollars. Better, I was the writer-in-residence for Belize as part of a social marketing campaign with the Belize Tourism Board. That means I was paid (not a whole lot, $30 a day) to travel around Belize for three months, while scuba diving and blogging. I’ve also gone to Micronesia, San Francisco, Miami, and Mexico on press trips. MediaBistro offers online writing courses, including several focused on travel writing. Or, WordPress has free blogging software.


I don’t like to refer to myself as a babysitter, because that’s a job for teenagers. Bethenny Frankel calls her fill-in nanny a glammy, or glamorous nanny. So I’m comfortable referring to myself as that, too. I’ve gone to France, Newport, and Virginia with a lovely family whose full-time nanny isn’t always willing or able to travel. Being a glammy also means I’ve been stuck with a screaming baby in the back of coach for several hours and cleaned up his vomit at a gas station. Still, I never could have afforded a trip to the South of France during high season otherwise. Nanny agencies in urban centers are usually looking for babysitters (glammys) as support for clients who already have full-time nannies.


Frequent Flyer Miles
I was way too late to the frequent flyer miles game. It’s heartbreaking to think about all those flights I took across the ocean without accumulating anything. I’ve since educated myself and got a Delta credit card. Last week, I flew to Denver for five dollars and 25,000 miles. Sign up for the free miles program with every major airline carrier. Remember that the individual whose butt is in the seat always gets the miles, regardless of who paid for the flight.


Even more precious than frequent flyer miles are airline vouchers. Travel enough and the airline will eventually screw up. You’ll get bumped off an oversold flight or it will get cancelled and the airline will give you a voucher (usually worth $250) towards a future flight as an apology. Apologies are how I’m going to Costa Rica over Thanksgiving and to Wisconsin for Christmas for next to nothing. If a flight attendant asks for volunteers to be bumped onto the next flight in exchange for a voucher, for God’s sake, volunteer.


How was I able to live in Los Angeles for five months? My best friend had a guest bedroom. When my boyfriend swapped his apartment in Brooklyn for one in the Bay Area, I went with him. I just got back from a road trip through New Mexico because a friend works for the Marriott and got us incredibly cheap hotel rooms. I’m happy to return the favor (that is, once I settle down). For now, I’m looking into spending the summer volunteering for the National Park Service, housing and stipend included.


Megan L. Wood wrote this shortly after returning from the airport, and filed it before she left again. Photo: MikeBaird


28 Comments / Post A Comment

Megano! (#124)

So, do you just not own anything at all or do you have parents or relatives who can keep your stuff?

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@Megano! I am guessing she has no stuff or has it in storage. If she has only ever bought a table, she probably doesn’t have much else.

@josefinastrummer Yeah. I’ve been living on my own for years now and still don’t have a lot of stuff (and all my furniture is crappy and worth next to nothing). If we were to go travelling, I’d put a couple of important things in storage or with family and quite honestly, all the rest could be sold or donated/Freecycled. Our fridge and washing machine are pieces of crap worth about $50 each, for example.

iffie (#1,911)

Soooo…don’t pay rent by depending on people who are stupid enough to pay rent? Seems legit!

Blondsak (#2,299)

@iffie She asked if she could stay, they said yes. I’m not sure what the problem is with that?

Panamanda (#2,713)

@iffie Don’t forget to also hit them up for any connections they may have to short-term cash paying gigs!

iffie (#1,911)

@LO There’s nothing inherently wrong with it however it seems like this is a common thread in conversations about not owning a car/tv/not paying rent/etc. The person making these decisions still needs/wants those things (where can i watch the game/i need a ride/ place to crash) they just rely on other people to foot the bill.

Blondsak (#2,299)

@iffie I see your point, but I’m still not sure what’s wrong with relying on other people to “foot the bill” if those people agree to it. Also, there are many ways to pay back someone you are staying with that don’t involve straight cash – cleaning, doing laundry, running errands, making meals, etc.

It sounds more like you are worried about the owner of the [home/car/etc.] being taken advantage of. But even if they do feel that way, the onus is on them to change the terms, not the person who asked the favor.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@LO Well, but there’s also the issue that this lifestyle is dependent on a whole lot of other people living the opposite lifestyle. So we can’t ALL “not pay rent” because somebody has to be paying rent in order for a few people not to pay rent. If we all said “screw it I’m not paying rent and going to live off my friends/stipends, etc.” we wouldn’t be able to. Not sure if that matters that much to the analysis, but still.

Blondsak (#2,299)

@WaityKatie You’re right, but that doesn’t change the fact that you could attempt to live that way if you wanted to. And if you don’t want to live that way and don’t approve of it, then turn down your friends/family who ask. In any case, you can’t blame the people who ask for those favors, just because there are people who say yes to them.

wearitcounts (#772)

@LO i have a friend who lives like this. when he’s around home base, sometimes he crashes with me or i cook him a meal or two over the course of a week. but he’s also like a brother to me, and anytime he’s off exploring fun, interesting places, i always have a guaranteed vacation spot to crash, full-time transportation, and the most fun tour guide ever, also for free. so, provided you have the time and opportunity to cash in on the favors, it can be a pretty sweet trade-off.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@LO No, I totally don’t blame anyone for doing it, but there’s just this air of “people who pay rent are CHUMPS,” when you’re also depending on those people for you to not be a chump.

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@WaityKatie You and I have argued about this one before over on the Hairpin, Katie, and I’ve since thought more about your point of view. I agree that people who say “paying rent is for CHUMPS” (love that word!) are the actual chumps, but I still believe that a lot of people living this lifestyle don’t have this attitude and are just trying to figure things out. I think this because that was me two years ago, really trying to figure things out and so grateful for the people who had a place for me to stay. And I do think if you help a good one of these “drifters” out, it will come back to you if you decide to adopt this lifestyle or even just want to visit. Once you pay off those law school loans! ;)

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@josefinastrummer Well, there’s always the chance I will go RENEGADE and default on my loans, in which case I would need places to stay/hide from the law. Sigh, I wish that had a chance of actually happening in reality.

Blondsak (#2,299)

Megan, this piece is lovely and informative. To take it to more broad terms than traveling, it discusses both 1) having the courage to take advantage of all available opportunities, but also 2) the importance of throwing yourself out there by networking.

I have a lot of friends who say things like, “Man, if only I knew someone involved in [insert dream occupation or dream job placement]!” and what they never seem to realize is that they probably have a mere 2- or 3-degree separation from those occupations or placements – and if only they would ask, then maybe they would receive at least a chance of employment doing what they love, or doing something at a place they feel they can thrive at. Obviously, you used this not for employment, but for traveling opportunities, but I still think your points speak to a wide audience. Thank you for sharing.

swirrlygrrl (#2,398)

@LO And of going outside your comfort zone. I have a house, cats, and a job that pays me more money than I ever thought I could make. So, my interest in working overseas for 2 years has shrunk to the 6 week international assignments once a year that I get in this position, with 2-4 additional weeks on trips I pay for myself. I’m happy enough right now, but also worried about what I am missing out on because I am comfortable, and the pay cut required to work overseas is hard to contemplate.

megsy (#1,565)

I’m planning to do this… kind of. Due to some issues, I’m being removed from my job and will be granted a salary of $40,000 for two years. If I work then I lose the money (it’s only a ‘top up’). My plan, as it stands, is to travel the world since $40k will go a lot further elsewhere than here. I’ll leave my car at my parents and they will use it (unless I end up selling it) and just about everything else in my apartment will end up on kijiji or stored in a friend’s basement.

littleoaks (#1,801)

@megsy Wait, you’re being paid specifically not to work? Sorry if said issues are sensitive, but I am really curious how a deal like that comes about. Some of sort non-competition agreement? Whatever it is, it sounds like a movie plot that I would previously have dismissed as unrealistic.

Runawaytwin (#2,693)

What is the plan for “retirement”/old age? The part that scares me is not having anything for the future..and I dont mean things like a car or furniture.

sintaxis (#2,363)

@Runawaytwin Yeah, I think the “reverse retirement” plan is generally poorly thought out. Like maybe they are thinking “work when I’m old” is 40s to 50s, but they never seem to be thinking about their 70s and 80s.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@sintaxis Also, are there a bunch of industries willing to hire 50 year old entry level people, because I’m not seeing a lot of those around. Maybe “old” is “30″?

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@Runawaytwin I think a lot of people, traveling or working or whatever, aren’t planning for retirement because we need to live our lives now. I have an office job that pays so poorly, I can’t plan for retirement because I need to eat and pay my bills now. Just because you appear “stable” doesn’t mean you have the luxury of planning for retirement. Honestly, I don’t think I will ever be able to retire, or at least I don’t plan to. Luckily, I have met plenty of 70 year olds doing the job I would like to mainly do, so I should be okay.
Also, there is no guarantee all the savings you have retirement will actually be there when you retire. Look at how much people have lost on their 401ks already. That is scary. So I say live it up now while the money is still yours.

@josefinastrummer I’d agree with that. Choosing to live this kind of lifestyle when you’re younger does mean acknowledging you’re going to be behind on things like house buying and retirement.

ennaenirehtac (#199)

“If a flight attendant asks for volunteers to be bumped onto the next flight in exchange for a voucher, for God’s sake, volunteer.”

UNLESS that flight is JFK-LAX three days before Christmas. Then you are a damn fool and will end up spending 48 hours in the airport on standby.

A Damn Fool.

I just read ‘Delaying the Real World’ by Colleen Kinder and another method she mentions is getting research grants to go overseas and work on your own projects.

Also, a lot of RTW travelers cut out expenses by housesitting wherever possible (and in fact I know someone local who does this on a permanent basis to save on rent: http://nzmuse.com/2012/10/22/house-sitting-as-a-lifestyle-choice/).

keaton (#2,721)

Hmmm, what I can’t help thinking is that there’s an opportunity cost to this kind of lifestyle. At 30ish, it sounds like the author doesn’t have very much professional work experience or the ability to pursue a career of any kind. I imagine that it might even be difficult to find a regular job, given the economy and the (presumably) significant gaps on the author’s CV. On the one hand, this sounds pretty fun – I’ve lived in several countries, so I do understand the impulse. On the other, one can’t keep doing this forever and what then? Gotta think about tomorrow sometime …

ujas2134 (#4,045)

I lived in New York for a lot of years and decided to move in a smaller town in Texas, I get bored and decided to travel in US with my car. It is not impossible to travel without spending much money, the ideas you gave us are very interesting and I think I am going to try this.

legal forms (#4,970)

As nice as it is to be a nomad and live rent free… eventually you end up accommodating things. And things normally need a place to sit. This is what happened to us, so we now have a home base and just travel a lot. When you find a new place to rent be sure to sign a solid rental agreement form that covers all the bases. If you are renting out your place while you travel you can pick up a great form by clicking here.

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