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.
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.