It is a socially constructed rumor that one needs money to travel - or even survive.
Prepare to have your minds blown: not only are there ways to see the world with no cash, there are ways in which a moneyless society, or one that simply relies less on currency, benefits our species as a whole.
Money is an illusion of security through which value is assigned to monetary tokens such as cash, numbers in a bank account, etc. While it is helpful distinguishing predetermined pricing or the value of a good or service, humans have lived, functioned, and thrived long before the concept of currency existed.
Before I began adventuring professionally, I traveled through twenty-two countries alone. As an orphan on a nonexistent budget, not having a safety net if things go tits up adds a layer of difficulty to the endeavor.
This was also the time when I was working towards a PhD and was a full-time competitive athlete; I took time out of my career building and training schedules to do these things. I drained my bank accounts to zero time and again in order to simply rebuild stability upon returning.
It has taken me years to write about exploring with little to no money because there is no poetically earth-shattering answer. The truth is simple, though not what most want to hear:
Become comfortable with discomfort.
Influencers will give you "tips" on saving cash while hailing from some form of privilege, so they do not realize that when they tell some of us to Stop spending $5 per day on a cup of coffee at Starbucks, they are openly assuming we can afford coffee to begin with.
However, it is true that you will manifest where you place your priorities. Stop spending your hard earned money on shit you do not need, things that aren't serving your higher purpose and true happiness You do not need what they (we) are selling you. Think of the minutes, hours, days that you spend working for what little that pops into your bank account - and when taking into consideration the continuous rise in expense versus income, your W-2 usually doesn't match the price-tag you thought would be on your soul.
So cast the die for the cosmos to pick up:
Reflect on what you want to accomplish and how you can manage it with the bare minimum. Sell/ donate possessions you do not need. Research destinations for your goals and budget. Dodge peak seasons to avoid spiking prices. Find a way to book your major transportation tickets. Ask for help when you need it. The rest will work itself work.
Fortune favors the bold.
If you truly want to travel, you will one day - regardless of where the universe places you comfort-wise. This is where you were meant to be. If you're uncomfortable, good- you shall learn, grow, and carry stories for the rest of your life, one that will be changed because you will be changed.
If you choose not to go because you cannot afford a 5-star hotel or that Insta-famous activity, or even for less self-indulgent motivations (i.e. your family needs the money more than you do, paying off student loans, etc.), also good. At least you can take comfort in knowing where your priorities lie.
I grew up moving around the country with family, but it wasn't until half-way through my undergraduate years that I began traveling internationally. It began with studying abroad twice. True, this method of travel takes a bit more premeditated planning: I was already in college on a full-ride scholarship and made the grades, so my program fees and boarding costs were covered during the stay.
But the travel before, on the weekends of, and after the program were mine to cover. I posted a GoFundMe page to cover the costs of my flights, and peers, friends, and strangers rallied to pitch in. Throughout the months before I went, I meticulously researched and saved, then booked a good deal of my accommodations and tours ahead of time with off-season prices, student discounts, or by contacting the companies directly, explaining my situation, and asking for a discount if one was not offered up front. Being spontaneous certainly has its place in adventure, but booking what you can ahead of time with agreed upon prices can drastically trim your expenses.
After I graduated, it was more intensive backpacking. I made my way through Central America on a slim budget: $700 for the flight and $400 to live off of for the summer. This was not as difficult as one might think: do as the locals do. Chicken buses only cost a couple of dollars to hop countries compared to the large modern steamers with AC, street food is less than a buck here or there, and low-end dorm hostels cost practically nothing. I carried one backpack, mostly filled with food, and a satchel.
I went on to circumnavigate the globe by hopscotching my way across Africa and Asia on what was left from my grants and graduate school savings after I dropped out.
At this point, my adventures started to change. I brought a suitcase with me, took seminars, explored along other people more often - then eventually got paid to travel. But this article isn't about what happened next (Spoiler Alert: it's this blog.) but the general mindset and tips that helped me achieve travel with next to nothing.
Well, I shouldn't say nothing. Rather, no money.
Cultures that believe you need money to experience adventure rarely see how, nowadays, one almost has to dig for authentic experiences, fighting against the veil of appeasement money tries to draw over our eyes.
In addition, lots of people assume that if you do not pay for it, then it could not be a legitimate experience nor appropriate means of transportation. They believe that, somehow, traveling with no money means that you are also traveling without safety. This is simply not true. Safety cannot always be bought. Safety is a mindset.
But I get it - cash is cushy. Money allows you to maintain your specific level of comfort wherever you go. Despite being across the world, it allows you to follow your same habits, eat the same foods you already like, hang out with the same people. But how can one expect to expand and nurture new ideas if this token of entitlement continues to rob us of one of the greatest joys of being human: experiencing growth ?
Most individuals in the world, at some point, experience identity crisis, the nagging feeling of not knowing who you are. The struggle arises because rather than being given the opportunity to decide, they are told by society who they are, what they like, and what they need. If adventure, travel, and experiences are what you seek to help solve this, then it is time and an open mind and heart that you will need - not money.
So how do we begin to train an open heart and an open mind? I've listed some of the basics for upping your travel skills and potential for self growth:
Have Gratitude- and express it. People feel it, the Universe feels it, and it will help propel you along.
Cognitive Reframing is a game changer on the road and at home. Turn "I can't believe this is happening." into "How can I learn from this?"
Memories over memorabilia. Take photos instead of purchasing trinkets. If you insist on souvenirs, find a way to barter for them!
Minimalist Lifestyle. Start by assessing your needs (food, water, shelter) versus your much longer list of wants. Watch Tidying with Marie Kondo and stop making excuses for the attachments to possessions.
Embrace Interdependence. Solo doesn't always mean alone. There's a difference between independence and ego. You're traveling the world with no money; that's pretty damn independent! Accepting help is okay.
Let Go. Be Adaptable. Release the idea that you have to control and plan every aspect of your days. This was one of my biggest challenges - I was a control freak. I love planning and researching and making lists - organization comforts me. Alas! When you are putting your faith in this type of adventure style, you cannot expect things to work out perfectly. And that's the beauty of life anyways, right? The not knowing of it all.
Stay Present. Stressing about everything at once will overwhelm you. Do not focus on what you cannot do or do not have. You have many resources if you would but look. Focus on one problem at a time to find a creative yet direct solution.
Understand that Joy and Happiness are Different. Raising a child is a joy, but that does not mean every single day with that child will be a happy one. Joy also consists of the blood, sweat, and tears associated with overcoming and enduring. Tourists are happy; adventurers experience joy.
Become Comfortable with Discomfort. Get over yourself. The majority of people around the globe survive with no help from mummy nor daddy 24/7/365 their entire lives. On top of that, if you're reading this, you have the privilege of the vast knowledge bank that is the internet. I figured it out with street smarts, savoir faire, and libraries. You can do this. You are simply distracted and comfortable.
Financial Confidence over Financial Freedom. Most modern people are working to save enough money until they can stop worrying about their troubles in life. Many call this imaginary goal "Financial Freedom," but the truth is, that moment will never happen. Even the most wealthy, while not having to sweat about paying menial bills, are consistently worried about their finances. Instead aim your focus on being "Financial Confident," understanding the construct of money, goods, and services so well that you are confident in your ability to make money when and where you need to make it.
As I mentioned in the beginning, money is a social construct, a representation of something, and believe it or not, you have a say as to what that something can represent! Yes, it is true that some aspects of travel, such as plane tickets and visa fees, usually run non-negotiable, but for most things, fortitude and resourceful thinking can get you around the need for cash money. Hear me when I say: you can find a way to do this.
Step One: Find Your Values
This is less one of those 'know your worth' moments and more of a 'what can you bring to the table' moment. If you're a genius behind the camera or have mad graphic design skills, awesome! Start reaching out to establishments and offer a work exchange for room and board.
If you don't feel you have a trained skill to offer, get creative! I cleaned houses growing up to help make ends meet and again in high school to make a few extra bucks now and then; I had no problem offering cleaning and laundry services in exchange for a bed and my daily meals. This has gotten me housed and fed in Hawaii, Ireland, Nicaragua, and Slovenia. I've met mural artists, carpenters, cooks, instructors for languages and sports, missionaries, sugar babies, business consultants, pet sitters, marketing pros - you name it!
Bartering is not dead. I once jokingly told a lady I would donate every book in my bag to her hostel library in exchange for two night's stay, and she flat out said yes. Another time, I helped milk cows and goats on a ranch, which I learned to do as a kid in Tennessee.
Play the numbers. Chances are that you're going to get told no a lot, but once you understand that this is the worst thing that can happen and none of it is personal, you start to fly through emails until you hit someone who wants to take a chance on you. Remember to take time to research who you are reaching out to first. Look to find gaps in their business model and see where you might be useful.
Gone are my earliest study abroad days in which I played the street urchin who hopped trains and pocketed bread to make sure I didn't starve. That being said- let's talk about the times when it was exactly like that.
In order to get the ball rolling here, I want to quickly address privilege: if any of this seems somehow drastic to you, you have likely experienced privilege in some form (i.e. parents via financial or emotional support, racial, stable upbringing, friends, etc.), and while I respect that that is a wonderful fact about your reality, I ask you to respect that most people will never have the chance to travel for leisure nor education nor work.
I did all the right stuff, what all the vanilla articles and academics advised, followed the tips and tricks. I worked, made the grades and got scholarships, had overachiever accomplishments (national rankings in both lab research and a competitive sport), volunteered, budgeted, tried to keep my karma clean. It still was not enough. So I turned to methods of making ends meet that I learned growing up on the streets.
I am not condoning actions. Rather, I'm simply getting around to informing my inquisitive readers of ways I traveled 25 countries before the age of 25 while putting myself through university.
Sell your stuff. Foreign thrift stores are incredible for finding cheap, authentic souvenirs, for helping the planet, and for selling items to make a couple bucks. I went to a couple second-hand stores in Paris and sold everything I wasn't wearing home and got enough cash to feed myself for the rest of the journey.
Migrant Work. From agriculture to tourism, every country has some form of seasonal work. Find your value. Learn the culture.
Stowaway or Hitch-hike. These two seemingly outdated means of transportation are very much alive. I've only been a stowaway twice in Europe when train prices were inflated ~ 200% due to the holiday season. As for hitch-hiking, there is obviously potential for danger, but women generally support other women and are the first to offer to pick me up. I have men stop, most seem genuine, but I'll wait for an older woman, which has never failed me.
Sleep at the Station. Trains, planes, buses. I'm not going to try and glam this up. We've all seen homeless people and Tom Hanks get away with it.
Farmer's Markets. Free samples are almost always present, and this is a great way to learn more about the local culture. Strike up a conversation with a seller, be genuine, and don't be afraid to speak your truth if they ask. "I'd love to purchase some of your products, but I'm trying to travel with next to nothing. I'm here for the free samples and culture." I cannot tell you how many people have gotten excited about me pursuing my passion and have offered produce, pastries, or snacks for the day. If you're not a big conversationalist, wait until closing time and simply ask sellers for anything that might perish while being transferred back and forth. They would have to dispose of it anyway, so you are also doing them a favor.
Head to a Church / Religious Center. Many congregations will offer free meals, snack bags, lodging, or simply a place to rest for a moment. Often, you receive more if you attend the establishment, but people who are not religious are usually welcomed too.
Dumpster Diving. Location, location, location. Everyone wants to turn their noses up at dumpster diving until you're outside one of the most luxurious pastry shops on the planet and realize they throw out perfectly good products for things such as damage to packaging, expiring by label the day before, or being 'off the menu' on certain weeks, etc.
Fasting. If you are trying to cut down on food costs, assessing your daily food intake and incorporating fasting in a healthy manner is one of the best things you can do for your bank account and body! Many diets and religions have traditions that involve fasting, and as both science has proven and ancient spiritual leaders knew, this practice can cure a number of ailments and rejuvenate overall lifestyle when used responsibly day-to-day. Do the research and find a regimen that works for you.
Pocket your meals from hotel / hostel breakfast buffet. I still laugh at the irony of making it through France in the same manner for which Jean Valjean went to prison. Nonetheless, every morning I woke up early and was the first to breakfast in order to slip a few croissants, some ham, a couple slices of cheese, and fruit into a ziplock bag in my backpack. This covered my food every day, and I did not feel guilty as I watched the establishment throw out a shocking amount of food at the end of the day.
Stealing is not cool. The Universe sees that shit - especially if it is not a corner you were backed into. Trouble with the law can be scary. While I was never caught when I was younger, I was once accused of taking something when I didn't, and I'll be damned if I didn't feel karma breathing down the back of my neck.
Do not take from Mom and Pop Shops. There are few moments as disheartening in life than zoning out in the middle of a grocery store aisle while trying to choose between replacing your toothbrush or eating that day, I understand, but local stores are the ones who would likely help you if they knew your situation. I have only ever pocketed necessities from corporate chains."What would Robin Hood do?"
Again, I am not condoning poor behavior, only informing through my own first-hand experiences how, despite the near-impossible obstacle stacked in front of members of the lower income classes, I made things work for myself on the road.
Traveling with less money is more fun.
In addition to growth and authenticity, traveling with less is simply more fun. I will level with you - getting paid to travel is great. I am continuously grateful for new opportunities that arise to work with such incredible people on inspiring projects, and not only are my expenses covered, I am given a paycheck.
However, I think any true artist or adventurer will tell you the energy is different when throwing caution to the wind and setting your sails.
To continue the discussion, I have attached articles diving deeper into traveling with little to no budget. Enjoy!
Discussion: Why Traveling with No Money is Important
Discussion: Moneyless Societies