How I quit my life to travel the world

I used to be one of those people who could never save money, which I do suppose is because I never had anything worth saving for. But when my boyfriend James and I decided that we wanted to quit our jobs and take six months off to travel the world, I knew saving would have to be something I got really good at, really fast.

We were living in Sydney, Australia at the time; I was working in marketing at a financial services company and he was a travel agent at beautiful Bondi Beach. We plotted and planned for two years before making the move, choosing to cut out some pretty major expenses while all the while attempting to live life with a semblance of normalcy. My personal goal was aggressive — to save $28,000 for the actual trip itself, which after flights, would give us around $4,000 per month each and would keep us going for over half a year.

The plan was to visit 17 countries, and we were lucky that most of them were relatively inexpensive compared to our home countries of England and the USA, and our adopted home of Australia. Our adventure had us leaving Sydney in March of 2015 and traveling to Sri Lanka, Maldives, Dubai, Morocco, Spain, England, Italy, the U.S., Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador and Colombia before coming back to the States and doing a cross country road trip from Connecticut to California, finishing sometime in September.

Budgeting can always be tricky, especially when planning for six months in the unknown. I am admittedly not the best financial planner, but shockingly, with a little magic and some serious research, we finished up about where we thought we would. Here is what our rough initial plan looked like:

Flights $3,000

Accommodation $12,000

Tours $5,000

Spending Money $7,000

Visas and Passport Fees $1,000

Total $28,000 (per person)

The first thing you’ll probably say is, “there is no way those flights were so cheap.” James was a travel agent at the time so he knew some tricks of the trade in terms of getting a good deal. He spent hours and days working out the best routes of travel, some of which meant changing our plans and being flexible with our time. We flew from Sydney to New York on the same ticket with ten stops in between, which cost us just under $2,000. We used frequent flyer points to get us from Sydney to Melbourne, but the rest was all in cash. Surprisingly, we didn’t use budget carriers at all, sitting pretty in Emirates and British Airways economy class for all but one flight on that first leg of travel. The best part is that James didn’t do anything special to find the deals — he just spent a crazy amount of time working out cheap routes using Expedia and various carriers’ websites like a Rubix cube. This is where it pays to have time, energy and an obsession with getting the best possible price.

A budget is all well and good, but only if you have the money to follow it. We knew we still wanted to live comfortably, taking holidays, eating out and spending time with our friends in the two years up to the big trip. And in the years of planning, we still managed overseas vacations to Vietnam, Samoa and each of our home countries, as well as a half dozen long weekends in various parts of Australia. So with all that was going on, how did we save the money?

The first big change was James moving into my apartment — which meant two people in a small one bedroom, which could get cozy at times! That one change netted us both an extra $680 in savings per month, plus the added savings of splitting household bills like electricity and Internet. In all honesty, we probably would have moved back in with our parents if they weren’t on the other side of the world. Rent was our biggest expense, and halving it netted us major savings, even if it meant forgoing a little bit of comfort.

Then it came down to the little things. I started walking to work as opposed to taking the train, which was brilliant in terms of exercise and put an extra $120 in my pocket every month. We dropped our $100 a month gym membership for a $20 one, which meant giving up some amenities that we rarely used in the first place. We had to cut down on lavish dinners and expensive bottles of wine, opting instead for neighborhood pub specials and cooking at home five nights a week. We relished in our weekend brunches, but cut down to one instead of two a week. Poor James got used to buying whatever beer was on special rather than his considerably more expensive favorites, and my weekly manicures got fewer and farther in between.

I also started doing side jobs here and there, writing ad copy for small businesses and building their profiles in the local media for an hourly rate. Our tax returns got dropped right back into our savings, as did any monetary birthday and Christmas gifts and my work bonuses for a job well done. We saved separately, knowing that I tend to love a splurge, and I kept everything in a separate account from my day-to-day transactions so I wouldn’t be tempted to take a little something for myself now and again. We were fastidious in our frugality, questioning every purchase and looking at ways to keep more of our hard earned in the bank. But it paid off quite literally, and by Christmas of 2014, we were ready to make the transition from responsible members of Australia’s working society to worldwide vagabonds.

Saving enough money to make our traveling dream a reality was tough, but keeping costs down on the road was another challenge altogether. Here are a few big tips we learned along the way:

1. Flights. As a rule of thumb, flights get more expensive the nearer you get to the departure date. Book out as far in advance as possible, even on the shorter flights. A great insider tip is if you want to visit a city for just one day, it could be possible to add what’s called a “stopover” to your flight, which will allow you to stop in a city for up to 24 hours either free of charge or for a slightly higher tax rate. We did this in Dubai, where we were keen to see the Burj Khalifa, but not so thrilled about beating the heat in uber luxe shopping malls. A 24-hour stopover got us in and out without wasting any precious time.

2. Frequent flyer points. If you’re doing a big trip like we did, don’t forget to sign up for a frequent flyer program to earn points while you travel. If you stick to carriers in an alliance such as One World or Star Alliance, you can easily build up enough points for free future holidays. James is flying from the UK to Sweden on points this month and we still have enough to fly us both from the west coast to the east coast for nothing.

3. Accommodation. We wanted to have a comfortable holiday, which meant staying in hostels where appropriate so we could live in the lap of luxury at some of our more lavish destinations. We went all out in the Maldives, which then meant roughing it in Rio, which was the trade-off for being on a budget. We would often book ahead for the more high profile hotspots, but wait until the last minute for places that were more backpacker friendly and comfortable with transient travelers. Don’t be afraid to mix it up — we loved Airbnb for our time crossing the U.S., and found that we could get small houses for less than a typical hotel room. It’s a great way to get immersed in a neighborhood and live like a local.

4. Tours. If you’re away for an extended period of time, booking a tour can often be cheaper than going it your own. For places like Bolivia and Peru where it can be a bit difficult to navigate solo, we opted for two or three week tours which included all our internal flights, accommodation and transfers. Plus we had the added bonus of never getting lost. If you can manage it, try to book last minute, when tour companies start discounting their trips to fill last minute vacancies. We saved hundreds of dollars booking scuba diving and snorkeling trips the day before departure in the Galápagos Islands and were able to use that money to upgrade our hotel in Quito.

5. Bank rates. As you probably know, ATM fees are astronomical when traveling overseas, and you usually get hit twice, once by your bank and once again by the bank that owns the ATM. Make sure you speak to your bank about their offers for customers traveling overseas. We have used currency cards in the past, but with so many countries on our itinerary, it wasn’t an option this time around. I found out when I got back to the U.S. that if I was a “gold member” with my bank (which I was eligible for) all my transaction fees on foreign ATMs would have been waived, saving me hundreds of dollars. Hand, meet forehead. Too little, too late.

The one thing I would say to never scrimp on is travel insurance, which proved to be one of our greatest investments when a family emergency had James flying from Colombia to the United Kingdom on very short notice. It also came in incredibly handy when one of my bags was lost somewhere between Casablanca and London for a few weeks. With travel, so many things can go wrong — it’s worth the money to know you’ll be protected.

Time and time again we would meet people on our journey who would say “you’re so lucky”, but truth be told, luck had nothing to do with it. We had a dream that we were determined to make a reality before homeownership, children and the reality of being a grown-up set in. We didn’t have anything other than patience and a plan, which in the end, paid off in spades.

The inspiring Jack Kerouac once said, “Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry,” which are words we have adopted and continue to live by. Trust us, if we can do it, anyone can.

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