Thursday, August 2, 2012

How This Backpacker Can Afford Long-Term Travel (10 Months and Counting!)

So it is August. When I started traveling October last year, I only planned to be on the road for six months, that is, until March this year. Obviously, those plans didn't pan out. For the better, of course. August will be my 11th month traveling long-term. 11th! Can you believe that? Sure, I went home a couple of times and if we were counting in weeks, my total time on the road would be closer to 8 months. Still, that's a huge feat for any Filipino backpacker. We're not exactly widely known as travelers.

Travel-Perfect Sunny Skies in Coron, Palawan

The question begs to be asked at this point. How can a Filipino backpacker, a backpacker from a third-world country raised in a middle-class family, afford long-term travel? I racked my brain out for this one. Allow me to share the things I did that allowed me to travel long-term. Hopefully, those contemplating on treading the same path may find something of use in these personal ramblings.

1. I wanted this life bad enough.

This kind of travel, heck, this kind of life, is not for everybody. I'm not elevating myself to any pedestal here. I'm just saying long-term travel is different from a four-day or a week-long trip, which even if you do backpacker-style will still be different. Making travel your 24/7 is not at all easy nor is it glamorous. Unless you inherited a billion-dollar fortune, long-term travel is an exercise in frugality and minimalism. You really have to want this. I did, so I made it happen.

2. I set my priorities straight.

Back when I was still preparing for the trip, I knew there was one thing I needed to do and that is set my priorities straight. Whenever I hear people say they want to travel as much as I do, I encourage them. But then, I grow skeptic when I see their expensive gadgets and fancy dinners. My priority was to save up for travel, so I stuck with my cheap dumbphone and an old netbook (save for an expensive but valuable for travel DSLR camera). I abstained from too much night-outs or any other unnecessary purchases, for that matter. Eye on the prize, is what I'm saying.

3. Earnings - savings = expenses (NOT Earnings - expenses = savings)

This is a useful tip I learned when I was still earning a fixed salary. Again, set your priorities straight. When you get your pay, take out your savings first before you use what's left for your monthly expenses. Even if what you take out as savings is small, it is still money saved and it will still count when you finally make your long-term travel plans a reality.

Digital Nomad Life, Thailand
Digital nomad life in Chiang Mai,
Thailand. No complaints here.
4. I figured out which of my skills are marketable for jobs on the road.

When I started contemplating long-term travel, I knew I wanted to keep even a small amount of earnings coming in while I traveled. That way, my bank account will never have a zero balance and I get to live another day. So I figured out which of my skills I can use for jobs on the road, which for me was really a no-brainer. I am a journalism graduate. That meant I could take freelance writing gigs as I travel. You don't have to be a communications major like me to find freelance jobs, of course. Many small companies and individual entrepreneurs employ freelance graphic designers, financial analysts, and even medical professionals to do all sorts of freelance work. Figure out what you can do and make it work for you while you travel long-term.

5. I strove for a location independent career.

This goes without saying that once you figure out which of your skills you can use to do jobs while on long-term travel, then it's time to make things happen. Seek out online forums. Sign up on Network with people. Start a travel blog and make money out of it. I have done all four and all four have paid off in varying degrees. I have acquired project-based contracts on oDesk. I write regularly for a couple of online companies, the job postings for which I found in online forums. I have a secondary job teaching English online which I acquired through someone I met while traveling. As for the blog, I make some money out of the ads, photo request and sponsored posts. Very little blog earnings sure, but still earnings.

6. I learned a new language.

Learning a language opens all sorts of doors you will never expect. I started learning Spanish because I wanted to study in Spain. When that didn't pan out, I used it to set myself apart in the job market. Fortunately for me, outsourcing companies in the Philippines pay a high premium on foreign language skills, which I clearly took advantage of. Traveling long-term, Spanish became one of my marketable skills, so I do freelance translation jobs from time to time as well. My advice though: join me and the rest of the world in learning Chinese. They will rule the world at some point. Better if we speak their language.

7. I surrounded myself with a strong support system.

I was surrounded by family and friends who understood, or at the very least, accepted, why I am doing this. My family freed me of the financial obligations which a young and employed Filipino son or daughter usually have towards their parents. They do want me to help out, of course, and I do, too. So I do, if and when I could. As for my friends, they, too, like to travel. Not travel long-term, sure, but at least, they understand how travel makes life richer and more meaningful.

8. I am always on the look-out for deals and promos.

Have I mentioned that I once flew from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to New Delhi in India for 60 dollars US? That I got a Manila to Guangzhou plane ticket for 20 dollars US? I was and continue to be always on the look-out for travel deals and promos and made it a point to plan and book way ahead.

9. I travel slowly.

When I was finally traveling long-term, my travel partner, Angelica, and I made sure we traveled slowly. We spent three weeks just in northern India. We went to just three destinations (Kathmandu, Annapurna Region, and Pokhara) in the three weeks we were in Nepal. When I started traveling solo, I traveled even more slowly. I spent a whole month in just one small corner of China. I could have visited more sights but that would be too costly having to jump from one long-distance bus or train to another. Plus, traveling slowly means I get to bargain down my hotel costs. The room I'm staying in Chiang Mai charges 11 dollars US per night. Since I'm staying for a long while, I bargained it down to 4.6 dollars US per night. Huge savings!

10. I seek out the places where locals eat and eat there.

Anis Putri, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Went all out on the buffet at local joint Anis Putri Restaurant, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I don't just eat local food. I try to eat where the locals eat and eat local food there. Oftentimes, food there will be inexpensive and in most cases, overwhelmingly good! I sought out the Lunch Lady in Saigon, a roadside joint serving the most delicious bowl of noodles I had in Vietnam. I once had a Kuala Lumpur local refer me to a restaurant in one of the city's residential suburbs. It was buffet-style and every vat of rich and steaming curry was freshly made. I had stars in my eyes. In Thailand, I usually go to the local markets, not to buy ingredients, but to eat at the hole-in-the-wall restaurants and roadside stalls there. With food, I've learned to always, and I mean always, trust the locals.

11. I don't go out exploring and sightseeing every single day.

While I no longer see the difference between a tourist and a traveler, I believe there is still something to be said about going on vacation versus traveling long-term. When you're on vacation, you will want to do every single thing in the must-do or must-see list of that destination. I have no problem with that. Make the most out of your one-week work leave. More power to you. When you travel long-term though, that is just not possible, not just financially. I can't go out exploring and running around every single day. That is just too exhausting and I will easily get burned-out. Yes, travel does burn you out. So I take it easy. I have all the time in the world anyway.

12. I do things independently.

This is one of the reasons why I said long-term travel is not easy. In order to get to places, you only have yourself or the people you are with to rely on when you travel long-term. You will do things independently most of the time. I can't sign up on organized tours as they are too expensive and are often padded with unnecessary frills like a packed lunch, a stop at this roadside curiosity, etc. I can get my own food and I don't need to see a badly sculpted monument purposely built there for tourists.

Most of the time, going out and exploring independently work. Other times, I fail monumentally, like the time I got lost in Chengdu's bus system on my way to the Panda Zoo, while everyone else at the hostel signed up for the packaged Panda tour. Still, there is this traveler high that I get, like when I realized we got to the Annapurna Sanctuary deep in the Himalayas after seven days of trekking without any guide or porter by our side. Trekking is hugely rewarding enough an activity. Knowing we reached 4,100 meters above sea level independently? That's just an intoxicating "high" right there.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
Taking it easy at the gates of the Annapurna Sanctuary

There you have 'em. These are the things I think I'm actually doing right while on long-term travel and I think I'm getting better at it. I cannot stress this enough. Long-term travel is not easy, especially when you are trying to earn a living while on the road. I think I work even harder now what with more than one job to attend to at any single time. The only beauty is that now, I no longer complain about how I'm stuck inside an office cubicle or how piled up my tasks are. Long-term travel is what I wanted out of life, and I'm just glad and grateful I'm here now.

Did you find any wisdom in any of these personal long-term travel ramblings? What do you do to afford long-term travel?

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