In 2015 my wife and I traveled abroad for 4 months. In that time we visited 18 countries – some in Europe, some in the Middle East, and some in Asia. It was an incredible experience that we hope to repeat again later on in life.
The cool thing is that we’re just a middle class couple outside of Chicago, IL, USA. We both grew up far from wealthy. With some persistence we were able to make this trip happen on a budget.
This article shows how we determined that an extended trip would be possible for us, and how we went about planning it. My hope is that seeing our process convinces others that they are capable of taking such a trip too.
My wife and I both studied abroad in college.
Both of our colleges had travel programs that did not cost more than our normal tuition, which made study abroad possible. My wife spent time in various countries, and I spent a year in Mexico. We both loved our time abroad.
It’s exhilarating to experience a different country – new foods, new people, new languages. The impact is magnified when you have enough time to fully embrace the culture abroad by making friends, studying, and even working.
Life moved on after graduation. We got real jobs, got married, and purchased a home. But we reflected often on our study abroad experiences from college. It had a lasting impression on us. How could we recapture the experience of living in a foreign country for more than just a week or two?
We considered our situation. We both work 40 hour/week jobs with two or three weeks of vacation time. At best this means we could spend a few weeks per year abroad if we didn’t travel anywhere else all year or take time off for holidays. We had a house and monthly mortgage payments. We were young and didn’t have a lot of money saved, either.
Not to be dissuaded, we did some research to see what a long trip abroad would look like given our “grown-up” jobs and mortgage. We looked up airfare and hotel prices online, did some loose math to figure out a budget, and aligned the trip schedule with festivals and events.
We concluded that:
- All of the information and tools we would need to coordinate an extended trip were available online.
- Many other people had done similar trips before.
- Summer is an awesome time to go to Europe – lots of events to see!
- We would have to save for months, but it would not be prohibitively expensive.
It was completely and totally doable.
- How exciting! We could travel for a long period of time again, just like in college. We could meet new people, try new food, see new sights, get lost in iconic cities. Once we concluded that our trip was possible, we started putting our ducks in a row.
For most people work is the biggest hurdle to overcome. Your income is the lifeline that sustains that roof over your head and your ability to eat. Historically living in another country would make it impossible for you to meet your work commitments at home. But this fact is changing and you do have options.
If you are a valued employee at your job then your company likely doesn’t want you to leave – so a good boss will try to accommodate your desire to travel. If you’re not a valued employee, but just another cog in the machine, then you have less leverage.
Ask if You Can Work Remotely
Remote work can be awesome. You work from anywhere in the world and still contribute as if you were in office. Unfortunately not all work places nor all types of jobs allow this, but it is worth asking your boss if you can arrange a temporary remote work setup.
There are some important facets to consider here. Does your position require you to be in the office, or is that just a formality? Does your position require you to interact with coworkers in between 9am and 5pm, or can you perform your tasks independently in different time zones?
For the uninformed, there are many, many tools to facilitate remote working. All you really need is a laptop, a headset, and an internet connection. You can talk in real time for free over skype or slack, you can share your screen with join.me or webex. Don’t let the technology or software be the reason that you decide you cannot work remotely – I promise you that software exists that lets people work remotely permanently across the globe.
Working remotely is usually the best compromise. It allows you to still collect your paycheck while getting to experience another country after work hours.
Request a Leave of Absence (LOA)
Almost all companies have a policy in place for leave of absence. LOA is basically you taking a break from work with the understanding that your job will still be there when you return. You do not get paid during your time off work, but you do not lose your job either.
This approach is ideal if you can survive the duration of your trip without earning money. For some, this is preferable so that you can really take in your new country instead of being distracted by work.
Quitting your Job
For some, quitting a job is not possible. For others, this is ideal (who hasn’t dreamed of quitting their job to travel the world?). This decision depends entirely on your circumstances and your plans for after you return from the trip.
What we did
For me – I asked my boss what he could do to accommodate my trip and if working remotely was an option. I found it very productive to talk through my trip with him very early in the process. Ultimately we agreed to 8 weeks remote working, 2 weeks of vacation time, and 6 weeks of leave of absence. This totaled 16 weeks, or about 4 months of travel.
For my wife – she was not so lucky. Remote working was not an option due to company culture, so she took a leave of absence with no guarantee of her job being there upon return. Her job was filled while abroad, and she had to find a new company upon return. This was hard for her, but a decision we chose to make and would do again.
Everyone is in a different financial situation, and most think they could never afford a trip like this. It’s unfortunate but understandable. A trip like this requires you to leave your comfort zone.
Whether you can afford a trip is ultimately an assessment you’ll have to make for yourself. Here are some things to consider:
1. You control how expensive it is.
This is simple, but very important. This is your trip. A month-long trip to only one country while you still work remotely is totally fine if that’s what you want. It would only cost you airfare plus a month’s rent in an apartment. As a counter to the ambitious trip we took, my wife and I contemplate this type of trip from time to time.
2. You can compute airfare up front
With little legwork you can quickly estimate your airfare budget. Google Flights is awesome tool for finding low fares. It suggests the lowest price dates for certain flights, which we used heavily when deciding what days to travel in between countries.
Also – we really liked Ryainair, a budget airline in Europe. We routinely booked flights for $75 per person in between popular European cities. Watch our for Ryanair’s luggage fees, though!
3. You can computer lodging costs up front
Our golden rule of lodging was to estimate $100/night for hotels and $50/night for apartments. We used a combination of AirBnB and Hotels.com. AirBnb was better for finding long-term homes, and hotels.com was a better experience and price when we were only in town for a couple of days.
4. Food is often cheaper in other parts of the world
Food is a necessity, but it can be much cheaper than what you typically pay at home. This is especially true if you are travelling outside of Europe or the US.
If you are staying in one place for a long time, you can shop locally and cook food yourself! (I strongly encourage you to try to cook a local favorite yourself).
5. Transportation is often cheaper, too
Uber has a presence in most major cities. It makes getting around so much easier. No more fumbling for local currency. No more miscommunication about your destination. No more taxi drivers hiking up your fare just because you’re a tourist. It is a God-send when travelling inside a city.
Or you can ride an elephant.
What we did
My wife and I are not rich. We’re 20-something year olds a few years removed from college. We worked really hard to plan every detail of our trip ourselves and to keep costs down.
At the end of it all? We paid a total of $10,000 per person for our 18 country trip. That’s everything. Flights. Housing. Excursions. Visas. Ground Transportation. Everything.
I am painfully aware of how $10,000 can be a life-changing amount of money. It is not a trivial sum. But it’s also not out of reach. It’s a goal. It’s something to work towards. My wife and I saved specifically for this trip for a year to get our savings in order.
Remember: this trip is a goal that you have to work towards. Some people save money towards buying a nice new car; others save money towards starting their own business. Saving towards a big trip is the same process. It takes time, but is possible.
Also consider that $10,000 is an ambitious trip. Everyone has a different expectations from a trip like this, so your mileage can vary. Are you comfortable in hostels all the time? Then your lodging, and total trip cost, will be much lower than ours. Are you willing to cook meals yourself or eat street food instead of restaurants? That’ll keep costs down, too.
The most common question we hear is ‘Did you plan this entire trip yourselves?’. The answer is yes. We booked every flight and hotel ourselves. We researched every city and what activities to do ourselves. We arranged for transportation wherever needed. Literally everything that you need to arrange a multi-month trip abroad is online and available to you.
We used Google Sheets heavily to help keep our costs and details organized. We had budget spreadsheets, money spent spreadsheets, upcoming flights spreadsheets, etc. We began planning trip details about 9 months before departure, and kept revising our plans until about a month before returning.
It is a non-stop process.
My hope is that someone reads this article and considers making a trip abroad. It is not too late simply because you have gotten married, or purchased a home already, or have a steady job.
To be honest, my wife and I plan to take a trip like this with kids (once we have them) in the future. At least, when they’re old enough to appreciate it. The world has a lot to offer us if we go out and see it.
Extra Credit – Our Trip Details
Countries We Visited: Spain, Ireland, England, Portugal, France, Morocco, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Czech Republic, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, India, Israel, Palestine, Jordan.
Total cost per person: $10,000
Time: 16 weeks
Notable destinations and events: Running of the Bulls, a bull fight, La Tomatina, Shakespearean play at Globe Theater, Eiffel Tower at night, Turkish Bath in Morocco, Burj Khalifa, wedding anniversary on shore in Istanbul, Taj Mahal, Petra, Jerusalem.