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How I travelled while doing a PhD

In early 2020, just 10 days before the world shut down, I officially defended my PhD dissertation. During my 5 years of completing the degree, I managed to travel a TON!

From backpacking solo across the continent of Africa and living as a expat in Tanzania, to getting PADI scuba diving certified in Zanzibar it’s been an amazing couple of years!

Backpacking Africa

Flying high over Victoria falls in Livingstone, Zambia

backpacking Africa

Backpacking Africa

In early 2018, I even backpacked across Africa before moving to Tanzania for one year to do my doctoral research project!

You might be wondering, “where do you find the time and the money to live this lifestyle?”.

You wouldn’t be the first to ask. It’s actually one of the most common questions I get!

So, after nearly one decade of university and nearly 55 countries and 6 continents visited, I am sharing 6 of the lessons I learned traveling the world while doing a PhD.

1. Be Flexible

Whether you are limited to a few weeks of vacation time, or you are a student, transforming your perspective of travel from a ‘holiday’, to travel as a ‘lifestyle’, can completely change how you allocate your time.

During my first year in the PhD program, I was on campus doing course work so I maximized breaks in the school year to travel (hello Christmas holidays and spring break) and explored academic opportunities to travel as a student for free.

I completed all of my course work in my first year, so I didn’t need to physically be on campus after this. Essentially, I could work remotely because I was doing my own writing and research. This allowed me to create my own schedule and therefore drastically increase the amount of travel I could do.

Since I was not bound by particular travel dates anymore, I could spontaneously book flights based on whether it was a really great flight deal/ When you only have certain dates you can travel, you are unfortunately less likely to snatch a deal because airfare costs depend on the particular season, current events, trending destinations (i.e. why flights are always expensive on holidays). Having a flexible window of time for travel allows you to take advantage of sales as they arise.

I use Google flights or Skyscanner and search for airfare by MONTH to view the cheapest prices across time. You can also use the “Everywhere” search option to find the cheapest destinations around the world. This can be a great option to use while planning your travels, to stretch both time and money.

2. Minimize Costs

Via Ferrata Quebec

There is no denying that travel is expensive. This is where most people are genuinely baffled with how a “broke PhD student” could afford to adventure as much as I do…but there are ways to get creative (like credit card points hacking).

I would also point out that on the flip side, owning a home is expensive. Buying and maintaining a car is expensive. Getting the newest iphone is definitely expensive! Going to fancy restaurants, purchasing designer clothes, frequenting hair salons or spas – they’re all expensive.

I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong enjoying these things; it just comes down to lifestyle preferences and how you want to spend your money.

For me personally, I would rather spend my money on travel.

Since the vast majority of my travels are self-funded and I didn’t have a huge income as a PhD student, I embraced an extremely minimalistic lifestyle. I didn’t own a car or home. I didn’t have a TV or cable. I shared my internet with a neighbour and shopped at second-hand stores. I still don’t consume meat and rarely buy pre-packaged foods. I’ve even gone as far as making my own self-care and cleaning products. I know this sounds extreme (I have done some pretty crazy things to afford travel), but as a student this minimalism saved me roughly $10,000 a year which I used to travel.

If you want to learn more about minimalism, I would recommend checking out the Minimalist documentary on Netflix!

3. Travel on a Budget

I usually do outdoor activities which are coincidentally also free

This one is no big secret…In order to travel as frequently as possible, it’s common sense that the travel should be as low cost as possible.

FYI: There are tons of well-known budget travel bloggers out there who have incredibly comprehensive resources, so I don’t want to re-create the wheel here. I will point out that what sets me apart is that I didn’t quit my job to travel the world; I’m not a digital nomad who blogs full time. I managed to do all of this as a full-time PhD student while paying rent for an apartment in Canada (and then later while living in Tanzania where I did my research project).

My biggest piece of advice for budget travel, is to not have the mentality that “you are on vacation”. I’ve heard it used so much as an excuse to splurge on expensive meals, fancy hotel rooms and upgrades galore.

Now, it may be true that you actually are on vacation if you can only mange one week of travel per year – so all the power to you if you want to live it up in luxury.

But if you are interested in learning how to travel MORE for less, think of travel as more of a lifestyle and set a daily budget.

-Set a budget per day based on the number of days of the trip from the start and stick to it!

-Use an app on your phone to track daily expenditures (I like to use dollar bird and mint). Small costs like a coffee or bottle of water can easily be forgotten but add up quickly. In India, I spent as little as $10-15 CAD per day living quite comfortably, while Europe my budget was $30-50 depending on the country.

-Check your banking plan for ATM fees and your credit card for foreign transaction fees; these are easily avoidable costs that can add up. If you do use a credit card, try to use one with travel reward points.

-Travel with a reusable water bottle and bring snacks on the plane to avoid expensive airport food.

-Check your mobile phone plan for roaming fees and consider wifi access when booking accommodation; if you require data and texting, consider purchasing a local SIM vs. adding a temporary plan to your home mobile as it can be cheaper.

-Do not eat out for every meal. I travel with one small Tupperware and set of utensils to use for meals on the road. I typically stay in places with kitchen facilities and get groceries while traveling to avoid eating out every single day.

-Consider the cost of goods in your destination vs. home. I brought snacks from home for my 10 day Iceland trip because I knew it would be significantly more expensive to buy them there (i.e. energy bars, trail mix, packaged soups, packaged oatmeal, etc).

-Monitor your caffeine consumption. This one is a big cost factor, especially if you are like me and require coffee as a basic life necessity 😉 If you plan to stay at a hostel, you can bring small sachets of coffee from home and make them yourself or simply add this into your budget that you will be getting a coffee each day.

-Monitor your alcohol consumption. If you plan to party on your travels, be mindful of how much cash you bring to the pub. Personally, I don’t drink much while traveling solo just as a personal choice and it has definitely saved me money in the long run.

-Bring your own travel towel, small container of wash powder and combination lock if you plan to stay in hostels (this will save you rental fees).

-Split costs with other travellers or buddy up for a leg of your trip.

-Take local transit or walk vs. taking a taxi. In Tanzania, the difference between taking the local bus versus a taxi was 25 cents versus 10-20$.

-Check ahead to see if uber is in your destination!

-Plan your airport transit to the city before landing (typically there are airport buses or shuttle services way cheaper than taxis). 

-Barter (with caution). This one only works for countries in which bartering is a part of the local culture (in other places it can be extremely offensive so do your research). In India, bartering was expected so it was required to get a reasonable rate for taxis and even sometimes hotel rooms. I once bartered a hotel room down to 1$ in India’s off-season.

-Stay in hostels or AirBnb over hotels.

-Find free things to do around the city (hiking, the beach, free walking tours, picnic in the park, go to a temple, create your own photography tour, go geocaching – the list goes on).

-Do not pay for airline baggage! It can easily wrack up an additional 50$ to stow a bag and quite frankly, do you really need that much stuff?

I have been traveling with a carry-on sized bag for about a year now and haven’t looked back. (Exceptions: sporting equipment, if you are moving abroad for an extended period of time and will require more items/ will have a space to store items).

4. Travel Blogging/ Freelance Writing:

I initially created this travel blog in 2016 as a platform to connect with other travellers and share my stories. I had no idea you could even make money blogging or receive travel as compensation.

After seeing other “full-time” travel bloggers succeeding, I realized the potential for earning significant income through travel blogging.

However, with school consuming my life, I just simply don’t have the time to run a full-time business (though initially I tried and it nearly killed me). So at this point, almost 10 years later, blogging is still not a huge source of income for me, but it has opened up doors for me to get free trips and gain paid freelance writing opportunities which is a significant source of income for me.

If you are interested in starting your own blog, definitely check out my guide to getting started.

5. Sponsored travel:

Backpacking Africa

Like I mentioned above, it is possible for travel bloggers to get compensated with free travel.

I have received complimentary travel in the past, in exchange for featuring a brand on my website or within a freelance article (such as flights to/from Oregon, passes to a ski resort, an African safari, hotel stays, and even travel gear.

The second way I receive sponsored travel (when I was a student) was through my education. I was able to travel to Cape Town for a conference and live in East Africa three times in the span of three years through funded academic opportunities, bursaries and scholarships.

For the students reading this, there are so many funding opportunities to travel as a student for free.

Exploring architecture in Nairobi

Rosetta Stone Swahili

Believe it or not, this is Tanzania where I lived to complete my doctoral research.

6. Make Travel a Priority:

In addition to the strategies mentioned above, what it really comes down to is no big secret:

I just make travel my priority.

I believe that if you want something bad enough, there are ways to make it happen and sacrifices you can make in other less priority areas (for example, I sacrificed having a home base and vehicle for many years to afford continuous travel).

So ultimately the answer to how I was able to afford to travel so much as a PhD student is quite simple: I worked really hard towards achieving my goals, just like everyone else – it’s just that my goal happened to be travel.

Do you have any tips that I missed? 

Have you tried any of these strategies?

Let me know in the comments below! 

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What are your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * said:
Hi Elly, thanks so much for your comment! I recommend iPage because that is the host I personally use (I only recommend things I have tried and have had positive experiences with). I don't have any bad things to say about them thus far after nearly 2 years, but sorry to hear you experienced otherwise. Thanks for stopping by xx
November 3, 2017 at 8:25 pm
Elly said:
It is a great and pretty useful article for those who want to start their own blog! The only thing is I wouldn't recommend is iPage for such purposes. Why would you refer to that? I had an awful experience with it.
November 3, 2017 at 10:35 am
Jacki said:
I enjoyed reading this post! I completely agree with you on travel needing to be a priority and making trades for what is important to you. I liked reading your tips...I'm always looking for a way to squeeze another trip into our budget!
November 1, 2017 at 12:50 pm