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How I travelled to 21 countries debt-free while doing a PhD

This September will mark my 10th year of post-secondary education! Can you believe it?

I am currently in the 4th year of a PhD program – yet since starting the degree I have still managed to visit 21 countries! From snorkelling with sea turtles under the ocean, to climbing mountains and literally soaring over waterfalls, it’s been an amazing couple of years!

Backpacking Africa

Flying high over Victoria falls in Livingstone, Zambia

Related | 2016 and 2017 Travel Round-ups

backpacking Africa

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

Backpacking Africa

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

Well you wouldn’t be the first to ask; it’s one of the most common questions I get!

I mean, generally speaking, most PhD students are not rich, nor do they have loads of free time.

Despite this, I make it work for me because travel is my passion.

I think for most folks, the biggest barriers to travel are time and money.

So, after nearly one decade of university and nearly 50 countries and 6 continents visited, I am sharing 6 of my secrets (or not so big secrets) and lessons I have learned traveling the world while doing my PhD.

1. Maximize Time

Whether you are limited to a few weeks of vacation time, or you are a student like me, 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 reading week!) and explored the academic opportunities available to travel.

Related: How to Travel as a Student for FREE

I completed all of my course work in my first year, so now I don’t need to be on campus anymore. Essentially, I can work remotely because I am doing my own writing and research. This allows me to create my own schedule and therefore drastically increases the amount of travel I can do.

Flexibility is key.

Since I don’t have limited vacation time anymore, I am not bound by particular travel dates and can spontaneously ‘pull the trigger’ on a really great flight deal (like that one time I found RT airfare from Toronto to Bogota, Colombia for $440 with Skyscanner).

When you only have certain dates you can travel, you are unfortunately less likely to snatch a deal. This is because airfare costs depend on the particular season, current events, trending destinations in the travel industry, and the airlines’ strategies for promotion and marketing. Having a flexible window of time for travel allows you to take advantage of sales as they arise.

I prefer Skyscanner’s search engine, which allows you to 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.

What ‘hidden’ opportunities do you have to travel?

Could you travel while getting additional training for work, or to attend a conference? Can you work over time to bank vacation days? Can you maximize statutory holidays to get away for a long weekend?

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” can afford to adventure as much as I do…but there are ways to get creative (like that time I hacked my way to getting $800 flights for less than $80!)

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 don’t have a huge income as a PhD student, I have come to embrace minimalism.

According to the minimalists (who have a really great documentary on Netflix by the way):

Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life”.

Although it might seem to be more of a philosophy or a mindset, minimalism truly goes hand-in-hand with creating a lifestyle that is conducive to travel (experiences > things).

I live an extremely minimalistic lifestyle. I don’t own a car or home. I don’t have a TV or cable. I share my internet with a neighbour and shop at second-hand stores. I 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 minimalism saves me roughly $10,000 a year which I use to travel. I’m not suggesting you must do the same, I’m simply sharing what works for me.

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

I would also recommend that you start out by considering what little changes you could start experimenting with (i.e. could you opt to eat out a little less or make your own coffee? Could you re-evaluate your wardrobe and forgo purchasing any unnecessary clothing? Is there wasted food in your fridge that could be solved through meal planning? All of these little changes can translate into big time savings per year…savings that could be used for your next trip!

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 have managed to do all of this as a full-time PhD student while paying rent for an apartment in Canada.

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!

New to UBER? | Get your first ride FREE

-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. I was able to stay in some pretty amazing and affordable properties over the last year.

New to AirBnB? | Get your FREE 50$ voucher now

-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).

Mother Nature has no entrance fee

-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?

Related | 5 Tips for Packing Light

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 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, blogging is not a huge source of income for me, but it has opened up doors for me to 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 am definitely not suggesting you start a travel blog just to get free travel – it doesn’t work that way. In fact, there is some industry controversy as to whether non-monetary compensation is legitimate (as it sets the bar low for entrepreneurs who are actually trying to get paid fairly for their work). Some industry experts believe the travel blogging niche has moved past working for freebies.

I have received comp’d travel in the past – in my mind it offsets the cost of running this blog. You will notice I don’t have any ads annoying you while you read this, and I rarely use affiliate links. I pay for a lot of the costs to run this website and gather content for you out of my own pocket, so yes I will accept the odd funded trip if it aligns with my vision for this blog.

So you wanna be a travel blogger? | How to Start a Blog

The second way I receive sponsored travel is through my education. I have been able to travel to East Africa three times in the last three years through funded academic opportunities. First, I was able to live in Mwanza, Tanzania for a 3-month internship with a non-profit organization, and second, I was able to travel to Machakos, Kenya for a 2-week fellowship program on global mental health. I know live in Mwanza (again) where I am doing my research study!

Exploring architecture in Nairobi

Related: How to Travel as a Student for FREE

For the students reading this, there are so many funding opportunities to participate in exchange or study abroad programs, international internships and more! Ask your university or college about what resources are available to you.

Rosetta Stone Swahili

Believe it or not, this is Mwanza in Tanzania — my current home.

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. Sure, you may have to make sacrifices, but won’t they be worth it if they are in the name of your dream?

So ultimately the answer to how I can afford to travel so much as a PhD student is quite simple: I work hard towards achieving my goals, just like everyone else – it’s just that my goal happens 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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Pssst…this post contains affiliate links.

If you purchase a product through one of my links, I get a small commission at no extra cost to you.

This goes towards the cost of maintaining this ad-free website and creating free content for readers like you!

Please read my disclosure for more info. 

Thanks for your support.

Read Next:

How to start a travel blog

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thepinkbackpack.com 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