How I travelled to 13 countries debt-free while doing a PhD
This September marks my NINTH year of post-secondary education
I just entered year 3 of a 4 year PhD program (yay, half way there!) – yet somehow over the past two years, I still managed to visit 13 countries! From scuba diving in Honduras, snorkelling with giant sea turtles in Mexico, partying in Nashville, traveling solo through Ethiopia, meeting a cheetah up close in South Africa and even living for 3 months in Tanzania, it’s been an amazing couple of years!
Related | A Round-up of my adventures from 2016
Later this month I will be heading to Montreal before departing for Ireland and Scotland (both new countries for me), and then back to Iceland (for the second time this year).
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 9 years of university and nearly 40 countries total visited, I am sharing 6 of my secrets (or not so big secrets) and lessons I have learned while traveling the world (debt-free) while doing my PhD.
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: 6 ways to travel FREE as a student
Since I completed all of my course work in my first year, 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 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?
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 travel 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 iphone 8 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. If you truly feel that travel is an important aspect of your life (experiences > things), than minimalism is for you!
I live an extremely minimalistic lifestyle. I don’t own a home, a car, or a TV. I 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 (and perhaps it is), but don’t worry: I’m not suggesting you must do the same. I am simply sharing what works for me.
I did the calculations so you can see for yourself:
Although I estimated on the lower end of the spectrum, I save approximately $10,000 per year through minimalism.
This roughly equals 10 trips.
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 you could eliminate from your life.
For example, could you start doing your own manicures, or opt to eat out a little less? Could you re-evaluate your wardrobe and forgo purchasing any unnecessary clothing? Are you bringing reusable bags to the grocery store, or reusable coffee mugs to the coffee shop? Is there wasted food (and money) 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!
Travel on a Budget
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 with a flat in Canada (which I rent) as a full-time PhD student.
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.. Read on:
-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).
-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, baby stroller, if you are living abroad for an extended period of time and will require more items/ have the space to store it).
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.
Eventually, after seeing other “full-time” travel bloggers succeeding, I realized the potential for earning significant income through travel blogging. I began to learn as much as I could in my spare time about online marketing, search engine optimization, affiliate commission, ad placements, sponsorship, engagement rates, industry standards…the list goes on.
There is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes!
Since shifting my focus from blogging as a ‘side hobby’ to blogging as a ‘side hustle’, I have realized a blog truly is a small business. A travel blogger is not just someone traveling the world having fun; they are an entrepreneur in addition to a writer, photographer, designer, online marketer, freelancer, social media influencer, and more.
At this point my main sources of income through my blog has been sponsored posts and affiliate commission; it has also opened up several doors for me to gain freelance writing opportunities over the past year which has been the bulk of my online income.
If you are interested in starting your own blog, definitely check out my guide to getting started (and take advantage of a special discount too!)
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, a recent incident on Twitter has sparked controversy within the industry as to whether non-monetary compensation is legitimate. Some industry experts believe the travel blogging niche has moved past this.
With this in mind, I will tell you what has happened to me in my experience. First and foremost, you can expect to put in a lot of hard work and unpaid time as a blogger, but eventually dedication and hard work pays off.
After my first year of blogging, the sponsorships started rolling in and after the first year and a half, I got my first sponsored media/FAM trips to Romania and Ethiopia.
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 twice in the last two 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.
Related: 6 ways to travel FREE as a student
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.
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?
Years ago, I sold my car and my furniture, quit my job and moved across the country to pursue mine.
So ultimately the answer to how I can afford to travel so much as a debt-free 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.
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