Solo Female Travel, Travel Stories

How To Travel the World (On a Budget)

Spanish Steps, Rome 2011

As the departure date for my Round the World Trip nears, one of the questions I’ve been asked frequently is, “How can you afford it?” When I first told my co-workers I was leaving my job to travel they all assumed I was going to continue working as a travel nurse. When I told them I was going to be taking 8-12 months off to just travel, I saw a lot of blank stares.

“How can you afford not to work for a year?” was repeated over and over. This is a fair question with more than a few answers.

So let me break it down. I hope that by sharing these tips on how to travel the world on a budget you’ll be inspired to begin your own adventures, wherever they may take you!

First of all, I want to be completely honest about where I am in life and how this has helped me take advantage of such an amazing opportunity to quit my job and travel the world. I’m single. I don’t have any children. I don’t have a mortgage or any credit card debt. I work as a nurse where I have the chance to work overtime if I so choose.

I’m also really, really cheap. Still, there are some concrete steps I’ve taken to be able to live a life of simple adventure. Disclaimer: Because I’m a single female I can’t offer any advice about couple travel or traveling as a family. Check out the resources below for some awesome advice from experts in these areas of travel.

Volunteering in Ecuador

Research/Planning Ahead 
The most important first step is research. Think about what kind of trip you’d like to take and what length of time you can realistically afford. Not everyone has to quit their job to experience life in another part of the globe. Most jobs offer at least 3-4 weeks of paid vacation and if you’re careful you can use this allotted time for an extended trip. Some jobs also grant personal leaves of absence anywhere from 2-6months which is an awesome opportunity to test the waters if you’re thinking of going on a longer journey.

Next, do you expect to be working or volunteering on this trip? Would you prefer to see the sights or immerse yourself in the native culture? Would you rather see more destinations or spend time in one place? Answering these questions will help guide your budget and clarify your goals. 

Depending on the length and scope of your trip you will need at least 3-12 months of  planning to realize your dreams. With more time you’ll have greater flexibility and a better chance to find budget travel deals (especially for airline tickets)!      

Once you have a goal and destination in mind it’s time to start making some sacrifices. I’ve never been a big spender when it comes to clothes or electronics. I’m still driving the same car I bought for $2,000 when I was sixteen (that was 10 years ago) and my friends make fun of me endlessly for it. (Who needs automatic windows or satellite radio, anyway)?

For me the area it’s been hard to cut back on has been the money I spend on groceries and eating out. I love going out to dinner with friends and family and cherish this quality time together. Once I realized just how much I was spending on these outings I had to reign it in. I’ve also really cut back on entertainment such as concerts and movies. Oh yeah, I also broke my lease and moved from my city apartment to the ‘burbs to live with my mom. This was a major step in preparing for my journey. 

It may seem insignificant, but all of these sacrifices really do make a difference and allowed me to set more money aside for my future travels.

One thing to remember however, is balance. Sacrifice is necessary to achieve certain goals, however there’s no sense in being miserable in the present just to enjoy something in the future. If you start feeling like you’re giving up too much, take a step back and reevaluate. Find the compromise, rest in the give and take. This post from Andy and Becki “Sacrifice and Shivers in the Desperate Dark of Winter” is a perfect illustration of finding that delicate balance. 

Let’s Talk Money
After my trip to
Ecuador last Fall, I returned with about $10,500 in my savings account. Prior to leaving for Ecuador in September I moved out of my apartment. This took care of having to pay rent or utilities (although I do give my mom $200 a month to help out with expenses). My monthly income averages $3,000-$3,500 and my bills are as follows:

Food/Gas $450
Student Loans = $200
Rent =$200
Cell phone bill = $110
Car Insurance =$35
Wifi= $20
Total =1,015
My goal upon returning home was to save about $2,000 a month for a total trip budget of $18,000-$20,000 for up to a year of travel. This amount is further divided into the following categories:

Student Loans X 12 mo =$2,400
Health/Travel Insurance X 12 mo =$1,500 ($125/mo) 
Money for travel expenses (bus/airfare, etc) = $5,000
Savings to return to =$5,000
Spending money (food/lodging/excursions) =$4,100 (roughly $12/day or $20/day for a $20,000 budget) 
Total Trip Budget = $18,000

It may seem counterintuitive, but giving away a portion of your trip money may be the best way to increase your cash flow. Whether you believe in tithing or karma, there does seem to be a Universal law that rewards generosity.

Giving Back
Traveling can also be a somewhat selfish endeavor, donating a portion of your travel funds is a good way to stay humble and engaged with those around you. We are all part of this amazing, crazy planet called earth. The more I see of it, the more I realize how blessed I am to be a part of it and the more I want to contribute rather than consume. I truly believe this idea has the potential to come back tenfold and reward us in ways we could never imagine.

Japanese Tea Garden, SF

It would be impossible to realistically travel the world on a $12/day budget without some amazing resources. Thankfully, there are organizations like Workaway and HelpX that facilitate a way for travelers to volunteer around the globe in exchange for free room and board. If you’re interested in learning how to grow and harvest food, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms or WWOOF is a network of organic farms that has a long-standing reputation for welcoming travelers in exchange for dedicated work.      

Couchsurfing is another safe, reliable network of travelers who offer free accommodation in cities all over the world. This community is based on mutual trust, respect, and a system of references left by other Couch Surfers. This form of travel is usually more short-term but can be a great way to immerse yourself in the culture by experiencing life like a local. Depending on where you are traveling, hostels are another great resource for budget lodging. 

If you’re looking for budget travel options, MegaBus is a coach company that offers incredibly low fares starting at $1. They currently offer services in the U.S., Netherlands, France, UK, Belgium, and Canada. I’ve used them many times in the States and I’ve been extremely impressed with their services. Travelocity is a airfare comparison website that I’ve used often to search for the lowest ticket prices. They offer flexibility in choosing dates and offer competitive prices. Southwest Airlines also offers special budget fares for travel in the States and Mexico. 

 No matter what kind of traveling you’d like to do, there are many experienced travelers and backpackers that have paved the way.

The online traveling community is a great place to pick up travel tips and gain inspiration for your own travels. If you’re traveling with a family, Caz and Craig at Y Travel Blog offer some great tips here about traveling with kids. They have over 15 years of experience globetrotting and are a great resource on the web. If you’re traveling as a couple, Mike and Luci offer humorous anecdotes about traveling with your significant other at 1000 Places to Fight Before You Die. Dalene and Peter at HecKtic Travels offer tips for couples who are interested in housesitting as a way to see the world. 

Putting it all together/Forming an Itinerary
Okay. So you’ve done the research, you’ve read the blogs, the guidebooks, gotten your vaccinations, and new passport picture. You’ve even asked your boss for time off or maybe even (gasp!) quit your job. Now what? This is the point in the process where you might start feeling overwhelmed, scared, even a bit insane.

Take a deep breath, this is normal. Trust me, I know. Your head is spinning with photos from exotic places, names you can’t pronounce (Azerbai-whaa?), and packing lists. Throw in airline tickets, visas, and all of the raised eyebrows you’ve been getting from friends and family and you’re probably feeling a little nuts-o. 

This is the time to start putting details on paper. Buy the airline ticket, call your friends abroad to let them know you’re coming to visit, finalize all of the loose ends at home.

Sit down with a calendar, a calculator, and a glass of wine. Let the excitement sink in. You can do this.

Visualizing and writing down your itinerary will help it become real. Here’s a sample from my updated plans.

Work last shift 19th
20-28 Take the bus to Chicago to visit my friend Marlise. (Found $5 bus ticket one-way. Purchased). 
28-3 Meet my mom in St. Louis and drive to Nashville to visit my sister. (Bus ticket from Chicago-St. Louis $22. Purchased). 

3-15 Spend time in Memphis with my best friend Emily. (Bus ticket from Nashville-Memphis $1. Purchased). 
15-22 Travel to Oklahoma with my grandmother to visit relatives.
23-5 Travel to Cuba?

5-12 Visit friends in Tampa, FL
12-20 Hike the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina with my Dad and Sister
20-26 Return home for my Sister’s graduation
26-17 Fly to Oaxaca, Mexico to visit friends and travel. Stay in hostels or find Couch Surfers along the way. (One-way ticket to Oaxaca $284. Purchased)

17-28 Spend time hiking in Colorado or visit family in Utah

28- Fly from New York to Paris (One way ticket $447, still debating on purchasing!)

Find a Workaway host to stay with in the French countryside. Spend time traveling to Spain and Morocco. Visit friends and stay with Couch Surfers. 

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Notice that there are still quite a few details that need to be worked out, but this is a rough framework for what I’d like to do and how I plan on saving money (especially in Europe where travel is most expensive). I’m trying to remain flexible and open to changing my plans while still allowing time to purchase plane and bus fare.

Some things will change but that’s why traveling is so exhilarating! The most important thing to remember is to have fun and customize your trip to suit your dreams! 

Was this helpful? Are there other tips or advice you’d like in planning a trip? How have you saved money while planning for a trip abroad?

Previous Post Next Post

You Might Also Like


  • Reply Ryan August 7, 2013 at 11:31 am

    Rad tips and a great extensive breakdown! I’m in the midst of all these sacrifices at the moment as well: Living on my friends couch for 3 months, not going out to bars and restaurants, stop drinking Starbucks coffee, etc. It can be hard at times but it is definitely worth it. Since I’m not going on a RTW trip, 10-13k was my budget for a year in Southeast Asia but I’ll also be working there as well. And I found a ticket to Thailand from LA for $550!
    Ryan recently posted…Haiti Travel GuidesMy Profile

    • Reply Mariah August 7, 2013 at 4:07 pm

      Yes, the sacrifices are definitely worth it! Awesome score with the ticket, SE Asia is on my bucket list as well but might have to postponed while I work in France for a bit. Looking forward to reading your adventures! Thanks for reading Ryan 🙂

  • Reply Colleen Brynn March 4, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    Great tips! It’s good that you mentioned visas but don’t forget to also include them in the budget… depending on where you are going, they can be a bit expensive. For example, I’m planning the Trans-Siberian this summer and the Russian, Mongolian and Chinese visas require me to go through an agency (or book a couple of flights that would be more expensive than the agency cost in order to ‘apply in person’).
    Your trip sounds great! Enjoy!

    • Reply Mariah March 5, 2013 at 12:36 am

      Good point Colleen! I had thought about traveling to Cuba but uncertainties about visas and the possible bribes needed to exit and enter without stamping my American passport has held up my plans. Some costs are unforeseen and can be hard to plan for. Thanks for reading!

  • Reply Suzy March 3, 2013 at 10:09 pm

    I’m so bad about saving for travel. I usually just go and figure it out later so these are good tips and insights for me.

    • Reply Mariah March 4, 2013 at 3:13 am

      Thanks for reading and re-posting Suzy! I look forward to your “Suzy Stumbles” segment every week!

  • Reply Mariah February 27, 2013 at 10:29 pm

    Jessica, Did you like one better than the other? I’ve signed up for workaway but haven’t looked into HelpX any more. I’m excited to spend more time in Europe but it is expensive!

  • Reply Caz Makepeace February 25, 2013 at 9:29 pm

    Great post Mariah! So helpful to anyone wishing to travel. And yes it is all about sacrifice. It is amazing how much money you can come up with once you make a few different choices.
    The rewards are worth it. Thanks so much for linking to our post.

    • Reply Mariah February 26, 2013 at 1:12 am

      You’re welcome Caz! Always happy to point people in the direction of expertise 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and taking a look. Safe travels to you and yours!

  • Reply George February 25, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    Great tips. Saving is a must, but it’s important to remember there are loads of ways to make money on the road too.

    • Reply Mariah February 26, 2013 at 1:17 am

      That’s true! I like the freedom of being able to pick up and leave whenever I want, traveling and working requires more committment but it is a way to travel long term! Thanks for the comment George 🙂

    Leave a Reply

    CommentLuv badge