Let’s say you hate your job. Or maybe your job hates you and left you for someone else. Maybe you just feel stuck after doing the same thing day after day after week after year. The world is calling you, and you keep letting it ring, because you know if you pick up, the world is going to convince you that it’s all O.K., don’t worry about it, spend your savings and see it all. All the cool kids are doing it.
Well, I’m going to do the same thing, except you don’t need to go broke or into debt. With a bit of planning, knowledge and frugal travel, you can take off a year, or more or less, and travel. For the past six years I’ve spent more than half of every year traveling across five continents and dozens of countries. You might not be able to do it exactly as I have, but I can hopefully give you some inspiration to figure out how to make it work for you.
It’s a lot harder if you have a family, car payments or lots of bills, but not impossible. It’s a lot easier if you’re younger, renting or don’t have an established career. So-called gap years are common in many countries but infrequent in the United States (to our detriment). If, like me, you missed out on extensive travel when you were young, here’s how to do it when you’re … let’s call it more experienced.
It’s certainly possible to sell it all and flee, but that doesn’t give you much of a cushion to land on when you return. If we assume you’re just taking some time off to see the world, not leaving your old life behind forever, you’ll need to prepare.
Where you’re going will have a huge effect on how much you’ll need. In my Times guide “How to Travel Like a Local,” I discuss how I usually plan on spending about $50 a day, or $1,500 a month, including accommodation. However, I have a job that allows me to work while I travel (you’re reading it), and I’m not particularly careful when it comes to food. So that $50 is split between nice hostels and eating in restaurants at least once a day. If you don’t mind larger dorm rooms and making your own food, and you’re more careful with money, you could easily do it for less. Depending on where you go, a lot less. I once had a three-course meal with drinks beachside in Thailand for $6. I had a medium pizza and two Cokes in Oslo for $50. This isn’t to say you can’t backpack around Europe on a budget; it just means your budget is going to last longer elsewhere, and you should consider locations accordingly.
By far the most expensive item will be the flight. If you know when you’re coming home, it’s probably best to buy a round-trip ticket. If you end up wanting to stay longer or come home sooner, you can always change it. That comes with a cost, but it’s better than running out of money and not having a flight home. Some countries will require that you have a return flight before letting you in (or at least have the ability to show you have the means to support yourself). Google Flights has lots of tools to figure out the best days for specific flights. It will even give you ideas about where you can go for cheap from your nearest airport.
It’s likely that most people won’t be able to save up all the money they need to take a year off. If you can’t, managing what you have, and perhaps making some along the way, is vital to any extended travel.
One of the main ways to make this work is by reducing your recurring costs. If you’re trying to live as cheaply as possible on a beach in Portugal, spending hundreds of dollars maintaining your life in the United States makes it harder.
Ideally, you can end your lease and put your stuff in storage. This isn’t what I did, because by the time I started my extended travels I’d already bought a house and filled it with things I didn’t need. But I was able to find a roommate who was able to make sure no one stole my house while I was gone. Instead of roommates, you could also sublet or, if you have a nice place, rent it on Airbnb. For that, though, you’ll need someone local to help out in case issues arise.
Your car insurance company might let you pause your coverage if you don’t plan to drive on your adventure, though it probably won’t cover you overseas. Health insurance, on the other hand, is more of an issue. Yes, health care is almost always cheaper overseas than in the United States, but you’ll be taking a big risk if you forgo insurance. If you’re leaving your job, you have 60 days after your employment ends to enroll in a new plan through the Health Insurance Marketplace.
As far as phone bills go, the free international data roaming on T-Mobile, Sprint and Google Fi might seem attractive, but none of those companies want you roaming for 12 months. You might need to pause your service. Call your provider to verify. In reality, local SIM cards are the way to go, giving you inexpensive local phone calls and data.
Make money, or at least spend less of it
The ideal, of course, is to have a job you can do remotely. Many bosses might say “no” to your working remotely. However, many jobs can be done just fine from afar; you just need to prove you can be productive when not in an office. I suggest trying to work from home a few days a week and expand from there. A word of caution: This is far more difficult than you might imagine. Working from home takes discipline, and working while in a fascinating new city even more so. This may be “the dream,” but it is far more challenging than the fantasy might appear.
One of the easiest ways to reduce your costs is to work for a hostel. For a few hours a day you can help out the hostel, usually by cleaning or replacing sheets, and in return you can stay there for free. It isn’t the most glamorous work, and not every hostel offers it, but imagine doing a bit of housekeeping in the morning then taking the rest of the day to explore some city you’ve seen only in pictures while spending only a few dollars a day.
I’ve met many people who dream about becoming a travel writer or video blogger. When I ask to see what they’ve done so far, most shrug and just say it’s something they want to do. I hate to be harsh, but these people won’t succeed. You need to treat it like a job before anyone will pay you to do it. I wrote about travel for my own blog for two years before anyone paid me. If you have a catalog of articles or videos to show a potential editor or sponsor, that goes infinitely further than saying: “Well, I think I’ll be good at it, maybe. Trust me?”
For more income, consider countries with working holiday visas. For Americans under age 30, these are available in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Portugal and South Korea. These special visas allow you to explore a country for up to a year, sometimes two, while working occasionally. They’re not meant as a back door to staying permanently, only to aid in making some money during extended travels. If you are still a student or a recent grad or open to teaching, there are more options.
Get your visa (and a credit card, too)
Make sure you have a credit card that doesn’t charge international fees. Wirecutter, the New York Times company that reviews products, recommends several that also have no annual fees. Cash is becoming less necessary in many countries, but having an A.T.M. card that reimburses A.T.M. fees is an added bonus. NerdWallet has a detailed look at some options. I have a card through Schwab that requires you to also open an investment account, but both are free and you can use just the checking account, if you want.
All countries have limits on how long you can stay without a special visa. This is usually 90 days, with a limit on how soon you can return to reset that. Some countries are lenient, others are strict. The last thing you want is to get kicked out of a country for overstaying your visa. Given the rise of low-cost airlines, the increase in high-speed and long-distance trains and the improvement in the overall comfort and quality of buses, it shouldn’t be too hard to make your way to another country to spend a few more months of your life-changing year.
Then, when the year is up, perhaps you find that home is really the place you wanted to be all along. Or maybe, as I did, you start it all over again next year.