Photo by Gina

You can travel the world for less money than you spend each month to fill up your gas tank.

WORLD TRAVEL is cheap and easy. In fact, with a little practice and effort, you can travel for free.

The idea that travel is expensive and difficult is bullshit peddled by tour companies, hotel chains, and corporate media. The tourism industry wants you to buy cruise packages and stay at all-inclusive resorts. They want you to choose a world travel experience the same way you would choose a new jacket at the mall. They want your credit card number.

The tourism industry doesn’t want me to reveal the simple secrets of free travel, but I’m going to share them with you anyway. It can be scary to travel the world with nothing more than optimism and good-will, but personal freedom begins with a leap of faith.

1. Embrace the simple joy of travel.

Travel frees you from the grind of daily routine. You will explore new places, meet new people, try new foods, and learn things about the world — and yourself — that you never imagined were possible.

The joy of new experience is the most wonderful thing about world travel — and new experiences are free. Walk the streets of a city. Stop and chat with a local. People watch in a public park. Climb to the top of a hill and watch the sun set over the ocean.

The simple joy of being in a new place is just a matter of…wait for it…going someplace new. No tour package required.

2. Keep your needs to a minimum.

The modern American economy is built on the false premise that people need to buy new goods and services all the time. Again, I call bullshit.

People need fresh air, healthy food, clean water, exercise, creative stimulation, companionship, self-esteem, and a safe place to sleep. All of these things are simple to obtain. Most of them are free.

For fresh air, go outside. For exercise, take a walk. For creative stimulation, go somewhere new. For companionship, make a friend. For self-esteem, turn off your TV, breathe deep, and open your spirit to the basic goodness of the world.

Things like food and shelter are much cheaper once you get outside the United States. See #5 below for ways to obtain food and shelter for free.

3. Go slow.

If you live in New York and want to take a 2-week vacation to Africa, it will be very difficult (though not impossible, see #8) to travel for free. Indeed, as long as you believe that time is money, you will spend money all the time.

Time is not money. Time is free. You have all the time in the world.

Instead of buying a plane ticket, catch a ride out West, or remodel an old sailboat, or just hop on your bike and ride away from town. The slower you travel, the less money you will spend.

4. Leave your possessions and obsessions behind.

When you travel, you don’t need to pay rent. You don’t need a car. You don’t need an oven, a washer-dryer, electricity, cable TV, a gym membership, a sofa and loveseat, or a closet full of clothes.

You don’t need a suit and tie to wear to your job because you don’t need a job. You don’t need to worry about paying the bills, because there are no bills to pay.

You are free.

5. Trust people and you will receive free food and lodging.

Many people are willing to open their homes to travelers. Chip in with a few chores, and they will give you a free meal, too.

CouchSurfing and WWOOF are two phenomenal online networks that help travelers connect with local hosts. CouchSurfing members are willing to give travelers a place to sleep for a night or two. WWOOF connects travelers with organic farmers who want to trade room and board for an extra hand.

Many members of both CouchSurfing and WWOOF are seeking an alternative to high-impact consumer culture.

6. Learn a useful craft or skill.

If you have a skill, such as cooking, animal husbandry, massage, musical ability, or basic carpentry, you can barter for free food and accommodation as you travel the world.

Universally appreciated skills like cooking are best, though niche skills that are in high demand, like website design, are also useful. Native English speakers can often travel for free by teaching language classes in each destination they visit.

The slower you travel, the easier it will be to work out a mutually beneficial arrangement with a local community or host.

7. Get out of the city.

Although it’s possible to travel for free in a big city, it’s damn difficult. Cities are built on money, and necessities like fresh air, clean water, and a safe place to sleep are difficult to come by in cities.

Go to the country, where people are more relaxed, food is plentiful, and there’s ample room for one traveler to lay out her sleeping bag under the stars.

8. Find a job you love that entails world travel.

If you need an income in order to pay off loans or support a child, find a job that calls for extensive travel. There are millions of jobs available in the global economy that demand world travel.

Of course, some jobs are easier to love than others, and much work that involves travel also involves the destruction of local ecosystems and traditional ways of life. Avoid unethical work if at all possible — it’s bad for your health and worse for your soul.

For job ideas, check out 20+ awesome travel jobs and how to get them.

9. Embrace serendipity.

To travel for free requires a blend of advance planning and the willingness to seize opportunities and go with the flow. Does your new CouchSurfing friend want company for a drive across the country? Grab your pack and ride along! Does an organic farm in Thailand need a farm sitter for the rainy season? Dig in!

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”

Go dancing.

* This post was originally published on April 29, 2008.

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