Photo: Michał Huniewicz
I’ve been overseas for three and a half years now — two and a half working, one as a gap year to explore freelance writing and coaching — and people always want to know “how I do it.”
And almost everyone back home says something like, “I wish I could do that, too!”
Well, you can, you just have to be ready to put up with all the crap I put up with to make it a reality.
People shoot me emails all the time about where I live, how I decide where to go, how I fund my travels, what job I had to let me travel, and how I plan my wardrobe. This post is an attempt to concisely answer as many of these questions as I can.
In a nutshell, my life is a bit of a logistical nightmare. But I wouldn’t have it any other way right now.
Where do I live?
I haven’t had a home base since May 2013 when I left my apartment in New York City. I do keep my extra clothes and childhood memories in my parent’s house in upstate New York where I grew up. I don’t own any furniture and travel with maximum two suitcases of 50 pounds each when I’m abroad for work and one suitcase of 50 pounds when I travel for pleasure. When I backpacked for 8 months straight, my backpack weighed 15kg at its peak.
When I travel for work, my company provides my housing. When I travel for pleasure, I rent apartments via AirBnb or stay in hostels or family-run guesthouses depending on the country and my budget. I try not to spend over $600/month on housing when I travel for pleasure.
How do I decide where to go next?
When I travel for work, my company decides. They send me to Nigeria or South Africa or Guyana at the drop of a hat and I have to go, or I’m fired.
When I backpack, I pick countries that are cheap, safe, culturally dynamic, have excellent local cuisine, and are actively challenging, like India. I might travel for nature, like when I went trekking in Nepal, or for a cultural icon, like Bagan in Burma. I like places that lend well to interesting street photography and are safe for solo women. That said, I’d go almost anywhere alone and anytime, so my barriers aren’t very high. I also like to go a little off the beaten path, so Laos vs. Thailand, Taiwan vs. China, Bolivia vs. Peru, Ethiopia vs. Tanzania, and then seek out non-major cities and villages. I stay a minimum of one week everywhere I go (and I usually try to stay at least a month per country).
When I pick somewhere to live and write and work on my blog, I select somewhere attractive to young people, artists, and start-ups, walk- or bike-able, relatively inexpensive, and easy to integrate quickly (i.e. young, liberal, diverse, open-minded). I’m currently in Berlin, but other cities that fit the bill and interest me in longer stays are Bologna (Italy), Melbourne, Lisbon, Seoul, Santiago (Chile), Cape Town, Portland (Oregon), and Tel Aviv.
How do I fund my travels?
I recently wrote a detailed piece about how to travel the world for $20,000 or less, so read that for all the juicy details.
What job did I have that lets me travel?
I was previously a management consultant at IBM, which let me travel a lot domestically and save money, despite living in NYC. After that, I worked as a sales director for a company that produces promotional advertising reports on countries. We stay in a country for a few months at a time, working with government and private sector to get support for the campaigns and partner with big international media brands to distribute them. You can look me up on LinkedIn to find out more, or Google “Oxford Business Group”, probably the most well-known actor in our industry. I love my job and the international team I work with!
My job pays for my living expenses while I’m abroad in addition to a regular salary, so I save money easily. I pay taxes to the US government, even though I’m overseas most of the time. I took a leave of absence last year to travel and anticipate going back to this job full-time in September. It’s almost hard having something I like so much, but I’m just trying to enjoy being in a good place right now.
Here’s an article I wrote on how to find jobs overseas that may help you find your own international opportunities. I’ve also worked one-on-one with dozens of young people and helped them find jobs everywhere from Paris to Ethiopia.
How do I pack and manage my “stuff”?
As I said before, my parents let me keep my extra clothes and stuff in their basement, so when I’m home, I rotate through my clothes (about 1-2x/year) and donate what I don’t need. I keep everything to a minimum and invest in good pieces so I have quality vs. quantity in my wardrobe. I also dress in layers, buy new stuff as I go (i.e. warm boots in Mongolia, lightweight cotton in India, and hipster wear in Berlin), and wear the same shoes and jackets a lot. Shrug.
I don’t accumulate possessions and really only travel with exactly what I know I’m going to use all the time. When I packed for my 8-month trip, I went with one set of clothes and shoes and came home with an entirely different set because I brought cheap items I didn’t care about, so I discarded what I wore out and picked up other stuff on the road. Only my Chaco sandals made it all the way around the world with me.
For Europe, I’m wearing basic things: jeans, t-shirts, bomber jackets, a nice dress or two, one good blazer, shorts, three pairs of shoes (sneakers, sandals, and heels) and three purses (tote bag, small purse, and festival bag) so one suitcase is very doable.
How do I know people wherever I go or meet people when I don’t know anyone?
Moving around is a huge part of this lifestyle, and I’m always showing up somewhere where I don’t really know anyone. Tactics I use: Going to Meetup.com events, Eventbrite events, AirBnb (renting a room with cool flatmates), Tinder, taking yoga classes, working in coworking spaces (like Betahaus in Berlin), and I always post obsessively on Facebook advertising where I’m going and asking if anyone I know knows anyone there — and then taking everyone up on all those friend-of-friend introductions.
I’m never ashamed to be like, “I’m new! I have no friends!” because it’s okay, I’m not supposed to have friends yet and people don’t mind taking me under their wing as the new girl in town. I usually try to befriend someone in the country or city where I’m staying longer-term who’s a big socialite and seems to know everyone and everything. By getting close to the center of the social wheel, I quickly get pulled into the scene.
Honestly, my life is a logistical nightmare. It sounds like I have this under control, but a lot of the time I don’t. I’m almost always spending hours trying to figure out the cheapest way to fly from Nepal to Buffalo for Mother’s Day or from Europe back to the US for my best friend’s wedding… And then back to Africa. I show up in Paris with shorts and there’s a cold spell or I’m caught in flip-flops in Mongolian customs during the winter.
My luggage is almost always overweight, so I console myself by saying I pay airline baggage fees instead of rent. I sweat and swear banging my suitcase through the NYC subway instead of paying a $50 taxi and look pathetically at the nearest Indian man to help throw my backpack onto a moving bus in Goa.
But the inconveniences, challenges, and frustrations are worth it — to me. For now, I like not having to pay rent anywhere consistently, I love being a minimalist, I don’t miss having a car or a boyfriend, and I’m grateful to have a good tax accountant and an extensive global network that makes fitting in anywhere a breeze.
The moral of the story is, living this way is possible, practical, and affordable, but not very glamorous or convenient. It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you want to prioritize traveling for awhile, are marketable or savvy enough to hop on and off the job market, and able to live with fewer material possessions, then I hope my example can help you imagine the possibilities!
This article was first published on Life before 30 and is reposted is here with permission.