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How I've Traveled the World for a Year With Less Than 20k

Insider Guides
by Elaina Giolando Aug 5, 2016

It always feels great to accomplish a big goal. Ever since I started going abroad when I was 18, I promised myself I would take a full year off before I turned 30 to travel, and I’ll wrap up my 13th month on the road by my 27th birthday later this year.

I’ve been making my way across Southeast Asia, India, Nepal, and Europe since August 2015, and everyone wants to know how I manage to do it, from a financial as well as career perspective.

I often get people writing into my site who want to take time off to travel, but worry about derailing their career. I’ve already written about that extensively, but the most important thing is to 1) realize life is more than a series of career moves, 2) to travel purposefully to maximize the benefit of your time away from home, and 3) relax, it’s only a year.

What I haven’t come clean about yet is how I finance it. I’m going to tell you all that, share a breakdown of what I spent during an average month on the road, and provide recommendations on how to do 12 months on the road for less than $20,000.

Before we get started, here are a few things you should know about me, my spending habits, and financial background. These DO NOT MATTER FOR YOU because you can travel the world for a year on as little as $10,000 or even $5,000 if you’re volunteering or using things like Nonetheless, I believe in full disclosure, and I believe by understanding my situation, you can make even better sense of your own. So here we go:

1. I have no student loan debt, or any debt for that matter.

I fully acknowledge that not having any student loans is a huge reason why I can live the way I do, but debt isn’t totally prohibitive to doing a gap year. If you have loans, get in contact with your bank and understand deferment options or save up enough money while you’re working to fund the payments for when you’re not.

2. I don’t own a house, car, or even rent an apartment anywhere.

My living expenses are very, very low (for now). But if I had a car, I’d sell it. If I had a house, I’d lease it out. If I had an apartment, I’d wait until the lease was up and put my stuff in storage. (And I’ve done all of that to be able to live in a happy, minimalist way that prioritizes freedom, mobility, and investing in experiences and education.)

3. I work while I travel.

I work as a freelance writer and career coach and make about 50% of what I spend. You don’t have to do this to afford to travel, I just enjoy working as I travel and prefer to severely slow down the rate at which my bank account evaporates.

4. I save money meticulously and had a good amount of savings before I took my year off.

I would never travel “until the money runs out” like some bare-bones travelers do, and I’d never travel without a cushion in case of emergency, but it is an option. I saved up a lot and then allotted a small fraction of it for travel. The rest will remain in my bank account to buy a house or fund another degree in the future.

5. I don’t spend as little as possible (so you could live on even less if you wanted).

On average, I spend about $40 per day on the road, not including flights or transport between cities and towns. I could spend much less or much more than that in some places. In general, I don’t shop very often, don’t drink much alcohol, and eat mostly vegetarian food, so my cost of living is pretty low, but I also splurge on cabs, private rooms, and direct flights from time-to-time.

6. I don’t include the funding of my health insurance in my yearly estimate.

Because I’m over 26 and not employed by an American company that provides benefits, I have to buy my own health insurance every month and it’s NOT cheap, but I’d never go uninsured in case of an emergency. This comes straight out of my savings account every month and is an important cost to consider if you’re over 26, unemployed or self-employed, and taking time off to travel. I recommend getting at least the baseline in-case-of-emergency insurance, which might run you $100-200/month.

With that out of the way, rest assured you can still travel if you have debt, don’t have a location independent business, and have a car or apartment to lease.

Here’s what you basically need to do to take a gap year of your own:

1. Practice sound financial practices.

Ideally, this means you have little to no debt and a strong savings regimen. You have clear values that help you prioritize where you spend your money. You’re happy with how you spend your money, too.

2. Save, save, save.

I recommend saving $1000 for every month you want to spend on the road in Asia, $1500 for South America, and $2000 for Europe, Africa, or Australia. Tack on $3000 for round-the-world flights to be safe, or rack up air miles in a corporate job and use those to minimize costs during your time off. I replaced an $800 Nepal-USA flight with 50,000 miles on United and paid just $60 in taxes.

3. Have your career more or less in order.

I recommend having 3-5 years of solid work experience under your belt before taking time off. You want to be able to come back and get hired again quickly, or even have a job you can come back to. Not only that, you’ll appreciate your time off after several years of hard work. Waiting too long to travel after starting work could result in simply postponing your dream trip forever.

4. Know there is no perfect timing.

Understand that the itch to do a year away (or however long you can afford) is never going to go away. Most likely picking up and traveling for a while is going to be a logistical nightmare, so just go in knowing that and you’ll be aptly prepared for what’s to come.

To get an idea of what you’ll likely spend on the road, here’s a sample of what I spent for a month in Laos, a wonderful gap year destination, but also not the cheapest country in Asia:


Food: I spent about $5/meal = $15/day = $450
Housing: $20/night for a private room in Luang Prabang (hostel rooms were $10 but I was writing a lot so I wanted my privacy) = $600
Transportation (ground): Dirt cheap. Walked everywhere and mostly hitchhiked in the rural areas. When I had to take a bus, it was $10/trip x 2 = $20
Flights: One-way flight from Singapore was $60
Additional: Rented a motorbike for a week which is more expensive in Laos than anywhere else in Asia = $70

TOTAL FOR ONE MONTH IN LAOS: $1200 (private room) OR $900 (hostels)

I’ll give you another sample month, in India this time, the cheapest country I visited:


Food: $2/meal if I’m going crazy = $6/day = $180
Housing: $7/night for private room in family-run guesthouse = $210
Transportation: Motorbike rental, $3/day = $90
Flights: One internal flight from Kerala to Kolkata = $50
Trains: Cost for one 12-hour train ride in an upper class carriage = $20
Additional: Clothes $20, because there’s so many fun things to wear and it’s so HOT!


That doesn’t count the month I did a 10-day meditation retreat (donation based, so $40 for almost 2 weeks of food and housing) and working on a farm where lodging and food was $2/day. Those months I barely spent $200 altogether.

Last one. Let me share with you what I spent backpacking through Paris, Amsterdam, and Budapest — in ONE WEEK:


Food: $15/meal, but only two meals a day = $30
Housing: $35/night (hostel rooms) = $245
Transportation: Metro tickets, on average $10/day = $70
Flights: One way flight from Paris to Budapest, $60
Additional: Ubering to and from airports, ubering home from bars or clubs on occasion: $100


$500 for one week in Europe or a MONTH in India? For me, it’s a no-brainer that my money is better spent in less expensive geographies. That said, I’m currently living in Berlin for pretty cheap, so if you want to see some of Europe, your best bet is picking a city with a reasonable cost of living (think Berlin, Lisbon, Budapest, Krakow) and settling down for a month in an AirBnb, buying a bicycle, and cooking your own food.


Monthly rent in the best neighborhood: $600
Bike: $50
Groceries: $50/week
Eating out: $10/meal x 4/week = $40
Partying: $15/night entrance fees + $2/drink x 3/week = $60
Additional: Festival ticket, $40, a few metro tickets, $10

TOTAL FOR A MONTH IN BERLIN: $850 ($800 without one-time bike purchase)

Taking the (non-weighted, I’m trying to keep the numbers relatively simple) average of these expenses, you’ll see I spend about $1,145/month across Europe and Asia. For a year that’s $13,725, and tack on the $3,00 for flights, and your looking at approximately $17,000 for a gap year, adding in maybe another $3,000 if you’re over 26 and need to pay for health insurance.

In my case, I also make more than 50% of what I spend on the road, so I’ve only had to take about $8,000 straight off my savings (plus about $3,000 in health and travel insurance).


Airfare is going to be a big part of your overall bill, depending on where you decide to travel and where home base is. To give you an idea of what to budget for airfare, my gap year (8 months in Asia, 3 months in Europe, 1.5 months in the US, based out of JFK) flights were:

USA-Bali: $700
Intra-Southeast Asia flights (Bali to Laos, within Thailand, Thailand to Burma): $400
Burma to India: $300
India to Nepal: $100
Nepal to Home: $60 (airline miles)
Home to Amsterdam: $600
Intra-Europe flights (Amsterdam to Paris, Paris to Budapest, Germany to Portugal, Portugal to Sweden): Approx. $500
Stockholm to USA: $275 (a steal!)


Overall, I spent a decent bit of money flying, which you could reduce by using exclusively trains and buses or flying into cheaper cities than flying direct. You can also visit fewer places to avoid hopping around so much (with only $1,800 you could stay just in Asia and see a lot). Considering how much I saw though and how convenient it was, I’m happy with this bill after 13-month of non-stop jet-setting.

Quick tips for airfare: Always try booking an intercontinental flight from home to the cheapest entry point on that continent and then book separate regional flights. You can usually save a lot that way. For Europe: Oslo, Frankfurt, Stockholm, Asia: Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, India: Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, South America: Lima, Bogota, Sao Paulo, Africa: Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Johannesburg. For Australia, also try Kuala Lumpur as a regional entry point and Dubai, Abu Dhabi, or Doha for other parts of Africa. From the US, you can also look at your hometown to JFK, ATL, ORD or LAX, and then onwards internationally.

And there you have it, a completely transparent look at just how cheap it can be to travel the world!

The secret is, the longer you stay, the less you spend, so actually traveling for one year tends to be cheaper than 6 months and 6 months far cheaper than 6 weeks. Volunteering, doing workaway, staying in AirBnb, and cooking for yourself, hitchhiking or walking can all hugely reduce expenses — I didn’t even factor most of those into this calculation. Volunteering alone could cut your expenses easily in half if you have food and housing provided for in exchange for working at a farm, hostel, etc.

If you have any questions while planning your big trip, send me an email at and I’ll be happy to help!

This article was first published on Life before 30 and is reposted is here with permission.

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