IN COLLEGE, I WANTED NOTHING MORE than to travel constantly. My inspiration was a guy I met while in Brazil, who, at the end of his twenties, had been to nearly 100 countries. I asked him how he did it.
“Oh, I just don’t spend any money when I’m home. I work a bunch and once I’ve saved enough money, I quit and start traveling.”
His job? Postal work.
Now that I’m at the end of my twenties, I’m ready to call bullshit on his explanation. I’m pretty sure the dude had family money. Or maybe sold drugs. Because I’ve spent the last decade traveling whenever I could, and it was just not that easy.
Most people who say they travel cheap are hiding something.
The New Yorker published a humor piece by Joe Viex last week that started like this:
On paper, my life seemed great. I had a dream job, a swanky apartment, and a loving girlfriend. But something was off. I couldn’t bear being chained to my desk in a stuffy office any longer. So I decided to quit and travel the world, bringing only my passport, a small backpack, and my enormous trust fund.
As a travel writer, I’ve read the non-joke version of that article a few too many times. And I’ve also probably told some version of that lie in the past. I personally do not have a trust fund. My parents aren’t one-percenters. They’re upper middle class, which means that they no longer support me, but they supported me much longer than they had to. They paid for most of my education, so I was able to escape undergrad with no loans. They let me live at home on and off for the few years after I graduated while I worked random jobs to fund occasional travels. And they paid for my cell phone bill longer than I’m comfortable admitting.
Also, my dad’s in the travel business, so I can occasionally get free flights and rental cars.
During those years just after college, I worked constantly, did relatively little socializing, and spent all of my money on travel. Even if that had continued through my twenties, even with all the help my parents were giving me, I would have been nowhere near 100 countries at the end. Because travel is expensive.
The people who “travel for free.”
There are two types of people who “travel for free.” The first and largest group is people who have a job that lets them travel a lot. The travel is either packaged into the job (like journalism or sales) or the job is high-paying and offers a lot of vacation days.
The second group of people are the so-called “vagabonders,” the budget travelers who take thriftiness to an absurd level. These are people who are willing to hitchhike rather than buy a train ticket, who will find a place to camp instead of paying for a hotel room, and who are generally willing to forego comfort or even basic amenities in the service of their travel habit.
Everyone else falls in between. There’s no shortage of people who did what I did after school — who work and save money and then spend all of their money on travel — but these people generally have something else working for them. They have parents who paid for their college, or who work for the airlines and can get them free tickets. They have a friend who’s out of town a lot and who will let them live at their place for free as a house-sitter.
There’s nothing wrong with being one of these in-betweeners. But don’t believe them when they say they “work hard” to travel. They have something else helping them. There are two paths to travel: privilege or destitution.
Be honest about how you pay for your travel.
Over the past few years, I’ve decided that I no longer want to be dependent on my parents for travel. I took over my cell phone bill. I promised I would never leave home. And I only occasionally exploit my dad’s job in order to get freebies.
This has meant that I’ve traveled less. And I like that. I like being more independent. But I no longer lie when people ask me how I was able to see the world so young in life. It was privilege. My parents made it possible. My American passport made it possible. My low-cost-of-living hometown made it possible.
Talking money is considered rude in American society, but travel culture could use more financial openness. We tell people to quit their jobs and travel too much to not tell the cold, hard truth about what it takes to really see the world: privilege or destitution. Take your pick.